“Wings! The band The Beatles could’ve been!” That’s a line from Alan Partridge. It’s perhaps even his best line. But you knew that already. A-ha.
Between the messy dissolution of The Beatles and the start of the 80s, Paul McCartney kept himself active by touring the world with Wings. Global sellers in their own right, had he only ever created music with Wings, we’d still be talking glowingly about McCartney’s fine musical legacy. As it is, Wings is but a small part in his extensive, sprawling and much undiscovered back catalogue. There’s nuggets in them thar records, just waiting to be unearthed. Many folk know this, but I’d wager that many more don’t.
Even before The Beatles had truly and legally split, McCartney had released his eponymously-titled debut, an interesting collection of snippets and songs recorded at home, some written on the spot, some unwanted leftovers from Beatles’ sessions. Any album that includes Maybe I’m Amazed, Junk and Every Night deserves to be heard.
It would be a mere 9 years – the Wings years – before he’d get around to releasing the titular follow-up, McCartney II. Have you ever heard it? It’s nuts. There’s always some wag at work or in the pub who, when you mention The Beatles will tell you they don’t like them. Bollocks! The Beatles have a song for everyone, whether it’s Yellow Submarine or Revolution 9 or anything inbetween. Such a rich and varied back catalogue reaches out in all directions. But for anyone who tells you they don’t like The Beatles, do two things; 1. Bash them over the head with a heavy frying pan and, 2. After the following history lesson, point them in the direction of McCartney II.
In the run-up to its release, Wings had travelled the world. Well, almost the world. Back in his Beatles days, around their 1966 Budokan dates, McCartney had been caught with marijuana by the Japanese authorities and was immediately banned from the country. The ban stood for over a decade, but the Japanese relented at the tail end of the 70s.
In January 1980, ahead of what would’ve been Wings’ first Japanese tour, McCartney was once again busted for marijuana possession, this time at Tokyo airport and, after 9 days in jail, was ungraciously ejected from the country, an insult and an embarrassment to the Japanese authorities who’d relented on his ban in the first place. Quite what conversations took place ahead of this year’s solo Japanese tour is anyone’s guess, but seemingly Sir Paul McCartney MBE is now as welcome in Tokyo as a delivery of steaks for the sumos in Sapporo.
Where were we?
In the days following his jail sentence, McCartney found himself back at his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, without a tour, without direction and possibly without a band. So he did what he did best; he dug out his instruments and wrote some songs. Crucially, his usual set up of drums/bass/guitar/keys was augmented by the first phase of samplers and drum machines and McCartney set about creating a new sound.
It’s something of an urban myth these days to suggest that Paul was the ‘soppy, safe’ Beatle and John the ‘edgy, arty’ one. While Lennon was still perfecting his best Dylan sneer on You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, McCartney was heading out (there) to Karlheinz Stockhausen performances and dabbling in musique concrète. It’s a theme that carries to this day, with his ambient and dubby Fireman releases filling up the esoteric corners of his back catalogue alongside his Liverpool Oratorio and sundry other classical pieces. But in 1980, when McCartney II hit the shelves, it proved too much for many.
Even an artist as bulletproof, as guaranteed to sell as McCartney found the going tough; proto techno, blues, chart ballads (Waterfalls), abstract snippets of tunes, it’s a good advert for how (cough) creative you can get when you have an ongoing relationship with soft recreational drugs. No doubt during studio playbacks, McCartney listened through a fug of whatever, judgement quite literally clouded, but listening nowadays, it’s a good album. Not a great album, not perhaps an album that even the writer would point you in the direction of, but it’s certainly not as bad as its sales might suggest. In time it’s grown to be something of a cult album.
It opens with Coming Up, a track that, with its wet funk and chattering guitar interplay screams “Talking Heads!!!” so loudly I can’t begin to wonder how David Byrne must’ve felt when he first heard it. Thrilled on the one hand. Dialling a good copyright lawyer with the other, no doubt. To be fair, McCartney freely admitted he was clearly in awe of Talking Heads and David Byrne’s ‘anti-commercialism’ at the time. And, not that it makes it right, but he’s been on the wrong end of dozens, hundreds, thousands of copy-cat records. Gamekeeper turns poacher, and all that.
Paul McCartney – Coming Up
Elsewhere, you’ll find the catch-your-breath, that’s not Paul! Temporary Secretary, all bleeps and bloops and synthetic Kraftwerk rhythms, speeded up vocals spinning ad nauseum.
Paul McCartney – Temporary Secretary
Play it to someone who’s never heard it before and they’ll never believe it’s the same person who plucked Yesterday out of thin air and into homes the world over.
… or the wonky instrumental Frozen Jap (really Paul?!?) with its pseudo Eastern scales and stoned to the bone rudimentary drum machine.
Paul McCartney – Frozen Jap
… or Check My Machine, b-side to the album’s chart hit Waterfalls, with its nagging keyboard riff and Tweety Pie and Sylvester samples. The dull thudding sound you can hear in the background is the sound of the Super Furry Animals and De La Soul fighting it out over the right to sample it first.
Paul McCartney – Check My Machine
McCartney has better albums; Ram, McCartney and Wild Life for starters, much of Wings’ back catalogue (Band On The Run? Of course. Venus & Mars? Very likely) as confirmation, but if it’s truly out-there stuff you’re looking for from the popstar who, on the face of it, never veers far from the middle of the road McCartney II might just knock yer socks off. Play it for the anti-Beatles person in your life and see what they think.