After nearly a decade with Wings, in 1979, Paul McCartney decided to make a record for himself, by himself, as he’d done with his first solo album, 1970’s McCartney. So he retreated to his Scotland farm with a bunch of synthesizers and bleeped and blooped his way into one of his most subversive albums, McCartney II, a record that — even 40 years after it came out, on May 16th, 1980 — Macca fans are still trying to make sense of.
He launched the album in the U.S. a day after its release via a bizarre yet funny bit on Saturday Night Live. A few months before unveiling McCartney II — or more specifically 122 days, as “Weekend Update” anchor Jane Curtin reported on the show — he’d been busted for smoking pot in Japan, so the show sent a correspondent, nasal-voiced comic Don Novello’s character Father Guido Sarducci, a parody of an Italian priest, to interview him in London. But because Sarducci screwed up the time-zone differential for a “live” segment, it’s 5 a.m. there, and McCartney is sleeping. Sarducci throws pennies and rocks at his window, and barks Beatles songs through a megaphone in his stilted, broken English. (The segment is not available on YouTube, other than as an audio recording, but the whole episode is available via Hulu.)
Eventually, a very irritated Paul and Linda McCartney come down to talk to the priest. Despite Paul protesting an interview, Sarducci starts grilling him about the weed bust. “Is it true that you haven’t had any marijuana in 122 days — yes or no?” Paul demurs and asks that they talk about the music video he’d made for McCartney II’s lead track, “Coming Up,” but Sarducci keeps asking him about pot. After a question about how long it took to make the clip — a week, Paul says — Sarducci asks, “If you was still smoking, do you think it would have taken longer or shorter?” After some back-and-forth, McCartney agrees to one last question, as long as it’s not about marijuana. Sarducci asks what animal he’d want to be, to which McCartney says a koala bear. “Is that the little animals, all the time they eat eucalyptus leaves, they get-a stoned all the time?” Sarducci says, laughing.
Finally, SNL plays the video, which was quite innovative for its time. Although Linda plays two backup singers, McCartney takes on every other role in various costumes, kind of his own riff on Sgt. Pepper’s, but also showing that he’d played everything on the song, as he’d done on the album. Some of his characters included Sparks’ mustachioed, eyebrow-raising keyboardist Ron Mael, Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin, and himself as he looked in the Sixties, among others. The bass drum reads “The Plastic Macs.” The clip was fresh and New Wave–y, and it fit the song’s jittery guitar line and McCartney’s own heavily effected vocals, which sounded a bit like Leon Redbone on helium. Despite its weirdness, the song had a great chorus, and, following a mixed review for the album, which dubbed it “strident electronic junk music,” Rolling Stone later recognized the track and McCartney II’s “Temporary Secretary” as ranking among his best solo tunes.
Despite the lukewarm reception critically, both McCartney II and “Coming Up” were hits. In a weird twist that seems predictable in hindsight, the McCartney II version of “Coming Up” went to Number Two in the U.K., while its B side — a more traditional “band version” of the song that Wings recorded at a Glasgow gig in 1979 — made it to Number One in the U.S., prompting his label to make a one-sided single of the song, since it wasn’t on the LP.
But perhaps the song’s most interesting aspect is how John Lennon apparently credited “Coming Up” as the reason he wanted to make music again. Six months later, he and Yoko Ono released Double Fantasy.