Friday, 18 November 2011
Paul Mccartney "Tug Of War" (1982) (News, Views and Music 122)
Paul McCartney “Tug Of War” (1982)
Tug Of War/Take It Away/Somebody Who Cares/What’s That You’re Doing?/Here Today//Ballroom Dancing/The Pound Is Sinking/Wanderlust/Get It/Be What You See (Link)/Dress Me Up As A Robber/Ebony And Ivory
As shifts and trends and revolutionary albums go, 1982 looks kind of ordinary. 1980 was the last vestiges of the old guard, with Lennon’s ‘comeback’ and new wave replacing punk and 1981 was the year of the new, full of albums like Human League’s ‘Dare!’ that are, well, daring and not like anything that came before. By contrast 1982 was a nothing year without very much to look forward to – which might be why so many people were looking at an ex-Beatle to shake things up. ‘Tug Of War’ was big news back then, with the public hungry for Beatles magic for a whole host of reasons we’ll be looking at later and the news that Macca was back working with Ringo, George Martin and his Beatles engineer was huge.
The year 1982 also saw a series of new beginnings for McCartney, after what had been for him a torrid couple of years. Macca’s career was under threat before Lennon’s death anyway, thanks to a rather lacklustre final Wings tour and record (‘Back To The Egg’ only made #9 – the worst showing of any solo Beatles record since ‘Wings Wildlife’ in 1972 – even ‘Ringo’s Rotogravure’ reached a higher peak!) and a seven day spell in a Tokyo prison in January 1980 after drugs were discovered in McCartney’s suitcase which rather tainted his image with some who’d always stood by him a s a clean-cut singer (legend has always had it that Yoko Ono tipped the customs men off after Macca called in to see her husband in New York en route, but that’s very unlikely – relations between the two families had eased considerably since Lennon’s househusband phase meant they were less in each other’s way). We’ve covered this already on our review for ‘McCartney II’ (see news and views no 106), when the poor album was released unsuspectingly into the middle of a media frenzy it was never meant to face (being a home recording ‘borrowed’ for release by EMI), but suffice to say the knock on effects meant that it spelt the end of Wings for good (the rest of the band needed the money and suffered badly when the Japanese leg of the tour was cancelled; for Macca’s part he was furious the rest of the band went home and left Linda and children on their own in a foreign country).
That’s all temporary of course. What was irreversible was John Lennon’s murder in 1980 which had robbed him of one of his closest pals (even if they were still a lot more distant than just the two separate continents they lived on that year, Macca had made his peace with his old friend to some extent and often called round ‘after breakfast with my guitar’ during American tours in the second half of the 70s) and left Paul alone to carry the burden of being the remaining half of the world’s most famous songwriting team. Lennon’s sudden death had also brought The Beatles back into the public eye in a big way for arguably the first time since their split in 1970 and already there was the feeling that, thanks to the manner of his death, John was already becoming the ‘sainted’ Beatle and Macca the also-ran. The fact that Macca had just released the heavily slagged off (but actually pioneering and fascinating) ‘McCartney II’ probably didn’t help his cause (despite sounding better than ‘Double Fantasy’ some 30 years after all the fuss). In fact, with Ringo pootling about in America at a loose end and George Harrison entombed in Friar Park Paul was the only high profile Beatle in 1982 anyway – and the public feared that he, too, would hide behind his security men and bodyguards after Lennon’s death (it’s to McCartney’s credit that he resumed his usual chatty demeanour in public about two years after Lennon’s death – and unlike the other three at times he’s never been known to shirk a fan request or turn down an autograph).
The public out-pouring after Lennon’s murder was cleverly seized upon by EMI who finally gave up releasing unsanctioned and unwanted Beatles compilations and began re-releasing Beatles singles (starting with ‘Love Me Do’ on the 20th anniversary in 1982). To boot, Lennon’s death and the video market boom had seen the unprecedented repeat of many Beatles films on prime time television as the UK for the first time in a decade, not to mention some pricey videos which meant that for the first time ever people who didn’t own their own mini-cinema could actually hold a copy of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ ‘Help!’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ in their hands. In effect, Paul was competing with his past for the first real time since ‘McCartney’ criss-crossed with ‘Let It Be’ in the album charts. All the public needed now was a bona fide ‘normal’ sounding McCartney album to enjoy – and after what was, for him, a ridiculously long wait speculation was rife that Paul was working on his best album ever.
The fact that ‘Tug Of War’ isn’t Paul’s best album ever is no reflection on the fans who bought it in droves the day it came out, anxious to console themselves with the fact that they still had one member of the Lennon-McCartney team left. It’s no reflection on the music press either, who were simply relieved that they had an album they could ‘understand’ after the new wave ‘Back To The Egg’ and synthesised ‘McCartney II’ fell on death ears, as ‘Tug Of War’ is much more ‘normal’ than either of these LPs. ‘The best McCartney album since ‘Band On The Run!’ was one of the more understated headlines of the day whilst other music journalists likened it to ‘Abbey Road’ – both references clearly nonsense, but a welcome sign of how many people this album managed to please at once. To boot, unlike most of his peers and thanks partly to George Martin’s help, this album manages to sound at once nicely Beatley and downright contemporary, a mix hardly anyone else on this site gets right (and Macca himself will forget how to do once the decade starts in earnest). As the first McCartney solo record in 12 years ‘Tug Of War’ had a lot to live up to: people’s memories of The Beatles after Lennon’s death and the reunion of some of the key ingredients from the 1960s (Ringo guests on one track on this album – though I’m pretty sure I can detect his playing on ‘Wanderlust’ too, whatever the credits say), whilst having a lot to live down: the death of Wings and the McCartney backlash after Lennon’s death.
