Wednesday 31 July 2013

Paul McCARTNEY: Tug Of War

(#264: 8 May 1982, 2 weeks)

Track listing: 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

“Don’t make records when you’re gutted,” said, I think, David Stubbs in Melody Maker of Ian McCulloch’s Candleland. While I wouldn’t recommend that as a maxim for absolutely every artist, it is perhaps reasonable to say that musicians who have suffered a terrible personal loss and are in the grieving process shouldn’t make records until they are ready to do so. But McCartney has time and time again thrown himself into hard work as a means of coping; and so it was that some seventeen months after Lennon’s death – no time at all, really – he had two albums ready to go. The music for the second would form the bulk of 1983’s non-chart topping Pipes Of Peace; the other was this one.

Tug Of War had begun life in October 1980 with the intention of being a Wings album. But while Denny Laine is present on most of it, and Linda’s backing vocals are rarely far from the listener’s ears, it became clear, even with George Martin back in the producer’s chair, that the old ways weren’t really working, and on 9 December, when McCartney heard about Lennon’s shooting, it was agreed to down tools for the time being. In fact he had stayed at AIR Studios all of that day, chiefly to avoid having to think about Lennon at home, but when faced with a persistent group of press reporters when leaving the studio that evening, a clearly cheesed-off McCartney remarked that Lennon’s death was “a drag.” This was swiftly transformed into a picture of the callous, heartless ex-Beatle who didn’t care about what had happened to his former best friend. What McCartney had meant was that having to deal with press reporters non-stop was a drag, but the underplaying was rejected; then as now, the world wanted the monkey faces, not realising that some people, including McCartney, didn’t do them, had their own ways of dealing with the unimaginable (indeed, towards the end of “Dress Me Up Like A Robber” – had he heard Adam and the Ants? – he owns up: “And what’s the point of changing/When I’m happy as I am?”).

Sessions resumed in February 1981, and people like Eric Stewart, then still half of 10cc, whom McCartney had known since his days in the Mindbenders, drifted into McCartney’s repertory orbit. A further two months of recording proved fruitful – a process probably halted by Laine’s announcement in April that he was leaving Wings – and McCartney, with Martin, spent the rest of the year quietly mixing the songs they had, redoing or rewriting parts where needed.

When released, the album received a warm and, I would say, generous critical reception – there was still a lot of residual sympathy for McCartney, as well as the agitated questions: “What does he have to say about John? What will he say?” Both the album and the single of “Ebony And Ivory” quickly became transatlantic number ones.

Listening to the record again over thirty-one years later, however, leads one to wonder just exactly how messed up and lost McCartney was when he made it. I do not doubt that his love for Lennon was genuine and heartfelt, that Lennon’s death was the equivalent of his left arm being severed, that his crescendo towards the word “tears” in “Here Today” comes from the deepest part of him. But so much of Tug Of War is sufficiently unfocused and diffuse to imply that its maker was simply throwing down songs without giving much, or any, consideration to how they would come across in the context of an album. It barely hangs together as a coherent record; when “Ebony And Ivory” arrives to close the proceedings, it jars quite severely with what has gone before it. Meanwhile he tries his hand at many things, none of them conclusive or particularly impressive, and all of which combine to form a picture of an artist in dire need of direction.

To his credit, he seems to have been at least partly aware of this dilemma; the title track, the most imposing song as such on the record, is probably in the first instance a reflection on his relationship with Lennon, in a wider context a meditation on him against the world. The production and arrangement here are also the record’s most sophisticated; both Martin’s strings and the Dollar-like backing vocals (“Push-ING!/And pull-ING!”) point towards ABC, but the overriding influence (as with one other song on the record) appears to be that of Abba. McCartney sings the lead vocal in a way which implies that he knows fully that if the other side stops pushing, he will pull at nothing, and fall back on the ground.

“Take It Away” is one of the record’s more successful songs, or arrangements anyway (joint arranging credits on the album are given to McCartney and Martin); the drums of Steve Gadd and Ringo do a very nice line in contrapuntal shuffling, and the closing 45 seconds or so are sublime: the muiltilayered ethereality of the vocal harmonies are directly reminiscent of “I’m Not In Love” (unsurprisingly, as one of the voices belongs to Eric Stewart), whereas a rumbling upward piano swoop introduces the best horn lines on a McCartney record since “Got To Get You Into My Life”; the song springs immediately to life, and the frustratingly brief horn climax makes the listener crave for a much longer fadeout (the horns are not credited, which led to a rumour that they were indeed the Earth, Wind and Fire horn section, unnamed for contractual reasons – and especially since EWF had already recorded their superb cover of “Got To Get You Into My Life” – but there is no factual basis for this).

And yet the listener is left to consider how much care, devotion and attention has been given to what is essentially a throwaway song about being on the road and playing on stage. “Some important impresario” (in the video, played by a mute John Hurt) may indeed be in attendance, but in both song and video, nothing comes of this.

“Somebody Who Cares” is a pleasant enough standard issue McCartney ballad, though Adrian Brett’s pan pipes raise the question of whether its composer is trying to raise the spectre of “The Fool On The Hill.” With “What’s That You’re Doing?,” the album abruptly turns into a Stevie Wonder record (and Wonder was the song’s principal composer); an energetic, low-calorie variant on “Superstition” which rolls along harmlessly but pointlessly for six-and-a-half minutes (when “She Loves You” references are called up, as they are here, it’s a sure sign that McCartney is in trouble).

