Album Review: “Tug Of War” — Paul McCartney (1982)

tug56ffghjPaul officially goes ’80s, and dadgum it if it doesn’t actually work pretty well!!

Well, Wings was done, at least as of April 1981. Funny thing was, the Tug of War sessions began as early as June of 1980 at Finston Manor in Kent, while Wings was still quite the viable entity (the solo MCCARTNEY II album notwithstanding). The summer of 1980 saw substantial recording sessions, as most of the “Tug Of War” album seemed to start taking shape then. Many of these were rough studio tracks, which Paul then in turn took to legendary Beatles producer George Martin in order to collaborate on the new album together (as well as doing work on the “Rupert Bear” project, an animated property to which Paul owned the rights). Sessions continued throughout 1980. While working on “Rainclouds”, Paul & George received the tragic news of John Lennon’s murder in New York.

Work on the album was suspended until February 1981; Wings got together in January to do some overdubs on the abandoned “Cold Cuts” project, a period which turned out to be the last Wings recording session ever. In February, “Tug Of War” recording resumed in Montserrat and moved over to AIR London in March, where they continued throughout the rest of the year. February was easily the most collaborative month, during which Paul and George were joined by Carl Perkins, Ringo Starr, and Stevie Wonder! Tug Of War was turning out to be Paul’s most guest-star-laden album ever.

Maybe it was George Martin’s steady hand or the constant stream of outside friends/influences (even Denny Laine stuck around; he performed on 6 of the album’s 12 cuts), but the end result turned out to be one of Paul’s best produced and most confident albums. Tug Of War feels like the album in which Paul “grows up”; he turned 40 the year of its release. He was no longer trying to compete with ’70s rock scene, emerging trends, or flavors of the month; he played to his strengths as a master pop songwriter and an ear for strong melodies to good effect. That’s not to say that the album is perfect (it’s not) or that it’s not a bit dated (it is), but the album still succeeds because it feels so effortless and natural, yet still meticulously produced. George Martin’s editorial hand is in full play here. Lesser material is mostly weeded out (and, sadly, shoved aside onto the next album, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) and while not every track is a smash, the album does feel like a cohesive, consistent whole.

So commercially, how’d it do? Well, it was pretty darn big. The lead-off single “Ebony and Ivory” (released in March 1982, a month before the album dropped), a hokey duet with Stevie Wonder, was a huge hit. It went straight to #1 and spent seven weeks there, the longest chart-topping single of Paul’s career since “Hey Jude”. Read that again. It even hit the “Black Singles” chart. The album ended up topping the charts all over the world, going Platinum, and successfully re-positioned Paul McCartney as a viable musical force for the 1980s.

I think Tug Of War is a swell album. It’s probably the LEAST rocking album McCartney was involved with up to that point, but Paul wasn’t trying to outdo Foghat anymore. The songs and production are for the most part pretty strong, and if there’s a tune or two I can live without, it’s not because they are bad songs. In fact, there’s not a bad song on the album, really.

“Tug Of War” starts the album with a slow, kinda epic ballad that builds nicely. It wears its late 70s/early 80s Euro-Pop feel on its sleeve, and it’s a lushly produced, confident start to the album. It feels like a strong ABBA track. Take that for what it’s worth. It segues beautifully into the wonderful “Take It Away”, one of Paul’s best singles EVER (five weeks in the Billboard Top 10). Joining Paul is Ringo on the drums and George Martin on the piano, and it really cooks. The reggae-ish opening builds into a melodic, uptempo pop number that is almost impossible to resist. The horn section and galloping drumline are a bit reminiscent of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, and if the song unfortunately fades out with some real chintzy horn work, it’s earned it by then. Great song.

“Somebody Who Cares” opens with some tasteful acoustic guitarwork from Paul, as he croons a gentle little feel-good, James Taylor-ish number. A little maudlin, but an OK track. “What’s That You’re Doing” is his first duet with Stevie Wonder, and from note one there’s no mistake that this song has Stevie written all over it. It’s completely synth driven, Stevie’s inimitable style is all over it, and it’s a great tune. Stronger and much more substantial than their second duet, this is the perfect combination of both talents: Stevie’s funk and phrasing, Paul’s melodies and pop craftsmanship.

“Here Today” is Paul’s ode to John Lennon, and it sounds and feels so completely honest and heartfelt that it’s hard to believe this was the guy behind “Wings at the Speed of Sound”. It’s basically Paul with an acoustic guitar, backed up by a string quartet. It’s hard to listen to and not get a bit taken aback at times. Another knock out of the park for Paul. Five tracks in, and four of them have been pretty stellar.

The album takes a slight dip here. I’m not crazy about “Ballroom Dancing”. It’s not a bad song; sort of a nostalgic toe-tapper with a style reminiscent of that pop-country production of the early’ 80s. It’s OK, it doesn’t offend in any way, and it certainly stands out stylistically in a non-abrasive way, but it’s not quite up there with the Side 1 tunes. “The Pound Is Sinking” fares worse; it’s the weakest track on the album. I’m not quite sure this song knows what it wants to be, and shifts styles rather jarringly toward the end. It’s the first skippable track on the album.

A beautiful piano opening from “Wanderlust” picks the album up nicely. The song is sort of an anthemic ballad with strong orchestrations and fine harmonies, and after the kinda disappointing previous two songs, puts Tug Of War back on track. Which is good, because I’m not too crazy about “Get It”, Paul’s duet with Carl Perkins. I’m just not a rockabilly/Carl Perkins fan. There’s nothing horrible about it, really. It’s nicely produced, both voices work well together, but it’s not my cup of tea.

“Be What You See (Link)” is a brief (40 second) piece that is comprised of reverbed Gregorian-esque chants over piano. Brief experimentation, not a real track in and of itself, but it leads nicely “Dress Me Up As A Robber”, a smooth disco-ish dance number. Paul’s singing some slick falsettos here, but it works, mostly. There’s echoes of some flamenco guitar and Brazilian jazz woven throughout the track. It kinda reminds me of a more electronic, synthy “Goodnight Tonight”. Is Paul playing a fretless bass here? And did George Martin REALLY play the electric piano on the track? I’d LOVE to see good ol’ George getting down and funky. Good track, nothing extraordinary but fun in and of itself.

And finally… “Ebony and Ivory”. The standout single of the album, the #1 smash, Paul’s second duet with Stevie Wonder. Lovingly embraced by the public at the time, jeered, derided, and endlessly mocked by the critical establishment. But, perhaps because of nostalgic attachment, I like the song. Painfully, treacly obvious, insipid as hell in its lyrics, we’re talking BOTH of Reginald Maudlin’s shins, this melodic pop ballad gets by on its catchiness and warm, playful camaraderie. I’ll never say this is a great song. But I love it.

No bonus tracks here, but if you get the iTunes version you can hear Paul singing “Ebony and Ivory” solo. Haven’t heard it. Don’t want to.

Side 1 of Tug Of War is pretty much fantastic. Side 2, not quite as much. “Wanderlust”, “Dress Me Up As A Robber” and “Ebony and Ivory” are good tracks, but I can take or leave “Ballroom Dancing”, skip “The Pound Is Sinking”, and “Get It”, while nothing really WRONG with it, is not my thing. If McCartney ever had an issue, it was front-loading his albums. Maybe that’s why they put the huge pop single as the last song. To keep people around? Regardless, I really enjoy Tug Of War quite a lot. As far as Paul’s solo studio work is concerned, I’d put it just behind “Band On The Run”, “Venus and Mars”, “Ram”, and “Flaming Pie”, and ahead of “Back To The Egg”. It’s a definite high-point of his solo career.

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