So how come so few people remember it nowadays? More to the point, where did all the copies of this best-selling album go? I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve seen a battered copy of ‘Venus and Mars’ in a charity shop and even comparative ‘failures’ like ‘Wildlife’ turn up today quite often – so where are all the copies of this UK #1? Perhaps its because The songs are a mixed bag, with ‘Ebony and Ivory’ the only song your ‘average person’ in the street would know (and then it’s a song that makes most people run for the hills...) and two other comparative flops from this album (‘Take It Away’ and ‘Tug Of War’ itself) which is one less hit single than the maligned ‘McCartney II’ had had. True the compositions here don’t fall down quite as badly as some other McCartney albums (‘Pipes Of Peace’ for instance), but then they don’t rise quite as high as some others (erm, ‘Pipes Of Peace’ again). Without a single played on radio (besides one that most people agree nowadays is a mistake, even if they made it a #1 hit at the time) and without any real ‘fan favourites’ on this album, it’s perhaps no surprise that ‘Tug Of War’ got left behind. Perhaps, too, it was regarded at the time because its the album where a whole new audience a generation on from The Beatles and half a one on from Wings’ heyday got to discover McCartney’s talents – and it got forgotten again once newcomers found better albums to (press to) play from his past.
By and large, though, what this album does manage to do pretty successfully is reminding people that they were right to mark Paul as a great talent all those years ago – and with enough reasons to make him sound relevant to the record market then, in 1982. I must admit I’m quite close to this album as we are almost the same age (I won’t say which of us has fared better over the years, because it won’t reflect well on me) and regard it higher than most fans do today – even if I don’t love it as much as the reviewers did at the time. ‘Tug Of War’ is just another McCartney album at the end of the day, with glimpses of genius, glimpses of stupidity and a real tug of war going on between the good and the bad, the inspired and the tired, the average and the extraordinary. All you really need to know is that this record was the right one for the times, with enough reasons to make it worth playing today, although it would never be listed by fans as Macca’s best I don’t think, even given that most of his fans can spend hours debating his best work (I’ve seen votes for ‘McCartney’ ‘Ram’ ‘Band On The Run’ ‘London Town’ and ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ in my time, plus recommendations for the album-by-numbers ‘Flaming Pie’ and ‘Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard’, which just shows how little some fans know about McCartney at his best).
Most cynics will probably say round about now that if the ‘Beatles vibe’ was what everyone was talking about then that must have been a deliberate commercial ploy by McCartney to get fans in. Actually, it was coincidental. This album was written and partly recorded as the eighth Wings studio record, albeit made as a trio after the firing of Laurence Juber and Steve Holly (a bit unfair, as ‘Back To The Egg’ is hardly their fault and that’s all we have to judge them by, although the clip of a tired and sulky band rehearsing ‘Coming Up ). That’s why Denny Laine’s distinctive voice pops up so often on the harmonies (altogether he plays on seven of these 11-tracks-plus-a-link). You can never have too much Denny Laine on a Wings record I say and in many ways it’s a shame that George Martin pushed so hard to make this record and twin sister ‘Pipes Of Peace’ solo records because there was still a lot of love and trust between these guys at the time and Denny Laine remains one of the best working partners Macca’s ever had (Denny was already feeling hard done by after the Tokyo disaster and giving up his songwriting royalties to ‘Mull Of Kintyre’ to Macca for a pittance when he needed money in a hurry and never trusted his former partner again after being cut off from this project, ‘telling all’ in a highly inflammatory newspaper interview that actually only said that Macca could be a bit bossy sometimes, something most of us already knew). In fact, George Martin was only actually onboard to work on Macca’s other long-term project of the early 1980s ‘Rupert and the Frog Song’. First drafted as early as 1972, Macca had finally got round to recording the main song and wanted George’s help before Martin asked to hear some of Macca’s more ‘normal’ songs and suddenly found himself roped into producing a Wings album – apparently it was a quite word during a car ride home with Macca that signed the death warrant of a band that had lasted eight years, seen nine line-up changes and featured 10 different musicians over the years.
Interestingly, there’s a freedom and escape about this album that also mirrors both the first McCartney record (made when Paul was finally ‘free’ of writing songs for a band) and ‘Band On The Run’ (when Paul was finally ‘free’ of writing songs for a whole band, rather than just himself Denny and Linda), even though it seems to have been largely coincidental. ‘Wanderlust’ is a simpler, less metaphorical version of ‘Band On The Run’, ‘Take It Away’ speaks of the joy of playing for the sake of playing, even if no one’s listening (as the very Monkees-like music video makes clear), ‘Ballroom Dancing’ is nostalgia for the days when ballrooms were an escape from the grey smoky haze of a Liverpool weekend, ‘Dress Me Up As A Robber’ is about wearing various guises and hiding behind them and ‘Ebony and Ivory’ is a dream of a utopia to fill the hole where Lennon’s ghost should have been on stage singing ‘Imagine’ to the masses.
