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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: McCartney I II III Boxset
Darran Anderson , August 5th, 2022 06:26

Often under-appreciated or even derided in some quarters, this trilogy of self-titled albums is studded with gems and give us a clearer idea of who Paul McCartney actually is, says Darran Anderson

There are not many cases of revenants (one who returns from the dead) these days, but they are not completely unheard of. Elvis Presley was supposedly spotted at Legoland in California, Tupac in Cuba, Andy Kaufman in Albuquerque. These sightings are a modern iteration of an ancient phenomena, appearing in mythology, religious texts and recorded history – the bloody Time of Troubles in Russia, for example, was exacerbated by the appearance of three ‘False Dmitrys’, all claiming to be the departed heir to the Tsarist throne.

The dynamic is easy to understand – opportunism by cynical grifters, wishful thinking by grief-stricken followers, the power of hearsay and rumour. Less comprehensible are the occasions when someone certifiably living is alleged to be dead. Yet in the late 1960s, just after the release of Revolver, word got around that Paul McCartney, the Paul McCartney still appearing in the press and in public, had been killed in a car crash.

It’s tempting to dismiss the accusation as the ramblings of stoned deadbeats, which it was. Yet the more it was addressed – Beatle Denies He Is Dead – the deeper the conspiracists dug into fallacy and solipsism. These were the latter-day scholiasts, after all, who John Lennon had mocked with the inspired cryptic gibberish of ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Glass Onion’. Signs are everywhere, it turns out, if you’re in the sign-finding business.

The timing of ‘Paul is Dead’ was telling, however. It occurred at a transitional moment when the band were moving from making brilliant pop for teenagers to making self-consciously ground-breaking art, however tongue in cheek. This was a huge leap and arguably some were left behind or could never quite reconcile with who the band now appeared to be. This may also be true of the band itself. Having recorded previously unimaginable songs like 'Tomorrow Never Knows', 'Rain' and 'Eleanor Rigby', The Beatles went on a tour of North America belting out old Chuck Berry and Little Richard numbers. The fractures that would eventually shatter the group seem to have quietly started around this time.

More than this was what ‘Paul is Dead’ said about the living breathing Paul. No doubt the source of much discomfort for him, exposed to the adoring and withering public gaze, the controversy did point to an emerging duality. Some fans were evidently loath to leave behind the cute doe-eyed mop-top pin-up, crooning ‘Yesterday’ to shrieking girls, and accept the moustached neo-Victorian psychonaut of Sgt. Pepper's. A separation began to occur, not in the urban legend he’d died and been replaced by a Scottish doppelganger by the name of William Campbell/Billy Shears, as was claimed, but rather in his public image. A fracture was developing between a character called Macca and a man named McCartney, with the former eventually growing to eclipse the latter.

It's wise, sane even, to place a wall of persona between public life and private – it’s worked for Bowie, Tom Waits, Springsteen, Kate Bush and so on. Of such creations, Macca errs towards the uncool end of the spectrum – affable, certainly, but blighted with the thumbs-up, the patois, the music hall-influenced ‘granny music’ (as Lennon callously put it). At times, McCartney resembles a classic English comedy character with a similar balance of vulnerability and cringe (his Meat-free Mondays freestyle, for instance, is hypnotically terrible), which would be endearing were it not for the fact that they are essentially tragic trapped characters, hence the sympathy they command despite themselves. McCartney, by contrast, is gargantuanly successful however. Lacking the delusional though redeeming naivety and failure of Alan Partridge or David Brent, his bumbling nice guy image can come across as insincere, hiding a darker spikier figure, which is no doubt true; he’s a human being after all. The harder McCartney tries, emphasising his modest roots in Liverpool or his status as just one of the lads in the band, the more it seems to grate, which may say more of our cynicism than his. Certainly, the manufactured humility of Wings did him no favours, but this is still a self-taught artist who cut his teeth playing for hours on end on speed on the Reeperbahn, going on to change the world.

While it’s true McCartney needed the sardonic grounding and edginess of the other Beatles to balance his lean towards the mawkish, they needed him equally, being the only one, eventually earning the poisoned chalice of bandleader, who could pull them together for the albums they are famous for (the stitching on the Abbey Road medley alone is a thing of beauty). He’s struggled, which clearly bristles at times, to receive credit for this, partly because Macca keeps getting in his way. There are, at least, three occasions however where he’s managed to sneak past himself. Which begs the question, answered in this box-set, who is McCartney?

The joy of these albums, and they are joyful, despite and because of their flaws, is how playful they are. It must’ve been tempting for McCartney to bring out an ‘important’ work. It was McCartney who was into Stockhausen. He encouraged the other Beatles to use tape loops (the gulls on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ are his distorted laughter). He created the mysterious sound collage ‘Carnival Of Light’ for the Million Volt Light and Sound Rave. He helped fund the International Times and Indica Books. He insisted Jimi Hendrix appear at the Monterey Pop Festival and so on. And then he had to watch Harrison and Lennon overtake him in terms of countercultural credentials as, respectively, the mystic and the avant garde rebel of their slowly collapsing band, essentially because he wrote pretty songs (the proto-metal of ‘Helter Skelter’ was conveniently forgotten about).

