In the early summer of 1980, I stood in a record store gazing at Paul McCartney’s urgently beautiful
face on the cover of his new album, McCartney II. A sticker on the cover said the new single, “Coming Up (Live In Glasgow)”
was included within. I asked my dad if we could get it. He bought it for me and I took home my hero’s newest release
with grand excitement. Little did I know what I would hear upon dropping down the needle. I’d already been through the
weird parts of The White Album and Abbey Road, Ram and Imagine, Wings’ Greatest and Shaved Fish, but nothing could have
prepared me for how truly weird this little record was. Now admittedly, I spent that whole first day listening just to the
single, which for me, remains one of Macca’s best, a concert rendition of a great song so joyously energized and infectious,
you can not help but feel elation experiencing it. It was deservedly the monster song of that golden summer.
The album it was included with was another story entirely. I wondered what the studio version of “Coming
Up” was like, given how great the single was, bursting all over the radio. Imagine then, my somewhat confused reaction
to hearing an opening track so strange, as to be almost unrecognizable to the live take. What is this? I thought. A nasal,
camouflaged voice exhorting utopian sentiments over a claustrophobically funky soapbox while a kazoo played the smash horn
lines from the 45 left me scratching my head. He can be so weird, I thought, so “out there.” But hey, that’s
one of the things about those Beatles. That freaky, northern sense of the absurd. They were nothing if not comedians, after
all. “Coming Up” is a prime example. And unlike “Revolution 9,” “You Know My Name,” or
“My Carnival,” it’s a great song as well.
The rest of the album followed in far-out, boundary-pushing suit: the near-psychotic bleat and rumble of
“Temporary Secretary,” the stripped-down, bare-bone blues of “On The Way,” the hallucinogenic beauty
of “Waterfalls,” the zonked-out Buddy Holly/Bo Diddley-isms of “Nobody Knows” and “Bogey Music,”
the pastoral, exotic vistas of “Front Parlour,” “Summer’s Day Song,” and “Frozen Jap,”
the almost scary freak-out of “Darkroom,” and finally, finally, a real song I could sink my teeth into, the relaxed,
familiar folk of “One Of These Days.” I recall only liking this one and “Waterfalls.” The rest was
just too weird. I didn’t get it, didn’t understand the sounds I was hearing. I’d never heard anything like
them before. There wasn’t much guitar from what I could tell, just weird sounds. And too many boring instrumentals.
As the inner sleeve picture with son James tugging on his undershirt revealed, Macca had just been fooling around in the studio
and was now passing it off as an album. No great songs, just rough-draft experiments in sound. All in all, a disappointment.
I did keep listening to McCartney II all that summer, along with Ram, a masterwork I preferred in every
way to this weirdness, this aimless exercise in strange. It kinda grew on me, but by September, I had filed it away next to
Back To The Egg and returned to Billy Joel’s Glass Houses and Queen’s The Game, two records that to this day,
scratch the itch whenever I feel the need for peerless Pop Music. But what did I know in the summer of ‘80? I was ten
and had been raised on The Beatles, Simon&Garfunkel, Elton John, Billy Joel and The Bee Gees. I wanted and expected only
good, real songs. Anything other was not for me. I mean, I didn’t listen to “Revolution 9” much either.
Fast forward 30 years.
Now I never knew the backstory of McCartney II, and the fact it had originally been offered to Columbia
as a double album and rejected for being too much of “too out there.” How much further out could it have been
than what was formerly released? For anyone interested like me in finding out, the answer is now commercially available for
the first time. Contained within the three discs that comprise the deluxe McCartney II reissue is the original long-lost double
McCartney II as the auteur first intended. And while I'm never eager to admit my own short-sightedness, I will eagerly say
this: It's great. A real hoot. In fact, listening now to the entire thing in sequence, I believe it's one of the best things
Paul McCartney ever did. Granted, I am now 41 and no longer adhere to the strict ground rules I laid out for myself at ten.
I can now hear beyond the fact that most of this material is not song-based obviously, but rooted in an avant-garde, absurdist
sensibility, something I became exposed to later through the work of Lennon/Ono, Frank Zappa, John Cage, Stockhausen, etc.
But even more importantly, I am now long familiar with SYNTHESIZERS. And if McCartney II is about any one thing, it's synthesizers.
The Beatles were among the first to use synths, and of course, they applied the relatively new instrument
in the very best way imaginable on Abbey Road, bringing forth sounds that not only served songs like "Maxwell's Silver Hammer,"
"Here Comes The Sun," and "Because," but brought each to a place of magic and beauty previously not heard before on earth.
