Revisiting ‘McCartney II’, the experimental second solo album of Paul McCartney
Following the recording of the mellow Both Sides, a labour of love by which he’d written, sung and played every note himself, singer-songwriter Phil Collins felt unable to return to the Labyrinthian Genesis to perform through the band’s more progressive palette with the truth. So too did songwriting bassist Paul McCartney come to change, but in a polar opposite direction to the conventional balladry Collins adopted.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, the release proved as much a pivotal moment in McCartney’s career as his 1970 debut did. For now, in his intent, he’d returned to writing albums for and about himself. With the death of one John Lennon robbing McCartney’s desire to tour the world, it was to no one’s surprise that McCartney would not return to his second band. For now, his second solo album cobbled the rustic aesthetic of its spiritual predecessor but with an instrumental sheen decidedly more contemporary and chic. Without resorting to cross-word swearing, McCartney reclaimed the title of avant-gardist at a time when Lennon was writing about watching wheels in a fifties doo-wop beat. “I don’t know what it is,” McCartney recalled in 2011, “maybe being Gemini, but I definitely have different sides to my character. So I can love Nat King Cole singing a ballad, and I can want to do that kind of thing myself, and then the next day I can wake up and I want to do ‘Check My Machine’,” he added.
Regularly cited as the most complex member of the Fab Four’s contingent, McCartney’s remit explored the raw, regularised playing of a band against the pristine puissant of seventies avant pop—and yet the directions of delegation were lost in the circumnavigation of band allotment. In a speech tellingly familiar to George Harrison, guitarist Henry McCullough likened Wings to playing in the Irish show-bands. At the same time, drummers Geoff Britton and Joe English followed each other with occupational precision.
Wild Life, with all its rough regalia, kept the naturalistic bird imagery with a band name. Still, by Red Rose Speedway, a compromised effort shorn of its double LP edginess for commercial value, McCartney’s name and image had prefixed Wings. Band On The Run, an exquisitely produced work, showcased an ability sorely missing on the first two efforts, but it was a project recorded with McCartney drumming in Denny Seiwell’s place. The bucolic London Town came closest in matching Band On The Run in quality and depth, but it too was the craftsmanship of Messrs McCartney and Laine, the Moody Blues frontman now elevated to co-writer on several tracks.
Only Venus and Mars showcased a band at their most fiery, Jimmy McCullough’s furrowed finger-work pummelling on the scorching Call Me Back Again and Crossroads, the kitsch remake of Tony Hatch’s theme tune which later adopted as the show’s closing song. Speed of Sound, meanwhile, sacrificed half of its space to the other members, only furthering the division between McCartney’s superlative efforts and his bandmates. And then there was Back To The Egg, Wings’ wheezy response to punk, complete with an all-star recording of Rockestra, a raucous rocker that sounded more fun in print than in spirit. Conversely, the live effort Wings Over America stood, a celebratory venture of stadium musicianship which breathed new warmth into the band’s expansive material. Weighed amongst these songs came piano loungers Lady Madonna and The Long and Winding Road, fresher on stage than they sounded on record.
What Wings effortlessly brought to the stage sounded effortful in the studio, and only three of the band’s seven studio efforts could measure against the standard of a Beatle album. Much better were the singles, the jaunty ‘Goodnight Tonight’and chorus heavy‘Daytime Nighttime Suffering’ as compatible, but as different, in their matched beauties as The Beatles We Can Work It Out /Day Tripper were as Double A-Sides.
What he could not replicate, he could reproduce in his studio. McCartney turned to his domain intending to put together a series of tracks purposely to reignite a creative flame. Simmering among the keyboards and rhythms, McCartney came to hear that the work would produce an album. Escaping from his voice, McCartney could veer from the industrial (”Front Parlour’) to the Oriental (‘Frozen Jap’), all through the modifiers of a pictorial synthesiser.
The bass-heavy ‘Coming Up’ presented itself a more commercial alternative, while palette cleansing ballads ‘Waterfalls’ and ‘One of These Days’ opened themselves to the audience members of McCartney’s more orthodox choosing. Then the elaborate effects of Pandora’s Box opened themselves in a series of explosive offerings. The waspy ‘Temporary Secretary’, the guitar drenched ‘On The Way’ and the distorted dance drum beats throughout ‘Bogey Music’ showcased McCartney at the most inventive in years. Amongst these offerings stood ‘Summer’s Day Song’, one of McCartney’s more hypnotic numbers, reminiscent of the loops he’d added to Lennon’s variegated ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’.
In its form, it stood as one of the roughest of the post Beatle number one albums. It was also one of the more exciting records, and arguably the boldest, to hold McCartney’s name.
There he stood on the cover in pastoral white, showcasing the camera’s aim on his face alone. In a confused, condensed smile, he symbolised the sinewy surprises which awaited the listener, lonely and alone he stood. It was a traditional pose but could boast itself the album’s only conventional attribute. “Old school” McCartney cackled in 2011. “Ha! Well there was no other school at the time. I suppose we were inventing the new school.”