Paul Plays Synths: When Classic Rockers Embraced the New Wave

In 1980 rock’s biggest stars confronted disco and punk — for better and for worse

By Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Set the clock back to the summer of 1980, when Billy Joel’s new hit knocked Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” off the top of the charts. Billy looked out on the sea of mohawks and skinny ties and sneered it was all still rock and roll to him. But the fact that he was on the defensive suggests just how thoroughly the times were changing in 1980.

Three or four years after the revolution, all the upheavals of the back half of the 70s were no longer contained in the underground. Disco and punk, synthesizers and drum machines, hip-hop and new wave — these strange new sounds started to seep into the mainstream and not just through new acts. Baby boomers facing their forties decided to try to dig the new breed, albeit on their own terms.

Usually, those terms amounted to a combination of desperation and calculation. A fine line may separate desperation and calculation, but there’s a tangible difference between Alice Cooper donning a tin foil space suit to sing “Clones (We’re All)” and Linda Ronstadt dredging up three Elvis Costello songs to cover on her album Mad Love. One conveys a sense of panic, the other a sense of deliberation. Either way, Cooper and Ronstadt made these changes with the intention of climbing the charts. Other artists seemed creatively rejuvenated by these fresh sounds, deciding to weave the new with the old, creating vibrant, unexpected fusions that still possess the power to surprise.

Of all these odd records reckoning with new wave, none were as surprising as Paul McCartney’s McCartney II. Decades later, its cloistered, claustrophobic single “Temporary Secretary” can still startle and so can its accompanying, misshapen album. Largely recorded on synthesizers in Paul’s private studios, McCartney II can appear to be a full-bore embrace of new wave, but its story isn’t quite so simple. As the most successful solo Beatle, Paul had carte blanche to do whatever he liked. But as the 70s came to a close, he started to feel restless within Wings. That listlessness, more than a defensive reaction to the Clash’s calls of “no Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones,” drove his desire to experiment in 1980.

Paul may have been unperturbed by a shot across his bow, but many of his peers took these insurrectionist threats quite seriously. Sensing the shifting tides, the Stones reacted first, melding disco and punk on 1978’s Some Girls. Part of the album grooved to a heavy disco beat, part of it snarled and while they tempered their fury on 1980’s Emotional Rescue, their embrace of disco wound up setting a precedent many others followed. The disco backlash of 1979 didn’t entirely manifest itself on the Billboard charts. The Top 10 of 1980 was proof of that: the Stones returned to the disco well for the number three hit “Emotional Rescue,” Queen shamelessly ripped off Chic on “Another One Bites The Dust” and Pink Floyd, those arbiters of album rock, grafted a four-on-the-flour beat onto “Another Brick In The Wall,” so they could selling their dour narcissistic opus The Wall.

Disco didn’t much interest McCartney. He dabbled with it on “Goodnight Tonight,” the first single from 1979’s Back To The Egg, a move that bore the faintest sense that he was grasping at straws. McCartney tried to shake things up on Back To The Egg by hiring producer Chris Thomas — an old Abbey Road engineer who worked with the Beatles in their last days but was better known in ’79 for producing the Sex Pistols. It was with the idea that Wings would rock harder, but the album was a half-measure, partially due to Paul’s disinterest. But as a superstar, Paul could afford a vague air of desperation. Alice Cooper couldn’t.

Attempting to reverse the direction of a commercial free-fall, Cooper hired Queen’s producer Roy Thomas Baker to push him into a new style for a new decade. He made no bones about the shift, trumpeting on the album cover of Flush The Fashion; this was “Alice Cooper ‘80.” Baker turned Cooper from a gothic vaudevillian into a proud sci-fi clone by tightening rhythms so they no longer swung, flattening guitars so they buzzed instead of roared, coating the entire enterprise in synths. Alice happily followed the fashion, singing about nuclear infections and aspirin damage. It was crass, calculated commercialism designed for an ill-defined audience. Where at least the Beach Boys could dream their eleven-minute disco anthem “Here Comes The Night” would garner club play, there was no real hope for Alice Cooper to be accepted by the new wavers he simultaneously aped and mocked.

