As the productive ex-Beatle prepares for yet another career departure, expanded slices of his 70s recordings come back to life. Graham Reid reports.
In a few months Sir James Paul McCartney will premiere another new classical work, an orchestral piece for the New York City Ballet entitled Oceans Kingdom. This from the guy who wrote Maxwell's Silver Hammer and sang his lungs out on the Little Richard-styled I'm Down?
Wee Paul from the 'pool, you've come a long way, lad.
And especially when you consider how modest the beginnings of his solo career were.
McCartney's first solo album in April 1970 came as the Beatles were falling apart and its release announced the end. Not the album itself (there had ben solo Beatle projects before it), but the press handout with it in which he asked and answered his own questions. Among them, "Will the Beatles ever work together again?" His answer: "I do not foresee a time when the Lennon & McCartney partnership will be active again in song writing."
That threw attention, expectation and pressure on the album, simply entitled McCartney.
Weary of the ongoing Beatle battle, McCartney had opted for something modest and low-key. He recorded at home, playing every instrument himself, with wife Linda on harmony vocals. The short running time of many pieces - the instrumental Valentine Day and Junk especially, and The Lovely Linda, a mere 43 seconds - suggested these were fragments rather than finished songs.
There were, however, unpolished gems: Every Night about just wanting to stay at home has a light touch; Teddy Boy is charming; and Junk written two years previous has a tired and reflective feel about things lost. The last two the Beatles had passed up.
The fully realised Maybe I'm Amazed is the standout, and on the instrumentals Hot As Sun/Glasses, the edgy Momma Miss America and the peculiarly percussive Kreen-Akrore (with cheap effects) you can hear him itching to stretch into new areas, which he would subsequently do.
McCartney was always going to exist in the shadow of the Beatles but it offers small charms, two or three fine songs and those unusual instrumentals.
At the end of that decade - after Wings had taken flight with Band on the Run but was now faltering - McCartney released another album of solo home recordings, McCartney II conceived in similar circumstances. Wings, like the Beatles before it, was over for McCartney.
The album seemed patchy, but Coming Up is still a snazzy piece of disco-edged Talking Heads-influenced jerky pop; Temporary Secretary and Darkroom are more oddball pop (clearly he'd heard Devo), there are some equally peculiar instrumentals (Front Parlour, Frozen Jap) and Waterfalls boasts one of his prettiest tunes.
One of These Days is a gentle ballad with weary but optimistic lyrics, Bogey Music is a knees-up inspired by the Fungus the Bogeyman book, On the Way is a minimal, almost bluesy track and Nobody Knows wouldn't sound out of place on some indie band album.
McCartney II has aged well and even grown in stature.
These two albums have been expanded to double discs with live recordings (among them the superior version of Coming Up from a Glasgow gig that topped the US charts), unreleased outtakes and bonus tracks. (Secret Friend with McCartney II is a 10-minute studio experiment, which anticipated his later ambient work with producer Youth as The Fireman).
They also come in deluxe editions with a DVD, booklet and much more (vinyl, too) for the true aficionado.
For these deliberately low-key albums McCartney's craftsmanship sometimes went under-polished and he required a tough-minded editor or writing partner to rein in his sentimentality.
But across these impressive reissues are some fine songs - and not always the familiar ones.
When McCartney takes a bow after his ballet, it would be fun if someone yelled, "Play Bogey Music."
McCartney, Special Edition
McCartney II, Special Edition
Verdict: McCartney in his modest projects can be quite endearing if selectively sampled, but more impressive when expanded.