It’s funny how the roads to greater discovery oftentimes present themselves. Many years ago, as a youngster quickly developing an affinity for rock ‘n’ roll sounds greater and wiser than the chart toppers of my middle-school era, my gateway to the Beatles proved to be two well-worn copies of Paul McCartney solo albums filed away unobtrusively in the cabinet located below our rarely used LP player that remained anchored to our family’s living room stereo system. Rather than unearthing old copies of Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road, two albums that I would quickly purchase on compact disc, my initiation to the world’s most famous band came through repeated turntable listens of one of its’ members most puzzling and pedestrian efforts.
These two albums: Tug of War and Pipes of Peace, are the latest albums to be released under the banner of Paul McCartney’s Archive Collection, an ambitious project of reissues that has already brought forth remastered versions of several of Macca’s ’70s releases. These two albums prove to be somewhat surprising selections as they are generally most well-known for the hit collaborations they produced with fellow icons Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, and little else. The sessions for Pipes of Peace, in fact, are memorable for McCartney planting the idea of song ownership in young Michael Jackson’s head, which of course, in turn led him to surreptitiously turn around and purchase the rights to most of the existing Lennon/McCartney songbook.
Unlike Ram or Band on the Run, these albums aren’t usually identified as essential McCartney recordings. And unlike Red Rose Speedway or Back to the Egg, neither are these albums celebrated in that infamous, awful-yet-charming manner many albums often find themselves categorized in years after their release. Instead, these albums have just sort of been existing amongst the vast McCartney discography, with copies turning up in used record bin stores and garage sales, and one or two of their hit singles ubiquitously looping along on easy listening radio stations and grocery store speakers over the past 30years. Who hasn’t swung awkwardly along to “Ebony and Ivory” while searching for your discount card in the checkout line? Then again, though, McCartney’s solo career has generally best been examined through the lens of his various greatest hits and live album collections, where the best songs can be cherry picked for listening alongside his Beatles repertoire. In this regard, these archive collections serve as a necessary and overdue means to sift through the individual albums in search of the deep cuts and long overlooked songs that the master craftsman has churned out every few years with striking regularity.
The early ’80s found McCartney searching for a semblance of chart success. Wings had disbanded, having spent the better part of the previous five years running on fumes. His 1980 solo album McCartney II was a commercial flop, and McCartney himself was still dodging questions concerning his arrest and subsequent imprisonment that same year in Japan for marijuana possession. There was also the grief and shock still being dealt with over John Lennon’s murder at the tail end of that tumultuous year. To recapture the spirit, McCartney enlisted his old cohort: Beatles producer George Martin, and a diverse cast of musical characters (Carl Perkins, Denny Laine, and Ringo Starr all make appearances) to set upon a journey that would hopefully make up for lost time and waning interest from the rapidly changing pop music landscape. The end result was 1982’s Tug of War, a 12-track album that sold over a million copies in the US, produced three hit singles, and catapulted McCartney back to the top of the Billboard charts.
The best tracks on Tug of War are those that tone down the bombastic production stylings favored at the time and focus instead on the craftsmanship of McCartney’s lyrics and deft wordplay. “Somebody Who Cares” is a perfect example of McCartney’s gift for enhancing a simple lyrical ditty with rousing harmony and a memorable chorus. “Here Today”, recently resurrected as a nightly staple on his recent live set lists, resonates deeply with affection and fond remembrance on his partnership with Lennon. The small details in the verses outlining the bond of their collaboration and friendship blend perfectly with the catharsis reached in the chorus. Later on, “Wanderlust” finds McCartney rekindling the pop magic he previously perfected on classic Beatles tracks like “Hey Jude”, “Let It Be”, and “The Fool on the Hill”.
What doesn’t really work are the singles. The duet with Stevie Wonder on “Ebony and Ivory” proved to be one of McCartney’s greatest all-time hits, but really fizzles under the weight of poor, clichéd songwriting, overblown production, and pretty awful instrumental breaks and interludes. The album opening title track and the following “Take It Away” again suffer from bloated production values: literal “tug of war” grunts, heavy strings, and cheesy horns get in the way of the lyrical content and muddy up the intended sentiments.
