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Sunday 24 May 2015

The live Temporary Secretary

The Temporary Secretary 12" single

"Paul finally plays his biggest hit live!"
- YouTube uploader Paul Eggleton

When Paul McCartney played his song "Temporary Secretary" live in London last night, it was a dream come true for many younger McCartney's fans - and of far greater importance than Dave Grohl guesting a McCartney stage again for "I Saw Her Standing There". Paul was on his Höfner bass guitar for "Temporary Secretary". A friend of mine, a Beatles fan who grew up in the nineties who went to the concert, immediately texted me when the song was performed - an indication of how important this was to him. The song has been described by Rolling Stone magazine as a cult favourite, and an "oddly catchy electro-pop nugget, about a slightly creepy-sounding guy looking to hire a temp."  It ranked 36 on their list of all-time Paul McCartney post-Beatles songs, while at the same time it placed at 7 on their list of the 12 weirdest McCartney songs. On that list, they described it thusly: "An insane highlight of McCartney II. It's got a classic McCartney melody and lyric – set over bleeping music that could be drawn from an 8-bit Nintendo game. It sounds like McCartney is trying to simultaneously invent drum and bass and They Might Be Giants."

The song was released on the highly experimental, yet strangely popular "McCartney II" album in 1980. At the time, record companies weren't sure what to do with the new 12" single format - basically it was a single in the same size as an album - and experimentation with the format followed. After a while, it was established that the format could be used to feature an extended mix of the song from the regular 7" disc, but this use of the format had yet to come. Meanwhile, the 12" size singles could well be stand alone releases on their own. "Temporary Secretary" was such a release, a 12" single only. The single was limited to 25,000 copies and therefore failed to chart - not a big hit by any standard. Not all copies of the single had a picture sleeve, some just had a standard black sleeve. A 7" single exists only as a demo for radio stations. I desperately wanted to get that 12" single back in 1980, but I was unsuccessful at the time - I don't think it was released here in Norway at all. I did manage to find a copy a year or two after its release, when a guy on the other side of town sold his record collection. The reason why I needed the single was both because it had a great picture sleeve, and because the B-side, the 10+ minutes long "Secret Friend" was not released anywhere else. Contemporary Beatles biographers Roy Carr and Tony Tyler describe "Secret Friend" as sounding like "the unobtrusive soundtrack to ten minute second feature on alpaca-combing in Peru."

Part of the Parlophone R-series, it had the catalogue number 12 R 6039. "McCartney II" was a vanity project for Paul, an outlet for his more experimental side. The album was initially not intended for release at all, but he used to play a cassette copy to his friends. The title "Paul McCartney goes too far" comes to mind, I guess. After his friends had urged him to release it, he cut down the double album's length by chucking out the most experimental tracks, and then released it as a single album. The original double album was later released unofficially as a bootleg. Two of the songs that were removed from the album line-up appeared as B-sides to singles, "Check My Machine" was the B-side to "Waterfalls". "McCartney II" was his first album after Wings, and even though he did intend to keep the band going after this, it wasn't to be. Paul McCartney handles the vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards and drums on "Temporary Secretary".

The back cover - photo from the shooting of the "Waterfalls" music video.
"It's like a disposable secretary, and it struck me as being funny. The song is written from the point of view of a fellow who just wants a disposable secretary, and he's writing to a bureau to try and get one. I just like the idea. I just thought it was funny, you know, asking for a temporary secretary rather than a secretary."

"That sound on the track, which is like a space typewriter, is a sequence machine. I used that to give me a tempo and, again, I just made the song up as I went along. It was a little influenced by Ian Dury." - Paul McCartney.

The "Mr Marks" in the lyrics would have been very familiar to brits, because the Alfred Marks recruitment agency used to have posters on the streets and in shop windows, advertising temporary and permanent staff to a wide range of job sectors. I remember seeing such posters when I first visited London in 1982. I only took notice of them because of the "Temporary Secretary" reference. To McCartney, this was a joke - because a radio comedian when McCartney grew up was also called Alfred Marks. "It was just the funny paradox of seeing adverts for the Alfred Marks Bureau, the idea of some comedian having a bureau was just funny." The Alfred Marks Bureau was sold to Adecco in 1983.

"I did have temporary secretaries. After I left Apple I still had business stuff coming up, so in trying to figure out how I could cope with that there were a couple of times I just grabbed someone to just put my letters in order and help. But that track isn't about a specific person. It said 'Temporary Secretary', and I thought, that's a kind of funky thought. Then there was the secretary thing: take a letter Miss Smith, sit on my lap... all that kind of stuff." - Paul McCartney, The Quietus, 2011

Contemporary Beatles biographers Roy Carr and Tony Tyler describe "Temporary Secretary" as being built from an initial, repetitive synthesizer theme, with more substantial instrumental portions added over time, and finally an insubstantial vocal. They complain that the song was done without commitment and that it "grows irritating towards the end."

In 2011, reviewing the McCartney Archive  reissue of McCartney II, music website said:

"Temporary Secretary” is a manic, futuristic laser blast with an actual melody simmering underneath. It would be pointless to compare it to anything McCartney had ever done before, and would be equally so to compare it to anyone else as it couldn’t possibly be anyone else. More than any other song on either eponymous album, “Temporary Secretary” illustrates the complex nature of Paul McCartney’s musical output."

The song is probably much more popular in Great Britain and Europe than in the USA. In 2014 "Temporary Secretary" was ranked the 167th greatest song of all time by critics of NME magazine. They described it as "wonky electro-pop that didn't sound so much ahead of its time as out of it altogether."

