Title: Tug of War
Artist: Paul McCartney
Album: Tug of War
By 1982, I had pretty much abandoned my obsession with The Beatles and Paul McCartney for the technical musical precision of progressive rock. Songs like "Ebony and Ivory" seemed too hokey for my tastes and McCartney II had been such a disappointment to me two years earlier. As an active songwriter, I would eventually come back to The Beatles and their solo work but it was John's output that resonated with me in my adult years. In fact, I've even become disenchanted with the Paul songs most people enjoy ("Band on the Run," "Live and Let Die," and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," for example), all of which seem like unfinished song snippets tied together with weak or silly lyrics.
So I pretty much skipped Tug of War completely and I'm glad I checked back in thirty years later to give it another spin. Two months into the recording of this record, John Lennon was murdered and it seemed to have a profound impact on Paul's direction as a solo artist. He had already dissolved Wings and enlisted famed Beatles producer George Martin for the sessions, but to me, it seems like Lennon's death led McCartney to produce a more mature, serious, personal record. While the album's tribute song to Lennon ("Here Today") is touching, it's the title track I find the most ambitious and satisfying in terms of composition and performance.
For me, the most compelling thing about the track is the meter. The song has a bit of a Spanish feel (it reminds me of "Barcelona" by Rufus Wainwright) and McCartney lets the lyric dictate the meter, even if it means inserting a random 2/4 or 3/4 bar to accommodate extra syllables (something Lennon did masterfully in songs like "Across the Universe"). The song also has a very slow harmonic rhythm, with individual chords sustaining through the verses for up to five or six measures. The "dancing to the beat" lyric is set to a rhythm and meter that is hard to discern but it seems like a quick 3/8 or 6/8 sandwiched among the slow quarter-note pulse. It's an exciting propulsion of rhythm in a fairly laid-back song that is both jarring and invigorating.
It's hard to say with certainty whether the song is about his relationship with Lennon but if it is, I think it's an even better tribute than "Here Today" which captures the camaraderie but not the struggles. This song, with a tremendous arrangement by George Martin, is as complex as their relationship and as moving as anything McCartney has ever written.