Fall & Rise: Paul McCartney – ‘Tug Of War’

❉ The concluding part of Eoghan Lyng’s appraisal of McCartney’s post-Wings solo trilogy.

“‘Tug of War’ was another in a long tradition of superior releases when private circumstances were less than favourable for McCartney…. A blank-faced McCartney adorned the cover, his hands over headphones, the deluge of noise from the media blocked.”

For a songwriter whose oeuvre is primarily one of a jolly, lucky individual, Paul McCartney has offered moments of dark insight. He sang caustically of yellow papers on Abbey Road, made implicit digs at members of The Beatles on Ram, screamed about having enough of life on London Town and here he sang of loneliness; a more desolate loneliness to Eleanor Rigby because this was a universal loneliness of emptiness and depression. And in 1982, he really knew how that felt.

When your body is coming apart at the seams
And the whole thing’s feeling low
You’re convincing yourself
That there’s nobody there, I know
I know how you feel

Embarking on a Japanese tour in January 1980, McCartney was already disheartened touring with the third (and subsequently, final) incarnation of Wings. Newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley could sense that McCartney had felt flattened and jaded, worsened by an arrest at Tokyo’s Narita airport. Imprisoned for possession of marijuana, McCartney spent eight days in prison, the longest period he would ever spend away from his wife Linda during his marriage. He was released to a cancelled tour, an infuriated Denny Laine and a largely disbanded Wings. And yet, it was another dreadful incident which would make 1980 McCartney’s annus horribilis. 

He momentarily turned his attentions to some half-finished synth sampled recordings on the experimental McCartney II, one of McCartney’s strongest works, but one that typically received a critical kicking in 1980. Tim Rice could barely hide his bemusement of the unconventional structures while interviewing McCartney about the album.

On an album of beats, scat vocals and electronic instrumentals, it left many scratching their heads at what McCartney had produced, one of whom was John Lennon himself, who didn’t rate the album too highly. But even Lennon couldn’t help but gravitate to the opening soul track Coming Up, a song that impressed Lennon with its groove and lyrics, “a good piece of work”. McCartney was personally informed that Coming Up inspired Lennon to return to the studio after a five-year sabbatical to record Double Fantasy; nobody realising it would be Lennon’s swansong.

Four shots. That’s all it took to kill John Lennon. Murdered by a fan who sought attention (and won’t be dignified any from us), Lennon died on December 8 outside his New York apartment. Yoko Ono watched the event. Ringo Starr instantly flew to her side, briefly taking a moment to call his first wife Maureen, only to discover Cynthia and Julian Lennon were staying with her. He was left in the unenviable position of informing Cynthia, just as McCartney’s manager had to make the same phone call to him. Linda came back from dropping their children to her stunned husband stooped over the piano, wordless in grief. Double Fantasy was an album overrated by time, but its standout tracks, Beautiful Boy and Woman, were Lennon’s merriest, most inspired and, interestingly, most Beatley in years. A father himself, McCartney was caught on camera crying in later years to Beautiful Boy.

George Harrison chose to deal pragmatically with the situation, returning to the studio to record Dream Away to a band who were aware of their leader’s situation. Only after a successful day’s recording did Harrison admit to his true feelings to the band; a dream merely to play guitar in a band had caused the murder of John Lennon.

McCartney was less careful with his words. He returned to work on a project which had reunited him with George Martin, a tentative Wings project. Martin and McCartney found the day less productive, and agreed to part for the night to grieve and cognite. Leaving the studio, McCartney faced members of the press and described the day as a “drag”.

They were words, stupid words, but words none the less. No words could truly show how much anguish McCartney was feeling that night. Regardless, the papers stamped those words all over, picturing McCartney as unempathic and insensitive across the media. It was a hard lesson for McCartney to swallow, but one he would be forever mindful of, treating his public statements following the deaths of Linda McCartney and George Harrison much more carefully in years to come. For now, all he could do was focus on an album.

Martin, fresh off the success of the America albums, had carte blanche over song selection, expressing displeasure over the earliest demos. With Martin’s encouragement, McCartney opted to work with session musicians and leave Wings behind him. It made sense to confine the band name. Opening in 1971, the various line-ups gave McCartney a band to perform in public again, years after kow-towing to his Beatle bandmates who refused to do so after 1966.  With Lennon’s murder, McCartney had no intention of hitting the road and wouldn’t do so until 1989. McCartney recoded both eponymous albums entirely alone but stressed the importance of cooperation in The Beatles and Wings.

