For Paul McCartney, what began with the tape loop exploration of Tomorrow Never Knows in 1966, would arguably reach its zenith some 14 years later on McCartney II, arguably the most experimental of the former Beatle’s commercial successes, and a snapshot of the myriad of genres bubbling under the surface in the post punk period of the late 70s and early 80s.
The album, recorded during the summer of 1979 at McCartney’s home, came out shortly before the dissolution of his band Wings, and the sessions are perhaps best known for producing Wonderful Christmastime, which was released in November 1979 (his first solo single since 1971). The album followed in May 1980.
McCartney II didn’t feature Wonderful Christmastime; rather it was a smorgasbord of rock, post punk, new wave, synth-pop and a variety of yet-to-be defined genres, the breadth of which was truly revealed in 2011 with the release of an extended edition of the album, which contained some fascinating cuts – more on which later.
“I really just was fascinated with these things called synthesizers which had appeared on the scene – particularly with sequencers, I loved them,” McCartney told The Quietus in 2011, in an interview about the recording of McCartney II. “It was new technology and I just wanted to see what it was all about, and have a go, and see what I could do with it.
“Because the nice thing for me is, you do an album like that and it informs other stuff. It keeps your brain fresh so that when you go and do something else, a tour or something, you may not be playing that stuff but you’ve got the feeling of being someone who’s not finished yet.
Arguably the best known cult track from McCartney II is Temporary Secretary, underpinned by an incredible ARP sequencer riff, described by NME magazine as “wonky electropop that didn’t sound so much ahead of its time as out of it altogether.”
Or, as the LA Times put it in 2015, to mark the track’s 35th anniversary, describing it as the ultimate DJ secret weapon, “It’s the electronic tones that draw the ears all these years later. Though on first listen the song seems like a stoned McCartney toss-off or a desperate attempt to compete with emerging synth-pop trailblazers Kraftwerk, Giorgio Moroder and Gary Numan’s Tubeaway Army, there’s something about “Secretary” that sticks.”
Stereogum recently asked 80 artists to pick their favourite McCartney track to celebrate the Beatle’s 80th birthday, with two artists citing Temporary Secretary as their all time fave. Pakistani artist Arooj Aftab recalled how when he first heard it, he “immediately thought I was listening to Aphex Twin, or some underground electronic artist with a moniker that had more webdings than letters”, while Chicago musician Circuit Des Yeux, pointed out McCartney’s ability to incorporate “mysterious messages left behind into your own art. Bringing home unique snippets trapped in sound, and reincorporating it and not setting boundaries for himself. He tried everything fearlessly.”
Elsewhere in the same article, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh suggests that Temporary Secretary is a tribute to the legendary Ohio’s band’s work. “Paul had been a Devo head,” he said. “As a matter of fact, he heard our Private Secretary song and then he did his ‘Temporary Secretary’ and he used a Midwestern accent when he sang it. I thought that was interesting.”
Later, Newcastle-based DJ Riton would sample the same melody on his version of the track, released in 2017. 909originals would also suggest that a band like Hot Chip owes a lot to Temporary Secretary’s warped synth wanderings.
As mentioned earlier, arguably the jewels in McCartney II‘s electronic crown would remain hidden for another three decades or so, only coming to light with the release of an expanded edition in 2011.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on two of these… although Check My Machine, which as The Quietus notes, sounds a lot like Gorillaz (and has a title that evokes the Beastie Boys), also deserves an honourable mention.
First up, we would argue that the track Bogey Wobble is the closest that any Beatle ever came to emulating Kraftwerk, a three minute voyage through downtown Dusseldorf that wouldn’t be out of place on the B-side of David Bowie’s Low or the soundtrack of Christiane F (if the latter had a slightly happier ending).
“Squint a little and these wibble-wobble soundscapes could almost be the work of contemporary Warp signings,” as The Quietus put it.
This is followed on the re-released McCartney II by an arguably even more impressive sonic voyage, the full-length (ten and a half minutes!) mix of Secret Friend, which evokes the work of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Brian Eno and is more Battles than Beatles.
If Lennon and McCartney had kept some brown acid left over from the late 60s and returned to the studio ten years on for a synth-driven Beatles retrospective, this is something they might have come up with… the fact that McCartney is doing this by himself is all the more remarkable.
As the track’s wispy, ethereal lyrics intone, “Here we are/Where are we/Cast adrift on some uncharted sea…”
Asked whether McCartney was trying to channel Kraftwerk during the production of McCartney II, he told The Quietus, “There wasn’t anything on that album directly influenced. I do have a spongelike ear or mentality or whatever you call it, but it’s probably a bit subconscious. It was more a question of I knew who Kraftwerk were, but I didn’t have their records. I would just hear it and see it and read about it, so I kind of knew what they were doing.
“And I knew obviously that this equipment, this new technology had arrived. But rather than me emulating anyone, it was more a question of me seeing what I could do with it. And again, not necessarily thinking I was making an album, just to have some time to experiment.”
For anyone that thought McCartney hit his experimental pop peak with The Frog Chorus, the expanded edition of McCartney II is definitely worth a listen. The fact that these tracks are more than 40 years old shows how the former mop top has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to era-defining moments of genius. Fab indeed.