There’s a few ways you can approach Paul McCartney’s 1980 album McCartney II. Was it the sequel to McCartney, his first solo LP released 10 years prior? Without question. It features Paul in a truly solo environment: no Wings, just a smidge of Linda here and there, him playing all instruments on the album, and noodling around at home in the summer of 1979. Was it Paul’s experimental, avant-garde album? You could look at it that way: it featured tons of electronic music, odd sounds, varying speeds, and synths. Lots and lots of synths: Roland Jupiter 4, Mellotron, Yamaha CS80, Arp Pro-Soloist and the Mini Moog. Was it Paul’s response to his massive commercial appeal of the 70s; to release a highly personal, eclectic, self-indulgent collection of outtakes and see where they went? Ehhh… who knows? Maybe?
Here’s the real truth: Wings was still a viable entity in ’79. Back To The Egg wasn’t a massive hit but it was still a Platinum seller and acquitted itself reasonably well for an album without top singles. They did release a top single in the non-album track “Goodnight Tonight”, a flamenco-tinged disco single that hit the US Top 5 and sold very well. In late ’79 Wings toured Britain to great response. Then in January 1980, Wings headed to Japan for a series of sold out concerts. At the airport, authorities discovered several ounces of weed in Paul’s luggage and he got thrown in the clink for nine days. Booted out of the country, Paul was forced to refund the roughly 100 thousand ticket holders, but made out like a bandit anyhow. Wings record sales in Japan reportedly quintupled as a result.
Paul went back to his farm in Scotland, pondered his next move, and decided to go ahead and release the roughly 20 songs he had recorded the previous summer. Wings as a band was temporarily suspended (although by the next year the band as an entity was kaput, and would have no further new releases of any kind). McCartney II was originally planned out as a double album. The so-called “Lost McCartney II” double album was heavily bootlegged and provides further insight into the songs cut from the eventual single album release. Regardless, Paul judiciously decided to pare it down to a single LP, and in May of 1980 McCartney II was released to some of the worst reviews Paul had ever received. Commercially the album only went Gold in the US and the UK, the lowest selling McCartney/Wings album I believe since Red Rose Speedway some seven years previous.
However, the album did have a #1 smash single in the US. Sort of. And a #2 smash single in the UK. Which didn’t chart in the US. Sort of.
Confused? Don’t be. I am of course referring to “Coming Up”, the kick-off track and the first single released from the album. During the late 1979 British tour, Wings recorded a live version of the song, which was considerably more uptempo, energized, and electric than the studio cut. The live version was the B-side to the studio single (along with “Lunchbox/Odd Sox”), but it was the live version that became a huge #1 hit for Paul McCartney in the US (although recorded by Wings, it was still credited as a McCartney single). The studio version hit #2 in the UK and was also released as a dance track in the US, but to a rather tepid response.
I like both versions, although the live track is infinitely superior. It ranks as one of McCartney’s best singles, period, a great piece of live pop/rock flavored with a smidge of funk. The studio track is cozier, sillier, almost more purposefully goofy, but it works as well. The McCartney II album only included the studio track, although later pressings included the live track as a separate 7-inch vinyl single.
It bears mentioning that the 1993 CD reissue does NOT have the live track. Not even as a bonus. What gives? However, the 2012 reissue contains the live track (plus some other nifty bonus features).
Moving on, we get to “Temporary Secretary”. This song is absolutely, positively, maddeningly infuriating. The sequenced synth line that repeats throughout the song will probably give you a seizure. Paul’s straining, affected vocalizations over the annoying chorus will make you want to kick a pigeon. His Texas drawl on the spoken word sequence could drive Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thoreau to acts of senseless violence. Just one mind-boggingly disturbing track from start to finish. And for some reason, I like it. It’s a TERRIBLE song — if you can call it a “song” — but it connects with me on some disturbingly terrible level. I think it’s because the first time I ever heard it was probably about 30 years ago on the “Dr. Demento” show, an entity along with “Mad Magazine” that shaped my early childhood dysfunction. I had no idea it was a McCartney tune. Years later when I found out… by then a HUGE Beatles/McCartney fan… I buried it somewhere deep and never addressed it again.
So yeah. Awful, painfully embarrassing song. But it resonates with me for some reason.
