Looking back, it’s incredible that Paul McCartney actually completed his third solo album, “Tug of War.” He was recording it at AIR studios founded by George Martin in London in December 1980 when his former Beatles bandmate John Lennon was killed in New York. After (understandably) taking a recording hiatus, he completed “Tug of War” in 1981, moving to AIR Studios Montserrat for more privacy.
Amazingly, McCartney ended up heading to the London studio right after the terrible news of Lennon’s death. That day he worked on “Rainclouds”, which ended up being the B-side to “Ebony And Ivory”. The December session was not necessarily productive, although it provided refuge from the press and offered familiarity at a time of great pain.
For McCartney, recording music has long represented solace in times of great turmoil.
Chieftains member Paddy Moloney, who was at AIR studios that day recording Uilleann pipes for the song, was quoted in “The Chieftains: The Authorized Biography” by John Glatt about the experience. “Afterwards, a lot of people said they thought it was unusual for Paul to come into the studio after John’s death. But I thought, ‘What else would he do? ?'”
READ: Paul is still dead! The fake news that shook the world, 50 years later
For McCartney, recording music has long represented solace in times of great turmoil. His first solo album, a self-titled affair from 1970, grew out of the Beatles’ breakup. His second solo album, “McCartney II,” arrived in 1980 as Wings was collapsing. “Tug of War,” meanwhile, certainly alludes to the attempt to balance out the discord.
However, McCartney had an elliptical response when asked if “Tug of War” was a concept album, admitting to Club Sandwich:
“I like the idea of a bit of regimentation, but a lot of the stuff that was just free flying among all of that. It’s kind of a loose concept, kind of starts with a concept, flows into things which you could vaguely say was in the concept, but it starts flowing freely everywhere. But eventually, by the time it gets to the end of the album, it kind of comes back to the concept. So, you know, it’s just like a very coward.”
McCartney may be underestimating the loose concept a bit. “Tug of War” is often about the push and pull of opposing forces: reconciling racial tensions (“Ebony & Ivory”), stock market volatility (“The Pound Is Sinking”), interpersonal friction (” Ballroom Dancing”). “Take It Away” is even a light-hearted look at a budding young band (“You Never Know Who May Be/Listening To You”) balancing the desire for fame with a love of performing. ‘Wanderlust’, meanwhile, is a true story about dealing with clashing personalities: On a recording trip long ago, McCartney and his band switched ships – the new one was aptly called ” Wanderlust” – because they fit the captain’s personality better.
Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
Interestingly enough, “Tug of War” is generally less direct when it mentions Lennon, as if McCartney wants to tread lightly on the give and take between them. The title track has oblique references to their songwriting dynamic (“With one thing and another/We were trying to outdo each other/In an arm wrestle”) while “Somebody Who Cares” is a distant reminder to a friend. that they are not alone.
“Tug of War” is generally less direct when it mentions Lennon, as if McCartney wants to tread lightly on the give and take between them.
The notable exception is “Here Today,” which remained on McCartney’s setlist all these years later, even on the opening night of his new Got Back Tour. The touching song directly references the divergent nature of the couple’s post-Beatles lives: “You’d probably laugh and say/We were worlds apart/If you were here today.” However, McCartney’s sentimentality once again appears like a lonely ray of sunshine, as simple strings swell in the background: “For me, I still remember what it was before / And I can’t hold back no more tears / I love you.”
The circumspect nature makes sense, as McCartney was initially reluctant to honor his friend. “I was worried it wasn’t good enough and someone might think I was trying to profit from it or something,” he told the Los Angeles Times. However, he noted that his pragmatic side eventually took a back seat. “I’ve always had two sides to me: the creative and the judiciary. The creative starts doing something, and the judiciary starts asking questions and guessing, ‘Is this real? make sense? What are people going to think?’ I started trying to make sure justice didn’t interfere with creation.”
Fittingly, “Tug of War” is a great example of McCartney balancing his judicial (read: sentimental pop) and creative (’80s rock) sides. This balance was not quite in line with his previous solo album, “McCartney II”. Released in 1980, the album relied on then-new equipment such as synths and sequencers while referencing blues songs and interpolating silly puns from a children’s book. A song like the synth-pop cult classic “Temporary Secretary” particularly nods to the edgy new wave and keyboard-heavy music that is beginning to rock the pop charts.
RELATED: The Day George Harrison Left The Beatles
“Tug of War” also embraces modern sounds, but those moments fit in effortlessly. “Dress Me Up As a Robber” features a laid-back disco-sizzle vibe and pleasant flamenco guitar and falsetto vocals, while “What’s That You’re Doing?” is pure robo-funk thanks to guest Stevie Wonder. “It all started originally with Stevie Wonder jamming — Stevie is a die-hard jammer, as they say — and he was on the Yamaha CS80 synthesizer and started jamming,” McCartney told Club Sandwich.
It’s worth noting that McCartney turned to a whole cast of familiar collaborators for “Tug of War”: studio icons George Martin and Geoff Emerick, fellow Wings bandmates Denny Laine and Linda McCartney, even Ringo Starr. In contrast, “McCartney II” grew out of solo studio sessions where McCartney played all the instruments and wrote and perfected each song himself. Making a record with other people allowed McCartney to strike a better balance – the ability to perfectly triangulate his past (including the Beatles and the Wings) with his current solo appearance.
“Somebody Who Cares” is a lovely, meditative gem with soulful guitar and a lush backing vocals. “Ballroom Dancing” has the irreverence of the Fab Four in the way it conjures up a bustling dance floor, with peppy horns, upbeat piano and bouncy grooves from guest Ringo Starr. “Get It”, with guest Carl Perkins, goes back even further, to McCartney’s longtime love of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. Yet the unapologetic pop moments – the British and American hits Chart-topping “Take It Away” and “Ebony & Ivory” – sound like McCartney is proving he can hold his own with any 80s pop and rock upstart.
On “McCartney II,” McCartney embraced solitude and introspection. Looking inward led to lyrics inspired by what matters to him: home, family and love. In fact, despite solitary roots, the trilogy concludes that being out in the world surrounded (and connected to) other people brings solace and joy. “Tug of War,” meanwhile, reflects McCartney’s deep self-awareness of his place in the world — and how he knows his grief will be under a microscope. As a hugely famous person from a young age, McCartney navigated this thorny challenge with ease, revealing hard truths and speaking out what matters while leaving space for everyone to fill their own emotional voids.
More stories to discover: