Sunday, June 24, 2012

Paul McCartney - Tug of War (1982)

Paul McCartney began the 1980s the same way he'd begun the 1970s; he was unsure of where to go in the wake of his previous success, and he worked out his problems with a self-titled experimental solo album on which he played all the instruments.  But the circumstances of the beginning of the 1980s were much different than those at the start of the previous decade; 1980 began with his group Wings, then still a going concern, canceling their tour of Japan after Macca's infamous drug bust upon entering Tokyo, and it ended with the murder of his old friend and bandmate John Lennon, just as Paul was beginning to get his creativity going with George Martin helping him out.  (Ironically, McCartney had stopped working with Martin when the Beatles broke up to find new direction for his post-Beatles phase.)  By the time Paul got his bearings straight after Lennon’s murder, Wings was through.  Paul worked his way through the aftermath of such misfortune and produced one of the biggest landmarks of his solo career.
1982’s Tug of War, born of struggle, concerns itself with the struggle of opposites – the search for racial harmony, competing currencies, and boys and girls growing up and fighting like "cats and dogs."  A concern that obviously intrigued McCartney back in his Beatles years (as evidenced by "Hello Goodbye"), here the topic yields crisp rock arrangements, plaintive ballads with Martin’s tasteful orchestrations, and some of the wittiest lyrics Macca had conceived since Band On the Run.    The record has some of the finest players in the business – Wings' Denny Laine, 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Steve Gadd and another drummer, a fellow named Ringo – and their talents were not wasted.
The big hit from the record, "Ebony and Ivory," his duet with Stevie Wonder, is a bright, shimmering song full of hope, despite its inexplicable reputation for cloyingness.  Paul shrewdly puts himself on the opposite side of the black-white pop spectrum with "What’s that Your Doing?", a funk song he wrote with Stevie Wonder, with Stevie providing the groove and McCartney adding the gloss.  Among the other standouts on Tug of War are "Take It Away," the story of the role luck plays in the discovery of a band, which features Wings-style pop with bold brass and lightly pulsating rhythms, the majestic ballad "Wanderlust," which shows Paul more interested in traveling than touring like the rock star he is, and "The Pound Is Sinking," Tug of War’s sharpest rocker, which serves to remind us that the free market was never really a better arrangement for managing international relations.  "Ballroom Dancing," about the sexes discovering each other on the dance floor, is only a step behind "The Pound Is Sinking" in terms of rocking out.
The ghost of John Lennon haunts Tug of War, McCartney’s first album after John’s death.  On the surface, the classically orchestrated title song recalls "Imagine," and its plea for peace ponders a time and place when utopians could reign supreme.  Writer Jonathan Gould once suggested that when Paul sang, "In another world, we could stand on top of the mountain with our flag unfurled," he was talking about himself and the other Beatles even if he didn't know it.  (In another world, Gould noted, they had already scaled that summit, flag in hand.)  While "Here Today," an elegiac ballad that combines the moving music of Paul’s lighter Beatles numbers with the lyrical honesty of John's, was meant to be a tribute to Lennon, "Rainclouds," the song Paul began recording on the day after Lennon's murder in the hope that a recording session could serve as therapy, was a more appropriate memorial.  "Rainclouds," which became the non-album B-side of "Ebony and Ivory," could have fit nicely into Tug of War's opposites theme, with a jaunty acoustic guitar arrangement supporting lyrics about the change of weather between rain and sunshine.  It's stripped down to the barest music and lyrics, with the occasional spontaneity (how else can you explain the words "pretty woman in the morning" getting in there?) thrown in.  In other words, it's the very sort of song John would have composed.  It’s hard to listen to it without recalling Lennon’s own Beatles B-side, "Rain," as well as that song’s inventiveness.  Though not on Tug of War, "Rainclouds" was probably the finest posthumous salute John could have received.         

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