PLAY IT AGAIN: Reconsidering the Solo Beatle Albums

We’re pleased to launch a new series of articles exclusive to the SOMETHING NEW blog, in which some of our writers re-evaluate solo Beatles albums from the past. We open with this look at the “Tug of War” album by Contributing Editor Tom Frangione. It’s always been one of Paul McCartney’s most highly regarded efforts, but Frangione posits that it’s the very best of all solo Beatle albums. Take it away, Tom …

tug of war cover 2
Is it me, or does every new Paul McCartney album get touted as “his best since ‘Band On The Run’”? I roll my eyes every time I hear that, as I’m of the belief that the standard was forever raised by his 1982 masterpiece “Tug of War.”

Before examining the album’s content, more than just a little backstory is needed to put this album in its historical context. From a musical and critical perspective, the first decade following the disbanding of The Beatles was an uneven one for Paul. As musical identities of the Fab Four were now being evaluated on their own terms, the initial going was a challenge, given his penchant for simple homemade affairs (the “McCartney” album), lightweight singles (“Mary Had A Little Lamb”) and laying down the gauntlet of forming a new (gulp!) band, Wings. He also made himself an easy target by deciding to enlist his new bride Linda as his musical partner.

So, while George Harrison was releasing an opus-level album like “All Things Must Pass” and making history by marrying up rock ’n’ roll with charity and social relief, John Lennon was deep into self-exploration with his primal album and opus of his own (“Imagine”) and Ringo blasted out of the gate with a string of well-produced hit singles, it was Paul who still unjustly wore the badge of the bad guy who sued his friends to break up the band.

By the mid-’70s, all that changed as albums like “Band on the Run” and world-conquering tours (as captured on the live album “Wings Over America”) saw Paul rise again to rock’s top echelon. The records were better, if still uneven at times — for every “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Jet,” there was a “Cook of the House,” making for a convenient target, if and when critics felt the need.

Then came the ’80s, which could not have gotten off to a worse start, Beatle-wise. Paul did a brief stint in a Japanese prison for pot smuggling in January, and the bookend event in December of that year need not be relived here. In the midst of this, Paul released his second purely “solo” record, the aptly named “McCartney II,” then set about making his first fully developed solo record.
macca tug

By “developed,” I mean recorded with an outside producer. Hooking up with George Martin was a masterstroke, as it was someone whose ears and sensibilities McCartney knew he could trust to select the players and, more importantly, the material. Enter Steve Gadd, Ringo, Stevie Wonder, Carl Perkins, Eric Stewart, Stanley Clarke, and others.

Taking Paul out of his comfort zone, challenging him musically, and relieving him of ringmaster duties would prove to serve him well. As for the music, there was clearly enough material for a double record, but paring it down to the best songs for a single disc (White Album or “Red Rose Speedway” debates, anyone?) proved fortuitous; the leftovers largely formed the decidedly weaker follow-up album, “Pipes of Peace.”

The producer, the band and the songs were now sorted out; let’s examine what resulted.

There was no way this album — Paul’s first since the death of Lennon and, by extension, The Beatles (vis-à-vis any hope of them reuniting) — would not be under the microscope. You can almost imagine the editors of the then-relevant Rolling Stone wringing their hands in their self-appointed role of torch bearer in the name of St. John. Overlooked was Paul’s propensity to deliver some of his best work in the face of adversity — whether it be the aftermath of the breakup of The Beatles (“Ram”), or his band flying the coop (“Band on the Run”). This would be no exception as he delivered, well, “his best album since ‘Band on the Run.’”

“Tug of War” was unanimously hailed, even by Rolling Stone, which gave it a top rating of 5-stars. Their review cited it as the masterpiece everyone knew he could make.

Musically, McCartney tackles multiple genres in equally masterful fashion. The opening title cut, begun simply on acoustic guitar, explodes into a full-throttle assault, with a brilliant string arrangement by Martin. The closing passages are nothing less than Beatlesque. This segues into a funky pastiche called “Take It Away,” which became a Top 5 hit and sported a terrific video featuring McCartney, Martin and Starr.

After the opening pair of numbers, things settle down with a beautiful piece of patented McCartney acoustic guitar, “Somebody Who Cares,” before launching into a very solid groove for the first of two McCartney-Wonder duets, “What’s That You’re Doing,” with Paul turning in some exceptional drumming and an improvised “we love you yeah-yeah-yeah” thrown in over the closing passages for good measure. Delightful.

