Say Say Say: Brian Flota on Paul McCartney’s Latest Reissues

The two most recent additions to the Paul McCartney Archive Collection focus on his early 1980s records Tug of War (1982) and Pipes of Peace (1983). Both come in multiple versions with a decent number of previously unreleased demos and B-sides. Both are fine contributions to a wonderful series of reissues.

Following the dissolution of Wings, Paul McCartney rushed out the release of the odd, occasionally brilliant, but mostly fair-to-middling album McCartney II (1980). On it, Macca plays all the instruments, making a statement of sorts. He could do it all himself, and he didn’t need no stinking Wings, or Beatles. Despite yielding one hit in “Coming Up,” McCartney sensed the album was a disappointment. Combined with the fact that the last Wings album, Back to the Egg (1979), died on the vine as well, McCartney needed a hit. For his next album, he would enlist the services of former Beatles producer George Martin, and bring in an all-star crew of session musicians, including ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, 10cc’s Eric Stewart, ex-Wing Denny Laine, jazz bass virtuoso Stanley Clarke, and Roxy Music saxophonist Andy MacKay.

Tug of War is a modest success, and probably the slickest record in McCartney’s back catalog up to that point (save for maybe Wings’ 1975 effort Venus and Mars). It features two great Macca tunes in “Take it Away,” a punchy new wave-inflected number bolstered by a tight horn section, and “Ballroom Dancing,” which might be the best of the ex-Beatles’ songs about the “early days”: Ballroom dancing made a man of me. The biggest hit on the record at the time, though, was “Ebony and Ivory,” a duet with the legendary Stevie Wonder. I was six or seven years old when this song was all over the airwaves, and, because of that, I have a bizarre sentimental attachment to it. Take that away, and we are left with a cheesy song that compares racial relations between blacks and whites to the keys on a piano keyboard, a metaphor that crumbles with the basic knowledge that there are way more white than black keys on a piano. The platitude-riddled song means well, but operates at such a nursery rhyme level that it pales in comparison to songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “People Get Ready.”

Despite the comeback narrative attached to Tug of War, it is merely an average album, not a masterpiece. While it does include a poignant tribute to the recently deceased John Lennon in the form of “Here Today,” a song that has aged quite well (owing to its baroque pop trappings), it features an equal amount of throwaway numbers like “The Pound is Sinking” and “Dress Me Up as a Robber.” Another collaboration with Stevie Wonder, “What’s That Your Doing?” is probably Macca’s best stab at funk. That being said, it is rather leaden and lacks the funky swing found on even Stevie Wonder’s most mediocre records. As a result, it is a mere footnote in the discography of both legendary performers.

Tug of War is the first entry in the Archive Collection that presents an album in a fully remixed edition. (The original mix can be found on the 3-CD Deluxe Edition.) It sounds great. McCartney purists should have few gripes with the new mix. As far as bonus material goes, Tug of War is pretty thin on gems. The best thing here is a demo of “Wanderlust,” a song that is in its official version a bit too ornate. Stripped down to just an electric organ and bass, McCartney’s double-tracked vocals are allowed more intimacy without the constrictions of George Martin’s arrangement. It also includes a decent B-side in “I’ll Give You a Ring” and the novelty solo vocal version of “Ebony and Ivory,” sans Stevie Wonder’s contribution.

The follow-up to Tug of WarPipes of Peace, boasts a similar lineup to its predecessor. Despite its sturdy foundation, Pipes of Peace stands as one of McCartney’s worst post-Beatles albums, rivaled by only Wings’ Red Rose Speedway (1973) and London Town (1978). The eponymous opener is a bombastic number that musically resembles “C Moon“—”C Moon” for fuck’s sake. We forget this cloying number immediately upon hearing the first bars of “Say Say Say,” Macca’s collaboration with Michael Jackson. The song was a huge hit, and deservedly so. It features a great hook, pulsating production, and great vocal performances by both Macca and Jacko. Unfortunately, from that point on, the remainder of the record is largely forgettable. One exception is the appropriately titled “So Bad,” a modest hit single that relies upon an extreme McCartney falsetto and the fretless bass runs of Stanley Clarke. It is “so bad” that it is kind of awesome. It really is the kind of song that starts eating holes in your brain. The interesting thing about Pipes of Peace is that it has the pretense of ambitiousness, especially considering George Martin’s lush and bombastic arrangements. But even those arrangements cannot hide weak songs with insipid lyrics. Low points include the other duet with Michael Jackson, “The Man,” (which could be mistaken for Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel”) and drivel like “Average Person.” Pipes of Peace illustrates McCartney when he follows his worst instincts as a songwriter.

The bonus material on the Archive edition of Pipes of Peace is better, pound for pound, than the material found on Tug of War. Particularly noteworthy is the strange outtake “It’s Not On,” which features a Linda McCartney backing vocal wherein she does her best Double Fantasy-era Yoko Ono impression! Another outtake, “Simple as That,” recalls the simplicity of McCartney II, featuring keyboard doodles and a menacing spring-recoil effect on the electric guitar. The most noteworthy thing here is a 2015 remix of “Say Say Say,” featuring a Michael Jackson lead vocal (with Macca’s vocal contributions mostly excised) and an extended dance mix of the song. This is noteworthy because in the last 25 years of Jackson’s life, the relationship between Jackson and McCartney had soured over disputes related to Jackson’s purchase of The Beatles’ songbook. McCartney did not even include “Say Say Say” on his best-of collection Wingspan (2001), despite it being one of his biggest hits. (But it includes “C Moon.” C’mon, McCartney!) Clearly the death of Jackson has softened McCartney’s opinion of him. The fact that he decided to present it in this format is a nice tribute to Jackson, one that fans should appreciate.

The Paul McCartney Archive Collection edition of Pipes of Peace presents Macca at a career crossroads. Despite the relatively weak material found on the album, it does capture him at a point when he had a singular musical vision and could still churn out hit after hit. The rest of the 1980s would not be so kind to him. The weird Beatle-rehash of Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), which features his last big hit in “No More Lonely Nights,” the utterly unfocused failure of Press to Play (1986), and the “instead of keeping up with the Joneses, I’m gonna just play faux Beatles songs” approach of Flowers in the Dirt (1989) make Pipes of Peace appear refreshing in comparison. These two additions to the Collection will be suitable for both casual and die-hard fans.

 

Brian Flota is a Librarian who lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He co-edited The Politics of Post-9/11 Music with Joseph P. Fisher in 2011 (Ashgate). He also contributes reviews to Library Journal and The Hairsplitter. When he was a three-year-old, his favorite song was “Copacabana (At the Copa)” by Barry Manilow.

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