The most talked about aspect of this album, then and now, is Paul’s Lennon tribute ‘Here Today’. Whilst George Harrison’s 1981 hit ‘All Those Years Ago’ (with Paul on backing vocals) had largely stolen it’s thunder, this was nevertheless a big event, like hearing Groucho talking about his brothers after their death or Stan Laurel talking about life without Oliver Hardy. Despite being exactly the sort of thing that Lennon would have hated, the song succeeds by making sure that we know that McCartney knew Lennon better than we did and that he couldn’t sing this song from the heart any other way. There’s a school of thought that says that Macca was better off without Lennon around to steal his thunder and quote his infamous ‘It’s a drag!’ speech as evidence of his callousness. That’s simply not true: Macca’s heart was quite clearly torn in two and its probably fair to say he still hasn’t quite over the shock of that December morning. If you doubt me, just look at the album cover for ‘Tiug OF War’, taken by Linda and overlaid with lots of 1980s computer graphics: Macca, overdubbing a harmony vocal, looks fragile and lost and even though he’s actually clasping his headphones to his ears many fans automatically saw it as a picture of a man in shock, with his face in his hands. Given the fuss around this album and McCartney’s recent success with ‘Ebony and Ivory’ in the charts, you could forgive Macca for giving a big bold statement on this cover, something akin to the big face of ‘Press To Play’ or the pipes and chair cover of ‘Pipes Of Peace’ (where Paul’s making ‘art’ just like Van Gogh, no really). A tug and pull between the emotion and the commercial, between needing to sound like the days of old and being in the here and now, between what the public expect McCartney to be and what he wants to be himself – it sums up this album better than most.
Apparently the powers that be were so determined that ‘Tug Of War’ should be perfect that this record was scheduled and re-scheduled no less than five times, a figure which is starting to make Neil Young’s delayed-by-20-years Archives box set look normal. In fact, it took a record 13 months of ‘sweetening’ and tweaking after this album officially wrapped before this album was released (the last ‘proper’ session had been in March 1981, but the record wasn’t out till April 1982) – that’s a longer gestation time than any of Macca’s past three records in 2011 now he’s in his late 60s! Many reviewers, both then and now, praise George Martin for all this extra work on the project compared to Macca’s ‘slapdash’ approach to the past two albums and ‘weeding’ out the writer’s worst excesses and dumping the worst tracks (most of them for use on ‘Pipes Of Peace’). Certainly there is praise to be had, with Martin stripping down the sound of this album at times, despite the electronic gadgetry (its most probably George who suggested that ‘Here Today’ should sound like the string quartet on ‘Yesterday’ and pushed for the smaller band line-ups that play on ‘Take It Away’ and ‘Somebody Who Cares’).
But there are mistakes here too. Considering the amount of songs left over and ripe for improving during a 13 month gap then why do we still have so many misfires here (the collaborations with Stevie Wonder and Carl Perkins in particular) instead of the much superior songs from ‘Pipes Of Peace’? (The majestic title track and one of Paul’s most under-rated tracks of all time, the achingly brilliant ‘Through Our Love’?) Plus, which twit told Macca to stick one of his better songs from the period on a B-side instead of making it an album track (‘Rainclouds’, B-side of ‘Ebony and Ivory’ – the main track of which Paul, Linda, Denny Laine and George Martin were working on At Abbey Road when they heard the news of Lennon’s death, the first time Paul had been back there in seven years – no longer Macca seems to be on another planet by the time the press all jump on him walking back to his car that night. Perhaps not co-incidentally, it’s the last time Denny gets a songwriting credit on a McCartney release) and then leaving it off the CD re-issue, so that its virtually unknown nowadays. Personally too, I do like this album as it sounds but I’d have loved it more with some of the rough edges left in – by far the most exciting parts of this record are the ones that sound spontaneous, like the ragged retro rock of ‘Take It Away’ and the stripped down soul of ‘Wanderlust’. In fact I prefer the demos to this record than the actual finished product (not unusual that – I prefer to hear both ‘Venus and Mars’ and ‘London Town’ that way too) as they sound more ‘alive’, with all this ‘surface sheen’ getting in the way of rather than enhancing the heart at the centre of Macca’s songs. So let’s hope Macca’s got lots of these home-recordings up his sleeve for the forthcoming ‘deluxe’ versions of all three albums, because the demos of ‘Take It Away’ and ‘Robber’, particularly, outshine anything here, however glossy. (For the record ‘Take It Away’s B-side ‘I’ll Give You A Ring’ is missing on CD too, though its actually an old recording from 1974).
‘Tug Of War’ is not the best McCartney solo album, whatever people said at the time (and some say now, but in lesser numbers). For me it doesn’t have the invention that sparks both ‘McCartney II’, ‘Press To Play’ and ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ (Paul’s best releases of the 1980s) and at times it seems like a checklist of things to get right and boost sales rather than a fully fledged organic album, even if most of them are here by accident not design (special guest stars, up tempo rockers, Lennon memorial, contemporary sounding dance number, check – it’s all here). But when this album does it get it right it reminds you just how talented McCartney can be and there’s plenty of evidence of his magical ability with melodies, plus some of the tightest and trickiest arrangements of his whole career. There’s definitely a tug of war going on between McCartney’s shallower and deeper sides on this album, but thankfully the more emotional, moving side of Macca wins out.