Not much else to really recommend on this album. “On The Way” is a sorta throwaway blues track that feels like something someone forgot. The only thing “Waterfalls” proves is that whoever was behind TLC thought nobody would notice them cribbing a line or two for their similarly-named single. The lyrics are banal, the music stilted and unmemorable. Not horrendous, but not memorable in any way unless you like songs that reference polar bears. “Nobody Knows” goes uptempo with a kind of country-ish flair. It’s nice to hear Paul having fun, but he’s the only one. This probably could have been a decent track with a lot more polish. His drumming here is terrible.
“Front Parlour” is a synth driven instrumental that won’t make you forget Bowie’s Side 2 Berlin period anytime soon. OK, I guess. Nicely forgettable is about the best way I can describe it. “Summer’s Day Song” has a kind of mellontron-ish ‘Strawberry Fields’ vibe, which only serves to remind you how impeccably untouchable the latter song is. This isn’t a great song, but it has a sort of hypnotic appeal to it that I definitely appreciate. It’s stark, almost chilling and a bit etheric, maybe the best song on the album after “Coming Up”. “Frozen Jap”… another chilly synth instrumental, this one with an Asian-inspired melody. Any insinuations that this was a response to his drug bust are unfounded; it was originally recorded a good 6 months or so before that event. It’s a bit repetitive but bouncy and catchy.
“Bogey Music” is obnoxiously bad. Techno-Elvis with as much echo as can be dialed in. Horrible. “Darkroom” is almost as bad, an bizarre oddity which attempts to make a techno-funk monstrosity out of an ode to photography. Or something. I really don’t want to know what’s going on in that Darkroom.
The album closes with “One Of These Days”, a tender acoustic ballad which washes out a lot of the bad taste that “Bogey” and “Darkroom” left in my mouth. This is a good song, something that probably would have felt right at home on the original McCartney album. Very melodic, great vocals, nice harmonies, and if nothinge lse it reminds you that maybe Paul hadn’t completely lost his mind.
Overall, McCartney II isn’t unrelentingly horrible as I remembered it, but it’s certainly not a good album; I can recommend “Coming Up” as a pretty swell number, “One Of These Days” is a sweet little ballad (the type that Paul does so well), and “Summer’s Day Song” and “Frozen Jap” are sorta worth checking out as examples of Paul spreading his wings a bit, musically speaking. But the rest of it? Ugh. I spent an entire paragraph on the abortion that is “Temporary Secretary”. I like it in the way that I like the Bee Gees/Frampton “Sgt. Pepper” movie. It’s unreservedly awful, but I can’t turn away. A ton of mediocre filler with “Waterfalls”, “On The Way”, “Nobody Knows”, and “Front Parlour”, and some bad tracks with “Bogey Music” and “Darkroom”. Overall, I’d rate McCartney II just a smidge higher than “Wings at the Speed of Sound”, but it’s easily his least impressive work since that album, and a low point in his solo career. I give him all the credit in the world for experimenting and trying something different, and yes these are little more than home studio doodles, but you might find something more interesting growing out of your neck.
Well then, how about the 1993 bonus tracks? Well the lack of the live “Coming Up” is a total travesty. So what do we got? “Check Your Machine”… if this song was an album track on McCartney II proper, it would have officially made the album worse than “Wings at the Speed of Sound”. The song is literally Paul checking his recording setup out and noodling with it. The Barney Rubble cameo does not elevate the situation in any meaningful capacity. “Secret Friend” is more experimental instrumental noodling (albeit with some “vocal effects” from Paul). I’m not really a fan of this kind of stuff, but this is sort of an interesting track in and of itself. I like the jazzy sax especially. They probably should have dropped “Bogey Music” and “Darkroom” and included “Secret Friend” in its place.
Finally… Goodnight Tonight. Great single. Unabashedly a piece of disco, it’s a good one, with some flamenco guitars and impressive bass playing from Sir Paul. Odd that it’s included here though, as it was recorded during the Back To The Egg sessions. It makes the purchase of the 1993 reissue a little easier to swallow, but you’re better off grabbing both this and the live “Coming Up” track on the “Wingspan” retrospective, if you’re not a pure McCartney completist.