The Wonder Of It All: Paul McCartney’s Solo Years (Part 2-The ’80s)

Over the course of 2020, my friend Matthew Restall, author of the brilliant Blue Moves book in the 33 1/3 series & I (Hope) started spontaneously breaking down Paul McCartney’s entire post-Beatle discography as if we were writing an actual essay (like you do, if you are a nerd). Well, turns out we were. Welcome to The Wonder Of It All, a 4-part series featuring our endlessly unspooling, unhinged, proudly contrarian, ridiculous & heartfelt correspondence regarding the Macca solo catalog. Ram On…

Once Upon A Long Ago: Just a note on the format of this essay, Matthew and I are going to be taking turns spilling our McCartney guts and our names will appear before our respective comments. Our album rating system is the classic best of 10, the pinnacle being 10 (it’s brilliant ), the bottom being 1 (it’s terrible). Our opinions will diverge at points but we are as one in our love of Macca.

1980-1989: Macca II to The Dirt

HOPE: The ’80s were a markedly confusing and dark time for many of the music world’s more established and beloved artists. With the new decade came a dramatic, seismic shift in pop sights and sounds. Sure there were the inevitable sonic advances in recording and such but the shift was mostly down to this one particular thing, an immense, all consuming behemoth called MTV that took near complete control of music culture (as well as my own teen brain). The garish, glossy videos they showed 24/7 became as crucial to an artist’s success as radio airplay, the visuals and visages as important as the songs themselves. Yup, once MTV hit, like some musical equivalent of Logan’s Run, any musician over 30 suddenly seemed genuinely old indeed. The acoustic sounds that had been so mega and pervasive only a handful of years before now seemed criminally dated.

The need to sound “modern” to stay relevant proved to be problematic for many of the established rock and pop superstars of the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in some truly disastrous sonic (enter sexy saxes) and sartorial decisions (hot mullet action). Of course there were artists who were able to transition and/or evolve with enormous success as the ’80s progressed like Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and even, surprisingly, The Kinks. And there were others who while not necessarily progressive sound-wise, resoundingly found their niche as the decade evolved (Linda Ronstadt). But alas others stumbled. Hard

Which is to say welcome to Paul McCartney’s ‘80s. The decade began with Paul’s being arrested and detained for bringing a cache of weed into Japan where the Wings tour was set to begin. He was subsequently deported and plans to continue the tour were aborted (and as such the USA never got to experience the Back to the Egg live, dammit Paul dammit). Once summer hit though, things in Macca world took a marked turn toward the better as Paul’s new single, an oddball pseudo-new wave chant called “Coming Up” ascended to the #1 spot in the singles chart. The success of that song then supercharged sales for the ponderously weird and uncommercial album it called home, 1980’s McCartney II helping drive it up the charts to similar heights. Then on December 8 of that same year, everything changed.

The tragic death of John Lennon invariably threw an intense spotlight on Paul and left many wondering how he might ultimately address this immense loss within his music…or if he would at all.  The answer came in the form of an album that he’d begun recording prior to John’s death, 1982’s Tug Of War. Within it he spoke eloquently and emotionally about John ( in the song “Here Today”) while also delivering one of the finest full lengths of his entire post-Beatle career. Little did we know at the time that it would serve as the high water mark for all of Macca’s ‘80s output. The quality of the releases that followed Tug Of War whipped wildly from intermittently strong to outright terrible

Check out any career-spanning album ranking list and you will invariably find the 2 studio albums that came in the wake of Tug Of War, namely Pipes of Peace and Press To Play as well as the soundtrack to Paul’s ill-conceived (disaster) film Give My Regards To Broad Street firmly lodged at the bottom. And in the case of Broad Street, it’s a 2-fer as it’s also arguably one of the worst films of the ‘80s. While we can cast a legitimately critical eye at these albums with their mullets, smarmy, thumbs aloft videos and clunky attempts at modernity, we also can’t entirely dismiss them for there are in fact some true gems living within their grooves. But be warned, if you choose to listen to Macca’s ‘80s albums in their entirety, you are gonna get dirty.