I remember coming across one or two surprises the first time I ever bought a copy of the Guinness Hit Singles (the big green one – the third I think) and no page surprised me more than the McCartney one. Singles I thought had done OK turned out to be huge hits and ones that people rated highly and still got played on the radio lots were nowhere to be seen. One of the facts that surprised me most was that ‘Tug Of War’ missed the charts completely, despite the fact that follow-up (and close cousin) ‘Pipes Of Peace’ was McCartney’s last (to date) #1. Hearing them side by side it’s clear that ‘Pipes’ is a slightly stronger song, but both share the same wonderful production values (that really lift the song instead of suffocating it), a yearning typically McCartney melody (that sounds so natural it must surely have been around for aeons, not just 29 years) and a set of easily digestible words that everyone can understand and identify with. Like many a song on this album, it’s two part magic and one part madness, with a truly hair-raising ghostly chorus that join in every other line and one of the best middle eights of Paul’s career (‘one day we may discover what the dreams we dream and the lives we lead are all about...’), alongside some truly awful rhymes (‘grumble’ ‘crumble’ and ‘tumble’). The theme of this song is really about middle age, about coming to terms with the fact that you can’t do everything in life you want and that there are good periods and bad, which is actually quite a step forward for McCartney’s songwriting (certainly, it’s a lot more believable than the faux youth of ‘Back To The Egg’). The ‘tug of war’ analogy is a good one, with some ongoing fight with an unseen for that never really comes to an end (is this Paul already realising the yo-yo effect his and Lennon’s career will have, with the two’s solo careers in rise while the other is in decline and vice versa?) George Martin deserves special praise for his sensitive string arrangement and opening sound effects, which manages to make this song sound like a grand gesture – and yet if he really was out to ‘be McCartney’s boss’ then why didn’t he insist on a couple of lyric changes which would have made this occasionally clunky song one of Paul’s all-time best? There’s something slightly false about this song at the end of the day, as if the band have gone for one take too many and Paul is reading the lyrics rather than living them so it’s no surprise it didn’t sell. And yet on the otherhand I’ve heard worse mistakes and I’ll forgive it all for that magnificent middle eight, which tries to pack the mysteries and the meaning of life into one single, longing, aching question that the narrator knows will never be answered. Do I like it? It’s a tug of war.
‘Take It Away’ is one of the more successful songs on the album, simply because it isn’t trying as hard as the rest. A simple retro rocker that sounds like a 1950s record, it was originally written by Paul for Ringo’s second-best record ‘Stop And Smell The Roses’ of 1981 but was kept by Paul whern he developed it and it ‘stopped sounding like a Ringo record’. Ringo does get to play, though, on one of his better and more suitable parts for a McCartney track over the years, although it’s George Martin’s vamping piano (only recorded as a ‘guide’ for another player to overdub and kept in at the last minute) that steals the show (unbelievably, this is the first time Martin performed on a Beatles record since his cameo on ‘In My Life’ back on 1965). As for the song itself it’s a bit of a muddle, although iot seems to be a hymn for music in the same sense as The Beach Boys’ ‘Add Some Music To Yourt Day’ and The Kinks’ ‘Jukebox Music’. The tale of a performer’s excitement at hearing the words ‘take it away!’ and entering a stage. However, the second line makes it clear the performance is ‘when there’s no one else around...’, with the interaction of the listener coming not from a live concert but from playing the record. Along the way there’s snapshots of a lorry driver (taking the band’s equipment?) reaching out for the radio to make him feel less lonely, an impresario dictating how the band should perform and the band in the bar after the show, like ‘faded flowers’ in one of Macca’s best lines of the album (added to the song at the last minute – the demo simply has audience members clapping the band ‘now their message is complete’). In fact this song is not dissimilar to the plot of the maligned ‘Give My Regards To Broad Street’, Macca’s 1984 film project, which is just as compelling at first but equally fragmentary and frustratingly empty. The bit I really don’t get is the very Lennonish paranoid middle eight ‘you never know who may be listening to ya...’ which seems to have stepped out of a different song entirely before Macca uses a great pun to return to the main song (‘Take it away!’, as if dismissing the thought from his head). The result is a mixture, a song that swings all the better for the near-live performance and yet doesn’t quite swing enough (the saxophone overdubs and the oooh-ing backing choir were a bad idea). The words too are special, a rare chance to hear Macca making music about music, but they don’t go far enough and after a terrific first verse sound more like one of Macca’s story songs than a true life account of times on the road (although perhaps Paul had already written that with ‘Famous Groupies’?...)I hate to say it, but there’s a tug of war going on yet again between brilliance and mediocrity.