With the exception of “Rainclouds”, a jangly call-and-response gem that demands repeated listens, the bonus disc will mostly appeal only to McCartney fanatics and completists. Most of the material is skeletal versions of the proper album tracks mixed with studio goofs and vibes. There’s not much to treasure nor much insight to reveal about the songs’ genesis and thematic connections.
If there’s one aspect of McCartney’s career that’s prone to criticism, it tends to be his overreliance on schmaltz. Going all the way back to tracks like “The Long and Winding Road”, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, and “Silly Love Songs”, the gushy sentimentalism he often employs comes across as genuine but ill-advised for someone with such lofty pop sensibilities. Whereas Tug of War kept these moments in check (save for the unfortunate Tin Pan Alley vamp “Ballroom Dancing” and the misguided racial harmony metaphors that plague the aforementioned “Ebony and Ivory”) Pipes of Peace unfortunately presents McCartney at his most regrettable. Rushed out to consumers in 1983 to capitalize off of Tug Of War’s commercial success, the album consists of a number of tracks that failed to stick on prior releases as well as a few tunes that seemingly attempt to capture the sound and feel exemplified a year earlier.
In fact, the songs that begin and nearly end the album, the woefully underdeveloped title track and the dreadful mashup “Tug of Peace”, don’t even attempt to hide their debt to its source material. Elsewhere, McCartney reaches for easy Top 40 chart power with his Jackson partnerships, the admittedly catchy in that pure ’80s manner “Say Say Say” and its’ lesser cousin “The Man”, works the saccharine, easy-listening mantra to its’ fullest on “The Other Me”, and “Through Our Love”, and sullies his sterling songwriting reputation with the painful Bee Gees-esque “So Bad”. It should be pointed out that “So Bad” actually features this chorus: “Well it feels so good / Sometimes it feels so bad / This is worse than anything I’ve ever had”. So bad, Mr. McCartney. So bad, indeed.
In an effort to not completely disparage Macca’s efforts here, it should be pointed out that “Sweetest Little Show” strums along nicely with some nifty Hamburg-era Beatles harmony, confidence and purpose. The following track, “Average Person”, also glides along with a zany and outlandish charm that tips a cap toward previous madcap adventures like “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and “You Never Give Me Your Money”. Anchored towards the end of the album, these tracks make for a nice one-two punch of refreshing creativity that give the proceedings a much needed spark of interest and vitality that the remainder of the material sorely lacks.
For an album that slogs along unassumingly, it’s not surprising then that the bonus material fails to make much of an impression either. The demo version of “Keep Under Cover”, however, works much better in this carefree, stripped down version and the unreleased demo of “Simple as That” simmers with some dark late-period Dylan-like potential that could have been fleshed out for inclusion on the proper album. There’s also a song called “Twice in a Lifetime” that would have been absolutely perfect to score montage scenes in hit shows of the time like Dynasty, or Magnum P.I.. Perhaps a comprehensive dig through the YouTube archives will prove that it did indeed actually serve that purpose.
Paul McCartney is one of those artists who, like many of his contemporaries, still gets the greatest applause for a handful of hits he wrote and performed generations ago. While that certainly makes him a timeless icon for the ages, it’s interesting to take some time to explore his lesser known works. With so much material to choose from, it’s likely that the archives will continue to be mined for reissues and bonus releases for years to come. While not all that’s released will demand repeated listens, it’s a refreshing endeavor to stack tracks like “Dress Me Up As a Robber” and “The Pound Is Sinking” alongside staples like “Live and Let Die” and “Maybe I’m Amazed”. If nothing else, it makes for good conversation and debate. Or, in a case like mine, good nostalgia. As I’ve fully embraced the vinyl resurgence, I just may need to go dig these old vinyl copies back up and, warts and all, take them for a few spins.