McCartney II (1980)

MATTHEW: McCartney II (1980), 4/10: derided as a featherweight failed experiment at the time, especially in the US (where it’s chart showing was Paul’s lowest since Wild Life), it is hailed today as a bold, experimental, unappreciated gem. So which is it? Both and neither: it’s an experiment that works at times, but ultimately isn’t experimental enough. The electropop tracks are very 1980, but in a good way; they stand up pretty well (although surely “Frozen Jap” is an unnecessarily offensive title, even if Paul was still grumpy about his recent drug arrest in Tokyo airport). But they would have been more compelling if sequenced together—perhaps as a semi-instrumental Side B (like Bowie’s Low and Heroes). Instead, as if he was wary of asking fans to embrace something too novel, Paul interspersed them with more conventional songs. Two of those are great (the singles “Coming Up” and “Waterfalls”), but the other four are like forgettable outtakes from the pre-Egg Wings era (and “Bogey Music” comes unforgivably close to completely ruining Side B). Left off the album was “Blue Sway,” which would have been one of its better tracks (it is on the Archive Collection edition, which also has the excellent live Wings version of “Coming Up” and the extended—too long!—versions of the electropop numbers).

What’s the solution? The best I can come up with is a double EP (3-4 tracks on 4 sides, grouped by style, allowing for both versions of “Coming Up,” “Blue Sway,” and some longer edits). But a double EP was almost never done by anyone, for good economic reasons. Not a great idea. So maybe the solution is that we must be content with playing around with the original track and outtakes from what is a flawed, confused but ultimately worthwhile addition to the catalogue.

HOPE: McCartney II (1980), 5/10: The release of this album was preceded by the single ”Coming Up” a song with a cute modern haircut and no discernible melody. I’ve never liked it and at the time wished it hadn’t gotten to # 1 because I was genuinely worried Paul would take it as a sign to write more songs like it (I miss the days when that was the kind of shiz I was actually worried about). I know McCartney II has received a lot of latter day love for its prescience and supposedly ahead of its time electropop experimentation which I kind of get…but to my ears there aren’t enough fully fleshed out songs to latch onto. Which is to say several tracks feel like incomplete sketches and/or straight up noodling (“Front Parlour”, “Darkroom”, “On The Way”), not to mention that things get seriously cringey in a couple of places ( “Frozen Jap”,”Bogey Music”). On the up side, I love the ethereal and woozy “Waterfalls”; though it’s the most prototypically Macca-style song here, maybe the least adventurous, it is by far the most memorable track on all of McCartney II. And I want to award honorable mentions to a couple of deep cuts from the same cloth, “One Of These Days” and “Summer’s Day Song”. While not up to the melodic standard of “Waterfalls”, they are similarly hazy and hypnotic and often insidiously sneak into my Macca playlists when I’m not looking.

I was hoping that I would have an epiphany regarding McCartney II once I spent time with the Archive Collection edition, but apart from discovering the plush nighttime in the city groove of bonus track “Blue Sway”, nothing had changed; I liked the same 3 aforementioned songs I always did and felt nothing for the rest. I agree with Matthew’s assessment that while Macca sometimes colors outside the lines on McCartney II, he doesn’t go far enough to make it genuinely interesting…but think that applies the other way too, as in he skates around his melodic tendencies without digging in; there just aren’t enough hooks here and brilliant hooks are what define the best Macca songs and set him apart from the songwriting herd.

