Not such a bad boy – Paul in the 1980s (part two)

So last time I outlined some of the reasons why I think Paul gets such a bad rap for his ‘80s output, the factors which may colour people’s judgement of how they remember it or how they should hear it for the first time. Biographers don’t help matters – in a standard McCartney book, you might get a few paragraphs on Press to Play, for example (using dwelling on its commercial failure), compared to whole chapters on his drug busts or divorce from Heather Mills – and neither does Macca himself. With the exception of ‘Here Today’ and ‘Temporary Secretary’ (and a one-off performance of ‘Ebony and Ivory’), he hasn’t played a single note of his 1980s back catalogue in live concerts for the past 18 years. Which is staggering when you think about it. Paul himself must have soaked up the ‘received wisdom’ about his career; in 2015, Manic Street Preachers front man James Dean Bradfield noted how suspicious Macca was when the singer told him how much he loved Pipes of Peace. It’s a real pity, because there are such unacknowledged riches in his releases from that decade (hell, even among the stuff he didn’t release) that are worthy of more attention. Why do I single out that period when most people prefer the 1970s or his albums from the last 25 years? Well, part of it may be down to the fact that the 1980s was my youth, and that was when I first fell in love with his music. But I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

Macca in 1984

Although I wouldn’t cite 1980’s McCartney II as Exhibit A in my case for proclaiming the ‘80s as the greatest period of Paul’s solo career – it’s too whimsical, sketchy and erratic for that – it is an important foundation stone for what was to follow. Recorded almost single-handedly at his home studio in the summer of 1979, while Wings was very much still an active act, it must have reminded him of the joys of working solo, unfettered by the strictures of the band format. We know that his enthusiasm for Wings, which had just undergone its umpteenth line-up change, was beginning to wane by this point, and the fun he had making McCartney II – plus the success it enjoyed when finally released in the spring of 1980 – most likely convinced him it was time to go it alone. There were still a few sporadic Wings recording sessions that year, but they pretty much represented the band’s last gasp. By the time he went started the sessions for what became Tug of War in the autumn, I’m pretty sure he intended it to be a fully-fledged solo album (despite the presence of Wings’ Denny Laine on a couple of tracks). And this marked a major shift in his approach to music making, for a number of reasons.

Recording ‘Tug of War’, 1981

To begin with, it allowed him to get off the pop star treadmill and take stock of his life and career. Since The Beatles’ split ten years earlier, he’d barely stopped, releasing nine studio albums, a live album and several standalone singles, as well as touring regularly. The only (slight) break in the schedule was when Linda was pregnant with James in 1977, and even then he spent some of that time recording London Town. To paraphrase John’s song about his own 1975-80 sabbatical, he stepped off the merry-go-round, possibly for the first time since 1962. After conquering the world all over again with Wings, he must’ve been wondering what mountains were left for him to climb. He was also rapidly approaching 40. It’s a big milestone in anyone’s life, but for someone who had once thought being a pop star at that age was a totally redundant proposition, even more so. With, by all accounts, Linda keen to give their young family some stability after years of gallivanting around the world’s concert stages and TV studios, his life priorities were shifting.

Two other events that year would also have massively impacted on his thinking and his creativity. First, the drug bust in Japan which saw him incarcerated for nine days, facing the prospect a long prison sentence and losing all he held dear. And, second, John’s murder that December. I suspect that, along with the inevitable fears for his family’s security and brutal realisation of his own mortality, losing his best friend and erstwhile songwriting partner in such a sudden, shocking manner triggered a major reassessment of who he was, as an artist. The prospect of one day reactivating the Lennon/McCartney partnership, something which was surely bubbling away at the back of both their minds, was now gone, forever; the competitive dynamic connecting them like an invisible umbilical chord, which still kept them on their toes, was severed, irrevocably. At the same time, the reputation and legacy of The Beatles grew enormously and cast an even bigger, deeper shadow. A mirror casting back to his younger, supremely gifted self, to whom he would always be compared and could never compete. And with hungry new competitors on the pop scene, spawned by new wave, disco, electronica and new romanticism, storming the gates of his castle, he had a lot to ponder. Was he still relevant? What did it mean to be the eternally-youthful Paul McCartney in his 40s?