Nobody bought what he was selling. “Clones (We’re All)” stalled at 40 and Flush The Fashion turned into a punch line. Despite its rep, it’s a fascinating listen. Flush The Fashion is an album where good ideas are botched, while the bad ideas are executed expertly. Cooper gets things wrong in compelling ways, such as slowing down the garage rock standard “Talk Talk” so it’s a leaden dirge or spoofing Elvis Costello as a swishy, fey fake on “Leather Boots.” These may be misfires but they find Cooper embracing the new wave on musical terms, even if he wound up as the clone he mocked.

Surely, Alice changed his style because he wanted to hold onto his fame; at that point, he was a fixture on late night talk shows and the Muppets. But the extent of his immersion into new wave signaled a bit of fashion panic: he didn’t just want a hit, he wanted credibility. But even singers with street cred stumbled when tackling the new wave. Take Iggy Pop, the proto-punk who was instrumental in kick-starting the new music movement via his pair of 1977 David Bowie-produced LPs. On his 1980 album Soldier, Iggy made accommodations that, intentionally or not, smacked of desperate commercial calculation. He hired an army of new wavers led by ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock who in turn brought Steve New, his cohort from the Rich Kids. Pop wound up stripping guitarist New out of the final mix, pushing the keyboards — largely played by XTC’s Barry Andrews — up to the front, a decision that inadvertently gave Soldier a tinny, angular new wave feel. Without the thundering guitars, Iggy seemed to be chasing a hit that remained just out of reach.

Hits were elusive for any star attempting a new wave makeover. When Linda Ronstadt released a cover of Elvis Costello’s “Alison” in 1979, it stiffed. Costello reportedly disliked her version of “Alison,” an allegation refuted by Ronstadt who claimed the songwriter sent her “Talking In The Dark” for Mad Love. “Talking in the Dark” was one of three Costello songs on Mad Love, but Linda learned her lesson: she kept those songs buried on the album, their presence telegraphing potential hipness. Despite this heavy dose of Costello tunes, Ronstadt and producer Peter Asher didn’t crib any sounds from his records for Mad Love; they just mined him for material. Many other acts did mimic Costello — in fact, you could argue the big, open sound Billy Joel achieved on “It’s Still Rock & Roll To Me” was a sideways acknowledgement to E.C. — but the most unexpected acolyte was British Invasion relic Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits.

A decade after his last U.K. hit, Noone resurfaced with a new band called the Tremblers who mimicked the punchy power-pop of the Attractions and underscored their debt to Elvis Costello by covering “Green Shirt.” The Tremblers pulled off a pleasing approximation of the nervy new waver, but that calculated close copy also means their 1980 LP Twice Nightly doesn’t bristle with riveting desperation, not in the way that Shaun Cassidy’s Wasp does. The aging teen idol hired Todd Rundgren to produce Wasp with the hope Todd could navigate Shaun toward cooler waters. During 1979, Rundgren managed to freshen up his own band Utopia, giving them a slight gilded shine, so Cassidy surely expected Todd would perform a similar feat for him. He did. Rundgren cranked up the processed guitars, layered on overheated backing vocals and set it all to clanking, sequenced beats, creating an archly quirky sheen. Despite this affected air, what truly signaled the company Cassidy hoped to keep were the covers of David Bowie and Talking Heads, but his efforts were in vain. Not only did nobody care about Wasp, but nobody noticed; the record didn’t chart. Today, it functions better as a curiosity within Rundgren’s catalog, sounding like the new wave album Utopia could’ve made in 1980 if they weren’t sending up the Beatles on Deface The Music.

McCartney wasn’t beyond a little parody. He satirized Ron Mael of Sparks, dressing up as the keyboardist in one of the many impressions in the “Coming Up” video. The presence of Mael suggests Paul wasn’t being entirely honest when he claimed in the liner notes of the 2011 Super Deluxe Archive reissue of McCartney II that he “was just aware synths were coming in.” Knowing enough to send up Sparks suggests that even if McCartney wasn’t listening to synth pioneers Kraftwerk, he was aware of what was in the air.