Tug Of War (1982)

HOPE: Tug of War (1982), 9/10: If you are a hardcore Macca fan chances are you have a pretty tough skin. When haters want to trash post-Beatle Paul they tend to wave the same tired pieces of dirty laundry in the air to make their point. And the Exhibit A of total suckery is always the same. Yes, “Ebony and Ivory” is ridiculous. When they premiered the song on one of the big NYC radio stations back in the day I remember being embarrassed on Paul’s behalf after it had finished. Still, while it’s clumsy as hell and I don’t care if I ever hear it again, I know it’s heart is in the right place and the tune itself is kind of sweet. But yes, I get the hate. We all do. I just wanted to get that out of the way before we talk about all the beauty and joy surrounding it.

Critics were falling all over themselves to praise ToW upon release…which even in my youth I recognized as unusual having become so accustomed to their bashing him. In fact it sort of seemed like the extra praise was their way of offering Paul sympathy and love after what happened to John. I admit I thought this, like oh now you think Paul is good, feeling ever so slightly pissed at his prior treatment and their convenient new magnanimity. But then again, ToW was pretty great.

I love the overall sequencing on ToW…how the handsomest stuff is served up first and how the lesser lights are discreetly tucked away ( those being the other sadly pedestrian Stevie W collaboration “What’s That You’re Doing” and the Carl Perkins duet “Get It”). And there couldn’t have been a better opener than the epic and wistful title track. I love, love “Take It Away”, it is one of my all-time favorite solo Paul tracks, right down to it’s fantastical video with John Hurt as “some important impresariooooo”. The harmonizing in the coda is straight up heavenly and I could listen to it playing in an endless loop forever. “Wanderlust” often gets singled out as the album’s finest ballad, but I’d nominate the rainy “Somebody Who Cares” with its slightly mournful melody for that accolade (plus it sounds like “Waterfalls” little brother). I think ToW is a great record, literally, in that it is so perfectly suited to be absorbed on a turntable, having to be flipped over. It’s never boring and remains utterly listenable in every way.

MATTHEW: Tug of War (1982), 7/10: In the early 80s, I was a fanatic, chart-obsessed English consumer of pop music, and thus a witness to the stumbling of ’70s rock and pop stars that Hope describes. I was also part of their problem, quick to give up on the likes of the Stones, Floyd, Supertramp, Elton John—and Paul McCartney. I was not alone in dismissing these artists as no longer uncool even while still listening to their “old stuff”; that sounds contradictory, but their nostalgia status was part of their uncool-ness. Macca was really up against it, lumbered with the albatross of Beatles uber-nostalgia and the deeply unfair resentment of Lennon mourners. Back to the Egg and McCartney II were still cool to me because I read their experimentalism as Paul not caring what we thought. But the run of albums from 1982-86 suggested he cared too much, trying different duet partners, different producers, veering into children’s music, capitalizing on old Beatles songs but with inferior new versions. The embarrassing “Ebony and Ivory” seemed to set the tone for the decade. It tainted ToW for me at the time, and each subsequent album (not to mention the Rupert the Bear moment) seemed to confirm and further lower my expectations.

None of that was particularly fair, and as a result I failed to give Tug of War a fighting chance. But I came back to it in the late ‘90s, when Macca lured me back with his creative renaissance and when I no longer cared what was cool or uncool. And yes, both Stevie Wonder duets are still embarrassing (calling each other “girl” and squealing “What’s That You’re Doing” to each other would have been less awkward had it been deliberate). But in retrospect ToW sounds like a sequel to pre-Egg Wings, with a few new collaborators, and the same mix of catchy melodies, pseudo-oldies (“Ballroom Dancing” was leftover from Egg days, I believe, and sounds like it—that’s a compliment!), disposable oddities (“Get It”), memorable ballads (“Wanderlust” is great, and “Here Today” is by far the best ode to Lennon by any of the Fab survivors), and solid singles (I love “Take It Away” too). ToW was a hit then, it held up well, and it positively shines in comparison to what followed it.

