Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, we’re talking about Paul McCartney’s early ’80s LPs Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, both of which just received deluxe LP and CD reissues.
Annie Zaleski: Paul McCartney was particularly prepared to navigate the changing music industry at the start of the 1980s. Both The Beatles and Wings understood how important the medium of music video was for band promotion and extending their artistic reach, while McCartney didn’t fear technological advances such as synthesizers, as 1980’s McCartney II demonstrated. Yet he wasn’t averse to leveraging a bit of his Beatles privilege on occasion. And so 1982’s Tug Of War started taking shape in summer and fall 1980, with legendary Beatles producer George Martin onboard for the first time since Wings’ 1973 release Live And Let Die. After several studio sessions in various locales and with a variety of collaborators (including Ringo Starr and Wings guitarist Denny Laine), Tug Of War was finished in mid-1981.
In the midst of recording, however, McCartney’s world was turned upside down by John Lennon’s December 1980 murder and the early 1981 dissolution of Wings. That Tug Of War doesn’t sound fractured by these events is likely a testament to Martin’s steadying presence. In fact, upon listening to the new expanded reissue, I still feel like it’s one of McCartney’s strongest solo efforts, one that strikes the balance between nostalgia and modernity. He’s not running away from his past: The Carl Perkins duet “Get It” is a nod to The Beatles’ roots, while the jaunty “Ballroom Dancing” is White Album-levels of quirk, and plenty of other songs feel like a more streamlined, warmer version of Wings.
At the same time, McCartney is consciously pushing himself forward. “Dress Me Up As A Robber” is dominated by flashy flamenco guitar and disco beats, and the album’s lesser-known Stevie Wonder duet, “What’s That You’re Doing?” is futuristic, nasty funk. Perhaps most importantly for me, McCartney largely reins in his mawkishness: The brassy “Wanderlust” is wistful without wallowing, while the Lennon tribute “Here Today” remains almost unbearably poignant and wrenching. Tug Of War feels like the clean break from Wings that McCartney wanted.
1983’s Pipes Of Peace, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well to my ears, even though some of its songs were recorded during the Tug Of War sessions. (In fact, the latter was once allegedly planned to be a double album.) Unfortunately, the Pipes Of Peace reissue still feels like a collection of leftovers cobbled together from weaker surplus material. The record lacks urgency, and amplifies McCartney’s worst tendencies: “So Bad” lives up to its name while oozing schmaltz; the Michael Jackson duet “The Man” is cloying; the title track is overly earnest and hippie-dippie; and the orchestra-augmented “Through Our Love” is a gooey love song.
I enjoyed the album most when McCartney puts his own spin on new wave-inspired rock, even though these moments are redolent of other musicians he no doubt influenced. The string-carved “Keep Under Cover” vaguely resembles Madness; “Average Person” is almost Squeeze-like levels of clever; and “Tug Of Peace” is a nice nod to Talking Heads. And the duet “Say Say Say” feels like the bulletproof ’80s FM radio hit it was, what with its snappy guitars and horns and prominent Michael Jackson vocals.
Noel, as a McCartney fan who bought Pipes Of Peace when it was initially released, what’s your take on the album? Am I being too harsh on it because Tug Of War is so solid? Critical consensus on the record wasn’t kind even then—was it ever good? Or has it just aged badly?
Noel Murray: Oh no, it was pretty weak even in 1983. And to clarify, I didn’t buy it. I received it as a gift at one of my stepdad’s office Christmas parties. I was one of two teenagers there, and we both got cassette copies of Pipes Of Peace—undoubtedly because “Say Say Say” was the number one song in the country at the time, and whoever was in charge of buying our presents figured that would be a safe bet.