Robert Palmer also sensed the times changing, but he had a finely calibrated weathervane and intuited how new wave could reinvigorate his music. He spent much of the 70s slyly shifting from sound to sound, sliding into funky New Orleans-inspired rock and dabbling in reggae. That fondness for grooves meant he heard potential within the polyrhythms of Talking Heads. Palmer also fell for the icy synth-rock of Gary Numan, who had just topped the U.K. charts with “Cars” in 1979. Palmer brought in Head drummer Chris Frantz to play percussion on 1980’s Clues, but Numan’s presence is stronger. Palmer skillfully re-interprets “I Dream Of Wires” and he also brings the synth-rocker aboard to co-write a song and play keyboards. Like David Bowie before him, Palmer made a conscious interpretative decision to innovate, not appropriate: bearing elements of Talking Heads rhythms and Numan’s synths. The single “Looking For Clues” percolates with exuberance while “Johnny And Mary” luxuriates in the sadness of its minor key and melancholy synths.

Palmer’s synth-heavy rock was indeed an attempt on his part to sound “more contemporary than ever” — an italicized phrase from an October 1980 ad for the album. But his canny adoption of new wave also felt futuristic and it echoed for years to come: “Looking For Clues” came to symbolize the harsh neon glare of early MTV, while the quivering chill of “Johnny and Mary” recently saw a faithfully bittersweet reinterpretation from Todd Terje and Bryan Ferry. McCartney II also had an afterlife, largely driven by “Temporary Secretary,” which found its way onto electronic DJ sets into the new millennium. In that context, the single seemed like a bit of proto-techno.

On “Temporary Secretary,” McCartney sets his whimsy — which arises in the form of a rhyming, murmured sing-song appropriated from Ian Dury — to a frenzied synthesized loop that undercuts whatever cutesiness he utters. Sounding like a computer in collapse, that loop leaves the lasting impression that McCartney really was attempting to be fashion forward. A couple other songs from the McCartney II sessions are cut from the same crazy cloth and also seem to exist on a cutting edge. “Check My Machine,” its title a punning allusion to the difficulties of working with cumbersome electronics, is a lithe vamp that points towards the disco-rock future; within its five minutes lay the blueprint for Damon Albarn’s cartoon electro outfit Gorillaz. “Secret Friend” is even more daring: rolling out over 10 minutes, it emphasizes texture over melody, with McCartney phasing his voice beyond recognition so it’s imperceptible from the whining saxophone weaving in and out of its bubbling beat.

“Check My Machine” and “Secret Friend” were originally released as B-sides but they, along with “Temporary Secretary,” suggest that McCartney II has dance or innovation on its mind, which is misleading. Like most of Paul’s records, it’s an ingratiating mish-mash of melody, sentiment and craft that wanders into maddening and fascinating dead ends. Most of the full-fledged synthesized numbers are slight instrumentals. Call them ambient, but they don’t have the eerie chill of Brian Eno: they’re closer to a sprightly variation of the second side of Bowie’s Low, electronic miniatures stripped of any sense of menace. All these computers disguise how much of the album finds Paul favoring in his beloved ballads and old time rock & roll. It closes with a delicate acoustic number, drifts into the Big Barn blues of “On the Way” and has a pair of revamped rockabilly numbers, none of which sounds like a path toward the future.

Paul puts finger to key on the Moog synthesizer

Despite these tracks, McCartney II feels forward thinking because of its electronic execution. Paul said on several different occasions that he “felt like the nutty professor in his laboratory” and unlike any other album in Paul’s catalog, it’s possible to hear the effort behind its creation, possibly because it is an album about creation. In 1979, McCartney outfitted his private studios with racks of new synthesizers, dedicating his summer to learning how to make music with these machines. Contrary to popular belief — a myth propagated by Paul himself — Wings weren’t defunct at this point; they were only broken. Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch had been kicked out due to alcoholism — he’d die in September of ‘79 — and McCartney hadn’t warmed to his replacement Laurence Juber. Additionally, his relations with founding Wing guitarist Denny Laine were strained. All this interpersonal drama meant Paul didn’t want to bother with other musicians; he just wanted to hide away and make music by himself for himself.