The synthesizer went on to inform the best work of Pete Townshend and Stevie Wonder, two artists who, like McCartney, were
able to harness the instruments' ability for sound creation into again, never-before-heard experiences of a near-heavenly
like quality. Anyone who has heard Who's Next or Music Of My Mind knows what I am referring to. McCartney himself continued
to mine the synthesizer's broad musical potential throughout the '70's, his use of it peaking in 1978 with the shimmering
majesty of "With A Little Luck," perhaps the most beautiful vehicle for the instrument to ever hit number one on Billboard
(Gary Wright's wonderful "Dream Weaver" having peaked at number two a few years earlier).
So with a lucrative new recording contract, the relatively unsuccessful Back To The Egg stalling out
at number eight, a stint in a Japanese jail for marijuana possession, and the spine-tingling rumor that John Lennon was considering
his re-emergence on the recording scene, McCartney dissolved Wings and set about celebrating the ten year anniversary of his
first solo album by plugging into his 16 track Studer console and seeing what these still-relatively new magic boxes could
really do. And as it sometimes happens with musical geniuses, the ensuing outpouring of material was formidable and inspired.
While I was not even remotely aware of this at the age of ten, I can now hear a pure and palpable musical vision coalescing
in the understated ease and beauty of "Front Parlour" and "Frozen Jap," the two pieces that were originally intended to open
this magnum opus. Both are minor masterpieces in poetic miniature, the former carrying one of his most breezy melodies ever
while synthesizers create a pulsating lake of a track full of charming polyrhythm and gurgling nuance; a glorious summer day
full of tadpoles and lillipads; or is it dying and going to heaven to glimpse God? Or the breathless anticipation of ejaculation?
Or of a baby being born? All this captured in poetic sound picture. This is truly a pioneer at work. And history now shows
clearly he was again ahead of the curve, predicting the dominant sound of the next ten years and beyond would indeed be the
And yet how could pieces so beautifully provocative be missed the first time around? Looking back, they were
sadly lost in the shuffle, designated out of sequence to the second side of a weird album seemingly sprung from nowhere but
the noodling indulgence of an ex-Beatle. Perhaps this is why it's out again now. And also why Art is an ever-evolving conversation
between an artist and their audience, in which things can be reassessed, re-imagined, and judged more fairly by a listener
who now knows much more than he did then. The art didn't change, I did. And from that change often comes something marvelous.
What fun to hear the real McCartney II again, but as if now for the first time. Interesting to note that in 1969, Paul McCartney
was universally acknowledged as the most influential musician in the world, whereas by 1980, his influence seemed less, left
to submerge into more subtle territory, harder to see, and yet, 30 years on, still as great and far-reaching. Certainly DJ’s
who create mashups or dance remixes, or anyone who sits in a studio by themselves surrounded by computers and synthesizers,
making an “indie” recording these days owes a not-so-small debt to our Macca. In this regard, McCartney II is
arguably as influential as anything he did with The Beatles.
Returning to the double album, it's not only the fact that “Front Parlour” and “Frozen
Jap” open the set and thus are better represented that turns this into a brand new and much better experience. It's
the previously unreleased and/or un-included stuff that really tells the tale once presented in the original sequence. The
first appearance of Macca's voice in this presentation is on the third track, an absurd comedy number entitled "All You Horse
Riders." It's not a very good piece of music actually, nor is it that interesting on its own, but in the overall scheme, it
accomplishes two significant things: One, as announcement without embarrassment that Paul McCartney, the Beatle John Lennon
always criticized for never going far enough, for always playing it too safe and too commercial, has finally GONE TOO FAR.
Two, and even more significantly, as announcement to John Lennon directly, that Paul McCartney, CAN and HAS NOW gone too far;
in fact, as far as Yoko Ono ever went, and maybe even farther. Certainly more musically. And this is where the story gets
really cool from what I can tell. Because I don't believe it's just coincidence that in late 1979/early 1980, knowing his
old partner was gearing up to get back in the studio and reenter the fray, Paul McCartney would start working on a body of
music that was surely the most avant-garde of his entire career to that point.