As it happened, I grew up a Beatles fan, and even as an album-rock/New Wave guy, I wasn’t immune to the whole Michael Jackson phenomenon. I liked “Say Say Say.” And you know how it is when you’re 13 years old. I think I owned about 200 albums at the time (a mix of vinyl and tapes, some of the latter duped from friends… we didn’t own a CD player yet), so I listened to everything I had, over and over. I’ve probably heard Pipes Of Peace more times than I’ve spun my favorite record of 2015.
That said, until the reissue, I hadn’t played the whole album all the way through in probably 25 years, because even as a youngster, I could tell it was pretty goofy. I think I have more affection than you do, Annie, for some of Pipes Of Peace’s cornier moments. Lyrics aside, the title track and “The Man” are both wonderful showcases for Martin’s gifts—even if the latter sounds more like his work with America than The Beatles. And even just reading the names of the songs, I could still hum the delightfully tossed-off “Sweetest Little Show” and “Hey Hey.” On the other hand, as soon as I saw the words “The Other Me,” I remembered one of the most cringe-inducing lines that McCartney’s ever written: “I know I was a crazy fool / For treating you the way I did / But something took a hold of me / And I acted like a dustbin lid.”
You make an interesting point though, Annie, when you say that Pipes Of Peace’s best songs are the ones that sound the most connected to their time. That’s certainly the case with “Say Say Say,” and with much of Tug Of War. (You didn’t even mention the latter’s hit single “Take It Away,” which is peak McCartney, and if nothing else has had a lasting effect on the way I say “immm-pre-saaaariooo.”) And yet because I whipsawed between classic rock radio, college rock, and AOR in the 1980s, I’ve always had mixed feelings about middle-aged rock gods trying to sound contemporary. There’s usually something phony and opportunistic about it. I don’t buy that they’ve actually been keeping up with modern music; it feels more like the synthesizers and drum machines have been foisted on them by their producer.
Corbin, where do you fall here? Are the best songs on Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace the ones that sound the most like 1981/1982/1983, or the ones that sound like classic McCartney/Martin?
Corbin Reiff: That’s a good question, because the way that I’ve always perceived and taken in these records individually was informed by that exact dichotomy between a “return to form” and an “over-arching ’80s-ness.” Although I wasn’t around when Pipes Of Peace debuted in 1983, much like you, Noel, my entry point for it was the song, “Say Say Say” or rather, the music video to “Say Say Say.” It’s one of the great cheeseball productions of that era, featuring Paul and Linda McCartney working with Michael Jackson and his sister La Toya along with Mr. T in a convoluted snake-oil sales con-game out in the Old West. It’s so completely over-the-top and entirely a product of the 1980s that I actually found it endearing once I stopped laughing. As a result of that, however, that song and the rest of the album have really been fixed in my mind as a part of that time period. And I think that the music helps bear that out as well. I can’t speak to how “phony or opportunistic” the production comes across, but it does sound like an obvious an effort by both Martin and McCartney to try and remain contemporary, especially on songs like “Tug Of Peace,” which is driven and characterized by electronic drums and syncopated hand claps.
On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to shake free of my view of Tug Of War as a return of the old Wings/Beatles-era Macca with the help of George Martin. I’ve seen Sir Paul live on three separate occasions, and each time he’s played “Here Today” as a thoughtful mid-set tribute to his departed friend and songwriting equal John Lennon, and each time I get a lump in my throat when his voice quivers as he tries to make it through the end. Usually when he sings, “I am holding back the tears no more” is where I lose it. The strong mythology and narrative that surrounded this record holds up to this day.
A large share of the sounds on Tug Of War help foster my perception of it as being more Beatles- or Wings-like. There are more acoustic guitars, more janky standup pianos, and an honest-to-goodness guitar solo on “The Pound Is Sinking.” I do think that it’s a an all-around better record than Pipes Of Peace, but I don’t know that if that’s because it sounds less mired in a specific time-period—the signature sounds of the ’80s, synths, drum machines, keyboards, etc. are more prevalent now than they have been at any point since the end of that decade—or that the songwriting is more thoughtful and the content of the lyrics less groan-inducing.