McCartney began recording the music for McCartney II as a personal project, something halfway between a demo and home recording. He assumed some of the songs would get re-cut with Wings prior to an official release and some might just fade away. Even though the album was whittled down from a planned double-LP, the record still feels casual, maybe even incomplete. Reviewing the record in the July 24, 1980 Rolling Stone, Stephen Holden called McCartney II “an album of aural doodles designed for the amusement of very young children,” which is more or less true! Of its 11 songs only a handful feel carefully crafted — “Coming Up,” “Temporary Secretary” and “Waterfall,” tellingly every one of them a single — but songwriting is only one element of a recording. What gives McCartney II its kick is its atmosphere: Paul is disconnected from his band, from Linda and from the world at large, happily creating his own little universe. More than any other album by a gentrified member of rock’s ruling class, McCartney II crackles with the shock of the other.

Paul toys with the Tubon 3, a rare cylindrical monophonic keyboard

That future shock differentiates this 1980 LP from its nominal predecessor, 1970’s McCartney. Paul made that record at home on a primitive four-track cassette recorder, mourning the Beatles breakup through drink and song. For all its homespun charm, the 1970 album wallows whereas the 1980 album is about freedom; it’s Paul looking for a way out of his rut, finding salvation via synthesizers. McCartney’s adoption of electronics was on the vanguard, but where Robert Palmer was keenly aware of the trends, Paul insists he wasn’t paying attention and McCartney II itself does support his assertion. Paul isn’t necessarily innovating here. His inspirations were the synthesized work of other 60s survivors, not Kraftwerk. In the liner notes for the Super Deluxe Edition reissue, Paul rhapsodizes over the keyboards of Stevie Wonder and Animal-turned-producer Mickie Most. McCartney lifted the idea for the nagging loop of “Temporary Secretary” from the Who’s “Baba O’Riley,” a pioneering bit of sequencing that was eight years old at the time Paul recorded McCartney II. Also, it’s hard to discount the influence of David Bowie. Paul played Back To The Egg for the Thin White Duke who urged McCartney to release its weirdest moment, the Floydian fragment “The Broadcast,” as a single. Paul didn’t heed his advice.

Given this story, it’s hard not to see McCartney II as Paul accepting the challenge offered by Bowie but that’s giving the Duke too much credit. McCartney didn’t choose to engage via McCartney II, he chose to retreat. Left to his own devices, Paul poured it all out on tape, letting all of his personas collide. Within its eleven songs, McCartney the pop craftsman vies for space with the shambolic, spacey hippie, the stylish, savvy modern artist and Paul, the old rock & roller.

But even when McCartney is indulging in a little old-fashioned three-chord shuffle on “Bogey Music,” he stiffens the beat and doubles up his voice so it creates cacophony. Here, McCartney may still be making a rock & roll shuffle that Billy Joel would recognize. But Paul doesn’t treat the past as precious, he loves the anarchy of his new machines. This delight in play separates McCartney II from the cold calculation of Alice Cooper or Robert Palmer’s suave, savvy makeover: Paul gets off on pure sound. Coming after several years of muddled music, McCartney’s liberation is palpable. His old partner John Lennon recognized the shift. Lennon heard “Coming Up” on a car radio and upon realizing who it was, shouted “Fuck a pig, it’s Paul!”

Not long afterward, Lennon started recording Double Fantasy, so McCartney II did have an impact upon its 1980 release. The enduring underground presence of “Temporary Secretary,” “Secret Friend” and “Check My Machine” speaks to a surprising influence for an album that is, in many respects, throwaway nonsense. But even if McCartney II is clunky, cutesy, noisy and occasionally irritating, it also is fearless and alive. It’s a singular record that captures all the weird currents flooding the mainstream of 1980, yet exists outside of time; a strange transmission from a fading star.

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