In 2003, a limited edition (500 copies) re-edit of "Temporary Secretary" by Radio Slave was released on Parlophone as a promo only, with the catalogue number TEMPSEC 01. To help promote a CD (or 2-disc vinyl) collection going by the title New Religion presents A Secret History, where the regular version of "Temporary Secretary" was included, Paul McCartney authorized remix master and deejay Matt Edwards, alias Radio Slave, to create an extended dance mix of “Temporary Secretary” for release as a promotional-only 12-inch single in December 2003. The one-sided single sports the classic black Parlophone label and is the only release of Radio Slave’s nearly seven and a half minute mix of the song. All the copies were numbered and distributed mainly to a few radio stations in Europe, as a Christmas gift. In June 2004, a various artists compilation was put together by Uncut magazine titled Something For The Weekend – Paul McCartney’s Glastonbury Groove. This CD contained - among other things - a shorter (6:20) edit of the Radio Slave mix of “Temporary Secretary”.

Label of the rare 2003 re-edit of "Temporary Secretary"
The release may have been a contributing factor to the 2004 McCartney European tour rumour among the fans about "Temporary Secretary" being included in the set list. However, the song was only featured in the pre-concert music mix. DJ Freelance Hellraiser (Roy Kerry) performed a half hour set prior to the concerts, in which the Kerry remixed various McCartney tracks into unusual and often unrecognizable forms, one of which was "Temporary Secretary". After the tour, a double vinyl album, "Twin Freaks" was released in June 2005 with more of these mixes, and a 4:12 version of "Temporary Secretary" was featured. All these revisits of the song considered, it's actually quite strange that Paul has kept it out of his live set until now.

Recently, McCartney's keyboard player Paul "Wix" Wickens was heard rehearsing the basic track of the song at a soundcheck, which rekindled McCartney's fan's hopes to get to hear the song performed live - and yesterday they were finally rewarded at London's O2 Arena.

Here is a YouTube upload of the faithful first live performance - and another uploader describes it as "Paul finally plays his biggest hit live!". I understand that sentiment. To a younger McCartney fan, the live performance of "Temporary Secretary" is far more important than the inclusion of another hitherto unplayed Beatles track. For the regular concertgoer, it's a likely bathroom break. Still, the great audience reaction to the song was proof that there were lots of appreciative McCartney fans at the O2 Arena, and I do hope he keeps it in the set list, at least until the European tour finishes. A film has been made to play on the big screen behind the band while the song is played, so that's a good sign. The film has green line drawings of the typical secretary's work equipment on a black background, 8-bit style and pics of temps.

Rolling Stone magazine
Happy Nat's Rare Beatles


Dogma said...

When I first heard this song I didn't like it, i thought it was too weird! but over the years it's become a great favourite of mine! now i love it because it's so different and it really grows on you. Good and funny lyrics and rythm.

Tammy said...

Fantastic (as ever) write up Roger.

Anonymous said...

There's also, I believe a certain contemporary Kanye factor in the appearance of this tune.
If anybody has links or downloaded pages from late last decade, the first meeting of Kanye and McCartney at an awards ceremony drew mentions of it from both men and the 'McCartney II' album's tracks, particularly 'Check My Machine' were mentioned as a conversation topic.
I have looked high and low to find these interviews with McCartney and West but they seemed to have disappeared leaving me feeling like I've imagined it but, although short items, McCartney mentioned that when West started singing 'Check My Machine' at him, he initially didn't recognise it. West gave a longer account, praising the album in general and, I think, mentioning 'Secret Friend'.

Anyone help out?

CrackinThunder said...

A treat would be to add "Wild Life" to his concerts, a great song live he did back in the early 70s at some of his euro concerts (e.g. The Hague-see it on Youtube). It would definitely be a challenge to his current but still beloved vocal pipes, but the great band he has should be able to power him through it.

Unknown said...

I am proud to say that I actually own the 12" single with the cover. I think it's completely nuts that Paul has finally played this song live, but totally wonderful. Personally (oh God this sounds so wanky) but I just adore the B-side, Secret Friend. Some of the most gorgeous analog synth sequencing I've ever heard to this day, with the lovely glissando effect on the monophonic arpeggio patterns. I still don't know quite how he did that, but I know for sure it would have been all real-time, manual, "seat of your pants" stuff. Beautiful.

Unknown said...

Thanks to your comment, unknown, I checked 'Secret friend' out on YouTube (only then to find I have it as a bonus track on my 90s copy of McCartney II). It really is as haunting and beautiful as you claim and I ended up listening to it twice.

The status of McCartney II is quickly shifting. I was 17 when it was released and I have fond memories of liking Waterfalls and hearing it drift out from a builder's radio as I was taking a school exam that summer (they were re-pitching the gym roof as I recall!); I also worked in a hotel and I remember Coming Up blasting out at a wedding reception. But I didn't buy it then and I didn't own a copy until many years later. My impression, not really changed, is that it is one of his worst solo albums, but I suppose it is the experimental aspects that are now gaining him credit.

BTW does anyone remember Maccas appearance at the end of X factor or some show like it (my wife watches them all) and W.i.lliam was praising 'Check my Machine' as being futuristic genius, or something like that? I am sure this predates the Kayne factor mentioned by Internotional Times

KubaPolen1984 said...

Lovely told story, Roger! Thanx! I seldom comment but often read your articles.