Good Music We Can Know

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.


Anonymous said...

i've already been let in on this secret genius, so i'll comment instead on the video for "waterfalls": oh my jeezie, dig that SWEATER VEST! also thank you for standin' up for what is good and great. i recently tried to spend some time with solo j.l. and was disappointed, big time.

prince paul,

Holly said...

I hope you're familiar with my favorite p.m. video of all time ...

Flash Strap said...

Whoa. Thanks Holly, I had somehow never seen that. Outrageous. I love how well he does the guy from Sparks.


Anonymous said...

You MUST have been born in the 80's. I am aware you are entitled to your "internet opinion" (as am I); however, John Lennon will forever be internationally recognized as the heart and main talent of the Beatles. The general consensus OF THE WORLD is that p.m. is an overrated fop who got by on "bouncy cuteness." Hence his current musical endeavors startling irrelevance in today's world: he's no longer "cute." Meanwhile Keith Richards, Elton John, and yes, even Steven Tyler, CONTINUE to successfully express themselves creatively without necessarily relying on "past glories."

"...crassly commercial, unrepentantly cute, baby-boomer bogeyman..."

Congrats, kid, this you too, now.

Does this comment meet with your "approval" or will you delete it?

Flash Strap said...

I'm glad to publish what you've said, brave&Anonymous one. Not sure why you felt you had to express your opinion so aggressively, however. There's probably a way to say you prefer John Lennon to Paul McCartney without being a dick to a stranger.

As far as this idea of "consensus" goes- it's patently false on all sides. McCartney is actually the more popular, lucrative entity (adjusting for his longer life span), and thus in many senses the "consensus" is against you. Not that it matters- if profitability and the opinion of the majority were a referendum on excellence, it would be well known that the various singles of Glee eclipse the greater works of Elvis Presley and that Wings is a better band than the Velvet Underground. Ok, so the prevailing "opinion" of the Boomer generation and those it has spawned and educated dictates that Lennon was the greatest force of genius in the entirety of the Beatles saga. Excuse me if I reject the notion, (as I take a moment to pay respect to the man who brought us, among many others, "Plastic Ono Band" and "Pussy Cats"). It's a convenient narrative, and a notably dominant one, but it is as false and lazily convenient as the "First Thanksgiving" and "Yoko Broke up the Beatles". You sound passionate, friend, but your passion is lethargic and dull, not to mention close-minded.

Finally, if you present Elton John and Keith Richards as men who have eschewed a reliance on legacy to maintain a relevant artistic career, then you are plainly confused. John plays satisfying "Best Of" concerts to grateful fans, much in the manner of Cher or Barbra Streisand, while Richards has become an exaggerated self-parody of a "Rolling Stone Outlaw Rocker", all the while conducting his career and his art like a shrewd and cruel CEO. As for Steven Tyler- not only has he never contributed to his art or any craft form in any meaningful way, but he is now a judge on, of all things un-creative and ultimately pathetic, American Idol. McCartney recently dropped the fairly experimental "Electric Arguments", a record which, while not particularly successful nor my cup of tea exactly, was by all accounts fresh, earnest, and weird.

You don't know when I was born, and you look silly making such assumptions. I'm sorry it is beyond you to imagine a member of your generation breaking from the scripted narrative, you must know it is not so rare. Paul McCartney is a wonderfully gifted individual- if you like the Beatles then he has written or co-written at least a dozen of your favorite tunes. John Lennon is wonderful too- few would dispute that. Fewer would bother to dare.

Remember: just because it's the internet doesn't mean you should be rude. The internet is sort of real now, and everyone here is a person. Sleep tight, grandpa.

Anonymous said...

Kudos on your coherent and spirited debate (unusual for p.m. fans who are mostly comprised of frothy 60+ girly-women... OUCH, yes I said it.) However let's just say I'm not changing your mind and you clearly aren't changing mine.

While p.m.'s popularity shall never be called into question, it's his GENIUS that forever will be. As he probably and almost certainly realizes himself: why else would he attempt to re-edit the world-recognized "Lennon/McCartney" credit to "McCartney/Lennon" (a miserable failure that was laughed out of all copyright courts a few short years ago.)

While John, Richards and Tyler may not be as "popular" as they once were, they have still somehow found a way to make a living in today's youth-oriented (re: fickle) world: check, respectively, the "The Lion King" broadway musical, "Pirates Of The Carribbean" movies, and yes, everybody's "American Idol". What's p.m. doing?