Something that really hit home with me again as I listened to these two records was McCartney’s apparent fondness for collaboration. Be it Martin or Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson or Carl Perkins, even engineer Geoff Emerick, who manned the boards for both these albums and has worked with Paul from the Sgt. Pepper’s days clear up to the near-present day, you get a sense that McCartney is the kind of artist who really enjoys bouncing ideas around and sharing a microphone. That’s a somewhat-obvious realization considering his history as half of the greatest songwriting duo of all time, but it’s also easy to forget how much those early days working “eyeball to eyeball” with Lennon may have affected the way he has created music ever since.
How do you think about each of these records individually, Marah, and in what way were your perceptions borne out or dispelled by listening to them all the way through? And what do you think of McCartney’s choice to bring in Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder to prop up these albums?
Marah Eakin: I don’t know that I’d say he uses Jackson and Wonder to prop up these two records, but their contributions certainly do make for some of the albums’ most solid and least schlocky content. There’s one exception that, though: Pipes Of Peace’s horrible “The Man,” which is probably one of the worst things either Jackson or McCartney has ever recorded. Woof. What a clunker.
Does Paul McCartney need help to make a record, though? Like, did he need to enlist Jackson and Wonder, or was it just “Hey, you want to come into the studio to mess around?” Did Jackson and Wonder do him a favor, or was it the other way around? Certainly both “Say Say Say” and “Ebony And Ivory” were bigger as duets than they would have been as solo tracks, and both probably helped McCartney get into new and different marketplaces and on different radio stations—read: R&B and young-people pop—but years later, it’s hard for me to figure out who was more famous then, or who needed who? Maybe it was equal, or maybe one of you guys can enlighten me.
I didn’t get these records when they came out, but I was a McCartney completist as a middle-school kid, checking out all his records from the library and dubbing them to tapes. That means I’m back-to-front familiar with everything from Flaming Pie to Give My Regards To Broad Street, but, like you guys, neither Pipes nor Tug ever made that much of a mark on me, save their singles.
That being said, I still think they’re okay records. I might even like Pipes more than Tug, though I have no idea why—it could be because I’ve never been the biggest fan of post-’70s Stevie Wonder. A few of the cuts, like “Average Person” and “Hey Hey” are earworm sleepers, and though “Tug Of Peace” is probably one of the more hamfisted things McCartney’s done (and that’s saying a lot), I’m still of the mindset that even a bad Paul McCartney record is still a pretty good record overall. Dude can write some songs, and if you don’t mind putting up with silly love songs, then you can hang, even 30-odd years later.
Speaking of that, Annie, how do you think these records have aged? Do you see a reason for the 2015 reissues, other than the whole vinyl resurgence? It’s not as if these records were ever unavailable in used bins.
AZ: All of you guys brought up some great points. Marah, I first wanted to address what you asked about the Michael Jackson duets, because this particular collaboration I think was more like a business decision than anything else. In a 1984 Playboy interview, McCartney almost seemed ambivalent about recording and songwriting with Jackson. His exact quote: “But it wasn’t what I’d call serious collaboration; it was more like we were singing on one another’s records.” Ouch. (He was far more complimentary about Stevie in the same interview, for the record.)
So in that sense, McCartney was obviously pretty self-aware about his status as a classic rocker trying to continue having commercial success in the new decade—and aligning himself with one of the biggest pop stars on the planet (who just so happens to be a mega Beatles fan) was a canny move. (It was not Jagger-Bowie “Dancing In The Street,” let’s put it that way.) So, Noel, you might be onto something when you admit to feeling like there’s “something phony and opportunistic” about “middle-aged rock gods trying to sound contemporary.” It does make you wonder why he did feel the need to collaborate, though—I mean, really, he doesn’t have to. He’s a Beatle. His record company’s not looking over his shoulder.
