The second track on Paul McCartney’s second solo album, ‘Temporary Secretary’ was recorded in the summer of 1979. Its largely atonal vocals and repetitive chorus divided audiences, but encapsulated the experimental nature of McCartney II.

Towards the end of the seventies, I had set up a little room on the farm in Sussex with instruments and things I would just play with, and I found this sequence and thought, ‘Well that’s a good one.’ That became the basis, the sonic bed, and then I wrote this song inspired by it.

‘Temporary Secretary’ was written from the point of view of a girl from a temping agency, a theme inspired by the typewriter-like rhythmic effects of synthesizer, guitar and drums. McCartney later described the sound as resembling a “space typewriter”. The middle section, meanwhile, was reportedly influenced by Ian Dury and the Blockheads.

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 lie 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

Paul McCartney's handwritten notes for Temporary Secretary

McCartney used an analogue ARP sequencer on the track.

I actually know because I just tried to find out recently… I thought that I had one but it turns out I rented it. It’s an ARP sequencer, but we’ve just found one. Wix, my keyboard guy, has just found one so we might have one soon. We looked at the modern versions but the old one is better, and also I kind of know my way around it.
Paul McCartney
The Quietus, 2011

The Mr Marks of the lyrics referred to the founder of the Alfred Marks Agency, a UK recruitment company which provided office staff for businesses. The agency subsequently applied to use the song in an advertising campaign, but the idea was rejected by McCartney.

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. What it’s about is, there was a guy called Alfred Marks, he had the Alfred Marks Bureau – he had the same name as a comedian on the radio when I was growing up. So 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. 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

Paul McCartney's studio track sheet for Temporary Secretary

Single release

‘Temporary Secretary’ was issued as a 12″ single in the UK, along with the 10-minute b-side ‘Secret Friend’. Limited to 25,000 copies, the single was released as Parlophone 12 R 6039 on 15 September 1980, and sold out in just 16 hours.

The front cover featured a drawing by Jeff Cummins of Hipgnosis, and depicted a secretary sitting on McCartney’s lap. On the other side was a photograph of the singer taken by David Thorpe.

A few years ago we started performing this song again because a DJ in Brighton had unearthed it. It was going down really well, so I wondered if I could do it too. I worked with Wix Wickens, our keyboard player, and he programmed it so he could play it live on tour.

Could you write a song like this today, with Me Too? I doubt it, and I wouldn’t want to. But this was a different time, and the world has rightly progressed since then. Today you’d think twice, if at all, before you’d suggest that you wanted to keep the secretary or assistant late at night. A good thing with this song, though is that there’s nothing overtly sexual; it’s just very tongue-in-cheek. Any inference that the protagonist is keeping the secretary late at night to do other things would be in the mind of the listener.

Previous song: ‘Coming Up’
Next song: ‘On The Way’
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