Having already composed scores for screen and arrangements for other artists, it might have been expected that McCartney would release a leftfield symphonic extravaganza, showing his highbrow compositional talents. Instead, he did the opposite, creating the shambolic musical car boot sale of McCartney, which, as derided as it was at the time, heralded a new genre of music.

The roots of McCartney go back to one of the highest peaks of psychedelia, the aforementioned ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. One of the remarkable things about this still-staggering track is that its composer John Lennon was disappointed with it, lamenting that it didn’t match up with the thousand Tibetan monks on a mountaintop he had chanting in his LSD-altered mind. The perspectives acid opened came with a price, for some, and there’s evidence that suggests had Lennon not curtailed his usage he would have ended up traversing the same tragic route as Syd Barrett and Peter Green. With the most talented practitioners of psychedelia frazzled by over-indulgence of hallucinogens, the style began to slip into day-glo bubble-gum normie ‘I can smell the rainbows’ pastiche. There was also the weight of expectation and perfectionism, which manifested as a kind of vertigo; from the heights of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘A Day In The Life’, it must have felt like the only way was down.

The way forward was, it turned out, through a subterranean route – namely Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes bootlegs, and the latter’s Music From Big Pink, which brought about a roots revival. There was a healthy earthy sense of imperfection to these albums. It was suddenly ok, in fact characterful, to make mistakes, to be authentically sloppy, to have music that was well-worn and dusty rather than symphonic and multidimensional.

You can hear the change of course throughout The White Album, which is true to its original conception of A Doll’s House, full of haunted little rooms and dark corners, treasures and detritus. And you can hear it in McCartney, the soul of which is encapsulated in the serene melancholic nostalgia of ‘Junk’, a song written during that earlier album. A credible contender for the first mainstream lo-fi album, McCartney’s debut is an album filled with junk, half-formed songs, throwaway tunes, melodic thumbnail sketches that begin with studio chatter and end abruptly, written and recorded not in grandiose studios but on a Scottish farm and in a room in St John’s Wood. Recorded on a four-track, it is an album that demonstrates the power of lowering expectations, of finding substance in the insubstantial, of the freedom of limitation.

It was loathed, of course. You can begin to see why with the syrupy intro of ‘The Lovely Linda’ except the song is no longer what it used to be. Once, it would have been as risible as infatuated young lovers can be to anyone unfortunate enough not to be them. Now though, knowing the arc of their relationship and how McCartney ultimately lost her, the song is unexpectedly moving; grief and time have added a patina. ‘Junk’ and its ‘Singalong’ instrumental are small gems, and while ‘That Would Be Something’ is mannered, its casual drawl is more convincing than most of The Beatles’ later attempts at blues. The weakest of the instrumentals ‘Hot As Sun’ sounds like the theme tune to a forgotten end of the pier sitcom. ‘Valentine Day’ is an improvement, with its pleasing Crazy Horse-esque scuzziness, though it’s still lightweight. The best, ‘Momma Miss America’, was improvised there and then, a swampy twelve-bar blues embellished into a psychedelic groove in the manner of The Beatles’ instrumental ‘Flying’ or The Small Faces title track to Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake. Inspired by a tribal hunt, ‘Kreen-Akrore’ is an unusual curio but ultimately the hunt seems to be for a tune, and it comes back empty-handed.

Songs recognisable as songs on McCartney are few but strong. ‘Every Night’ seems to capture McCartney’s psychological state at the time, torn between anxious despair about the coming demise of The Beatles, the illusion of consolation drink brings, and heartfelt love for his young family. Its languid swoon is more akin to his erstwhile partner Lennon and his songs like ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ and ‘I’m So Tired’, and it points to McCartney’s lasting influence not just on lo-fi but the meticulous chamber pop of Elliott Smith and co. The hoedown of ‘Man We Was Lonely’ is rescued by a delicate romantic verse, but ultimately it’s the sheer brass balls of putting together what sounds like a collection of half-baked b-sides in the face of monumental expectations, and next to Lennon’s devastatingly expressive John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Harrison’s opulent All Things Must Pass, that has to be admired in hindsight. The exception was ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’. As the one song that would have unquestionably featured on the great lost Beatles album, it stands out as an anomaly here, bursting with openhearted passion and vulnerability. It’s a perfect song. In the end, the fragmented form of McCartney brought disdain but so too did its themes of ‘home, family, love’ which were deemed insufferably bourgeois by, naturally, the bourgeois press. McCartney was committing the mortal sin of getting older in an industry geared towards cultivating a cult of disposable youth. There were even worrying signs in his music, terminal perhaps, that McCartney might even be happy.

