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40 years of Paul McCartney's best solo album 'Tug of War'

The lead track is a jaunty exercise in rhythm and suspense. The album’s most famous number is a tidy overview of race relations in a world that is getting gradually smaller. The album’s liturgy comes directly after a tune that could be described as an elegy but proves even more powerful by virtue of its ambiguity and obscure nature. Welcome to Tug of War, where a former Beatle embodies the contradiction and contrast that his critics thought he was no longer capable of.

We’re not talking McCartney II levels of re-invention here, but Tug of War is certainly more abstract and more artful than many of the albums that Paul McCartney released in his solo work. And it might just be his most successful work, not something to say lightly when Ram, Band On The Run and Chaos and Creation In The Backyard are also part of the catalogue.

Having weathered the death of John Lennon and the breakup of Wings, McCartney was in wistful form as he began piecing the album together. He was nearing 40, no great age, but a time when men tend to look back at their accomplishments with great pride and an even keener interest. He was rediscovering himself, understanding the spark that had led him through the 1960s with buoyancy and enthusiasm. He welcomed the nostalgia, letting it wash over him, especially on the lilting ‘Ballroom Dancing’, which was led by a barrelling hook pleasantly reminiscent of ‘Lady Madonna’ and ‘1985’.

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The sparsely produced ‘Somebody Who Cares’ turned the clock back to the pastoral efforts McCartney produced with Mary Hopkin, albeit one lit by a yearning and sense of regret that had replaced the joie de vivre of his youth. And then there was ‘The Pound Is Sinking’, all jagged hooks and howling vocals, a polished rocker that could easily have wound up on Red Rose Speedway.

In many ways, it sounded like a Greatest Hits, but McCartney invoked his current milieu into the proceedings, even leaning on his role as a father on the whimsical ‘Dress Me Up As A Robber’, a track that was enlivened by a series of sparky, Nile Rodgersesque hooks. ‘Here Today’ offered McCartney the chance to sing for the man who was slain by a fan with a gun, demonstrating one of his most vulnerable and haunting vocal deliveries.

“I wrote ‘Here Today’ about John,” McCartney recalled. “It’s just a song saying, you know, ‘If you were here today you’d probably say what I’m doing is a load of crap. But you wouldn’t mean it, cos you like me really, I know.’ It’s one of those ‘Come out from behind your glasses, look at me,’ things. It was a love song, really, not to John but a love song about John, about my relationship with him. I was trying to exorcise the demons in my own head.”

As it happens, ‘Tug of War’ was a more interesting affair, as it saw the former Beatle discussing the trials behind the rigours of putting a building together. It was a more sophisticated rendition of his role as an artist in pursuit of his memories, bolstered by a stirring harmony vocal from 10cc’s Eric Stewart. Wings guitarist Denny Laine also contributed to the song, as the composition doubled as both McCartney’s farewell to the 1960s (his tenure with The Beatles) and the 1970s (the decade in which he fronted Wings). The tune is by any definition a work of great beauty and stands with the best of his balladic output.

It’s not all introspection and nostalgia: ‘What’s That You’re Doing’ is a sparkily produced funk piece, featuring Stevie Wonder on guest vocals. It started a trend of McCartney singing with younger artists – he would go on to duet with Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello in years to come – showing that he still had enough energy to sing with the younger faction of the pop world. McCartney and Wonder joined forces on ‘Ebony and Ivory’, an infectious tune, which heralded the virtues of racial harmony.

Fittingly, the duo performed ‘Ebony and Ivory’ live at the White House, where the first American President of colour was sitting. Where the tune emerged in 1982 as a portrait of a potential future, it now stood as a valedictorian anthem that celebrated the virtues of progress.

Albums change, mould and grow like the listeners who bought them. Tug Of War seems very different now than it did in 1982. It now stands as a time vessel, a portrait of an artist contemplating their history, and by doing so, unwittingly charting the next 40 years of their lives. Realistically, McCartney doesn’t have another 40 years (he probably doesn’t have another 20), but it stands as his modus operandi, showcasing him in a light neither The Beatles nor Wings permitted him to be: human.

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