Then, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: With just acoustic guitar and strings, Paul turns in his heartfelt tribute to his fallen partner in “Here Today.” Written as if in conversation, it’s McCartney coming to terms with his most bare feelings. The mournful strings and dissonant chord pattern recall previous Martin-McCartney collaborationss such as “Yesterday,” yet resolve perfectly to their major chord root. Instinctively and intuitively, it is executed to perfection, underlying the song’s message and album’s theme of conflict and resolution.

This number still gets a rousing ovation (for Paul AND John) when performed live. One of his five best post-Beatles songs.

After a perfect pause, Side 2 of the LP (remember those?) opens with a rollicking “Ballroom Dancing.” It’s another nice pastiche, which came to life visually in the 1984 film “Give My Regards to Broad Street,” providing one of the few developed production numbers (and more memorable sequences) in the movie. It would make a great addition to the live set, even after all these years.

The quirky yet tuneful “The Pound Is Sinking” follows. Featuring elements of several musical genres, ranging from doo-wop to power chord-driven hard rock to vaudeville, this one is over way too soon.

The majestic “Wanderlust” is next. Built on a strong melody line/chord change pattern, this one features a gorgeous counter-point melody and lyric in the mid-section and a final verse that soars over the beautiful brass section arrangement crafted by Martin. Another of Paul’s finest compositions.

Macca and Carl Perkins during the "Tug of War" sessions.

Macca and Carl Perkins during the “Tug of War” sessions.

Taking things down a notch is a nice country-rockabilly duet with rock ’n’ roll icon Carl Perkins. “Get It” gives Paul a chance to trade off verses with someone pivotal in his (and the other Beatles’) musical development. Simple and low-key, the number features Paul taking the lead guitar with Perkins injecting “Go cat” in his best “Blue Suede Shoes” tradition. The song ends with Perkins guffawing — not at a joke between him and Paul, but apparently caught on tape having to correct Paul’s attempt at a Southern colloquialism for being well situated, as “sitting (sic) in high cotton.” Perkins’ amusement was captured and tacked on for posterity.

Another Beatles trick shows up on the album (how handy to have Martin around) with a haunting link track called “Be What You See.” Echo-laden and in a minor key, it recalls “Can You Take Me Back” from the White Album.

“Dress Me Up As a Robber,” much like “The Pound Is Sinking,” is structured around multiple musical themes (an old McCartney trademark, harking back to his early solo work like “Uncle Albert”). This time, ace flamenco-style acoustic guitar anchors the proceedings.

Perfectly placed as the album closer is the mega-hit single that preceded the album, “Ebony and Ivory,” a simple, child-like call for racial harmony sung as a duet with Wonder. While cynics will call this the nadir of Paul’s artistic credibility, I say hogwash. It’s impeccably produced, instantly hummable and a perfect pop record. A No. 1 record for seven weeks, it stands as the most successful of all post-Beatles singles.

Has it aged well? Go watch the performance the duo did at the White House a couple of years ago and you tell me.

While “Tug of War” has yet to receive the deluxe archive series treatment, it is interesting to point out that for the previous reissue series in the early ’90s, period-specific singles, B-sides (where available) and the like were tacked on as bonus cuts … except here. “I’ll Give You a Ring” and “Rainclouds” (the B-sides of “Take It Away” and “Ebony and Ivory,” respectively) and the solo version of “Ebony and Ivory” (issued on a special 12-inch single) were left by the wayside, with McCartney electing to leave this one just as it was. Not even ‘Band on the Run got such honors (with “Helen Wheels” and “Country Dreamer” jarringly and unsuitably following the crescendo and reprise that close the album proper).

Maybe that was Paul’s way of acknowledging this one as special. I’d like to think so.

The album and the Wonder duets would receive a total of five Grammy Award nominations (alas, album of the year honors went to “Toto IV”). It would not be the last such snub for Sir Paul; “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard“ (“his best record since ‘Band on …’ I mean, ‘Tug of War’”) was similarly nominated and passed over.

Begun in 1980 (a new decade, and perhaps distanced enough from the Beatles breakup), it boggles the mind to think of how working with Martin on tracks this good would have sounded had the entire band decided to work together again. John’s songs from that year’s “Double Fantasy” album are among his best, and George’s most recent self-titled album was similarly rich.

In retrospect, it’s clear that, with a decade in the rear view mirror, new peaks in their songwriting and studio efforts were just being hit.

