Monday, October 26, 2015
Through the course of a discussion that I had with a good friend recently, the subject of Paul McCartney and his eighties output came up. Sparked by the recent reissue of Tug of War and Pipes of Peace in deluxe format (remastered versions of the original discs with lots of B-sides, demos, some video, etc.), he had mentioned purchasing the updated Pipes of Peace. The conversation turned to the merits and flaws of that record, though he summed things up perfectly in one shot: Listening to Pipes of Peace brought him back to a time in his early teens when he first bought the cassette, took in the music and those memories remain warmly positive.
I recall McCartney II in the exact same way.
In a nod to Proust, my sonic equivalent of tasting a madeleine cake dipped in tea is listening to "Coming Up". Whenever I hear it, a wave of involuntary memories from the summer of 1980 are brought into focus, conjuring up images of weekend dances down at the lakefront campground close to our home, swimming with friends for hours, bike rides, sweet aromas wafting from charcoal BBQs and formless fun that we had during our two month breaks from school. From a child's perspective, these simple pleasures were magic. The sun appeared every morning in a sky that seemed to be a sharper blue with the musical soundtrack providing another portal to further flights of imagination. During this period, my sister and I collected "45s" that we played endlessly on the family stereo, which was a piece of furniture with a turntable, an 8-track player and a tuner built into the cabinet. My LP collection was beginning to grow a bit, though "singles" were easier to obtain as they were much cheaper. "Coming Up" made a stuck landing on countless radio playlists, entering our household as it climbed to the top of the charts in July of that seemingly endless summer. Aside from boasting a great hook, it was born out of series of experimental sketches that saw McCartney revert to the one man band approach that shaped his first proper solo album nearly a decade earlier. The B-side of the single featured a live version of the song, performed by the last incarnation of Wings from a gig in Glasgow. There was an added bonus "on the flip" with the inclusion of a third, instrumental track called "Lunch Box/Odd Sox". I had no idea then, though this was a very cool confection that he had recorded during the Venus And Mars sessions a few years earlier, remaining in the vaults until that point. All three tunes received maximum rotation and are inexorably tied to all aforementioned events during that hazy, fun summer. Those times were experienced but once, though they always bring a wistful smile.
Did I dream this or simply choose to view it all through revisionist, rose-colored lenses?
Holding that copy of "Coming Up" today, weathered but still with me after 35 years, is a gentle reminder of a simpler existence that was very happy and quite real.
When Paul started to come to terms with the emotional and legal wreckage that ensued with the dissolution of the Beatles' partnership, family structure became more of a priority. Making music had long been his passion, salvation and had earned him a fortune (not to mention had also made him famous). With his first solo album (McCartney) he truly took up every aspect of the project. Save for a few harmonies from Linda, he performed and overdubbed every note on his own. In the decade that followed, there was a fresh start with the formation of Wings, world tours and commercial triumph as he managed to outsell his old band during the seventies. After countless hits, lineup changes and success, Wings would soon be in his rearview mirror as the decade wound down. During the summer of 1979, he decided to rent some recording equipment, plug in to some of the technological advances that had been made in the intervening years since his first, post Beatles statement and experiment with sounds.
One can imagine him blazing up, setting a pattern on a synth and getting some ideas down that he could further bend with wild effects or non traditional instrumental approaches. This was not just any stoned dude in his bedroom with great gear and time on his hands, though the results of this exercise were not initially intended for public consumption.
CHECK MY MACHINE
Patience is required when you begin the task of creating music, then endeavour to reproduce all of the sounds you hear in your head on your own. At the outset, McCartney needed to test drive the equipment so he took snippets of audio from cartoons, laid down the basic rhythm tracks and used a ridiculously over the top falsetto voice to "check his machine". Though it would not feature on the album, this loping, repetitive vehicle did establish the brief for the rest of the material.
I'm going to produce music that doesn't sound like me.
When you really take in the music on McCartney II, the first element that leaps out of your speakers is the distortion of that familiar voice. Tape delay, mountains of reverb, vari-speed and other variants of electronic manipulation are deployed to disguise the actual vocal persona behind the aural madness. "Coming Up" is a tight groove, with a lot of great instrumental parts that serve the whole. The vox is otherworldly, squeezed way into the upper register. "Temporary Secretary" has a looped synth pattern worthy of Brian Eno or Gary Numan, an almost grating chorus and a very calm, creeped out lead vocal. "On the Way" channels Macca's inner blues guitarist, though his singing is filtered through an insanely timed delay.
That's the way I like it, just so nobody knows...
The first side bounces around stylistically and yielded three singles. "Waterfalls" has a beautiful melody, though it would have been much better if he had dropped two verses and edited it down to two minutes.
Side two offers a clue as to where the LP really began. Harking back to "McCartney", "Front Parlour" is an instrumental with a lot of personality. Plenty of subliminal parts hide in the mix underneath the main, keyboard-driven theme. He didn't invent electronic dance music, though this is a distant cousin of similar contemporary fare. The ending is unresolved, sounding as if he was looking to add another bridging piece but decided to trail off and have a listen. "Summers Day Song" features sweeping, mock string arrangements with a touch of mellotron-sounding patches (similar to the Strawberry Fields flute sounds). This is a hidden gem where the music evokes a substantive emotional reaction, despite having a very austere lyric.
If you programmed "Bogey Music" and "Darkroom" into your party mix, your guests would know that there was a stash of electric lettuce hiding somewhere in your home. Raymond Briggs produced a children's book called Fungus the Bogeyman, upon which the former tune is inspired by. The groove is the key, with a boogie foundation and a sticky, eight note guitar figure with the vocal delivery virtually unrecognizable as being that of James Paul McCartney. "Darkroom" is completely bizarre, yet totally in keeping with his main intention here. Unless you are already acquainted with this disc, there is no frame of reference for it as being even remotely associated with his composing style. Stretching his artistic boundaries? Mission accomplished.
Only the acoustic closer, "One of These Days", returns to the familiar territory that he had occupied with ease since the sixties. Gently rendered, there is still so much reverb on the cut that it's difficult not to envision him performing this tender tune from the summit of Mount Everest.
Is this one of his best?
No, though a critical reassessment of sorts has taken place over time. The rock press received it with bewilderment and mixed reviews when first issued. There was an opinion that this record would not have found much of an audience had it been produced by someone else.
Commercially, it was a massive hit.
In light of the Fireman CDs, the direction now makes a bit more sense. By far, "Coming Up" is the best and most accessible of the pack. Don't spend top dollar to bring it home, though if you do obtain a copy, it is definitely one to play in headphones. McCartney II carries fond memories for me, though the objective part of my brain realizes that this is truly a demo; uneven in parts with a "rough sketch" feel. When it clicks, the material does benefit from the lack of overthinking and it's still lots of fun to listen to after all these years.