In this respect, I think McCartney’s mellowed over the years and become choosier about his collaborations. Corbin, I think this speaks to what you were talking about when you observed his fondness for working with other musicians. Whether it’s his Fireman project with Youth, his standards record, or his Foo Fighters jam on Sonic Highways, Paul has had some interesting detours in modern times. Sure, these things aren’t always successful, but you get the sense he’s doing them for genuine reasons. That’s why I’ve enjoyed his Paul McCartney Archive Collection reissues so far: They’re thoughtful and well done, and you can tell they’ve been done with care—the Wings ones especially.
I think what’s most disappointing to me: the Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace reissues do just feel tossed-off and completely inessential. I mean, it’s nice having the B-side “Rainclouds,” but nobody was really asking for a seven-minute Mark “Spike” Stent 2015 remix of “Say Say Say.” (Does anybody actually enjoy these modern remixes of classic songs tacked on to reissues? Serious question.) I mean, I believe this is the third time Tug Of War has been re-released. At a certain point, enough is enough, especially when fans already have these records and cheap vinyl used copies are still all over eBay. Out of the two, however, I think Tug Of War has aged the best. The songwriting is just stronger (and less cloying), and has held up better over time. Pipes Of Peace, with a few notable exceptions, seems best left in the ’80s.
Noel, what’s your take on the reissues? Do the bonus tracks make them a must-have for you or add anything revelatory? Did they give you any more insights into the albums, or change your perception of them? And how have these records aged for you?
NM: Those questions are kind of bound up together for me, Annie, and get back to a lot what we’ve been talking about in regards to what War and Peace have to say: both about McCartney as a musician in general and about the state of his generation of rockers in the early 1980s. The short answer to your last question is that no, I don’t think they’ve aged that well. When Martin’s production is aiming to replicate his classic 1960s/1970s sound, it’s ultimately a reminder that the material he’s working with is nowhere near as strong as McCartney’s best. And while the more modern-sounding songs (the singles, basically) are still very nice, they don’t exactly fit seamlessly into the albums as a whole.
Artists like McCartney, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart… they all seemed to be serving two masters around this time. They wanted to give their die-hards something that reminded them of the old days, but they also owed their labels hits. The result was some very scattered LPs, where the standout tracks today sound very much like products of their time.
But you know what? I like the demos on these reissues. I doubt I’ll listen to them much—or ever again, if I’m being totally honest—but they do serve a purpose, in that they make McCartney seem like just any other working singer-songwriter, generating ideas in his home studio. It humanizes a legend. Even when these albums came out, I can attest that a lot of what longtime fans were looking for was some kind of personal connection with McCartney, especially in the wake of Lennon’s murder. Was he still viable as a pop musician? Could he be a genuine peer to a Wonder or Jackson? Did he feel any sense of connection to the true Beatlemaniacs?
I don’t think either of these records definitively affirms any of the above. Their charm—such as it is—rests mainly in their imperfections, and how they made a man who once could do no wrong in the studio come across as just another professional grinder, coming up with two or three memorable songs a year along with a lot of filler. The demos help tell that story, even if they’re just okay as pieces of music.
Ultimately though, it’s hard for me to untangle my honest assessment of two highly hit-and-miss records from my memories of listening to The Beatles as a boy, or my first-hand recollections of a McCartney solo career that shadowed my youth. I have a lot of affection for both Tug Of War and Pipes Of Peace, but I’ll put it this way: My 11-year-old daughter has been a huge Beatles fan since she was about 5 or 6, and I’m not exactly rushing to share these reissues with her. I just don’t think either is essential, except for completists and nostalgists.
What about you, Corbin? If you knew people who only had a passing acquaintance with McCartney as an artist, would you loan them these records? Or at least play them a few tracks? And if so, which ones?