In conclusion, I don't feel I was any more of a "dick" in tone then you were in your article, however, as I recognize this is your blog and you can "say what you want", I will concede... content in the knowledge that any acknowledgement of p.m.'s "genius " is clearly an international minority.

Again, I do appreciate an intelligent debate... thanks! Overall, I enjoy your blog!

And "anonymous" is as "anonymous" does, "Flash Strap"!

(ps - I'm a grandMA)

Flash Strap said...

Somehow, I knew when I started publicly singing the praises of Paul that eventually someone would come at me swinging. Hating him is an American tradition. Here we go.

Okay... so McCartney is the inferior artist because of his oft-maligned commercial side, a position you seem to agree with; yet you hold up these old "sell-outs" (as it were) as heroes because they've managed to "make a living in today's youth-oriented (re: fickle) world". This is the very definition of commercial, and in my opinion, any involvement in "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and American Idol are embarrassing at best, desperate and soulless at worst. The Lion King may have its merits, and god bless Sir Elton, but if you ask me the songs are little better than treacle and quite a bit worse, even, than his usual inanities (not a fan of Bernie Taupin's gibberish, myself). What is Sir Paul doing? Not cashing in on his corporate bankability to make money he doesn't need? Doing what he wants because he can? I'll admit he released a Starbucks exclusive a few years ago (shameful, really), but he's also made three bizarro experimental albums, two of them in secret, as The Fireman. This might be called maintaining a shred of relevance and artistic vitality without worshiping your own legacy and beholding oneself to commercial obligations.

As to the Lennon-McCartney credit suit: I find judging an artist based on their various litigations (and misconstrued narratives that often surround them) to be a great way to misjudge character. The press is always quick to rewrite these stories- remember the McDOnald's coffee lady that everyone thought was such a needlessly litigious bitch? In truth, that coffee was superheated, melted her genitals off, and required extensive surgery. Just another example of a lie agreed upon, and a decent person villified. Here's two pieces of info to consider:

In the late 1990s, McCartney and Ono were in a dispute over the writing credits for a number of Beatles' songs. In 2002, the Paul McCartney live album "Back in the U.S." gave the writing credit to "Paul McCartney and John Lennon" on all of the Beatles' songs. McCartney had wanted to change the credits from the traditional Lennon/McCartney to 'Paul McCartney and John Lennon' for the song "Yesterday". McCartney claimed that he and Lennon had agreed in the past that the credits could be reversed, if either of them wanted to, on any future releases, but he later withdrew his request, saying "I'm happy with the way it is and always has been. Lennon and McCartney is still the rock 'n' roll trademark I'm proud to be a part of - in the order it has always been."- wiki (hey that didn't sound so bad!)

"Indeed, in Lennon’s last interviews he regained his love for the Beatles and what they had accomplished. Lennon also acknowledged that he had only had two true partners in his life, Paul and Yoko, and that he had chosen them quite well."
(Read more:

Flash Strap said...

Lennon is a genius and this has been decided. Okay, I acquiesce to agree (my only quibble is, to what extent he is a genius, and at the exclusion of which parties must this opinion be perpetuated). If you feel, as you clearly do, that the man is so endowed with genius, you must admit that he must know better than you, that he cannot be wrong to assign such importance to the works and collaborations of this scurrilous villain McCartney. Or do you truly believe that Paul is a mere flunky, that he is nothing without the majestic brilliance of Lennon? Think about you favorite Beatles songs- sorry, Paul wrote some of those. A lot of them. Some of the best ones, in fact, and not always with such enormous Lennon contributions that you can deny them as fortunate collaboration to the exclusion of all other factors. I wonder what you think of Lennon's other partner? Do you subscribe to the prevailing opinion that Yoko was a "bitch" who broke up the Beatles? Or the even more widespread opinion that her music is worthless screeching delivered by a shrewd, conniving hack? Does the relative unanimity of these beliefs mean to you that I am wrong to find her avant-garde albums to be thrillingly experimental and important? Has society decided that it is false to find her radical feminist songwriting groundbreaking and profound?

I'm sorry you felt I was dickish in the tone of my article. I feel I couched my mild criticisms of the Lennon legacy in fairly moderate language, and that they are well-founded. I don't believe one need assail Lennon to laud McCartney, but I believe a pinch of such stuff is more than acceptable (nearly necessary) considering how often we see the reverse. I'm sorry that some of the other grandmothers have ruined Paul's good stuff for you with their unseemly enthusiasm. It seems you've succumbed, long ago, to the trap of hating someone's art because you are annoyed by its fans. It is a constant struggle to resist such impulses- Bob Marley fans certainly ruined most Jamaican music for me for many years, but in the end I learned to be open-minded again. I read Nietzsche and Darwin, and listen to Wagner, even though Hitler liked them. Don't miss that forest for all those fuckin' trees.

