Be What You See: Tug of War at 40
Paul McCartney’s 1982 LP is a perfect balance of emotion and eccentricity
Ten years after leaving the Beatles, Paul McCartney was once again without a band.
His post-Beatles band Wings had been in decline since the heights of their 1975-76 world tour, with revolving band membership and lower album sales, culminating in McCartney’s bust for marijuana at the start of Wings’ tour of Japan in 1980, which permanently derailed the group. While Tug of War started out as a Wings album, after McCartney tapped Beatles producer George Martin to come on board, it was decided the other band members weren’t needed for the project after all; as on McCartney and McCartney II, Paul would go it alone.
If McCartney II was a successor to Paul’s self-titled debut, Tug of War is somewhat analogous to McCartney’s idiosyncratic follow-up, Ram; for all its commercial sheen, Tug of War also mixes in moments of eccentric playfulness. This is most obvious in the album’s original incarnation, as a vinyl record with a side one and side two. Side one is the more conventional, simply five straight-forward songs, though it also finds this most optimistic of songwriters in a pensive mood. The title track’s clever lyric gives it a double meaning; it could be about a relationship, or a struggle between nations (the anthemic sweep of the orchestra that enters halfway through underscores the latter interpretation). Though offering solace, “Somebody Who Cares” has a touch of sadness about it, as McCartney sings “I know how you feel,” to his lonely friend.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Here Today”
And then there’s “Here Today,” McCartney’s tribute to John Lennon. It’s a chance to hear McCartney’s unadulterated grief about the loss of his songwriting partner and friend, before years of sharing his memories made the stories rote. You rarely hear McCartney sound this vulnerable, and he later admitted it was hard for him to sing the line “I love you”: “A part of me said, ‘Hold on. Wait a minute. Are you really going to do that?’ I finally said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got to. It’s true.’” It’s an emotionally raw performance that still tugs at the heartstrings.
At least there’s the buoyant “Take It Away” to give side one some levity. The video casts the song as an exercise in nostalgia, taking McCartney back to his teenage years of rehearsing in the living room, until his band hits the big time after securing a deal with a mysterious “impresario” (unexpectedly played by John Hurt). Side one also the first of McCartney’s collaborations with Stevie Wonder, “What’s That You’re Doing?,” which arose out of a jam; a nice slice of funk-pop.
Side two opens with another look back at the halcyon days that are invariably golden in McCartney’s retrospective worldview in “Ballroom Dancing,” another bright and bouncy song that, like “Take It Away,” benefits from an energetic horn arrangement. Then things get a little crazy. The sound of rattling coins opens “The Pound is Sinking,” a satiric number with jokey accents that has more than a whiff of the Ram track “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” about it. There’s another abruptly shifting mood when the light rockabilly jam “Get It” (featuring Carl Perkins) is followed by the brief, eerie, link track “Be What You See,” passing on a message of self-empowerment (summed up in the song’s title), then shifts into the jazz scatting of “Dress Me Up As a Robber.”
Stuck in the middle of all of this is the beautiful “Wanderlust,” which also has an interesting backstory. While recording the Wings album London Town on a boat in the Virgin Islands, McCartney came into conflict with the captain, who was unhappy about the musicians’ tendency to indulge in marijuana. The party decamped to another boat, the Wanderlust; hence the song’s references to petty crimes and being busted. The new vessel “became like a symbol of freedom to me,” McCartney later explained, and it’s another song that benefits from a strong brass arrangement.
Concluding the album is the song that’s received the most brickbats over the years, “Ebony and Ivory,” the second collaboration with Stevie Wonder (and unlike “What’s That You’re Doing,” a co-write, this number was written solely by McCartney). Derided at the time for being simplistic and cloying, it nonetheless topped charts around the world; so much for the critics’ judgment. But what makes the song stand out even more is that it’s unlike anything else on Tug of War, and comes at the end of an album side that’s so widely varying in its musical styles. It’s as if, after having his fun with the other disparate tracks, McCartney digs into his toolbox, says “Yeah, I still can deliver the hits when I want,” and serves up a slam dunk of a success.
Tug of War is the work of a master craftsman. It’s also a partial Beatles reunion; not only does McCartney work with George Martin, Ringo Starr drops by to drum on a couple of tracks (“Take It Away,” “Ballroom Dancing,” and “Wanderlust”). Yet it remains somewhat overlooked in McCartney’s catalogue. As he stopped touring for nearly a decade after the Japan bust, most of the songs have never been played live (“Ebony and Ivory” and “Here Today” are the exceptions), letting it recede even further into the background. But put it on again, and listen to it all the way through (the way an album should be heard).
The overall strength of the material, the confident range in musical styles, and stellar production make Tug of War one of McCartney’s finest post-Beatles albums.
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