CR: Someone with only a passing acquaintance? Probably not. If anything, I’d recommend that they check out “Say Say Say,” “Ebony And Ivory,” and perhaps “Here Today,” “What’s That You’re Doing?”, and “Take It Away” from both of these records if they wanted to get into ’80s-era McCartney. But I don’t think that they are necessarily essential recordings in his canon. That being said, I’m not entirely convinced if either of these releases are strictly for completists and nostalgists either. I can certainly see there being a receptive, and maybe even enthusiastic audience for Tug Of War, but Pipes Of Peace seems to be more of curio for Jackson and McCartney fans to brush up against and move on from.
I do think you bring up an intriguing point, Noel, when you mentioned mega-names from the ’60s and ’70s like McCartney, Rod Stewart, and Eric Clapton—though his work on the Lethal Weapon score was pretty stellar—struggling throughout that decade to find the right balance between creating music that seemed all at once fresh and familiar at the same time. I think you could add Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Elton John, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and so on and on and on to that list.
It seems like those who decided to either stick with what had always worked for them before—like Keith Richards and AC/DC—or just wholly embraced the sounds dominating the radio—like David Bowie—seemed to fare much better on repeat listening. I certainly think a lesson was learned over time, because I don’t know that you see as many legacy acts trying as obviously to remain with the times. Most seem to be a lot more comfortable in staying in their lanes and allowing the audience to come to them.
McCartney has actually struck a nice balance between those dual impulses these days by producing a number of solid solo efforts that sound how you’d imagine with off-the-wall collaborations with Foo Fighters and Kanye West. More than ever, you get the sense that he’s just a guy who loves to make music. You don’t see the strain to grab new ears.
But the bigger question for me, as Annie touched on earlier, is what kind of audience exists for these reissues? It’ll run you nearly $70 to score a physical copy of either one of these releases in their deluxe format on CD/DVD and I legitimately don’t know a what kind of person is going to lay down that kind of scratch for that in 2015. I can see people being more inclined to pick up a copy on vinyl because it looks better on a shelf and caters to the audiophile who has exacting demands for the listening quality of their music. But I personally feel pretty confident that I can go to almost any used record store in the country and stumble upon both these albums for a far more reasonable price. That’s even with throwing in the audio extras. I felt this same exact way about the recent Led Zeppelin studio album reissues which contained more remixes than anything really groundbreaking or revelatory, and I just don’t know if it’s worth it.
Are we all being too harsh on the 1980s version of Paul McCartney, Marah? And what kind of audience do you see lining up to buy these reissues?
ME: Old, rich people. Next question. Just kidding—mostly.
In all seriousness, I think these reissues have the same audience that most reissues have these days: Completists, and/or people who have just discovered an artist years after their heyday. I’ve probably mentioned this before in one of these roundtables, but every time I’m digging through a record bin and see a $5 copy of Thriller, I think, “Who in the world would buy Thriller? Or who doesn’t have it already?” But probably a lot of people would: 16-year-olds who just figured out their parents have turntables, people buying White Elephant gifts, people who are just building record collections, and so on. War and Peace might also get a bit of a boost from both older McCartney fans who, hell, will buy or support literally anything he does—and I’m sure there are hundreds of thousands of those people, if not millions worldwide—and younger ones who like the packaging, like the records, and just think “Hey, a Beatle, cool.”
I guess the question for me is more “Why not reissue these?” If McCartney was barreling through deluxe versions of his catalog and just skipped these, we’d notice, and he’s probably about as proud of them as some of his other lesser LPs, I’d assume. And in the age of major label troubles and the vinyl industry’s relative boom, these records, like so many others, become the reissue equivalent of Mount Everest. Why reissue just okay Paul McCartney records? To paraphrase George Mallory, they’re re-released because they’re there. They’re just sitting in some catalog room gathering dust, so why not try and make a few bucks off them? McCartney might not be hurting, but the record companies can probably use the cash. So these LPs may not receive a hero’s welcome 30-odd years later, but they’re back all the same.