Return of the Mac: ‘McCartney II’ (1980) revisited

❉ Is this the boldest musical statement a solo Beatle made during Lennon’s lifetime?

Forget anything you may or may not know about The Beatles, Wings or The Frog Chorus. Press to play McCartney II (1980) – it’s a flaming pie of a record, a tug of war of chaos and creation in the backyard of Paul McCartney’s ram-shackled mind going off the ground (that’s enough McCartney jokes – I have to let it be!). But honestly, whenever I listen to this record, I don’t hear any George Martin here, I hear Hot Chip, Talking Heads and Eno, Daft Punk, Bowie’s Low, Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle.

This is a bold musical statement, the boldest any Beatle made during John Lennon’s lifetime (yes, bolder than the blues-oriented Plastic Ono Band) ripping up the map-work laid out by the chords jangled through She Loves You. And just as McCartney(1970) proved cathartic to the depraved and depressed erstwhile Beatle, this too proved a reprise following McCartney’s dis-enchancement with an ever revolving Wings, and may have proved a direction would have pursued further if not for the senseless actions of a gunner, leaving McCartney the living custodian of the Lennon-McCartney catalogue, a role he’s taken seriously ever since, excluding the odd Fireman project.

McCartney II, so titled as it was his second solo album (Ram was a two piece collab with the lovely Linda; well sort of, she definitely sang some lead on the record and took photographs, and he spent the rest of the seventies with his band Wings; again, sort of, it was mainly him and Denny Laine), and it is a SOLO album, Macca playing all the synths, samplers, occasional screeching guitar, drums in the toilets (there are photos of this!), with the reliable Linda on her reliable harmony (she did turn into a bloody good backing vocalist – even Michael Jackson insisted he use her on Say Say Say, Morrissey wanted her piano playing for Frankly Mr.Shankly – not sure about that one myself!).

This proved fittingly winked at in the Coming Up video, a featurette with McCartney playing every member of the band (he makes a mean Ron Mael and a cute Paul McCartneyesque bass player), a video Lennon laughed was Macca’s dream come true; a one man band of himself (Coming Up was also the song that turned Lennon back onto recording himself, or so the legend goes, a fond final memory for McCartney in the years following Lennon’s death).

And yet, despite the cohesion of the record, it originally didn’t start off as one. He spent some down time recording some demos on his Scotland farm improvising on samplers, recording demoes and placing tracks following the underwhelming Back To The Egg in the summer of 1979. Only after a Japanese arrest in January 1980, which cancelled a planned Japanese Wings tour, did he return back to his twenty track demo to see what came out of them. “It was new technology and I just wanted to see what it was all about” he reflected to The Quietus in 2016. “Because the nice thing for me is, you do an album like that and it informs other stuff. It keeps your brain fresh so that when you go and do something else, a tour or something, you may not be playing that stuff but you’ve got the feeling of being someone who’s not finished yet.”

True, McCartney II does sound unfinished-but so did ‘The White Album’ and so that makes for much of its eccentric appeal, the esoteric Frozen Jap bouncing nicely off the cracking rhythms as the strangely beautiful Waterfalls is a lyrical gem of cerebral key synth quality.

Electronics and cracks tackle and whack throughout the record, Front Parlour joins ‘Jap’ as an expero-instro par excellence, groovy and woozy (is it just me or does Aneka’s Japanese Boy bear more than a passing similarity to Frozen Jap? Oh, those one hit wonders!).

Reggae ersatz Darkroom is a bass laden wonder highlighted by finger flying keyboards, eerie shadows of Eno-esque Roxy Music (and you don’t ask why), affected by nonsensical high feted Goonish harmonies. Temporary Secretary, with the siren raid opening of sampler serendipity, sounds fresh and exciting in 2017 (it was only played live for the first time in 2015).

T-Rex romp Nobody Knows attacks with loud screaming guitars, while blues-laden On The Way echoes in reverb haven (its primarily a guitar insturmental, some intimate scat vocals thrown in for good measure). Check My Machine, with samples of Tweety and Sylvester carton dialogue, is another example of batty ska, samplers playing the melody a la John Cage.

One Of These Days, perhaps the closest thing here to a traditional McCartney ballad, is the least interesting song here, acoustic and intimate, it proves a template for the excellent Tug of War album, but somewhat out of place in studio giziotronics.

Elsewhere, while Bogey Music is a bit naff lyrically, it does have an unsettlingly staid element going for it, an interesting psych-record of stratospheric effect.

And just as Maybe I’m Amazed proved the jewel of McCartney, so too does Summer’s Day Song prove this record’s zenith. It’s beautiful in a way words cannot describe (which makes it hard to critique it, let me tell you!), Vangelis-esque in synth orchestration, soft in touch, Bach-like in resonance. There is a sense of classical music here, synth in sound, laden in hypnotic keyboards.

If Maybe I’m Amazed is McCartney’s most accomplished solo song, then Summer may be his most accomplished solo recording; honestly, play it on any movie soundtrack that opines to hypnotise with visceral effect, and Summer would fit in very nicely (personally, I picture the gorgeous ending to French New Wave classic Diva when I hear this).

McCartney II really is the forgotten solo Beatle classic – comparing it either to the similarly released Double Fantasy and Somewhere in England there’s no denying the difference in quality; Lennon and Harrison are playing it cool with safe, maudlin originals while McCartney is really trying to push the boundaries with whatever means he has at hand. There’s no denying he could have done more of this (he has been guilty of resting on his Beatle laurels since Give My Regards to Broad Street), but at least he did leave McCartney II out in the world. Give it a listen- you’ve got to get it into your life!

 Eoghan Lyng is a writer, part-time English teacher and full-time lover of life. 

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  1. My favorite album of his varies but this album and the great singles associated with it is probably my favorite McCartney album and would love to have the Macca II archive which is highly varied now OOP sadly. Coming Up has several musical styles merged into one song. The ambient style Secret friend single is probably his most complex song musically. The way he experimented with the machine speeding up and slowing down and playing all the instruments n the album and singles is incredible. I bought all these singles as 12 inch ones and have the American album with the great live at glascow coming up.

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