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 …
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.
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.
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