In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The Wings experiment had run its course. Over the course of the ’70s, Paul McCartney didn’t operate as a solo artist, the way the other Beatles did. Instead, McCartney tried to lead a whole new rock band, one that he could control pretty much completely. The results were mixed. Wings had some tremendous pop successes, and they also made some good records. But they also made a lot of bad records, and their critically spotty reception contributed to the popular idea that John Lennon had been the real genius behind the Beatles, that McCartney was really the pop hack. (Lennon probably contributed to this notion by staying silent for the second half of the ’70s. You can’t miss someone who’s always there.)
Wings had an American #1 with their 1978 single “With A Little Luck,” but London Town, the album that the song came from, was generally regarded as one of Wings’ disappointments. The same thing happened with their next album, 1979’s Back To The Egg, despite the presence of “Rockestra Theme,” an instrumental that McCartney recorded with members of the Who, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. Wings toured the UK at the end of 1979, and they were supposed to tour Japan for the first time early in 1980. But when they landed in Tokyo, McCartney was arrested for carrying a whole mess of weed in his luggage, and the tour was called off. After spending 10 days in jail, McCartney returned to the UK, reconsidering his future.
McCartney had spent much of 1979 recording songs at his Scottish farm. Many of those songs were as weird and experimental as anything on Ram, the 1971 cult-favorite Paul-and-Linda album. The new songs carried a lot of the influence of new wave and synthpop. A few of them sound a whole lot like Paul McCartney attempting to become David Byrne, a frankly baffling thing to even think about. (One of those songs is “Temporary Secretary,” one of the strangest and best songs of McCartney’s entire post-Beatles career. It could almost be a Devo B-side.)
Coming back from Japan, McCartney decided to release those home-recorded songs as a solo album. McCartney II — which, like the original 1970 McCartney, featured McCartney producing and playing all the instruments — was a ready-made cult album, a favorite among quirky-musician types. The first single, however, was a chart-topper. But the version that went to #1 in America wasn’t the one that McCartney had recorded at that farm. It was the recorded-live Wings version. This was not what McCartney wanted.
The solo-McCartney version of “Coming Up” is the song that opens McCartney II, which means it effectively rebooted McCartney’s solo career. It’s a jittery, neurotic song, a clumsy attempt to play catchup to the Talking Heads, what with its locked-in drum-machine groove, its stiff guitar chops, and its thoroughly out-of-place bursts of Dixieland horns. McCartney artificially messes with his own voice, using sped-up tape and echo to make himself sound nasal and high-pitched.
In the video, McCartney makes a cartoonish point out of the fact that he’d recorded the whole thing himself. He plays 10 different roles in the video, including his own circa-1964 self. All of those McCartneys make up McCartney’s backing band. (Linda plays a couple of roles, too.) This music-video strategy, of a star playing all the members of his own backing band, will reappear in this column a couple of times.
Columbia, McCartney’s American label, didn’t like McCartney’s voice-manipulation tricks. At the time, Rolling Stone quoted an anonymous exec saying that “Americans like the sound of Paul McCartney’s real voice.” “Coming Up” came out as a single in America, with a live Wings version of the song as the B-side. But Columbia promoted the live version to radio, and it became the A-side, giving Wings one last US #1.
When Wings toured the UK in 1979, McCartney wanted to include one song that the audience hadn’t heard, so he threw “Coming Up” into the setlist. The version that hit #1 in the US came from a set at Glasgow’s Apollo Theatre, the second-to-last show that Wings ever performed. (Their last one was two weeks later in London, just before the new year.) Unless I’m forgetting something, “Coming Up” became only the third recorded-live #1 single in Hot 100 history, following Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips (Part II)” and Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling.”
It makes sense that McCartney didn’t want the live version of “Coming Up” to be the single. It undermines a whole lot of the new-wave influence that McCartney had brought to the recording. There’s still some brittle stiffness in the live performance, but it also sounds fuller and more pedestrian. The horns are less distracting and irritating, and so is McCartney’s voice. (He really sings it hard in the live version; it probably wouldn’t be a stretch to say that his vocals are soulful.) But the final product also sounds a whole lot less radical. It become a mildly interesting quasi-funk groove from an aging rock star. It’s not bad, but it’s not exceptional either.
In either of its forms, “Coming Up” just isn’t much of a song. The lyrics are genial, optimistic gibberish, which is to say that they’re pure McCartney: “You want some peace and understanding/ So everybody can be free/ I know that we can get together/ We can make it, stick with me.” There’s not much of a hook, and there’s no bridge. The album version sounds like a weird demo. The live version doesn’t sound much more complete.
One person who did like “Coming Up” was McCartney’s old bandmate John Lennon. Later on, McCartney claimed that “Coming Up” inspired Lennon to get back to making music himself. Lennon himself never confirmed this, but he did say nice things about “Coming Up.” (Lennon will appear in this column again pretty soon.) As for Wings, the band didn’t do anything else after “Coming Up.” In 1981, Denny Laine, the only longtime Wings member not named McCartney, quit the band, which ended it. McCartney became a full-time solo artist. He’ll appear in this column again, though only in duet form.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the pretty great “Coming Up” remix that McCartney and the mashup producer Freelance Hellraiser released on the 2005 curio Twin Freaks:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the solo cover of “Coming Up” that Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor released in 2008: