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A list of our favorite Paul McCartney rarities and a closer look at the broad scope of one of pop music’s best.
There’s no real need for any introduction here. We’re all familiar with this knighted Beatle. But although Paul McCartney mostly resided within the safe parameters of pop music, he was an experimenter and the primary source of the Beatles’ magical innovations and expansion into pop’s outer realms.
McCartney introduced avant-garde to Lennon in preparation for Revolver, sharing his fascination with the musique concrète movement and, in particular, Karlheinz Stockhausen and his use of tape saturation and looping effects in 1956’s Gesang Der Jünglinge. This obsession would fully bloom in the 1980s with his McCartney II era. McCartney first introduced tape loops in “Tomorrow Never Knows” and pitched the idea for the Beatles to create a “concept” album. The most instrumentally gifted of the group, he explored a range of instruments and always seemed to be infatuated with some weird piece of gear, be it a mellotron or an early drum machine.
Paul was musically curious and anticipated genres that didn’t quite yet exist. Whether trip-hop, techno, indie rock or touches of hip-hop and dub (he did a few sessions at Black Ark with Lee “Scratch” Perry), here are some essential McCartney deep cuts.
Distractions – Demo Version (late 1980s)
This one’s our favorite of the bunch, a demo recorded in a remote studio near Campbeltown, Scotland, sometime in ‘88-’89 for Paul’s Flowers in the Dirt. The track has pretty much everything you could want in an early ‘bedroom’ style recording: primitive use of hardware (we’re suckers for those early rhythm-box-generated drums); quirky moments such as the sound of the reel-to-reel turning on; and experiments including stereo phasing and curious samples.
Like a great private press record or artist who takes a minimal/amateur approach, there’s an undeniable charm to it all — a sense of heartwarming vulnerability that would usually get masked by a professional studio’s trickery. The harmonizing here is just beautiful, at times fully channeling Sly Stone. As one YouTube comment correctly suggests, the overall sound is comparable to the chill-hop sounds of J Dilla and co. that would come in 20 odd years. This is what Paul has to say of the demo:
“I like a good love song, you know. And it’s always nice to be in the mood to write a ballad, and that was the case when I sat down to write this. It just occurred to me that if you love someone, one of the problems is that you don’t always spend enough time with that person. Because you’ve got things to do, you’ve got work, or you’ve got other obligations to other people or whatever. And so I thought, yeah, you could call those distractions from the main event kind of thing. That was basically what this is: What is this thing in life that persuades me to take time away from you? … Distractions, like butterflies”.
There’s a few versions out there of this sweet and dreamy instrumental but we love this take, which is the first put to tape during the initial Ram sessions in late 1970. There’s also an “earliest mix,” a rework that was supposed to be featured on the “Rupert & the Frog Song” soundtrack and a vocal version that’s equally worth seeking out.
Secret Friend (1980)
This list focuses on the early 80s, and could’ve easily been an article about his experimental tape delay phase and all of the recordings surrounding the release of 1980’s McCartney ll. But “Secret Friend” is a standout from that particularly wild McCartney era. The song is a 10-minute out-of-sync tape manipulation jam with Berlin-school and krautrock flavors, and features an extremely percussive and melodic “proto-techno” groove in the vein of Manuel Göttsching’s staple E2-E4.
This B-side to the 12-inch of “Temporary Secretary” was Paul’s first solo and post-Wings breakup release, which no doubt made for a very confusing listen to those first few buyers. Also worth noting: The tune was one of the first few featured on the incredibly formative Fingertracks blog by local LA favorite and ESP Institute head Lovefingers.
Goodnight Tonight – Demo (1978)
I think we all know the more polished official 1979 Wings release, which is the better of the two, but it’s nice to hear this dance floor favorite in a rough and frazzled form. It’s unclear whether this is that exact recording, but apparently McCartney had first written and recorded this demo at home, playing all the instruments himself only to be filed into his personal archive. A year later, Wings needed a proper hit for Back to the Egg, which prompted McCartney to pull this back out and give it a second shot. Kind of makes you wonder how many of these he had just lying around.
Arrow Through Me (1979)
This may be familiar to many, but it’s underrated nonetheless. “Arrow” was first put out as a 7-inch single and later featured on the excellent Wings record Back to the Egg. We’re surprised this mellow synth-funk piece peaked at only #29 on the US charts and, to this day, remains under-appreciated. Also important to mention that the track was sampled by Erykah Badu in 2010 on her track “Gone Baby, Don’t Be Long.”
Kicked Around No More (1992)
Possibly the most overlooked of these is this absolute stunner. A perfect slice of emotional Balearic pop, it usually leaves listeners a little slack-jawed on first listen. It was only featured as a B-side to an Italian pressing of the 1992 12-inch single of “Hope of Deliverance.” This track is a big favorite here at Sheep’s; we particularly love the phasing on the drums and those epic, euphoric vocals. So beautiful!
The only tape experiment here to make it as a McCartney II album cut is the eccentric, dubby, sample-based “Darkroom.” Although many have compared this era sonically to the likes of Kraftwerk, Can and the post-punk boom of the time, this is what Paul has to say of the divisive McCartney II: “Rather than me emulating anyone, it was more a question of me seeing what I could do with it. And again, not necessarily thinking I was making an album, just to have some time to experiment.”
Ou Est Le Soleil? – Tub Dub Mix (1989)
Here’s a fun little electro/house tune. Cheesy? Yes, but it’s interesting to hear Paul having some fun and playing around with a few drum machines and bass synths. It also makes you think — “This is the same guy who made ‘Penny Lane’?”
Blue Sway – Richard Niles Orchestra version (1980)
Another previously unreleased song from the fruitful McCartney II archives is this dramatic and grandiose orchestral beauty. Many YouTube commentators seem to see it as some lost James Bond dance tune.
Hang Glide (1986)
A rare B-side to the solo Paul single “Press” (the dub mix of which is also worth checking out), “Hang Glide” is a great Balearic midtempo groover. Percussive and with subtle Frippertronics and epic pads, it’s a precursor to the abstract and dance adjacent Fireman records he’d soon put out.
Check My Machine (1980)
The last song on this list from the explorative McCartney ll era is this dubbed-out trip-hop tune, which first appeared as the B-side to the single “Waterfalls” and didn’t see official release on the album until a 1987 CD reissue.
Arizona Light (1993)
The Fireman was a short-lived 1993 collaborative effort with producer and Killing Joke founder Youth. We see the pair here exploring IDM, trance and neo-psychedelic electronics while drawing inspiration from the poems of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
Ram On (1971)
No secret here, but a favorite from Paul & Linda! We also recommend checking out Wide Prairie, a posthumous compilation album of Linda’s work that includes an excellent reggae version of “Mister Sandman” featuring Paul on guitar and produced by Lee “Scratch” Perry.