After the dissolution of both his bands, first the Beatles and then Wings, Paul McCartney closed himself into a studio to work on solo productions, with varying results.
Taken together, McCartney and McCartney II — newly repackaged as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection series from MPL and Concord Music Group, and arriving today in Britain and on Tuesday in the U.S. — show a willingness to strip down what had become a varnished sound. After all, Paul was coming off huge productions in the form of 1969′s Abbey Road with the Beatles and 1979′s Back to the Egg with Wings. But there is a broad disparity, more pronounced than ever, in how these recordings have aged.
McCartney comes off as more organic, a simpler expression — like someone trying to work out his own sound. McCartney II was, truth be told, fatally hobbled from the first by Paul’s own poor mechanics with the synthesizers he chose to experiment with throughout. He was, it’s clear, trying to tap into the new-wave zeitgest. But this didn’t pass for innovation back in 1980, and today McCartney II sounds at times laughably dated — no matter the improved sonics in the new reissue.
Really, though, neither is a complete success. Left to his own devices, McCartney can be, by turns, a reasonable facsimile of his hitmaking self (“Maybe I’m Amazed,” “Every Night,” and “That Would Be Something” from his much-stronger 1970 debut; “Coming Up” and “One of These Days” from II) then a touch too comfy (“Junk” and “Teddy Boy” from McCartney; “Waterfalls” and “Summer’s Day Song” from the 1980 release). He’ll toss off an interestingly gritty rocker (McCartney‘s “Oo You” and II‘s underrated “On The Way”) and then do something stunningly reckless with his gift and his loyal audience (“Kreen-Akore” is unlistenable; “Temporary Secretary” is worse). For all of his talents, his best work has often come when there was someone to bounce things off of, be that Lennon or Martin, Costello or Laine.
All of this is, of course, well-covered ground — even if there are a few notable moments of clarity with the new remasters. (During a shined-up “That Would Be Something,” you appreciate all over again Paul’s now-largely forgotten ability to turn in a nasty little groove. McCartney’s acoustic is moved up on “Waterfalls,” imbuing the song with a new emotional punch.) So, our attention inevitably turns to the extras meant to convince us that rebuying things like McCartney II — I mean, I already have it on eight-track, right? — is a worthwhile endeavor.
The live version of “Coming Up,” recorded with Wings at Glasgow, Scotland in 1979 during their final tour, is a required addition — since that’s actually the hit version, a Billboard No. 1 in June 1980. But, it was also included on the 1993 reissue of II, along with “Check My Machine” and “Secret Friend,” originally released as the B-sides to “Waterfalls” and “Temporary Secretary” respectively. “Blue Sway,” which we talked about late last week, is perhaps the best of the additional new tracks from McCartney II — if only for its amazing new underwater video. “Bogey Wobble” sounds like someone banging on a broken keyboard. “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” boasts a passably intriguing psychedelia. “All You Horse Riders” is simply Paul screwing around. “Wonderful Christmastime” (now a perennial holiday-radio earworm) had previously been included on reissues of Back to the Egg, probably because the video featured other members of Wings, but it was actually recorded during these one-man sessions and finds its proper home on this project.
McCartney, perhaps unsurprisingly, fares better in this regard, as well. There’s a redo of “Maybe I’m Amazed” from One Hand Clapping, a too-long unreleased documentary that followed Wings at work at Abbey Road studios in 1974. (The band later had a Top 10 hit with a live version of the song in 1976, using a similar arrangement.) “Every Night,” “Hot as Sun” (sped up to the point of sounding like a country tune) and “Maybe I’m Amazed” also get full-band performances from Wings’ performance at Glasgow, as well. Outtakes include a couple of throwaways — a honky tonky piano goof “Women Kind” and a full-length version of a snippet originally used to end of “Hot as Sun/Glasses.” Then, there’s an interesting early version of the coiled rocker “Oo You” called “Don’t Cry Baby.”