If I have a favourite song on the album then it’s probably ‘Somebody Who Cares’ (a song that next to nobody picks as their favourite!) Paul only wrote it because he’d invited busy session drummer Steve Gadd along for the day and wanted to impress his hero (who’d played on albums by The Beach Boys, Paul Simon and the Mamas and Papas) with a great new song. Gadd’s impeccable timing does a good job of keeping this fragile beast of a song on its feet as it all but trips up on the opening before opening up into a typically McCartney singalong chorus. This is a song about faith, about the hope that love will always see you through your worst times and McCartney’s narrator is nicely empathetic to a cast of characters suffering minor mishaps that actually serve as metaphors to remind them of how bad this patch of their live is. Hence the driver who comes out to find someone has robbed the wheels off his car ‘has nowhere to go’ and a body that’s ‘coming apart at the seams’ with no one around to sew it back up. The switch between a minor key verse and major key chorus sounds like the sun coming out, with a single miked Paul (unusual for this album) suddenly bursting into a McCartney multi-chorus as he sings about how everyone has someone who cares, whoever they may be. Even here, though, this song isn’t easily solved, the chorus suddenly disappearing down a well of doubt with the worry ‘if you don’t know it how can love find you? How will it know your whereabouts?’, as if love is an actual visible magic, looking for someone to ‘bewitch’. Paul’s superb at writing these sort of songs for the people other millionaire songwriters ‘forget’ and ought to write more of these ‘Eleanor Rigby’ type compositions (even if it’s not quite up to that level of writing). The band, too, turn in one of the best performances of the album: as well as Steve Gadd there’s well known bassist Stanley Clarke, Adrian Brett on panpipes (usually the golden rule is never put panpipes onto an already saccharine song, but they sound surprisingly good here), Denny Laine and Linda Macca on harmonies for the last time (sniff!) and sounding as good as ever and Macca playing a unique Spanish guitar solo! If Paul really did write this song to ‘impress’ someone he admired, then 1) why does Carl Perkins get such a raw deal at the end of this LP and 2) someone get hold of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and The Everly Brothers’ numbers and get them to ring him!
‘What’s That You’re Doing?’ is Stevie Wonder’s moment to shine. Jammed in between sessions for ‘Ebony and Ivory’ this sounds to me like Stevie getting his own back, casting McCartney adrift on his overdubbed sounds on a track very much made his way after hours of overdubbing lines onto a song he had no hand in (I’ve always thought it strange that Macca didn’t wait to write ‘Ebony’ as a collaboration, given that’s what the song is all about and he already had Stevie in mind when he started writing it). Paul just sounds lost here, even if its a pleasant surprise to hear his full blooded ‘shouting’ vocal on a song for the first time since ‘Soilly’ on the ‘Wings Over America’ album (perhaps performing that song every night for two years made him lose his full voice for five?!) That said, this isn’t a bad song – I prefer to ‘Ebony’ inevitably – and for once George Martin’s perfectionist tweaking is correct, adding layers of harmonies, a bass and sampled drums (originally played by Macca) onto a song that would have sounded empty without them. It’s proof too of Stevie Wonder’s talent (he’s been almost as prolific as Macca during his career) and ability to keep an ear out for modern trends (this is by far the most contemporaneous track on the album – in fact it sounds even more of the early 80s than ‘McCartney II’ using virtually the same equipment!) He’s clearly having fun too – listen out for his cheeky improvisation ‘she loves you yeah yeah yeah’ (mischievously taken up by Denny Laine on backing vocals) as if pointing out how far both he and Macca have come since they started their careers more or less at the same time. Most fans dismiss this song as noisy and too electronic, which it is – but there’s also evidence of talent at work here, even if its not always the sort of talent that would normally appear on a McCartney LP.
The song also makes for a great contrast with ‘Here Today’, Paul’s song for John. For years I struggled to work out whether this record, which so very obviously apes ‘Yesterday’ - a song Lennon is meant to have hated, was the right way of paying respects to Lennon. Typically McCartney, it starts off sounding inspired, gives up by the middle and all comes right at the end, hitting all sorts of right and wrong notes along the way. Then I heard it in concert in 2002, played by Macca to a solo guitar, and suddenly it all made sense: back in the dying days of 1980 when the world mourned Lennon the song un-knowing radio DJs played most often was ‘Yesterday’. Now John had nothing to do with that song and certainly doesn’t appear on the recording and poked fun at it whenever he could, joking at Macca’s attempts to ‘go soft’. But the reason so many people played it is because it’s a moving song about loss and wanting to go back in time just before an awful tragedy and erase it, because the thought of living with that loss in the present is too awful to comprehend. Sure Lennon hated ‘Yesterday’, but as an adult McCartney had never, up to that time, had such a heavy unexpected loss in his life and the theme of ‘Yesterday’ somehow fits, even with McCartney trying to subvert it into being a song about the ‘present’ rather than the past (which nevertheless slips back easily into memories with the line ‘what about the times...’).