A contemplative Paul, during sessions for ‘Flowers in the Dirt’

Consciously or not, all this had a big effect on his writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I love his 1970s work. It features many of his very best songs and some fabulous albums; even his weaker efforts are sprinkled with genius. But, for me, his material from 1980 onwards is generally more consistent, more mature and more complete. It has greater depth, and more care was clearly taken to bring his ideas to full fruition. While he was still writing and recording at a furious rate, he was more selective about what he released. Gaps between albums slowly grew longer – in contrast to the previous decade, he put out just five collections of new material (plus a handful of original tracks on the Broad Street soundtrack), and a mere three non-album singles. And it sounded quite different to what had gone before. Can you imagine the song ‘Tug of War’ on, say, Wings at the Speed of Sound? Alternatively, take the kinds of rockers he was turning out in the late ‘70s, like ‘I’ve Had Enough’ and ‘To You’. Fun and energetic, yes, but slight and repetitive, basically beefed-up riffs and not much more. Compare them with some of their ‘80s equivalents, fully-realised, fleshed-out belters like ‘Ballroom Dancing’, ‘No Values’ and ‘Move Over Busker’, and the difference is stark. Similarly, most of his ballads from the Wings era were fairly low-key, minimalist affairs – tunes like ‘I’m Carrying’ and ‘Warm and Beautiful’ are gorgeous, but sound a little under-developed to me. In the ‘80s, tracks like ‘Through Our Love’ and ‘Only Love Remains’ are full-blown romantic epics, while even smaller-scale numbers like ‘So Bad’ and ‘Loveliest Thing’ are filled with melody, thoughtful lyrics and little flourishes which betray a greater intent and attention to detail.

Talking of lyrics, he definitely ups his game in this area. The passage of time gives many of his songs a more reflective, pensive tone. There are bittersweet reminiscences (‘Ballroom Dancing’, ‘The Pound is Sinking’, ‘Here Today’, ‘Good Times Coming’), meditative musings on grown-up love and family life (The Man’, ‘Tough On A Tightrope’, ‘We Got Married’, ‘Put It There’), and abstract flights of fancy (‘Wanderlust’, Talk More Talk’, ‘However Absurd’). Even his lighter moments, like ‘Keep Under Cover’, ‘Not Such A Bad Boy’ and ‘Press’, have a disarming playfulness which in perfectly in keeping with the music. His penchant for whimsy is largely controlled and channelled in the right directions.

George Martin with Paul, during sessions for ‘Tug of War’

Another key factor in his 1980s renaissance is his yearning for collaboration. While he’d spent most of the previous decade working within a band, Wings was most definitely The Paul McCartney Show. He wrote most of the songs, was sole producer of nearly all their sessions, and exercised total control over how the material was arranged and performed. Yet, at the same time, he was locked into the strictures of band recording. Even before John died, he realised he needed fresh creative stimulation and challenge, and sought out George Martin to produce what became Tug of War. Martin even insisted on hearing the new songs before agreeing to do it, holding Paul to a quality standard no one had demanded of him since the 1960s. And when the sessions got underway, as well as adding a production sheen reminiscent of Abbey Road, you can bet he pushed Macca to make sure the finished recordings were as good as they could possibly be.

And the collaborations didn’t end there. Now free of needing to tailor his output to the needs of a working group, Paul could not only play parts himself until he got the sound he wanted, he could also bring in anyone he chose to add different flavours and textures to the music. This could be top rank session men like jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Steve Gadd or guitarist Carlos Alomar; big name pals like Ringo, Carl Perkins, Dave Gilmour or Pete Townsend, or even superstar peers like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. And after completing a trilogy of albums with Martin, he began seeking out other, more modern-sounding producers to keep him honest and interested, working with the likes of Hugh Padgham (Phil Collins, The Police), Phil Ramone (Billy Joel), Trevor Horn (Frankie Goes To Hollywood) and Mitchell Froom (Crowded House) before the decade was out. It’s an approach he continues to this day.

