After finally hearing the deluxe edition "Archive Collection" multi-disc set honoring Sir Paul McCartney's 1980 second solo album -- his first non-band effort since 1971's RAM, and something of a companion piece to his first solo effort after leaving The Beatles -- I really think that he did himself a disservice by naming the album McCartney II.
Sure, the album was recorded in a similar fashion to that classic first release from 1970, simply called McCartney. And sure Paul played all the parts on it. However, the similarities end there.
Paul was in a very different time and space making this record, experimenting with drum machines, synthesizers and early sequencers, technology which would become de rigeur in the years ahead. At the time, some of it sounded positively alien coming from the world of Paul McCartney.
Had the album been named something like "Check My Machine " -- the name of one of the bonus tracks and B-sides -- it might have made much more sense as the experimental sonic departure it was/is. That said, in 20/20 hindsight, McCartney II has aged remarkably well, with some tracks sounding remarkably fresh. The quirky technotronics of "Temporary Secretary" reveal a nifty little synth pop track delivered with appropriately Beatlesque flair. The big hit "Coming Up" sounds almost classic now in retrospect, though at the time many of us fans aching for a return to "Beatle Paul" sounding records lamented the end of an era as the decade turned.
We were wrong, however. Sir Paul was just going through a creative transition, one of many he would go through in the future.
Seriously though, if this had been the first in his later series of albums under the Firemen moniker, it would have made more sense to some of us. Regardless of what we thought, the public did respond, sending the album to #1 in the UK and #3 in the US (according to the Wiki). Be forewarned some of these bonus tracks on discs two and three ramble on a bit, but then, that IS why they are archival bonus tracks! It is very cool to hear how Sir Paul was most definitely listening to the electronic music emerging at that time from the likes of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream ("Front Parlour," "Frozen Jap"). He was also no doubt aware of the raw punk rock movement around him as evidenced by the previously unreleased "Mr. H Atom/You Know I'll Get You Baby" -- this track has a hysterical spoken word intro where Sir Paul announces "Shangri La's Vs. The Village People" before launching into a cheesy rave up of sorts. The song doesn't quite sound like either of course and ends up like a half-baked comic book parody of The Runaways or The Ramones. There is a reason it remained unreleased but still it is fun to hear Paul (and probably Linda) messing around with the DIY aesthetic of punk.
As it stands, I was pleased to explore McCartney II and was pleasantly surprised how much better it sounded than I remembered. I honestly hadn't played my original LP too much and the subsequent UK Parlophone pressing I'd picked up a few years ago didn't get as much time on my turntable as it should have for numerous reasons going on in my life. For purposes of this review, I only compared to the Parlophone pressing which sounds terrific with punchy lows, crisp but not overly angular highs and that special sound Sir Paul achieved by recording from microphones plugged directly in to the back of the Studer 16-track analogue tape recorder.
The three CDs in the set sound adequate and good as CDs are probably going to sound. There was a very definite digital crunch to the sound in comparison to the LP. However, the GOOD things about getting the deluxe edition set is that you get high resolution (96 kHz, 24-bit) downloads of the entire collection (both in "Limited" and "Un-limited" formats, as they did on the RAM box set as well -- I only bothered listening to the Unlimited versions which, according to liner notes "retain the dynamic range of the original master recording"). While I haven't had a chance to do more formal A/B comparison, I did notice that the high res files sound much warmer than the CD and closer in feel to the original Parlophone pressing.
As one would hope and expect from high resolution files of this sort...
The DVD which comes with the deluxe edition of McCartney II is enlightening and fun! It includes a curious interview segment ("Meet Paul McCartney") with 1980-era Sir-Paul-to-be being questioned by Andrew Lloyd Weber lyricist /collaborator and soon-to be Sir Tim Rice (in fabulous lime green suede boots, I might add!). The interview underscores the loose nature of this album and is thus important for putting it into perspective. The DVD is nice to give us good quality copies of the videos for "Coming Up" (both the brilliant studio version with an entire band made entirely of Paul and Linda and the rollicking live version from The Concert for the People of Kampuchea and even a rehearsal!), "Waterfalls" and "Wonderful Christmastime." Some of the films on the DVD are very archival in nature and could use some restoration work as the original films have faded a lot -- they do warn us at the beginning of the DVD! Accordingly, I have no issues with these clips not being put on a Blu-ray. The DVD format is more than adequate for films of this vintage and limited resolution.
The best part of the DVD is the "Making of Coming Up" mini documentary where Paul narrates his inspiration for the characters in the video. In it he confirms that the Strat player is actually supposed to be Hank Marvin from The Shadows (not Buddy Holly) and curiously the keyboard player is indeed supposed to be Ron Mael from Sparks (I can only imagine how Mr. Mael felt when he saw an ex-Beatle mimicking and humorously parodying his character in a promo film!). I won't spoil the rest of Paul's narrative for you -- its a fun one to see.
So the big question some of you must be asking is, like I did, do I really "need" all this sort of microscopic view into McCartney II or is the original album enough? I would say that if you are a hardcore fan of Macca, you'll want to get this... especially given the more reasonable pricing currently. For about $40 you get three CDs and a DVD and a lush, beautifully laid out and photographed hardbound book to explore. That is a great deal and a fine way to explore this often overlooked period in Sir Paul's career. If you just want the album, then keep an eye out for the UK pressings on Parlophone which sounds real nice and you can probably find it for a fair price these days.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written: www.dialthemusical.com.