It was late in 1980, and Paul McCartney had been in the studio recording the album that would become Tug Of War. Then the news came that John Lennon, his friend and collaborator in one of the most revered songwriting partnerships in rock music history, had been senselessly killed. On top of that, it’s not as if McCartney had been riding high on adoration from the press at that point in his career. McCartney II, his previous album, had been ripped apart. NME bluntly stated upon the album’s release that “it isn’t worth the plastic it was printed on.” Ouch. Tug Of War could have easily have been—perhaps should have been—an absolute mess. Instead, it turned out to be a highlight in a career that was already overstuffed with accomplishment and critical praise.
With help from producer extraordinaire George Martin and musicians like Eric Stewart, Ringo Starr, Stevie Wonder, Steve Gadd and Stanley Clarke to name but a few, an album was born that ranged from funky (“What’s That You’re Doing” with Stevie Wonder) to reggae-infused (“Take It Away”) to schmaltzy (“Ebony And Ivory,” also with Wonder) to heartbroken (“Here Today”). There are a lot of varying moods to digest over 40 minutes, but it gels well.
The single most remembered from the album is the duet with Wonder on “Ebony And Ivory,” a song that was written about a marital tiff but then transformed into statement on race relations. To this day it remains McCartney’s most successful No. 1 chart hit from his solo career, spending seven weeks atop the Billboard pop chart. However, it may not even be the best duet with Wonder on the album. The bouncy “What’s That You’re Doing” projects a synth-rock feel and sounds like a precursor to Wonder’s 1987 hit “Skeletons.” The song eclipses the six-minute mark and could have been tightened up with a bit of editing, but it gives you plenty of opportunity to brush up on your popping and locking skills.
On the ballad front, he blends a lovely melody over the bleeding lyrics of “Here Today.” McCartney pours out his heart to Lennon in a one-sided lament in a song that still remains a staple of his live shows today:
And if I say
I really loved you
And was glad you came along
Then you were here today
For you were in my song
The tear-inducing words especially come to life as they drift amongst the arrangement that McCartney and George Martin wrote. In the book accompanying the deluxe set, McCartney recounts the meaning behind some of the lyrics about times that he and Lennon spent waiting out a storm in Florida while on a Beatles tour. He confesses it’s still an emotional song to perform.
The standard edition of the reissued (and remixed) album collects b-sides (“Rainclouds,” “Ebony And Ivory (Solo Version),” and “I’ll Give You A Ring” that were featured on various releases of the 45s/12”s of “Ebony And Ivory” and “Take It Away”) and demos on a second disc of bonus audio. The demos provide a glimpse into the working process. For instance, the demo of “Something That Didn’t Happen” contains lyrics that later wound up on the album track “The Pound Is Sinking” that don’t appear on that track’s demo (also included on the second disc).
For those wanting to delve even further into the project, a deluxe set contains two exquisitely prepared books. The first book collects photos taken during the recording sessions in Montserrat as well as pictures of the original handwritten lyrics of many of the album’s tracks while the second book has even more pictures and extended essays and interviews detailing the recording sessions. Another CD is included as well that includes the original mix of the album, giving listeners the opportunity to decide for themselves which mix is preferred. The newly remixed version contains more punch. Additionally, a DVD contains the music videos to the singles released from the album, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the music video for “Take It Away.”
Even less ardent music fans know of The Beatles’ impact. However, McCartney continued to make great music for years to come after the band’s divorce, whether with his first wife (the lovely Linda), Wings or other collaborators. In the long shadow of the Beatles, in the aftermath of a panned album to open the ‘80s, and in the tumult of losing a great friend, he produced a No. 1 album in the US with Tug Of War. Resilient? Yes. Talented? Even more so.