For my money, “Tug of War” the very best of all solo Beatle albums.

— Tom Frangione

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15 Responses to PLAY IT AGAIN: Reconsidering the Solo Beatle Albums

  1. Harold says:

    It’s “All Things Must Pass” -George “John Lennon (Plastic Ono Band)” – John “RINGO” – Ringo Starr
    “Tug Of War” Paul McCartney. I often play “Pipes of Peace” and “Tug Of War” in scrabble mode together. Makes a good double album. (My oppinion)
    P.S. John Lennon Had his girlfriend/wife in his new band (Plastic Ono band) way before Paul wanted to start Wings with Linda included. Yoko sang the line “not when he looked so Feirce” on “Bungalow Bill” in 1968.

  2. Jack Walker says:

    I did used to share Tom’s assessment of TUG OF WAR as superior to any other McCartney album, even BAND ON THE RUN, and ahead of all other Beatles solo efforts EXCEPT for ALL THINGS MUST PASS (to my ears, the best solo lp by light years, possibly my favorite rock album period). But although “Ebony and Ivory” was indeed an ultra-smash (though not one I ever hear today), it does slightly diminish the record’s overall impression to the point that the full US version (with “Helen Wheels” in the right spot) of BAND ON THE RUN sits slightly ahead. But I still like it better than IMAGINE, RINGO, 33 1/3, GEORGE HARRISON, CLOUD NINE, etc., so in general I do agree with Mr. Frangione. Along these same lines, JOHN LENNON / PLASTIC ONO BAND I actually hate (it’s not musical, however proud Lennon was of its honest “poetry”), and RAM just doesn’t have enough good songs to qualify for this list of the best post-split efforts. If better track selection had been practiced for FLOWERS IN THE DIRT, it would have been here, along with a single album of Lennon’s 1980 DF/M&H tracks. And the most underrated solo album was Paul’s PRESS TO PLAY; I like very single track, including the CD’s three bonus b-sides. (BTW, FLAMING PIE was Grammy-nominated in between TUG OF WAR and CHAOS.)

  3. Derrick Wingate says:

    Interesting, but I disagree. There are too many light weight songs on this album for it to be declared the best solo album. “Get it” – with Carl Perkin laughter at the end is somewhat annoying, “the Pound is Sinking” is a workman like effort (part of it sounds like Admiral Halsey….), “Somebody who Cares” – again nice but not heavy weight and “What you doing” is good but doesn’t fall into the “great” category. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is an excellent album, I remember when it came out in 1982 and I even worked on the set of the “Take it away” video for one day (my uncle was a carpenter at Elstree studios and he took me for the day and I met Paul, Ringo, Linda (who, face to face, was drop dead gorgeous – her photos didn’t do her any credit) and George Martin. I still think Band on the Run far exceeds any of Paul solo output as it creatively set new boundaries. Let me explain further: What is it that makes the Beatles so unique? Hard question as there are so many answers but IMHO it was the progression on each album and the variety and creativity underpinning the progression. Band on the Run has that it buckets and spades, “Tug of War”, although excellent, doesn’t have that – although I think Here Today stands out as one of the best songs Paul has recorded. If I had to nominate Paul’s best album (disregarding Band on the Run), that would be Flowers in the Dirt, which I think is better than “Tug of War” but I leave that to someone else to review.

  4. Stewart Corrick says:

    It’s great that so many people have differing opinions about so much music. I like ‘Tug of War’ (the album) but wouldn’t put it at the top of Beatle solo releases. I don’t think I would put any up there. It’s all too conflicting and confusing.

    Just enjoy the great legacy that is the music of The Beatles, as a group and solo. Ranking makes it kind of unnecessarily competitive 🙂

  5. Stewart Corrick says:

    ps I’m interested to note that ‘Tug of War’ and ‘Pipes of Peace’ are next on the agenda for Paul McCartney’s Archive Collection. ‘Lots of b-side bonus tracks and outtakes available from that period.

  6. Dan Tofflemire says:

    Guys come on, Band on the Run holds the title followed by All things must pass then Cloud nine. Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band not far behind. These four LP where very different and still sound great today. I loved Tug of War but I don’t find myself listening to it anymore, unlike the above mentioned LPs. The Ram LP was good but needed ANOTHER DAY(single) on the LP. Band on the Run, Jet, Helen Wheels, 1984, Let Me Roll it, all the making of a solid LP and sound great live.

