There are few chapters in the life of Paul McCartney that have ever been underreported, and that certainly applies to his acrimonious departure from the Beatles in 1970. But while the stature of his bandmates—especially John Lennon and George Harrison—escalated in the decades which followed, McCartney has often been given comparably short shrift by chin-stroking music nerds. In fairness, McCartney himself must shoulder some of the blame for his spotty reputation: His recorded output has sometimes wavered somewhere on the shaky precipice between mawkish and schmaltzy; he had no concept of irony; there wasn’t a picture taken for 15 years straight where he wasn’t winking and hoisting his thumbs aloft.
McCartney has been making a concerted effort for a while to try and turn the artistic tides in his favor, perhaps beginning with his 1989 collaborations with Elvis Costello, working with the likes of Welsh indie-heroes Super Furry Animals, hanging out with Dave Grohl and playing festivals like Coachella. McCartney has also attempted to cast a different light on his previously released material, and as such has finally gotten around to his first two solo albums proper, collections on which he played every instrument.
McCartney and McCartney II are separated by a decade, the former recorded as a low-key, pressure-free tonic after the Beatles split, and the latter a polished collection of private recordings worked up before the final Wings tour and released a year later when the band was no more. The end of the Beatles allowed the Fab Four to each break off and find their own way: George Harrison had a lot to say, John Lennon a lot to get off his chest and Ringo Starr a desire to step out from behind the drumkit and become a frontman in his own right. McCartney, though, just wanted to chill the fuck out.
McCartney bears all the telltale signs of the circumstances that led to its creation; the album is at once intimate and inspired, finding a relaxed Macca on top form. Songs like “The Lovely Linda” and “Junk” are the work of an artist from whom a broader view of Love (with a capital “L”) was most effectively told through a deeply personal lens, while “Hot as Sun/Glasses” and “Momma Miss America” are so perfect in their rough state, it’s as though the artist stepped away from the canvas to add more paint to his palette, caught a glimpse of the pieces in mid-design and instinctively said, “Fuck it, they’re done.” If the album proper has one defining track, it’s probably “Maybe I’m Amazed”, an absolutely scorching love song that might have been a massive single in 1970 had it actually been released in that format (a live version recorded with Wings hit #10 on the charts in the US in 1976), but is instead one of the finest songs ever written and recorded by McCartney, including his work with the Beatles.
The bonus audio material on McCartney is also more than just filler, including three songs performed with Wings at a 1979 concert in Glasgow; a live in-studio run through “Maybe I’m Amazed” from the 1974 documentary One Hand Clapping; and three unreleased tracks, including “Don’t Cry Baby” (a jam on what eventually became “Oo You”), a piano-and-vocals demo of an amusing work in progress number called “Women Kind” in which McCartney sings about bra burning, and a compelling demo of a song called “Suicide”.
McCartney II, released in 1980, is perhaps even more overlooked in McCartney’s canon, in spite of it including the chart smash “Coming Up” (the live version recorded with Wings during a Glasgow concert in 1979 that was a #1 hit in the US and Canada is included on a second disc of bonus material). For many, the album was an odd curio upon release, and in many ways it sounds even weirder now. While much of his most popular solo/Wings material up to that point was recorded on traditional rock & roll instruments, McCartney II doesn’t just feature synthesizers and other electronic instruments, it showcases them.
Just two songs in, “Temporary Secretary” is a manic, futuristic laser blast with an actual melody simmering underneath. It would be pointless to compare it to anything McCartney had ever done before, and would be equally so to compare it to anyone else as it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. More than any other song on either eponymous album, “Temporary Secretary” illustrates the complex nature of Paul McCartney’s musical output, and why painting him into a corner as an artless and cynical hack has always been utter bullshit. “On the Way”, a sparse, mid-tempo tune that sounds like it was recorded at the bottom of a deep chasm, is another gem, as are “Waterfalls” and “One of These Days”, two songs which are rescued from succumbing to sugar shock by virtue of their genuine beauty.
McCartney II also features a handful of terrific bonus tracks, including a few futuristic b-sides (the Gorillaz-forecasting “Check My Machine” and the full-length version of “Secret Friend”), an even stranger relative of an already strange album track (“Bogey Wobble” is the b-side, “Bogey Music” the album cut), a cheesy yuletide single (“Wonderful Christmastime”) and a couple of unreleased songs: “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” (a Devo-esque shimmy which opens with the line, “The Shangri-La’s vs. the Village People”); “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway” and “Blue Sway”, the latter featuring the addition of orchestration by Richard Niles. (A second disc of bonus material, most of which features extended versions of album tracks, was not available for review.)
The bonus DVD material is also fascinating, especially on McCartney where the album’s songs are revisited many years later by Macca himself. Following a splendidly animated film accompanying McCartney’s present-day recollections of recording the album and a few archival clips, “Every Night” and “Hot as Sun” are given a live airing by Wings at one of the benefit Concerts for Kampuchea on December 29, 1979. McCartney’s MTV Unplugged performance recorded on January 25, 1991 also featured a pair of numbers from his solo debut; “Junk” and “That Would Be Something” are included on the DVD.
McCartney II includes a much longer DVD, in part because of a 25-minute English television chat show called Meet Paul McCartney. The program is definitely of its age, a somewhat dry, overly intellectual conversation between Macca and presenter Tim Rice. McCartney II also includes videos that predate the launch of MTV by one year, including a fairly literal promo for “Waterfalls”, a clip of “Wonderful Christmastime” that looks as though it’s spent the past 30 years in direct sunlight and the legendary tongue-in-cheek video for “Coming Up”, which takes the DIY means by which the music was recorded and features a band entirely comprised of McCartney in various costumes, with a pair of backup singers played by Linda. “Coming Up” gets the most video coverage by a long stretch, with clips of a 1979 rehearsal, a Concert for Kampuchea performance with Wings from that same year, and a “Making of” version of the promo video with commentary provided by McCartney. Both reissues are available in a few different formats, including digital, vinyl and both two-disc and super-deluxe CD versions.
McCartney and McCartney II are both essential releases for different reasons, though they both find the former Beatle in his comfort zone. He recorded these tracks as though no one was ever going to listen, and in doing so released himself from the pretense of pressure. This is Paul McCartney in 1970 and 1980; stripped down and terrific.