It says something about McCartney’s contrary side that he returned in 1980 with a follow-up to his largely dismissed solo debut. The timing was notable for being similarly troubled. Wings was coming to a merciful end, the pomp of the ‘Rockestra Theme’ being the final straw. Following a spell in a Japanese jail cell for possession of weed, McCartney decided to release recordings he'd made the previous year, noodling around with a new generation of equipment, most notably synths, and the initially unwanted future classic McCartney II was born. In recent years, it’s been critically rehabilitated by a ton of artists and everyone who’s ever listened to BBC 6 Music.

In truth, it’s another rattlebag that just about wins through on charm and elan, with the occasional robotic innovation in the background. It starts strong with ‘Coming Up’, a gleefully buoyant new wave-tinged soul song, which could stand next to the Talking Heads, Devo or B-52s of the time, and legend has it shamed John Lennon into coming out of early retirement.

‘Temporary Secretary’ follows; a striking tune way ahead of its time but one that nevertheless struggles to fulfil the grand claims made for it, not least the invention of techno. The finest moments on McCartney II are undoubtedly the more electronic ones rather than the blues mimicries or the McCartney-by-numbers ballad ‘One of These Days’. ‘Front Parlour’ has something of a Stereolab feel while the hymnal ‘Summer’s Day Song’ is like Elgar conducting ‘Warszawa’. The lamentably titled ‘Frozen Jap’ aims for the self-contained type of sound painting that Bowie accomplished with say ‘Crystal Japan’ or ‘Moss Garden’. While initially slight, ‘Waterfalls’ has an appealingly icy musical treatment and note of emotional desperation to it. The problems arise when McCartney mixes too-novel with too-familiar, such as the echobilly of ‘Bogey Music’ which is as welcome as meeting Shakin’ Stevens in the k-hole or having a bad trip in Elvis’ bathroom.

Regrettably, some of the best work for McCartney II never made the album and requires searching beyond the original albums. Richard Niles’ lushly orchestrated ‘Blue Sway’ is a lounge-exotica track that sees McCartney believably reborn as an 80s soul singer. Even better is its original demo version which, though coupled to the unlistenable experiment of ‘All You Horse Riders’, is an astonishing deep cut, a groove of such absolute filth, conjuring up everything from Kraftwerk to Thundercat, listeners could lose themselves within it. ‘Secret Friend’ meanwhile is at least as innovative as ‘Temporary Secretary’ and considerably less irritating; a tune that could have respectably come out on Warp or Ninja Tune in the 1990s. They are an indication that for all his many talents (some of which, like his bass-playing, are still undervalued), McCartney’s quality control is his Achille’s Heel. Only the brave or foolhardy would venture through the discography of Wings, for instance, without being tethered to a rope for emergency extraction. Yet it's tempting to venture beyond this pristine collection to find where else he managed to lose himself.

Arriving again at a time of troubles (recorded during lockdown, or ‘rockdown’ as McCartney termed it, sending a chill wind through the soul), McCartney III completes the trilogy. The goodwill shown towards it is justified but is also a sign that it’s not the disruptive proposition its predecessors were. McCartney is perhaps too polished a performer now or the technology is too slick for it to contain many surprises. Nonetheless, it opens with remarkable exuberance. As profound as the late Johnny Cash recordings were, there have been so many imitators equating a cracked voice and a weathered face with deep existential meaning and pathos that it’s refreshing when McCartney opens with the one-two punch of ‘Long Tailed Winter Bird’ and ‘Find My Way’, tunes that would fit contemporaries like Jack White and Beck respectively.

McCartney III is an album that wears its sources on its sleeve. He revisits The Beatles’ formative influence Lead Belly on ‘Women And Wives’ and nods to his old partner’s ‘Polythene Pam’ on ‘Lavatory Lil’, which along with ‘Slidin’ is another White Stripes/Black Keys-influenced track. ‘The Kiss Of Venus’ was inspired by A Little Book Of Coincidence In The Solar System by John Martineau, while you can hear Bowie and the Spiders of Mars on ‘Seize The Day’ and even the prospect of Lou Reed wrapping a New York accent around ‘Pretty Boys’. The highpoint, ‘Deep Deep Feeling’, is a remarkable cavern of sound constructed around a simple heartfelt confessional.

McCartney III is an album where you can hear when, where, and why it was made in the music itself, which makes it a historical document of some description, like its predecessors. It’s an album that closes a circle. What they tell us about McCartney, in their experiments, pastiches, mistakes and intimacies, is a kind of Rorschach Test that says more about the viewer and what they believe is cool or redundant, and beyond, than perhaps it does the subject. Yet there is revelation to be found in the actions someone undertakes alone and for themselves, away from the theatre of ego. There is more to be learned perhaps of artists in their doodles than in their masterpieces. By their junk, ye shall know them.

Listening to the trilogy, I kept thinking of McCartney’s beloved artist René Magritte, who inspired the Beatles company Apple with his paintings. How stiff Magritte appeared and yet how simultaneously funny, forlorn and inventive he managed to be in his work, not in spite of his appearance but because of its disguise; as his fellow Surrealist Louis Aragorn put it, “A lightning flash is smouldering beneath the bowler hats.” Sometimes finding that irreverent brilliance requires searching, piecing together, looking beneath what and who we think we know.

McCartney I II III is out now