  7. Jack says: “And the most underrated solo album was Paul’s PRESS TO PLAY”

    I totally agree. This is a great album.

    Also, by George!, “Extra Texture” is underrated as well.

  8. Mark says:

    Tug of War the best solo Beatles lp??? Wow. I am a diehard Macca fan and list that low on the list. I’d rather listen to Dark Horse than Tug of War.

  9. Seashell says:

    Thank you for this article! I LOVE this underrated album. An Archive reissue would be most welcome and deserved, far more than for Venus & Mars and Speed of Sound.

  10. Tom F says:

    This album is like every McCartney solo album (Wings included). There are some great songs (Take it away, Ballroom Dancing, Pound is Sinking) and some real duds (Ebony Ivory, Get It, Here Today).

  11. NORBERTO says:

    I love this álbum!! And I love ‘Cloud Nine’ ‘Living in the Material Word’, ‘vertical Man’,’Walls and bridges’ ‘Times takes time’ ‘George Harrison’ and many more!! I love the solo years!!!

  12. Michael K says:

    I don’t supposed it’s gonna stop any time soon but this eternal ‘rating’ addiction really winds me up on occasion and seems to be a misapplication of sports to arts. You can rate a team’s performance across games by their score, but rating an artist across paintings or albums? DOES NOT COMPUTE.
    There’s a reason why they’re called albums and it’s because they’re usually intended to come across as an item, a collection, even a concept. McCartney’s albums are best when they have a concept, loose as it may be and this is reflected in ratings with the two main concept albums he’s done being his most acclaimed (‘Pepper’ and ‘Band on the Run’). This is probably because The Beatles inaugurated the ‘album’ as opposed to the ‘long playing record’, as an artistic entity rather than just a ‘compilation’ or ‘collection’, with a concept album or at least a record that represents a journey you can go on by listening to it.
    Some of Paul’s records are closer to being collections of songs but in general I think that most of them represent journeys you can go on and some songs, picked out as singles, or as tracks played in isolation, lose something and sometimes even gain something.
    I haven’t listened to ‘Tug Of War’ as an album in a long time but I remember being blown away, as were the critics, by its coherence, although it doesn’t really have a ‘journey’ quality.

    I still stick to not being able to compare albums though, really. I can say if I like listening to them more than another, but that’s not something static and I regularly change my preference. And, you know, they’re also mood pieces…moods an artist was in with life or intention, and moods you’re in when you do or don’t listen.

    I guess it’s fun to rate and argue over art, although discussion groups dissing each other’s choices of Picassos or Magrittes still don’t tend to proliferate 😛

  13. Michael K says:

    I’d definitely like to add that I think future albums from Macca will be in terms of “his best album since ‘New’ “. It’s a bona fide classic!

  14. Rodcket says:

    Dear oh dear, Tom. Such sentimentality should be reserved for a wounded animal. And Tug of War is the musical equivalent. Outside of the wonderful Take It Away & Ballroom Dancing, the rest is frustratingly tantalizing but not quite there. Worse songs than Ebony have made it to number 1 – so a number 1 hit means nothing, as does the backstory. The music is what matters. It tempts at best. McCartney could fill his best tracks post 1980 onto one LP. He was, alas, a 70s wonder, with later dabs of brilliance amongst a regular flurry of swill. What music of his has lasted the test of time? If McCartney’s Greatest 1980-2014 was released, it would have more holes than a sieve. If you rated McCartney on his 1980-2014 output alone, you would have to say that he is over-rated. If not for collectors, his music would barely sell. If he wasn’t a Beatle he wouldn’t have a record contract. Harsh, but fair.

  15. James Percival says:

    This was the first Macca album I bought new. Having spent the late 70s buying up all the Beatles albums, then Lennon, and then a start on Harrison, I held a few negative attitudes about McCartney and Wings (which I definitely don’t hold now) and consequently I had shied away from buying solo Macca albums. I’m not quite sure what it was that made me determined to buy this one, but despite initially being a little disappointed, it quickly grew to be one of my favourite McCartney albums; and remains so to this day. I can’t really add much more than has been written already, but the things that stand out now include the high production values, Macca eclecticism to the fore, and consistently good songs. There’s nothing on it I don’t like. My only slight and qualified criticism is that there is nothing on it that I draws me in like the very best of McCartney (ie virtually everything he wrote and recorded while in the Beatles or songs like Maybe I’m Amazed.
    One final observation; imo Wanderlust is one of Macca’s last great vocal performances.

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