The lyrics are a similar mixture of pathos and bathos, with McCartney straying too close to the lines he used on ‘Yesterday’ for comfort before ending the chorus with a very real ‘I am holding back the tears no more’, which comes out of nowhere and sounds very genuine indeed. Basically this song is McCartney reflecting that he was one of only a few people who knew the ‘real’ Lennon behind the ever-growing ‘myth’, the man who’d take off his spectacles during a heated argument and say ‘it’s only me, you know’. The ‘night we cried...because there wasn’t any reason left to keep it all inside’ was a real night when The Beatles, on tour in America in 1965, had an unexpected night off and the two musicians celebrated with a drinking party after George and Ringo had retired to bed. Paul has never revealed what the pair spoke of but often brings it up in interviews as a moment that ‘cleared the air’ and found the two men closer than ever, talking about their ‘real’ feelings away from any preying eyes and ears. This part of the song is moving and a real tribute to Lennon, something which – along with the lines about Lennon laughing and telling Paul that he never really ‘got’ him at all – rings perfectly true. But there are lapses here too, with the line of friction ‘never understood a word’ ending with an uncomfortable twist to the major and the line ‘you were always there with a smile’, which sounds more like Paul’s character than John’s, while the closing line ‘you were always in my song’ is too generic to ring true (what part of Lennon was in the song ‘Ebony and Ivory’ or the recently recorded ‘Frog Song Chorus’?) Elsewhere I’ve given Macca leeway with the odd ‘filler’ lyric that doesn’t match up to what’s around it, but not here: this song is too important. The string quartet arrangement too is slightly cloying and clearly not to Lennon’s taste: George’s bouncy ‘All Those Years Ago’ is hardly the most suitable tribute either but at least it sounded like the songs Lennon was working on when he died (the best Lennon tribute remains Paul Simon’s startling ‘The Late Great Johnny Ace’, which sounds like ‘I Am The Walrus’ ‘Strawberry Fields’ ‘A Day In The Life’ and ‘Twist and Shout’ rolled into one!) Then again, I can’t be the only fan to get a tear in my eye hearing the live version of this song (on ‘Back In The US’), where McCartney even surprises himself with how emotional he suddenly is.
‘Ballroom Dancing’ is a bit of light relief. A kind of homage to Strictly Come Dancing 25 years too early, this song was part of a sudden nostalgia move by the 60s rockers for the very Ballrooms their success had seen knocked down and turned into concert halls (The Kinks will score big with ‘Come Dancing’ the following year). Here the ballroom is the young McCartney’s escape route, his enjoyment at the weekends away from school before he met the other Quarrymen and from homelife where siblings ‘used to fight like cats and dogs’, although the ballrooms themselves are so special they bring everybody together and sound other-worldly (‘Big BD!’) It’s also the source of his childhood (just like it was Ray Davies’), a memory from a more innocent age when people courted by dancing, not by snogging or drug taking. The last verse is especially good, reflecting on passing years with far more grace than ‘Memory Almost Full’ did and there’s a clever line about how the young narrator ‘didn’t cry if it hurt a bit’, trying to sound braver and older than his years. It may be that this song really is about dancing and Paul has a talent we never knew he had (he’s got every other talent going...) and as such is similar to Nils Lofgren’s ‘Sweet Midnight’ from last week’s newsletter (a nifty bit of advertising, that!), although I suspect it’s actually his first experience of ‘youth’ music that he was actually allowed to enjoy, back when rock and roll was something you heard from radios smothered under bedclothes or had confiscated by teachers during break time. No dancers could possibly dance to this convoluted tempo (although that doesn’t stop them gamely trying in the ‘Broad Street’ film – altogether now, ‘Wave the sword, kids!’) and it most certainly isn’t a cha-cha-cha as announced (I’ve never danced in my life or seen a full programme on it – falling over with style is as good as I’ve ever come – and even I know that!) Plus, there’s way too much trickery going on near the end for what is at heart a very simple song with rather odd lyrics. I love the line about having a ‘recipe for a lovely day sticking out of my back pocket’ – it sounds like a comic or, more likely knowing Macca, a Rupert Bear annual, although other lines here are just peculiar. How did ballroom dancing ‘make a man of me’? (we never find out) How many other youngsters dreamt of ‘going down the Nile in a china cup?’ (I can honestly say I’ve never meant anyone who had this daydream) And how come the song undergoes such an unexpected sea change near the end (not a chord change as such, it just has a very peculiar, grating, counterpointed feel to it, with instruments running past each other and a mournful guitar solo). ‘Broad Street’ has a fight sequence choreographed to this performance, but it’s more likely Macca meant this section to sound like ‘growing up’ and entering adulthood, in the same way that Syd Barrett used to stick scary instrumentals into his songs about yearning for childhood, to signify just why he wanted to go back in time. The result is a song that’s well performed and arranged, with a clever idea at the heart of it and some very clever moments –and yet, for all its plus points, it tried too hard to do too much and sound good, when it should have been getting on with telling the story. Another tug of war.