Pipes Of Peace (1983)

HOPE: Pipes of Peace (1983), 6/10: When I went to purchase this album upon release the guy at the counter told me it was “shit” (turned out he was 10 years off and had the wrong album but I digress). PoP is for all intents and purposes a watered down version of ToW , in other words, not awesome but a long, long way from the shiz pile. I do want to note that while the albums pair of duets with Michael Jackson “Say, Say, Say” and “The Man” have become problematic for me because of MJ’s well-documented issues, I do believe they are 2 of PoP’s strongest tracks. In fact “The Man”, was my absolute favorite track on PoP for ages. I found its lightness, slightly eccentric lyric and hook impossible to resist; it sounded like a pop-ified version of “San Ferry Anne” off of Speed of Sound. And Paul’s vocal on the track is downright exquisite, just absolute sweetness. I also confess that the “Say Say Say” video enhanced my experience of the song as it provided ample opportunity to swoon over how hot Paul was ( of course at the time I was a teen and Paul was over 40 but let’s just look at it as a tribute to how well he was aging). And I have to shout out plush, corny, epic, arms wide open on a mountain anthem “Through Our Love”; it is pure ’80s glory-osity and just plain rules. Now the bad news…and excuse me for acting “like a dustbin lid” for a second if you will ( please listen to track 3 of PoP if I just confused you with that characterization). While PoP has some undeniably engaging hooks threading through it, it also has filler, the latter half of the album making for a particularly tough trawl ( up until “Through Our Love”). Which is a shame because the first 6 tracks are genuinely lovable in their own individual, idiosyncratic ways.

But what I want to say most regarding PoP is that it makes me genuinely sad. Not for it’s inconsistency but because I miss this version of Paul, when his default button was set to “melody”, where every song was seemingly built for that thing called radio. And so while it isn’t perfect, PoP remains a sweet document of the straight up “Pop Paul”, a throwback to his ‘70s styles which were never to be seen again after this in such a fulsome way. And hey, NYC record store guy, wherever you are, I think you were wrong.

MATTHEW: Pipes of Peace (1983), 5/10: I’m tempted to give this a lower rating because of the Jacko duets, but that’s far from being Paul’s fault and the songs aren’t bad. Actually I did rate it down for that. Sorry. There’s also the “Tug of Peace” mashup, which reminds me of the turd that was sequenced after “Amazed” on the first album; only this is worse, because it’s a turd pile one has to leap over to get to the closing ballad—which is pretty good. In fact, the whole album is only a little less good than ToW. Which really damns it with faint praise (and a very unoriginal evaluation on my part). But it’s surely less of a drop-off than Bowie’s Tonight was to Let’s Dance (although I admit I prefer both of those to both of these). I think “The Other Me” and “So Bad” and “Through Our Love” are underrated pop nuggets that sound great in Macca mixes. I put my favorite dozen tracks from ToW and PoP in a playlist along with “No More Lonely Nights” (from the Give My Regards to Broad Street fiasco) and the result is a fine hour of Paul pop. I did that last week, and I rather wish I’d done it decades ago.

Press To Play (1986)

MATTHEW: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Hope says PoP makes her sad; Press to Play makes me very sad. It’s the first Macca album that in real time struck me as an end. I thought, poor Paul. He still has the skills, but the creative genius is gone. The fact that buried in the very middle of an otherwise almost unlistenable album is one of his best ballads—“Only Love Remains,” a modest UK hit soon forgotten because Paul’s magical chart run of two decades was over—only makes Press to Play more depressing (depress to play? Oh dear. I apologize). In fact, to give it a full chance and dig a bit deeper, there are some good moments in here, in parts of songs (in “Feel the Sun,” “Footprints,” “Pretty Little Head,” and a couple more); but the songs as a whole aren’t great, and great is what Paul has given us too many times for this to get played much again.

Nothing from the album made it into any of the versions of All The Best, the big hits collection released the following year—which made #2 in the UK but only #62 in the US, perhaps reflecting the damage done by Broad Street and Press.