"All You Horse Riders" is so strange in fact, it could be argued that only Lennon would have even been able
to hear it correctly in the context of 1980, although he probably never did get a chance to. Either way, this was a deliberate
postcard to an old friend, and sets up the template for the rest of the album, all of which can be traced back to the end
of "Hey Bulldog" and the entire "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number).” Most of the songs with vocals here consist
of one or two lines, usually derived from the title, repeated over and over by either McCartney in a crazy character voice,
or a host of voices made up of his and wife Linda's, chanting, laughing, singing - pretty far out, man. I mean, FAR out. Listen
to the ecstatic "You Know I'll Get You Baby" or the silly yet catchy "Mr. H Atom." This is outright wacky stuff, easily on
par with anything from Monty Python or Lennon himself. There is no doubt he’s sending out a signal here, telling his
old pal, "I'm ready. I can go there as good as she can, maybe better. I'm waiting on you. I'm here. I'm ready for you." Did
it work? Did the message get through? Well, partly. There is no question that both the "weird" version and massive hit single
of "Coming Up" helped to spearhead John Lennon's creative resurgence in the summer of 1980, as the guitar riffs of "I Don't
Want To Face It" and "Dear Yoko" clearly demonstrate. There is also, in fact, flattering interview footage of Lennon in the
studio that summer talking about McCartney and that song, in which JL cites that he prefers the "weird" version because it's
"more far out, man." Message received, loud and clear. History tells us, of course, that no greater connection was made, and
the possibility of a creative reunion was destroyed only months later. After immensely enjoying the brand new original McCartney
II, I will always believe Paul McCartney was up for it, wanted it, craved it, and went about letting it be known in the best
way he knew how: Truly Fab Weirdness pressed into vinyl and sent across the water to an old friend.
But even without this supposed subtext from the mind of a wishful Beatlefan, the restored McCartney II stands
as a work of immense, daring creativity. Willful in its execution and attitude, this is the act you've known for all these
years really taking chances, letting his hair down and freak flag fly, getting STRANGE. The insane "Check My Machine" is a
direct descendant of "You Know My Name." Even better is the ten and a half intoxicating minutes of "Secret Friend." Both have
been available for years on CD, but never have they gotten their due or been presented correctly. In the new context, both
are a wild trip indeed, especially "Secret Friend," which stands as one of the most musically rich and outrageous things McCartney
has ever done. It's a beautiful piece of music, with a gorgeous vocal line and melody, an inspired lyric of absurdist poetry,
and a track only synthesizers in the hands of a genius could create. This is alien music, unearthly in its depth and atmosphere.
Believe me, you don’t ever need to take drugs if you listen to “Secret Friend.” It takes you to the same
place, without all the trouble after.
It is also within this context that the originally released McCartney II material gains in power and starts
to make more sense. For instance, there is a magic moment when the twisted groove of "Check My Machine" flows effortlessly
into the dreamy ethereality of "Waterfalls" that is mesmerizing, emotionally akin to the segue from the end of "I Want You
(She's So Heavy)" into "Here Comes The Sun." Elsewhere, the gut-blues guitar and decaying vocal delay of "On The Way" immediately
becomes something you can really hold on to, and reveals a terrific song about the trials and tribulations of marriage and
what you see and say to each other as you go. Again, I'm amazed I let this one get by me so easily so long ago. I'm glad I
have it now. I can really use it. The man knows more than me, I know that. He always has. And then there’s the everlasting
comfort of “One Of These Days,” which remains a balm in any era or context.
It should be noted that the synthesizers of 1980 were not like the ones that came after them, which are these
days, more replicators of other sounds. If you want a horn section, or a string section, or a piano or an organ, or whatever,
a "synthesizer" can give you a good facsimile with the touch of a button. In 1980, it was an instrument that with a bunch
of fiddling around with knobs and faders, could produce sounds never heard before. That's why it came across so strangely
at the time, and why within a year or two, everyone was using one, from Steve Winwood to Prince to Peter Gabriel to Eddie
Van Halen to everyone on MTV. Here was McCartney, the master of the 3 minute single, the original King Of Pop, dishing out
and serving up Music Of His Mind that was not AM Radio friendly or meant for mass public consumption, just as Art for Art's
sake. This was pure poetry of sound and expression, mixed with a comic sense of the Absurd. Listen to the loveliness of "Summer's
Day Song," here presented as an instrumental piece. It's nothing short of modern classical music. And hey, if John Cage is,
then Paul McCartney most certainly is as well. There's the old laugh and a wink we know and love thrown in for good measure
as well. And now, having "Coming Up" sum it all up like the manifesto it always was, makes all the sense in the (absurd) world.
A postcard of truly Fab Weirdness pressed to vinyl and sent across the water to an old friend.
There's no one better than this guy.