‘The Pound Is Sinking’ is another of my favourite songs on the album, even though it breaks all the ground-rules just lain down in ‘Ballroom Dancing’. A song inspired by hearing a financial report on the news and Macca’s imagination being piqued by the fact that all over the country businessmen were getting excited over an arbitrary figure made up and agreed between human beings. As a result of covering such an unequal and unstable landscape, this song veers wildly between styles and themes, turning a simple dialogue into an epic by the end. In case you hadn’t noticed the bit near the end of the song ‘Hear me, my lover’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the economy and was actually part of a different song entirely – strangely it fits here much better than so-called medleys like the ‘Red Rose Speedway’ and ‘Picasso’s Last Words’ do. Better yet, the third ‘section’ of the song sees Macca again using his full-throated roar after years in mothballs and is the single most electrifying moment on this album, Macca’s narrator replying to some Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey establishment figures with a yell of ‘no it didn’t happen! Well, only for a minute...’ There’s a whole song in just that one section, which is rattled off in such a sudden thrilling climax, never to be repeated. There’s no surprise to see Eric Stewart’s name in the list of backing vocalists: this is such a 10cc song, making the financial markets sound all the sillier for the regard and seriousness which they’re being given, packing the song with some suitable sound effects and switching styles so quick you hardly have time to blink. There’s even a mock-reggae section – is Macca honestly saying Eric didn’t have a hand in the writing of this song? Indeed, this song has more in common with Macca’s most under-rated album ‘Press To Play’ (most of which is co-written with Stewart) than on this strong but much more conventional album. An unexpected success, with Macca moving away from his comfort zone, with Paul’s vocal and his nicely biting electric guitar sounding far more involved with this song than any others on the album.
‘Wanderlust’ is generally regarded as this album’s best song. It’s certainly the most McCartneyish track here, with a lovely sweeping melody and lyrics about searching for redemption that mirror ‘Band On The Run’. It’s actually a true story, albeit one that dates back to 1978 and ‘London Town’. If you’ve read our review for that album (it’s no 71 – I’ll wait for you now to go and have a look...ooh back so soon?) then you’ll know that Wings recorded it in on three boats that sailed round the Virgin Islands. The boat that Paul and Linda and clan lived on for the month was called ‘Wanderlust’ and was loaned from a very old school boatowner who didn’t take kindly to having rockstars on ‘his’ boat and one day caused a ruckus when he found the McCartneys smoking cannabis onboard. It would take another 10,000 words to give you the whole long history of McCartney’s ever-changing attitude to drugs, from being the last believer in The Beatles to the point where he’s faced the courts five times now over various charges (his first song about drugs, ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ should give you a clue from the title alone). Suffice to say that this is the ‘petty crime’ that the narrator was found guilty of (so ‘the bust’ in the lyrics can be taken literally) – although interestingly here his escape is to sail his accuser’s own boat around and head out to sea. Of course to those who don’t know the story then ‘Wanderlust’ also serves as a song about escaping bureaucracy, with a middle eight that suggests the narrator is now a fugitive. Like many a song on ‘Tug Of War’ ‘Wanderlust’ only half works: Paul’s falsetto on the verses is a great idea and the middle eight, sung to the same rhythm and by the end as counterpoint to the main theme, is a classic piece of McCartney engineering (to date it’s the last time he’s used this famous Wings trick, which can be also heard on ‘Silly Love Songs’ and ‘So Glad To See You Here’, among others – which is sad because this is more or less the last Wings recording). There’s a few too many repeats of the chorus, though, a funeral-like air that runs through most of the song with no real variation and a curious ending (‘Dropping a line! Maybe this time it’s Wanderlust for me!’) that sounds hurried and desperate, as if McCartney didn’t know how to end his song. That said, the melody-line to this song is so spectacularly natural and flowing and so darn McCartney-like despite having nothing in common with any other McCartney song that all other criticisms sound like the ‘petty crimes’ of the story.
‘Get It’ is rather less impressive, a bit of good time boogie shared with a real life 50s legend Carl Perkins. Now, it was George Harrison who worshipped Carl in The Beatles (to the extent where he gave himself the onstage pseudonym Carl Harrison at one point) – to the best of my knowledge Macca didn’t get into performing his songs until ‘Run Devil Run’ in 1997, so this partnership struck us as rather strange at the time. Macca sounds downright confused too judging by his vocal, which is smothered by echo in an attempt to sound like an old Sun record – only the same effect isn’t applied to Carl’s voice at the end, so the end result sounds like Macca was singing in the shower and Carl is downstairs joining in. Carl Perkins sounds remarkably at home on a McCartney song that, really, is just a poor spoof of the sort of comedy-rockabilly songs he made his own at the start of his career, adding a few signature ‘go cat go!’s that work much better than Macca’s middle eight busking. Truly, this is the sort of song that only a multi-millionaire who doesn’t need to worry about what his guests will think would ever want to record - and sounds suspiciously like the Brian Wilson-with-Paul McCartney guesting misfire ‘A Friend Like You’ (perhaps Brian was a close friend of Carl’s and wanted to get his own back). The end result is a deeply uncomfortable McCartney and a very happy Perkins having a tug-of-war over how the song should go. Incidentally, that famous laughter at the end of the track was entirely genuine and deserves a back story to itself. Perkins’ first speech to McCartney when arriving to his studio was ‘aren’t we two lucky punks being able to record for a living like this – some days I feel like I’m shitting cotton!’ Macca was at a loss as to what to say, but got his own back during overdubs when he told Perkins his last vocal was ‘so good, it sounds like you were shitting cotton!’
That laughter makes for a fun segue into a link piece that’ll turn into ‘Dress Me Up As A Robber’. At only 20 seconds there’s not much point giving this bit its own section (it’s the shortest McCartney recording since the similar links on ‘Wildlife’), but it is fair to say it makes a better transition into the next track than simply crashing into the next song. The vocoder on Paul’s voice is a nice effect too, similar to what Neil Young was doing on ‘Trans’ that year...