HOPE: Press to Play (1986), 2/10: Matthew, believe me when I tell you, Press to Play makes me sad too…but even more than that, it makes me angry knowing what Paul is capable of. There are flourishes of divine melody on PtP and melodically epic ballad “Only Love Remains” is an underrated gem…but, and it genuinely pains me to say this, the lyrics throughout the album are atrocious. I admit that at the time of release I found the video for PtP’s first single “Press” pretty irresistible for reasons that had zero to do with the song. Watching classic “cute” Paul mugging, grinning and running his hand through his lustrous hair as he surprised commuters on the tube was kind of all kinds of charming & I totally wished I’d been there, on that train. Pause. Damn. As I have been writing these blurbs, it’s become clear to me that MTV had a cult like influence over me and seemed to rule my entire waking existence in the ’80s. Shit, maybe those angry PRMC ladies were onto something. Right, so back to “Press” the song. The tune was nice enough, but the chirpy, winking sexuality in the lyrics was embarrassing especially in light of what Prince was kicking out with such wit and brilliance at that same juncture. And I found the “I love you very, very, very much” bit in the song to be particularly grating ( it’s right up there with Kiss’s “crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights” on the irritation scale). Oof. Fittingly (?) the album closes with the overwrought “However Absurd” which sounds like a substandard Rutles song, right down to it’s title. PtP is Paul on autopilot and simply put, it just kind of sucked.

Flowers In The Dirt (1989)

MATTHEW: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 5/10: With only one original studio album in the six years since PoP, and it relatively unsuccessful, this was a potential comeback record. It did well enough (#1 in the UK), and was generally considered a “return to form” (forgive the cliche); but of its four singles, only “My Brave Face” was Top 25 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Hope says there is nothing essential on here and I agree (I like “We Got Married” and “Motor of Love,” but they’re hardly essential). The Elvis Costello collaboration was heavily publicized, but it sounds far more like a Crowded House album than a Costello one—reflecting the influence of Mitchell Froom, lead producer (after Paul) and also producer of the first three Crowded House albums (1986-91). I was a huge CH fan at the time, so the comparison helped me like this more—but not as much as the CH albums. It still is, for me, in that quite-good category with VaM and PoP. It gave me hope that Macca would make a few great albums in the ’90s…but it would turn out to be merely the high point of a low patch lasting most of the ’80s and ’90s.

HOPE: Flowers in the Dirt (1989), 3/10: It’s true that to my ears there are no essential tracks on Flowers. It was certainly a step up from its studio predecessor PtP but nothing stuck to the wall for me. It’s one of my least played Macca albums. I was working at CBGB’s Record Canteen at the time this came out and as I was playing it one day, one of my co-workers, who like me was in her early 20’s said, “Wow, I think my Mom would like this album”. While she hadn’t meant it as an insult and was just making an observation, I admit that it changed how I heard Flowers for a minute. To make matters worse, she’d made the remark while my favorite song off the album was playing, the catchy, poppy and goofy “Figure of Eight”. Flowers was indeed polite, clean, undemanding and overly cloying ( “Put It There,”How Many People”, ugh). Which is to say it didn’t feel especially cool. In other words, your Mom and Dad would very likely enjoy it ( this despite the participation of Elvis Costello and Mitchell Froom who gave the whole thing some credibility amongst both critics and nerds). I’ve periodically revisited Flowers hoping something might resonate but it’s just never happened. My best memory of this release is that it preceded the first Macca tour of the U.S. since 1976 (!) and thus prefaced my first opportunity to see him play live. It didn’t matter that it was from the back of a stadium in New Jersey in the presence of the asshole guy I was seeing and Paul was a barely discernible dot on the horizon, the important thing was that after what felt like a lifetime of waiting, I was there, in the same “room” as Macca, finally .

End of Part 2

Coming in Part 3, a dissection of Paul’s ’90s discography. Let the resurrection begin. Read it here

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