And then he says what he has to say about John.

It is extremely difficult to be even minimally objective about “Here Today”; buried at the end of side one, coming in at less than two-and-a-half minutes in length, it was quite consciously the first McCartney song since “Yesterday” to make use of a string quartet – first violinist Jack Rothstein had previously worked with the Beatles (he crops up in the string sections of “Within You, Without You” and “I Am The Walrus”) – and there is the clear urge to converse with a ghost, taking down the fourth wall for Lennon’s benefit. He wonders aloud what John would think of this song, concludes that he’d probably laugh at it, and thinks about the times they thought they knew – but the balance of “Didn’t understand a thing” and “Never understood a thing” makes you wonder how much they really had in common in the first place. Twice he says “I love you” – something he never seems to have said to Lennon while he was alive – and then reaches the most peculiar of conclusions: “For you were in my song.”

I am not sure what the real Lennon would have made of his ending up as a walk-on player in somebody else’s song, and in spite of the knowledge that McCartney palpably means what he’s singing – even if he doesn’t understand it fully – this air of presupposition may help explain why “Here Today” – though still regularly performed by McCartney on stage – has never become a standard, inspired a thousand cover versions, is scarcely ever heard, and why it doesn’t move me nearly as much as “Walking On Thin Ice” or Roxy Music’s version of “Jealous Guy” or – perhaps best and most shattering of all – Teena Marie’s “Revolution.” It seems too wary, in the sense that it feels like McCartney doing something because somebody told him that it would be a good thing to do and that he ought to do it. Whereas I sense that in his gut McCartney views his own hard work and perseverance as tribute enough; and there is, in any case, a far superior Lennon tribute elsewhere on the record.

But most of side two dribbles away into random whimsy. “Ballroom Dancing” is about twice as long as it needs to be, and although it jauntily anticipates – though does not surpass – the Kinks’ “Come Dancing” from one year later, the aimless jazz-funk noodling which fills up the song’s centre dissipates any good humour. Similarly, is “The Pound Is Sinking” a sort of rebuke to Thatcher, or, given McCartney’s aggressive lead guitar, his attempt to be Paul Weller? The central lyrical premise is so thinly articulated, however (e.g. the hideous “posh” talkover three verses in), that it hardly matters. “Wanderlust,” also clearly influenced by Abba, appears to be McCartney’s attempt at a Eurovision entry with its sombre classical brass band and attempted singalong chorus.

The record’s best track, however, and I think its most heartfelt, is “Get It,” an easy-going rockabilly/Tennessee Three hook-up with special guest and personal Beatle idol Carl Perkins. For once McCartney sounds as though he’s having fun – and not in inverted commas – as he and Perkins chew the fat, and its simple yet appealing roll is far more tangible a tribute to the fundamental good nature of the original Lennon/McCartney relationship than the maudlin and in part, I suspect, forced “Here Today”; when the two men conclude the song sniggering like schoolboys smoking at the back of the playground (given the song’s general air of fourth form lyrical punnery), we are instantly taken back to fifties Toxteth.

But that is as good as it gets. A brief Vocoder interlude reminds us of McCartney II – for all its experimental, lo-fi nature, a far more assured and coherent record than Tug Of War – and a McCartney choir states, “The one you wanted to be/Is now the one you see.” Lennon called back down to earth? Overexposure to the Moody Blues’ Long Distance Voyager? Who knows, and indeed, who cares? In the meantime, “Dress Me Up As A Robber” sees McCartney having a go at Britfunk – did he hear The Jam’s “Precious” in rehearsals at AIR? Was he now content to follow where once people saw him to have led? – but while the use of Spanish guitar against rhythm does pave the way for the work of George Michael, the funk is at best half-felt, and the song splutters out into nothingness at 2:42, before it’s had a chance to get started.

And then it’s Paul and Stevie again, and the song about black and white people living together in a piano, or something like that – it was based on a quip by Spike Milligan; what do you expect? – bringing new meaning to the overwhelmingly sad negativity of the term “well-meaning.” To me it sounds as simplistically optimistic as The Gift at its worst, a banally simple answer to a grossly complex question; for a far less cuddly but infinitely more relevant take on the same subject in the same year, see “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” by Brother D and the Collective Effort. Liberal muzak with sentiments with which no one could disagree; was it the Falklands effect again? It is fair to say that this song was the bend in the river for Stevie Wonder’s career, which after 1982 was never quite what it had been prior to 1982 (and “What’s That You’re Doing?” is but amiable coasting, coming nowhere near the seemingly offhand genius of Wonder’s own songs from that year, such as “That Girl” or “Do I Do”).

But Paul was back; he had made it through some kind of rain and was ready for more. Or at least that’s the impression he was eager to give. Look at the cover picture, however, and feel ready to doubt; hunched up in a booth, headphones clamped firmly into place with hands, the singer’s nearly forty-year-old face looking to its right with some dismay and dread; there he sees the red of blood, and he hardly notices the blue in the air cancelling out the blood on his left. I am not sure that he was yet up to the “bargaining” stage of the Köbler-Ross mourning process.

The record was one of the first to be mixed entirely digitally. The supporting cast also included Stanley Clarke, Andy Mackay, Dave Mattacks, Come Dancing commentator Peter Marshall, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, Jack Brymer (sounding rather uncomfortable) and Martin himself on intermittent electric piano. The album went platinum in the States, but only gold in Britain.