The song proper is a bit of empty pop dressed up to sound like a dance record and the closest Macca has ever come to re-bottling the factors that turned ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Goodnight Tonight’ into two of his best ever songs. Macca’s always had a feel for these kind of records (1989 B-side ‘Ou-Est Le Soliel?’ is another successful track that I managed to con one of my friends into thinking was made by a teenage dance star a la Screamadelica once!) and this one’s no different, full of the right sort of catchy riffs played over and over to hypnotic effect and a ‘tug of war’ between a heavier brass section and a more laidback jazz section. Macca’s falsetto is even higher this time around and to some extent unrecognisable had you come to this track fresh, which is apt for a song about wearing disguises and changing styles. Despite the messy and ever-moving backing, though, this is really a song about stability, with the underlying message that whether the narrator had chosen to be a robber, a sailor or something else, he still would have been the same person. There’s a nice, more normal sounding counterpoint to all this, with Macca using his deeper voice on a voice that sounds more like a 1940s crooner in stark contrast to the then-futuristic sounds on the rest of the track (perhaps Paul was thinking of the truly oddball Xmas duet between David Bowie and Bing Crosby? – first heard on a TV special in 1977, it was finally released as a single the Xmas after this album). The result is a song that’s actually far better than it has a right to be, with a classic driving riff and just the right balance of performances from McCartney on the two vocals and another exotic Spanish style solo (had someone just bought him a Spanish guitar that year?) Why Macca decided to abandon this style of genre after three successful songs – and why this song wasn’t chosen as one of the three singles from the album – is anyone’s guess.
The album then closes with the song that everybody loves to hate, ‘Ebony and Ivory’. To be fair the idea for this song, that white notes and black notes live side by side on a piano and work together to create ‘harmony’, is a great one with lots of scope for comment. Unfortunately, it was already a phrase in common usage before 1982 and most likely was coined by Goon Spike Milligan in one of his hundreds of books (presumably while he was walking backwards for Christmas). There’s also nothing of any value added to the song past those great opening lines which basically say the same thing over and over and over and over again. Getting in Stevie Wonder to duet on the song is a good idea on paper, but the two’s singing styles don’t make for an easy mix and it would have made much more thematic sense had the two actually written the song together, rather than Macca introducing it as a fait acompli. The main problem is that the two singers sound so uncomfortable around each other. Singing the end of each other’s lines should be a great idea, but you can hear the two are waiting for each other so as not to crash into them, rather than genuinely sparring off each other. The only section where this song lives up to it’s title is the second verse, where Stevie crashes his lines ‘there is good/bad’ and McCartney hums along ‘hmm mm’, as if assuming that take of the song won’t actually be used and they can mess around with it. Arguably they should have done more of this because ‘Ebony and Ivory’ sounds woefully po-faced, like a charity single about impending death rather than a chance to unite in brotherly love. Curiously the McCartney-only version has even less magic about it, suggesting that even the author wasn’t that taken with it either – so why should we care? The worst thing of all, though, is the amount of synths they dressed this song up in, making it second only to ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’ in a list of McCartney songs that sound truly awful, whatever their message, content, melody and ideas. A bad idea done in the worst possible way, the fact that this song became a big seller – even outshining ‘Coming Up’ – shows 1) that demand for Beatles-related product was reaching fever pitch 2) that as a duet this song appealed to two separate markets or 3) people will buy any old rubbish if they think it’s a message they ought to hear, however badly it’s presented. I don’t think Stevie Wonder has ever quite forgiven Macca for subjecting him to this song - then again, I don’t think Macca’s quite forgiven himself for it yet, either.
Oh dear. Yet ‘Tug Of War’ sounded so promising when it started that already, rather than being put off at the thought of hearing that godawful song again, you’re already remembering that promise you felt when you first started playing this record. There’s enough magical moments sprinkled across this record to make it worth your while even hearing that one again (though handily Macca put it at the end of the CD so only Stevie Wonder fans, masochists and website reviewers needed ever hear it again). There are times when McCartney comes across as the genius we always knew he could be, delighting us with new sounds played with the magic quality of old and returning us to some past sounds in a way that makes the new experience exciting and intriguing. Then there’s the workaday McCartney who can’t quite bring himself to make one song that’s inspired all the way through, piling on the overdubs to cover up holes that instead just have attention drawn to them. To be honest, this album has less excuse than most for getting things wrong: if I didn’t know better I’d say that this album just needed a few tweaks in the studio to sort the problems out; the only problem is its 13 months of tinkering about that robbed it of the magic should be there in the first-place. Things will get worse before they get better (and the lack of recognition for his better and more adventurous albums don’t help) but the mistakes here are righted, sooner or later and lessons are learnt. In many ways ‘Tug Of War’ is better than what’s just come before: there’s more unity than ‘London Town’, a better strike rate than ‘Back To The Egg’ and more conventionality than ‘McCartney II’. It’s just what the world needed in a Beatle-starved 1982, in other words, although it’s a tug of war whether there’s enough going for it for you want to experience it again now....