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'Ebony and Ivory': 40 years of the most grating duet in history


There’s a reason the comments section is turned off on the ‘Ebony and Ivory’ Youtube page. The 1982 duet between Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder is undoubtedly one of the most hated pieces of music ever to emerge from a recording studio, ranking just below Mr Blobby’s 1993 Christmas Number One, ‘Mr Blobby’ in terms of its capability to make you want to eat your own ears. It was loathed at the time and, 40 years later, I don’t seem much reason for that disdain to let up: ‘Ebony and Ivory’ isn’t just painfully dull on a musical level, its whole message is also dangerously reductive.

‘Ebony and Ivory’ uses the extended metaphor of the black and white keys on McCartney’s piano to paint a utopian image of a world in which racial hatred has been extinguished, and everyone lives together in “perfect harmony.” McCartney was fond of the analogy because, while you can play with just white keys and just black keys, to make truly brilliant music, you need to combine the two. In this way, the track was designed to attack the idea of racial segregation, something Paul had first become aware of in 1964, when The Beatles, on their first trip to America, refused to play a show while the audience was segregated.

In the music video, McCartney and Wonder sit side by side, singing under a window bursting with heavenly light. Filled with joy, they get to their feet and start high-fiving, bumping butts, and generally having a wail of a time. The irony is, of course, that McCartney and Wonder were forced to record their parts for the music video in separate locations.

The slightly self-effacing cheesiness of the record is further heightened by Paul’s gratingly polished melodies, which guide his voice upwards as he espouses a view of racism designed for the benefit of fragile white listeners. “We all know that people are the same wherever you go,” he and Stevie sing, “There is good and bad in everyone.” Lines such as these reveal a song that is clearly a product of its time.

When ‘Ebony And Ivory’ was issued as a single on McCartney’s 1982 album Tug Of War, it quickly became a hit in the US, staying at Number Oen for no less than seven weeks. But, with all that airplay, listeners quickly tired of the song, and it gradually faded from view, dropping off the charts soon afterwards. McCartney’s superficial understanding of racial politics was subsequently derided, but few seemed to recognise it was symptomatic of a more widespread attitude towards race relations. The ’80s, after all, was the era in which yuppie racism – a product of educated students being willfully ignorant to the historical struggles of the Civil Rights Movement – reached fruition, thus laying the foundations for the resurgence of extreme racism in the US in the ’80s and ’90s

Today, ‘Ebony And Ivory’ isn’t just unlistenable because of its unbearable mawkishness but because it reveals something deeply unnerving about the way popular culture reduces the fight for racial inequality to something digestible, the way it refuses to embrace difficult conversations and to acknowledge that work still needs to be done. McCartney looks only to the end result, refusing to accept that before that world of “perfect harmony” can exist, white people need to accept responsibility for the sounds their ancestors inflicted and start taking active steps to heal them. The result is a piece of music so utterly blinkered that it’s hard to imagine how people ever accepted it in the first place.