An icon he may be, but sometimes Paul McCartney doesn’t get the respect he deserves, maybe because next to sarky, saintly Lennon, he can’t help but look like a bit of a sentimental old softie. But it’s worth remembering that as a fan of experimental composer Stockhausen in his youth and a dabbler in electronica as one half of The Fireman in his autumn years, Macca has always been an experimenter and a technological first-adopter, keen to embrace new techniques and unafraid to appear a little silly in the process. That, in a nutshell, is the story of ‘McCartney II’, his quirky, synth heavy second solo album, released 35 years ago this weekend. In 1979, with Wings gradually disintegrating, McCartney sat alone at home in his farmhouse in East Sussex surrounded by some state-of-the-art equipment – new synths, sequencers, and a hired Studer 16-track tape machine. The self-produced and largely self-performed result was playful, experimental – and greeted with a decidedly mixed reception. Here’s its story…
Story behind the sleeve
A shot of Paul taken by his wife Linda, with lighting arranged to give him two shadows. A similar shot appears on the back cover, with Macca’s face split into two. The inner sleeve pictures McCartney pottering around in his home studio with son James tugging at his shirt.
Five fun facts
1. ‘McCartney II’ was originally conceived as a double album, comprising 20 songs that McCartney recorded between East Sussex and his farmhouse in Scotland. In the end, only 11 songs made it to the finished product, but many of the album outtakes were restored in a 2011 reissue.
2. The looping electronica experiment ‘Secret Friend’ (a bonus track originally released as the B-side to the single ‘Temporary Secretary’), is the longest solo Macca track of all time, clocking in at 10 minutes and 31 seconds.
3. The song ‘Bogey Music’ was inspired by Fungus The Bogeyman, a popular picture book about a green, underground-dwelling monster written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs.
4. The album’s lead single, the tautly funky ‘Coming Up’, features McCartney’s voice sped up and run through an echo machine. It was a Number Two hit in the UK, but in the US a Columbia record executive decided that Americans wanted to hear “Paul McCartney’s real voice”, so the record’s B-side, a rockier live take of the song by Wings, was pushed out to radio stations.
5. By the time of ‘McCartney II’, the relationship between McCartney and his former Beatles bandmate John Lennon was cordial but competitive. Lennon, often disparaging of McCartney’s post-Beatles output, swallowed his pride enough to declare ‘Coming Up’ “a good piece of work”, and it reportedly prompted Lennon out of retirement to make his final album, ‘Double Fantasy’.
“Mr Marks, can you find for me/Someone strong and sweet fitting on my knee” (‘Temporary Secretary’): The “Mr Marks” is a reference to a real recruitment agency, Alfred Marks Bureau, which amused McCartney because its proprietor shared his name of a comedian who worked with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan.
“Don’t go jumping waterfalls/Please keep to the lake/People who jump waterfalls/Sometimes can make mistakes” (‘Waterfalls’): A mistily beautiful love song that would provide a lyrical cue to the TLC song of the same name.
“Check my machine/Check check check my machine” (‘Check My Machine’): A freaky reggae lope echoes Macca’s state of mind as he rolls up his sleeve and gets stuck into his new technology.
What we said then
“‘McCartney II’ isn’t worth the plastic it’s printed on. Neither is Paul, but he’ll go on doodling and fooling his public because they’re too frightened to ditch him and his past and he’s too rich to be stopped” – Danny Baker, NME, June 21, 1980
What we say now
Wonky and experimental it may be, but ‘McCartney II’ has the feel of an album ahead of its time. The likes of ‘Front Parlour’, a dreamy excursion on synth and drum machine, feels uncannily current. Meanwhile, the limber Talking Heads funk of ‘Coming Up’ and the dotty synth-pop of ‘Temporary Secretary’ now demand a place on any solo Macca playlist. Its synthy bliss feels now like a foretaste of the 1980s pop.
“I grew up listening to ‘Check My Machine’ and generally dancing round the living room to it as a four- or five-year-old. I still listen a lot to the album now – it is one of my all-time favourites.” – Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip
In Macca’s own words
“I really just was fascinated with these things called synthesizers which had appeared on the scene – particularly with sequencers, I loved them. It was all-new technology and I just wanted to see what it was all about, and have a go, and see what I can do with it.” The Quietus, 2011
Despite mixed reviews, ‘McCartney II’ topped the UK charts, and Macca entered the ’80s on the right foot, facing a new, synthesized future. In the years hence, ‘Temporary Secretary’ – at first dismissed as a novelty – has taken on a life of its own. It became a dancefloor favourite at ’00s hipster nightclub Trash, was brilliantly overhauled by mash-up producer The Freelance Hellraiser on 2005’s Macca-approved remix album Twin Freaks, and most recently has been covered by Darkstar and Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe.