When one thinks of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, the first thing that pops to the mind is the musical travesty that was their 1982 single ‘Ebony and Ivory’. The collaboration not only makes a claim for being one of the worst duets of all time but, simply put, one of the worst songs in history
The track is so terrible that my fellow writer, Sam Kemp, claimed that it is such an assault on the ears that it ranks “just below” Mr Blobby’s notorious Christmas number one from 1993 “in terms of its capability to make you want to eat your own ears”. Whilst this type of language might seem excessive, when it comes to this song, Mr. Kemp is precise in his assertion. Even though the track should have been a creative success, given just how radiant the stars of McCartney and Wonder are, it was a failure in every department.
Musically, it’s beige, and the message it tried to spread was a misfire and reductive. Notably, ‘Ebony and Ivory’ utilises the metaphor of the black and white keys on McCartney’s piano to paint a vision of the world where racial hatred and division are no more, where society has finally banded together in “perfect harmony”.
The story goes that the typically optimistic McCartney was a big fan of the analogy. He argued that whilst you can play either just the white keys or the black ones, to make music that is truly riveting, you need to combine both. In this sense, the track was a very clear attack on the idea of racial segregation and racism at large. McCartney had his eyes opened to the evils of segregation when The Beatles first toured America in 1964 and famously refused to play a show whilst the audience was segregated.
However, the over-simplified take on racism is something that should be left in the past, as it totally diminishes any constructive argument to combat racism, take the following line, for example: “There is good and bad in everyone.” It’s childish and misses the point.
This disgust at America’s problem with racism, combined with the fact that McCartney was a lifelong fan of soul, and a huge lover of Motown and Stax records, led to the pair’s first meeting, which set them on their long path to making the utterly terrible ‘Ebony and Ivory’.
McCartney first saw the young Motown prodigy Stevie Wonder perform on February 3rd 1966, at The Scotch of St. James nightclub in Mason’s Yard, London. Understandably, he was blown away by the talent of Wonder, and after the show, the pair chatted backstage and hit it off instantly.
During an interview with NME on February 18th of that year, Wonder said: “When on tour I have to write essays about the places I visit. In the essay I’ll be writing when I get back I’ll certainly include my meeting with Paul McCartney. I met him in the Scotch Of St James club. He’s a really swinging guy, the only Beatle I’ve met.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of information about that fateful meeting of McCartney and Wonder, but one thing is sure. Whilst it was a case of two of the biggest stars of all-time aligning, it also spawned one of the worst tracks we’ve ever heard. Sometimes things are best left as ideas, and if they hadn’t released ‘Ebony and Ivory’, both their back catalogues would be without the rather large stains that they have today.