Ironically, his arduous attention to detail came at the irritancies of guitarists George Harrison, Henry McCullough and Jimmy McCulloch. With a solo album, McCartney could dictate how his paid session musicians should play without question or hesitation, another liberation for McCartney. The result was an album better received than any he’d written since Venus and Mars (1975). What he lost in one department, he gained in another. Guest drummers, guest singers, guest dinners; McCartney guested at the 1983 Grammies as a nominee.

Here Today gave McCartney his chance to publicly grieve and pay tribute to Lennon among the myriad of tributes written in his direction. Sparse, acoustic, the song was embellished by another stirring string section to accompany McCartney’s voice. Truthfully, it wasn’t the most inspired of tributes, lacking either the pictorial lyrical flair in Freddie Mercury’s Life Is Real or the staggering chorus of Elton John’s Empty Garden. But no one could match McCartney for performance. There are tears and audible pain as he sings “I love you”, likely the only male he ever said those words to.

He hadn’t sounded so wounded since Maybe I’m Amazed, a wobble in emotion on the bridge’s break. It’s one of McCartney’s finest vocal performances, understated and honest, one that still causes him to stir to tears even to this day in concert. “At least once a tour, that song just gets me” he contemplated to The Guardian in 2004. “I’m singing it, and I think I’m OK, and I suddenly realise it’s very emotional, and John was a great mate and a very important man in my life, and I miss him, you know?”.

Although the addition of a string part reminded Martin initially of Yesterday, the end result owed more to the sparce Julia, Lennon’s extraordinary ballad (then again, Lennon’s last classic Woman sounded distinctly McCartney-esque, so it was a fair trade-off). McCartney’s jubilance covered what was a stark record that spoke of lonely drivers, dropping incomes, fighting dance-mates and unanswered dilemmas that arrive too late.

Nostalgia brought McCartney back to The Beatles, literally so on Harrison’s All Those Years Ago(1981). Harrison’s first U.K. hit in years, it was a success buoyed on tragedy, but had the distinction that it was the first song Harrison-McCartney-Starr recorded together since I Me Mine. Starr and Harrison worked on the backing track, Wings guitarist Denny Laine joined Paul and Linda McCartney on the harmonies. Laine would work with McCartney on the Montserrat Tug of War sessions and the surviving Beatles put their differences aside to celebrate Starr’s wedding in April 1981. Starr wed Barbara Bach, introducing a new character into The Beatles mythology at a time when a core member had left it. McCartney once sang that “the love we take is equal we make”, one of Lennon’s favourite lyrics. Here, they proved it.

Unsurprisingly, Tug Of War was an album steeped in story and history. Ballroom Dancing and Get It reminisced about the fifties, the latter a duet with rockabilly icon Carl Perkins. On an album filled with anger, the track ended with a mirthful laugh, Perkins and McCartney sharing a collective cackle. McCartney duetted with Stevie Wonder on another jocular track, Ebony and Ivory. An admitted misfire, it was a well intentioned misfire, one that was welcomed at a 2010 White House performance for racial equality. Banned in South Africa, the song expressed a political side to McCartney. Much like Give Ireland Back To The Irish, it was a statement of intent more than a memorable song. That was reserved for the other McCartney-Wonder duet What’s That You’re Doing, a brilliant funk track, the two men trading vocals  with liberated spontaneity. Behind some realms of nostalgia, this was contempareousness pop of the highest calibre, McCartney admitting to Jarvis Cocker that Wonder was one of his finest collaborators in 2018.

He namechecked The Beatles in the same interview, a band embraced wholly on lead single Take It Away. In its video form, Take It Away, dripped in sixties homages; George Martin kept court on a grand piano, Ringo Starr kept time on a drumkit, McCartney presented his Hofner bass. Behind these icons came a song unlike any single The Beatles had ever recorded; the perfect tribute given their excogitative and far reaching nature. Behind McCartney came a voice from a band many considered the Beatles of the seventies. Eric Stewart had a been a Beatle fan since watching them in awe from a BBC audition in the early sixties. He named Strawberry Studios out of deep admiration for the Liverpudlian band, a studio McCartney booked in 1974 for McGear while 10cc recorded their masterpiece Sheet Music. He’d sung the ethereal chart topper I’m Not In Love, earning him the right to sing with McCartney. Stewart’s ebullient joy is evident on the Take It Away bridge.

