Remember When: Paul McCartney Was His Own Backing Band on ‘McCartney II’

In the summer of 1979, Paul McCartney set about working on his first new solo music in nearly a decade. Wings released Back to the Egg in June, and the album went Platinum in just a few weeks. But the singer and bassist now showed interest in some leisurely music making. Unbeknownst to him, this unusual arrangement would later influence many musicians who decided that they didn’t need to go into a studio setting to get their music done.

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“I was a little bit fed up of doing a studio album and going in and working very correctly and properly,” McCartney told Australian TV show Countdown in August 1980.

Back to the Egg had taken over half a year to record, and the members of Wings needed a break. “I started off by hiring a [recording] machine off of one of the lads here [at Abbey Road Studios] which was a very simple thing where I just plugged directly into the back and could just record myself without being too technical,” McCartney said. “And I just started making up bits and pieces just for my own amusement. I was gonna keep it two weeks but it ended up being six weeks, and I was going to just do a couple of tracks but ended up being about 18. So in the end, I played it to a couple of people and they said, ‘That’s your next album, isn’t it?’ I said, ‘No, not really. It’s just for my own amusement.’ They said, ‘No, that’s your next album.’ So I said, ‘All right.’”

After he recorded the music that would become his second solo album, Wings went on to a 19-date UK tour at the end of 1979. Little did fans know that would be their last series of concerts ever with the original core trio of Paul and Linda McCartney and guitarist/vocalist Denny Laine. Their final show was on December 29 at London’s Hammersmith Odeon as part of the Concerts for the People of Kampuchea.

Clipping Wings

Wings intended to tour Japan in January 1980—100,000 fans bought tickets for shows in three cities—but McCartney was busted for marijuana possession at the airport and detained on drug charges. He spent 10 days in jail there and was released without charge. In April 1981, Laine quit Wings because of McCartney’s decision to halt their touring, which some speculated came about in the wake of John Lennon’s assassination four months earlier. However, they did work together on McCartney’s next two solo albums Tug of War and Pipes of Peace, and then, sadly, they would never perform together again. (Laine died last December.)

McCartney had new music ready to go in May 1980 when he released McCartney II, which truly launched his solo career that continues today. The bubbly “Coming Up” shot to No. 1 in the U.S. and Canada, No. 2 in the UK, Norway, Australia, and New Zealand, and No. 3 in Ireland. (Wings actually played the song in full band mode on their final UK tour.) The next two singles, the ballad “Waterfalls” and the electro-quirky “Temporary Secretary,” did not chart in America, but the former went Top 10 in the UK, Ireland, and Norway. McCartney II went to No. 3 in America and sold 500,000 copies, and it also hit No. 1 in the UK.

Critical reception to the album was mixed as McCartney experimented with new wave and synth pop sounds on tracks like “Front Parlour” and “Darkroom.” And why not? He also used a sequencer for the arpeggiated part on “Temporary Secretary.” It’s been suggested that “Darkroom” features little percussive bits that are very early examples of what would become known as drum and bass in the ‘90s.

A One-Man Band

McCartney II was an unusual work for him because he played every instrument himself, just as he had on his first solo album in 1970—but back then, he just had a four-track recorder. Here, he was the singer, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist/synth brass, and drummer, so when it came time to do the video for the funky “Coming Up,” he decided to take a clever approach. Nearly everyone in the band on the multilevel stage of the video was portrayed by him. The only exception was his wife Linda, who appeared as a backup singer and as a male backup singer next to her.

Various members of the video’s 11-piece “Plastic Macs” band, played by McCartney, paid homage to different musicians: the keyboardist looked like Ron Mael from Sparks; one guitarist like Hank Marvin of The Shadows (although one might also think Buddy Holly); at least one sax player invoked Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay; the sax player out of step with everyone else slightly resembled Frank Zappa (but it’s not his instrument); the drummer a bit like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham, who died in late September of that year; and the bassist like an early Beatlemania version of himself.

Given the fact digital video effects had not come into play and the various musicians he portrayed were combined into the same shot, the clip looks pretty good for the time and used state of the art technology to make it all blend fluidly. It’s nearly 45 years later, and the sense of joy and fun that McCartney radiated then still shines through in the video today.

After the success of this album, the former Beatle would go on to launch his long running and successful solo career. McCartney II was an unusual experiment for the singer and bassist that inspired modern synth-poppers Hot Chip, and back then it reportedly encouraged his old bandmate/rival John Lennon to get back into the studio. The album also carved a path for future musicians who wanted to work in a more intimate setting (i.e. home) and at their own pace. These days, with studio technology being so small and portable and affordable, there are plenty of bedroom maestros out there.

Yet when it comes to making it big, aspiring rock stars still have to do what The Beatles initially did—play out live, a lot. It’s something McCartney still does today, but now, as when he recorded his second solo album, it’s for his own pleasure.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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