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Paul together now
Re-evaluating 1980's wonderfully wacky 'McCartney II'
'McCartney II' was so named because 1970's 'McCartney' - issued immediately post-Beatles - was also a strictly one-man show. But the similarities end there.

How popular music has changed. When Paul McCartney released the McCartney II album, in the summer of 1980, it was reviewed as the weakest and most self-indulgent record he'd ever made.

And that, considering the always-prodigious ex-Beatle's output, was saying a lot.

Reissued this month, and retro-fitted with a second CD's worth of session outtakes, McCartney II can now be taken out of its original context and appreciated for what it is: An experimental record, full of fun, with unexpected left turns and delightfully bizarre little excursions.

And, perhaps most significantly, decades ahead of its time.

McCartney made the record at home in ‘79, playing every instrument himself and singing every vocal. He'd just bought some new toys, including a 16-track recording deck, a bank of synthesizers and a curious machine called a sequencer, which allowed strings of computer-generated musical notes to be programmed and played back in custom-made loops.

It seems McCartney was making electronica long before the word had been coined. So many British artists - from Radiohead to Gorillaz - clearly took notice of this album.

McCartney II has a couple of reasonably straightforward, "pop"-type songs, "Waterfalls" and "One of These Days," both of which would have fit onto any late-period Wings album (the band officially dissolved shortly after this record's release).

"Summer's Day Song," too, has a gorgeous melody - McCartney never could help himself - but every note of the otherwordly music is played on a mellotron, one of music's first "artificial" keyboards. Like the Beatles classic "Strawberry Fields Forever," the mellotron here is on the "flute" setting, which gives the song a melancholy, almost funereal air.

"Coming Up," which simultaneously became a No. 1 hit in a live, Wings version issued independently from this album, is a skittery dance tune. McCartney plays standard guitar, bass and drums, but adds computer-generated horns (which sound more like a chorus of alien kazoos), and sped-up background vocals.

The meat of the album, though, is the electronic stuff. "Temporary Secretary" bips and bops at a furious pace, the syncopated synthesizer burping and squawking a simple mechanical pattern over a ruthless drum machine, and under McCartney's almost atonal vocal lines.

It's a throbber. In 1980, when somebody wanted to tell you that McCartney II was a torturous listen, "Temporary Secretary" was inevitably the song they mentioned.

Twenty years on, as the electronica movement flourished, it became an enormous popular hit amongst trendy London clubs DJs.

There are several instrumentals on McCartney II, all of them performed on some sort of synthesizer (with the added acoustic guitar or standard drum track here and there). "Front Parlour" and "Frozen Jap" feature delightfully catchy melodies (the latter presaged Kraftwek's similar "Computer Love" by a year).

"Check My Machine" (issued in '81 as a B-side and included here on the bonus disc) is just what the name implies - it was the first track recorded. For five minutes, McCartney sings the title phrase, along with some clearly made-up-on-the-spot lyrics, over a bizarre but insanely catchy techno-reggae shuffle.

"Bogey Music" is truly odd - it's another nonsensical lyric, with tribal drumming, synthesized horns and electric guitar that sounds as if it's playing in an entirely different key.

And while "On the Way" is a one-man blues, "Nobody Knows" is a demented rockabilly, thumping along at double-speed. "Nobody Knows" is exactly what Lindsay Buckingham was doing on those little home-made tracks he put on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album around the same time.

Buckingham's songs are considered, to this day, high-water marks in professional home recording. McCartney, who did it first, was slammed for it.

Some of the most engaging songs are on the second disc. At 10:30, "Secret Friend" is the longest track by far, but it's a deeply hypnotic (and melodic) journey into the heart of Latin exotica - the synths and electronic rhythms beautifully balanced with castanets, maracas and spooky little artificially-produced mambo horn lines.

For what it's worth, "Wonderful Christmastime," cut at the sessions, is included as well.

On "All You Horseriders," "Mr. H. Atom" and "You Know I'll Get You Baby," McCartney indulges his love for funny voices and nonsense lyrics - you can tell he's just having a blast in his home studio, making stuff up. "Bogey Wobble" is pure synth-disco - lustrous, joyful and utterly without any point other than making the listener smile. And dance, maybe.

Had he released it under a pseudonym, as he did later for his experimental collaborations with Youth (as The Fireman) or DJ Hellraiser (as Twin Freaks), McCartney might have escaped the venomous reception McCartney II received. And more than 30 years of abject dismissal.

Coming as it did between mainstream music releases - Wings' Back to the Egg and the brilliant solo album Tug of War - there was never the slightest chance McCartney II could have flown in under the radar.

After three decades, however, its charms are easily appreciable.