Paul McCartney's "War" and "Peace"

by Anthony Cusumano

20 November 2015

Paul McCartney recently re-released two of his albums from the early '80s: Tug of War and Pipes of Peace, making this the perfect time to reconsider a critical period in his career.
 
cover art

Paul McCartney

Tug of War

(Hear Music)
US: 2 Oct 2015
UK: 2 Oct 2015

cover art

Paul McCartney

Pipes of Peace

(Hear Music)
US: 2 Oct 2015
UK: 2 Oct 2015

The ‘80s were not off to a good start for Paul McCartney.

His pop empire had started to show some signs of weakness in the late ‘70s—before that, his single releases effortlessly made their way to the top 10; now they were peaking outside the top 20 (Garry McGee Band on the Run: A History of Paul McCartney and Wings). Of course, mediocre chart showings became a minor afterthought when, just 16 days into the new decade, McCartney found himself in handcuffs being escorted to a Japanese prison after customs discovered nearly half a pound of marijuana in his suitcase. It was his first time in the country since a 1966 Beatles tour, and while that trip had had its share of miserable moments, at least his band was able to perform. This time, the 11 scheduled Wings dates were canceled, and McCartney spent over a week in jail (Robert Rodriguez Fab Four FAQ 2.0: The Beatles’ Solo Years, 1970-1980). It would be another decade until he was able to realize a drama-free tour of Japan (Madinger and Easter Eight Arms to Hold You: The Solo Beatles Compendium).

That summer, the McCartney II album, a manic and confounding document of his adventures with a synthesizer, was released to dismal reviews. Billboard deemed it an “exercise in pop insignificance”, a reputation that seemed to stick with critics and fans alike for decades before an archival set allowed for reappraisal in 2011 (McGee). (When the quirky “Temporary Secretary” made its live debut in London earlier this year, the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction was topped only by the sheer glee of Internet McCartney fanboys) (Devan Coggan “Watch Paul McCartney & Dave Grohl Play Beatles Classic ‘I Saw Her Standing There’”). The album may have produced a #1 single with the infectious “Coming Up,” but much to McCartney’s chagrin, in America the hit was the live B-side rendition by Wings, a band whose future was decidedly up in the air at this point (McGee).

The greatest achievement for “Coming Up”, though, was its apparent role in pushing John Lennon back to the recording studio after a five-year hiatus. In a lengthy interview with Playboy, Lennon called the track “a good piece of work”—high praise from the man who was both McCartney’s greatest collaborator and his greatest competitor (David Sheff All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono). Rumors persist that the pair had plans to revive their songwriting partnership (if not launch a full-scale Beatles reunion), but Lennon’s murder ended 1980 on an even lower note than it had begun (Badman). For the ever-optimistic McCartney, now was the time to seize the opportunity of having nowhere to go but up.

Hoping to recapture some of the magic they had created together in the ‘60s, he enlisted George Martin to produce the next Wings album. As the sessions progressed, however, the members of Wings began to migrate, with McCartney and Martin favoring session players and more famous musicians, including Eric Stewart of 10cc, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Carl Perkins, and even former bandmate Ringo Starr (Madinger and Easter). McCartney never formally announced a breakup beyond tepidly telling Music Express in 1982, “We sort of disbanded for this album”, but once the Japanese tour fell through, it was a question of when, not if, the band would say goodnight tonight (Ray Bonici “Paul McCartney Flying on Clipped Wings”).

The sessions proved quite fruitful, and McCartney hoped to issue the work as a double album. When his record label vetoed that idea, the singer compiled much of the best material on the astounding Tug of War, arguably his finest studio effort since the legendary Band on the Run nine years earlier (Madinger). Released in April 1982, Tug of War was a diverse yet polished collection of songs, ranging from the country-fried Perkins duet “Get It” to the lengthy Stevie Wonder-assisted funk jam “What’s That You’re Doing” to the stunning title track, initially a gentle acoustic ballad that soon morphs into a bombastic, powerful opening statement. The album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic (Madinger).

McCartney’s catalog is filled with unheralded gems, and one of the finest must be “Wanderlust.” The melody is so majestic that it will probably take a few listens before you realize the lyrics are about a drug bust (and not the one in Japan—it would take a lot of frequent flyer miles to cover the places where pot has gotten McCartney in trouble) (John Blaney Paul McCartney: The Songs He Was Singing). Perhaps inspired by reuniting with Martin and Starr, and hoping to never again experience the agonizing struggle of having eternally unfinished business with Lennon, McCartney attempted to thaw his icy relationship with George Harrison, reaching out to the guitarist to contribute a solo to “Wanderlust.” Harrison apparently responded affirmatively, but when McCartney, his wife Linda, Martin, and loyal Wings member Denny Laine traveled to Harrison’s home studio, the quiet Beatle instead enlisted his visitors to provide backing vocals for his own “All Those Years Ago,” a Lennon tribute that became a number 2 hit (Madinger).

Of course, audiences were especially curious to hear how McCartney would honor his fallen comrade, and the gorgeous “Here Today” became an immediate highlight of Tug of War. Musically, the track was vastly different from “All Those Years Ago”—Harrison crafted a bouncy pop song, while McCartney took a more sentimental approach. With a delicate string arrangement courtesy of Martin, it was exactly the sort of track Lennon would have publicly besmirched but privately admired. The lyrics are another story: Lennon undoubtedly would have praised his former partner’s emotional, uncompromisingly honest message. McCartney effectively invites listeners in on his half of a conversation with Lennon, refusing to sugarcoat the complications between them (“Knowing you, you’d probably laugh and say that we were worlds apart”) but not hiding his genuine affection either (“I am holding back the tears no more—I love you”). While McCartney has frustratingly neglected much of his post-70s output in concert, “Here Today” has been a staple of his set list for the past 13 years.