Recording with Elvis Costello, 1988

Perhaps even more significantly, he began writing other people – consistently – for the first time since John Lennon. He’d written the occasional tune with Denny Laine during Wings, true, but in 1985 he penned more than half the numbers for Press to Play with 10cc’s Eric Stewart. Paul spoke of his longing to get back to writing on two acoustic guitars, “eyeball to eyeball”, like he had with John. I think Stewart simply happened to be in the right place at the right time; he had played and sung on the George Martin albums, and was a proven hit-maker in his own right. However, while I thought the end results of their songwriting partnership were terrific, a falling out over production responsibilities and the album’s subsequent poor sales put paid to any further co-writes between the pair. Nonetheless, it obviously gave Paul a taste for it, and this time he consciously sought out a specific composing partner, in the form of Lennon accolyte and post-punk poet Elvis Costello. While it was hard to discern exactly what Stewart had brought to the party on Press to Play, Costello’s input was clear from the get-go: a more lyrical, spiky, literate edge to the traditional McCartney brand. And while that partnership too had a finite lifespan (another dispute over how some of the songs were produced, although the pair stayed friends), it produced an unfailingly marvellous batch of songs for Flowers in the Dirt (and 1993’s Off The Ground), including ‘My Brave Face’, ‘That Day is Done’ and ‘Mistress and Maid’.

The end results of all these influences were, for my money, the best albums (along with Band on the Run) of his solo career. I’ll focus on the individual records another time. But ignore the retrospective naysayers – Tug of War is every bit the masterpiece it was hailed as at the time, one of the best Beatles solo albums ever. And forget the nonsense that Pipes of Peace was just a collection of leftovers from that album. Only three of its 11 tracks were originally intended for Tug, and they may well have been omitted from the final selection because Paul felt they didn’t fit rather than because they weren’t good enough (some numbers recorded for Ram ended up on Red Rose Speedway, remember). And while a couple of woeful inclusions (‘Hey Hey’ and ‘Tug of Peace’) prevent it from reaching the dizzy heights of its predecessor, Pipes remains a dazzling example of Macca’s pop sensibilities in full flight. Give My Regards to Broad Street is a soundtrack collection rather than a full-blown new album but, if you can park your views on the film, there is so much to enjoy on it. Some people seem outraged that he re-recorded some Beatles songs, but why shouldn’t he? He wrote them. They’re not necessarily meant to be better, just different – I, for one, love hearing ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ with a brass arrangement, and ‘For No One’ with strings. And as well as applying a new lick of paint to old classics, he still had one eye on the future. The gorgeous ‘Eleanor’s Dream’ segment prefigured his forays into the classical music field, while the play-out version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’ gave us the first real taste of Macca dance music.

In the studio making ‘Press to Play’, circa 1986

He embraced the future head-on with 1986’s Press to Play, an album draped in all the trappings of hi-tech 1980s production techniques. It may have gone down a like a lead balloon with record buyers of the day, and so acquiring a bad reputation which dogs it even today, but I think it’s McCartney at his best – brimming with some of his most beautiful ballads, crunching rockers, irresistible pop tunes and accessible experimental work-outs. It’s lack of success must’ve been a rare blow to Paul’s self-confidence but, after retreating to the studio to figure out his next move (a fascinating period which saw him trying on various musical hats with different musicians and producers), he bounced back with the wonderful Flowers in the Dirt in 1989, another stellar collection of material which artfully balanced contemporary sounds with his timeless song craft. The resulting 1989-90 world tour marks the last time he felt brave enough to put half an album’s worth of new songs into his setlist, confident they would hold up to the Beatles and Wings evergreens around them. And, in my book, the resulting Tripping The Live Fantastic is a strong contender for his most satisfying live album

So that’s my take on Macca in the ‘80s. And I haven’t even mentioned singles like ‘We All Stand Together’ (sneered at by many, but rightly loved by millions of others), his last UK top ten hit ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’ or the ballad version of ‘No More Lonely Nights’, one of his greatest-ever songs. Or the stirring rock ‘n’ roll oldies album Choba B CCCP, recorded more or less live over two days in 1987, and still – for me – the pick of his three covers collections. Or the fact that even some of his unreleased work from this period, such as ‘Seems Like Old Times’, ‘Yvonne’ and ‘Return to Pepperland’ (plus a batch of Costello co-writes which didn’t seen the light of day until 2017), is also jaw-droppingly good. You may disagree, of course, and that’s fine. It’s just my opinion. But I’d still urge anyone to ignore the ‘received wisdom’ and seek out his 1980s output, or give it a fresh listen. You might be surprised to find that Beatle Paul was still alive and well, and firing on all cylinders.

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