And I wouldn't say I'm anonymous to you, exactly. If you read this blog then I would guess you know quite a lot about me. Not that I begrudge you your anonymity.

Anyway, good morning Grandma.

Holly said...

Y'know by many accounts, Lennon, unlike McCartney, was quite an a*hole in real life. Not that that should effect one's appraisal of the man's music, but it's still a point to be considered in your spirited debate.

I have always and continue to prefer Paul to John - at first, yes, because his looks were more appealing to my 8 year old sensibilities, later for less superficial reasons.

Plastic Ono Band is a masterpiece.

Yoko was and continues to be WAY ahead of her time.

That's all!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fascinating analysis of McCartney II. This was really a good read. I love this album, flaws and all.

And you're absolutely right about the sheer musical inventiveness of McCartney, which is way beyond Lennon. Let's face it: Lennon's solo career is pretty mediocre. One great album (Plastic Ono Band) and one good one (Imagine), a dozen or so great songs, and a whole lot of tired, uninspired work. Musically, in his solo career, Lennon did the same thing OVER and OVER for the 10 years of Lennon's solo career. He had no where to go, musically, without Paul. Sadly, it's Yoko's music that is far more inventive than Lennon's ever was. Compare Lennon's solo work to Paul's best: McCartney, Ram, McCartney II, Chaos and Creation, Electric Arguments. Those are all very different albums from one another. Paul's musical range and creativity is astonishing.

My only criticism of McCartney as a solo artist is the same one everyone has: He produced too much commercial crap in the 80s and 90s. He lost his muse for awhile, but he sure as hell has found it back in the 10 or 12 years.

That's why it's absolutely laughable that Ms. Anonymous brings up people like Steven Tyler. Seriously? He's done nothing interesting in music for decades. And the only interesting thing Elton John has done musically in 20 years is that album he just did with Leon Russell. Otherwise Elton's career lately is pretty much pap. And Keith Richards? Well, he needs a new schtick. Badly. But I did enjoy his book.

By contrast in the last decade or so Paul came out with four good-to-great albums: Flaming Pie, Run Devil Run, Chaos & Creation, and Electric Arguments. I'm not a big fan of Memory Almost Full but, hey, no one's perfect.

I can't believe we still have people coming on here attacking McCartney as somehow less of a "genius" than Lennon. Sad, really. And the anonymous attacker was wrong on a lot of counts: The credits dispute was never "laughed out of copyright court." It never even got that far. Where does she get her facts from? Thin air? And Paul only changed the credit on HIS songs. Not on John's. ... And when Paul put his name first on the credits of the Beatles songs he played on the live album Wings Over America in 1976, when John was STILL alive, John never cared anyway.

The interesting thing nowadays is that McCartney's early solo work is experiencing a renaissance as more and more young people discover McCartney I, Ram and McCartney II. It's been wonderful to see. And make no mistake, it's young people driving the interest in Paul's solo albums, since the old farts are too stuck in old ways of thinking (St. Lennon, Evil Paul).

Finally, I've actually been to a McCartney concert in the last year, and I've had friends attend many of his other shows. And we all saw the same thing: An audience that was mostly people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. So sorry, Ms. Anonymous, but you're totally wrong AGAIN! Few old folks go to concerts. But Paul was in the top 10 for concert revenues last year and the year before that. People are voting with their wallets because he puts on an AMAZING show.

-- M. Rosin

Holly said...

Flash -

Have you seen this?

Sophie said...

Thanks a lot for this great post. I love Paul's solo works and I agree that his creativity and versality are incredibly underrated. Most people just seem to dismiss all 40+ years of his solo career without having heard much of his records, simply because of a few silly love songs that became hits (not that there's anything inherently wrong with a catchy pop tune, anyway.) Keep preaching, the more people hear these songs the better.

Giuliana said...

I don't understand why people have to dismiss McCartney to praise Lennon, MCCARTNEY IS A MUSICAL GENIUS! Like Bob Dylan said "He can do it all. And he's never let up...he's just so damn effortless".
I saw him in concert this year and M. Rosin is right, most of the audience were young people, there were also older people and a good amount of children! who else can break that generational gap?
He's such a talented musician, singer and songwriter, it seems unjust for the rest of us simple human beings!
....and he's so amazing live!