I adored George [Martin]” Stewart reminisced to Culture Sonar in 2018. “He had such a way about him, arms out when he’d meet you. He always had a lovely way of saying “Eric, that isn’t working” or “Paul, maybe you could sing that better.” He didn’t have to kowtow to anybody, but so friendly.” Stewart worked with McCartney as a session musician throughout the eighties, eventually earning a position as co-writer on Press To Play. Stewart’s Wall Street Shuffle owed much to Abbey Road, and in a sense, McCartney returned the favour, the shifting Pound Is Sinking akin to 10cc operettes Une Nuite a Paris and Feel The Benefit. Expressive in nature, jocular in financial theme,  closing line “your heart just wasn’t in it anymore” demonstrated a certain resentment for music.

Hauntingly sat beside Somebody Who Cares (an essay on despair), Tug of War was another in a long tradition of superior releases when private circumstances were less than favourable for McCartney, fighting litigation against the Beatles (Ram), facing the confines of a doomed marriage (Chaos and Creation In The Backyard), restoring a lost pop cache (Flowers In The Dirt), switching rotations of another Wings line-up ( London Town) or losing Linda to the cruel cancer that claimed his mother (Run Devil Run).

A blank-faced McCartney adorned the cover, his hands over headphones, the deluge of noise from the media blocked. It was an evocative cover, one that moved people, Tug of War McCartney’s last US no.1 album before his triumphant 2018 Egypt Station return.

The album’s strongest moments came in two of McCartney’s ballads, the baroque Wanderlust and the exquisite title track, two tracks that stood beside McCartney’s finest work. Brimming with enviable musicianship, the two songs continued the text book format McCartney had laid for Hey Jude, soft opening tracks that built on their foundations with nuance, additions and superb harmonies. The first was a piano ballad, the second acoustic; yet both echoed a standard no one but McCartney himself could reach.

Adding to the strength of these tracks, both reflected true events. Wanderlust was the name of a ship McCartney spotted in 1978, reigniting his muse for sail and sea. The latter was a metaphor for the struggles one up manship brought the world-similarly belying the sport that wrenched rope from people’s hands. Somewhat like the remnants of a broken song-writing partnership that could never be re-captured. Testament to Wanderlust’s legacy, it fittingly completed a medley of McCartney classics Yesterday and Here, There and Everywhere during one of Give My Regards To Broadstreet’s more potent scenes. Paramount to McCartney’s trajectory, Tug of War demonstrated his personal and musical history, a powerhouse of chord changes silhouetting through Campbell Maloney’s snare drum, recalling McCartney’s Irish heritage and Scottish farm, joining Laine and Stewart for a gospel of sound.

He’d come through grief, armed with some of the best songs of his career. He entered through the darkness of mourning with an album polished, playful, practiced and perfect. It’s an album that none of The Beatles have bettered in the interweaving years for songcraft and innovation. McCartney, approaching forty, was now in a better artistic plane than Lennon himself was at that age. And behind it, McCartney had made peace with his past. He’d disavowed The Beatles while touring mid-seventies stadiums with Wings. He’d shown little interest in interview to write with Lennon again.

He’d used other drummers and guitarists, but seemed content working by himself. Tug of War changed that. He’d search for writing partners with Beatle studiers Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello. His songs benefitted from David Gilmour’s scorching solos. His albums were welcome to Ringo Starr’s playing. He, in turn, would drum with Paul Weller and Noel Gallagher on Come Together during the nineties. He, by present, would play whole sets of Beatle tracks on his 1990 tour. He would sing with Lennon one last time on Free As A Bird, a gift from Yoko Ono of lost demoes. The woman accused of breaking up the band was now pulling them together for one last hurrah. McCartney would sing Something sparsely on ukulele at the Concert for George (2001).

He would concede production duties to Nigel Godrich, David Kahne and Youth in the millennium to spectacular results. He would work as Beatle custodian, giving an interview to Mark Lewishohn’s The Compleat Beatle Sessions (1988) when Harrison and Starr did not (Lewishohn, incidentally, is in the Take It Away video). There was somebody who cared about The Beatles. Tug of War re-awakened McCartney to it and, more importantly, himself.


❉ Paul McCartney – ‘Tug Of War’ was originally released 26 April 1982 by Parlophone (UK)/Columbia (USA). The album was issued in the US on compact disc on 29 February 1984. In 1993, Tug of War was remastered and re-issued on CD as part of “The Paul McCartney Collection” series. The album was reissued in 2015, as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection. This edition included a remixed version of the album, along with the original mix, and a series of videos.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine, Phacemag, DMovies and other titles.

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