The most famous track on Tug of War is also the album’s most controversial. Utilizing piano keys as an analogy for race relations, McCartney initially approached “Ebony and Ivory” as a solo track, but he decided to team up with Wonder because, “I thought, ‘Well, it would be really good to do it with a black guy and a white guy and really literally sort of just show the feeling that you are trying to get over anyway’” (Blaney). (A solo version popped up as a B-side on the 12” single). Three decades later, it remains one of the more polarizing moments in McCartney’s repertoire. Critics bemoan its naively simplistic approach to such a complicated issue and its instantly dated production, but enough listeners either decided that it’s the thought that counts or fell for its undeniable melody to bring it to the top of the charts (Madinger).

Even in spite of “Ebony and Ivory”, Tug of War received high praise. Rolling Stone gave it a rare five-star review, deeming it “the masterpiece everyone has always known Paul McCartney could make” (Stephen Holden, “Paul McCartney Tug of War Album Review”). And with some songs already at least partly in the can, fans wouldn’t have to wait long for the follow-up. Unfortunately, when Pipes of Peace was released in October 1983, some probably would have preferred if McCartney had taken more time with it.

Pipes of Peace was designed to complement its predecessor, but in some ways seemed more like a calculated rip-off of the Tug of War formula. Martin’s production and the superstar duets may have still been there, but the performances and songwriting on the record seemed to reinforce the notion that these songs were leftovers and retreads: presented back to back near the end of the album were a dull instrumental jam and a dance remake of “Tug of War”, titled “Tug of Peace,” that at best could be described as merely confusing; at worst, pointless exercises that sound like really bad Talking Heads outtakes. In a far cry from its glowing review of his previous album, this time Rolling Stone accused the singer of “fully intend[ing] to be unexceptional” (Parke Puterbaugh “Paul McCartney Pipes of Peace Album Review”). McCartney can craft a great melody in his sleep—as he has reminded us time and time again over the past 50 years with the tale of how he came to write “Yesterday”—but on Pipes of Peace, he apparently was asleep while writing the lyrics too. How else do you explain the cringe-inducing opening to “The Other Me”: “I know I was a crazy fool for treating you the way I did / But something took a hold of me, and I acted like a dustbin lid”? (To all the McCartney apologists who point out that “dustbin lid” is Cockney slang for “little kid”—need I point out that “little kid” also fulfills the rhyme scheme, is the same number of syllables, and sounds infinitely less clunky?)

Much like Tug of War, Pipes of Peace is best remembered by a chart-topping, love-it-or-hate-it collaboration, this time with the then-inescapable Michael Jackson. “Say Say Say” was part of a trilogy of songs the duo recorded together, and both Jackson and McCartney were accused of having cynical motivations for teaming up: Jackson for abandoning his signature style and pandering to white audiences, and McCartney for making a desperate stab at relevancy in a shifting pop market by hitching a ride with the most popular artist of the day (Madinger). If that was McCartney’s intention, it paid off at first but eventually backfired when Jackson took McCartney’s advice of entering the lucrative world of music publishing. A few years later, Jackson made good on what McCartney thought was a joking threat to purchase the Lennon/McCartney songbook (Zack Greenburg Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-dollar Empire).

But in fairness, even a weak McCartney album will inevitably have some redeeming moments. The title track has about as much lyrical substance as “Ebony and Ivory”, but it’s also every bit as catchy. “Keep Under Cover” has a frantic appeal, while “Sweetest Little Show” possesses an irresistible charm. “Through Our Love” is fairly low-key, and could even be accused of going through the motions, but with its lush orchestration and sweet, pensive lyrics, it closes the album on a high note. While it’s probably fair to argue that Pipes of Peace was a disappointment following the monumental Tug of War, it stands as one of the more underrated entries in the McCartney discography.

The rest of the decade was less successful for McCartney, commercially and creatively. His next project was the ill-fated film Give My Regards to Broad Street and its equally disastrous soundtrack, filled with lifeless remakes of Beatles songs (but, naturally, it managed to justify its existence with one all-time McCartney masterpiece, “No More Lonely Nights”). The 1986 Press to Play record includes an outstanding ballad in “Only Love Remains”, as well as the unjustly overlooked Peter Gabriel pastiche “Pretty Little Head”, but it’s a mostly unmemorable affair. It wasn’t until 1989 that he re-emerged with the impressive Flowers in the Dirt—not the most consistent album in his catalog, but packed with some of his finest singles ever, including sophisticated power pop song “My Brave Face”, the contemplative ode to his late father “Put it There”, and the stunning “This One”—and a triumphant world tour, his first live performances in almost a decade.

This October, Tug of War and Pipes of Peace became the latest entries in the Paul McCartney Archive Collection, an ongoing series of remasters that began its slow rollout in 2010. Tug of War is given the victory lap treatment, complete with a newly created remix of the entire album, but for Pipes of Peace, it’s an opportunity for redemption. Of course, that’s all relative to the overall strength of McCartney’s catalog—an album like Pipes of Peace might stand out as the crown jewel of a lesser artist’s oeuvre. Conceptually, these two albums may be polar opposites, but both offer enough worthwhile material to prove that, when Paul McCartney is down, he doesn’t stay that way for long.

Pipes of Peace

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