Monday, March 21, 2011
Secret Genius: Paul McCartney- McCartney II (1980)
It's hard for me to talk about Paul McCartney without railing on about his undeserved reputation as some kind of crassly commercial, unrepentantly cute, baby-boomer bogeyman, but suffice it to say, I feel it's undeserved. Paul was, if the jauntiest and catchiest songwriter of the Beatles, simultaneously the most experimental and avant-garde. If Wings stands as a monument to post-Beatles mediocrity, then McCartney, Ram, and McCartney II tower as beautiful, wild, and endlessly enjoyable masterpieces, a testament to and realization of all the promise and talent the 20th Century's most successful composer carried with him into his solo career. (Not to be needlessly didactic, but I'd say that puts him a step above the teflon boomer-saint and rival in history, John Lennon, who managed about one and a half great solo outings and a few more that weren't too embarrassing. I love him as we all do but come on. How did he sleep at night?) Ram is my favorite of the three, one of my most beloved records of all time, but the strangest by far is McCartney II, and that is what I'll ramble on about today.
After breaking up Wings and spending nine days in jail for marijuana possession, McCartney dropped II, a synth and weedsmoke-drenched bedroom record of epically weird proportions. Utilizing the so-crazy-it-just-might-work technique of holing up in his Scottish studio, getting high, and playing all the instruments himself, he emerged with a surprisingly experimental bunch of songs so creative and cool that even notorious grump Lennon had to muster some praise for his old friend. The big single was "Coming Up", a strange but pop-friendly disco track with massive compression and sped up vocals. After it opens the record, one has to sweat through the agitating new-wave nightmare of "Temporary Secretary", a song I usually skip but have to admit is a fascinatingly garish piece of work, a Devo-esque piece of hot trash worth suffering through for the sadistic pleasure of it. It's followed by the soothing balm of "On the Way", a cruisin' bit of what is essentially a blues, but draped in dub-level amounts of echo and garnished with little bits of angular guitar work. Excellent... and we're off!
Next up is the gorgeous "Waterfalls." Simple, perfect, oddly similar to the TLC hit of the same name... some may write this type of track off as maudlin or corny but to hell with those monsters, and their hardened, bitter souls. I implore you to lend your full attention and whole heart to this video:
After that brief diversion into a land of earnest sentiment, it's back to the playfully trippy. "Nobody Knows", a stompin' trifle, followed by "Front Parlour", a decidedly lo-fi bit of synthy krautrock, a la Zuckerzeit or Ralf and Florian; then a reprise of sentiment in the vein of "Waterfalls", this time distorted somehow into a soaring yet brittle haiku of optimism in the form of "Summer's Day", followed by another grainy kraut jam, "Frozen Jap," complete with handclaps, crushingly hollow compressed drums, and a drum machine. The record is flowing at this point, an unpredictable river of stoned optimism... "Bogey Music" comes and goes, its essential mediocrity hazily cloaked in relentless echo, and is followed by one of the record's masterworks, the sinister, slightly reggae-ish "Darkroom." It's one of those pop songs that comes into your life and makes you feel like you've never heard anything like it, like you've been waiting for this specific mix of pop and art without ever suspecting it even existed. It's like hearing Brian Eno's Here Come the Warm Jets, Roxy Music's debut, or Bowie's Low for the first time. Pop as art with no compromise, utterly unique and essentially familiar.
I guess the original album followed "Darkroom" with "One of These Days", a nicely introspective track with McCartney's signature direct pop appeal and kind, friendly voice. I suppose I have an expanded version, though, because for me, that song has always been followed by the album's other great revelation, "Check My Machine," a powerful dub distortion with looped banjo, falsetto vocals, gallons of echo, and positively brilliant sounding synths. I could groove to this all day. Alien music; truly, truly weird. You can smell the cheeba wafting from the studio as he wrapped this one up. I have no idea how it didn't make it onto the original release, but history and the profitability of re-releases+bonus tracks has rectified the error. Look at what the Rolling Stones did with Reggae in the 70's. Then look at "Darkroom" and "Check My Machine." Then tell me how Keith Richards is the fucking Pope of Rock n Roll and Paul is its Judas. Judas? I don't believe you.
The final track on my version is "Secret Friend", a ten minute synth meandering with tape-distortion warbling and "saxophone" sounds throughout. It's not gripping stuff the whole way through, but it is a stellar fadeout to this secret masterpiece. I cannot recommend this shit highly enough. Here is the work of a man having fun, getting high, being a genius, and doing what he wants to do. You'd best believe, my friends.
I'm not posting a link to this. In this case, I fear the potential recriminations of such an act... but you internet wizards can surely find a way to download this if you don't feel like filling Paul's already overloaded coffers. Just make sure you get the bonus tracks, dig it? They are key. They are necessary to your life.