Gimme Five: 1980s songs where Paul McCartney didn’t, you know, suck

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Paul McCartney had always been cuffed around for the times when he got too cute or — worse, really — too domestic. Yet, until the 1980s, he’d always possessed an unerring sense of hitmaking magic. Over the course of this disappointing decade, all of that changed.

McCartney began with a hand-made curio in McCartney II, then continued through a reunion with Beatles producer George Martin for Tug Of War and Pipes of Peace that was meant to present the former Beatle as a tour-de-force singer-songwriter — but ultimately felt by turns ill-defined and unsatisfying.

Next came the twin disappointments of Give My Regards to Broadstreet and Press To Play, before McCartney found a new creative sounding board in Elvis Costello in time for Flowers in the Dirt.

The overall results, to be kind, were deeply uneven — with lowlights stretching from “Temporary Secretary” to “Ebony and Ivory” to “Spies Like Us” to “Press.” Still, it wasn’t all bad, or at least not “so bad,” as we’ll see in this newest edition of Gimme Five …

“NOT SUCH A BAD BOY,” (GIVE MY REGARDS TO BROADSTREET, 1984): On an album that would represent the nadir not just of this decade but quite possibly of his career — yes, he re-recorded Beatles songs; no, that what’s a good idea — this flinty little rocker arrived like a bolt of lightning out of the blue.

McCartney, at this point, had scarcely attempted a rock song since the punky final edition of Wings flew apart, and “Not Such a Bad Boy” shows just what an awful loss that had been — even as it points the way to next-decade successes like Run Devil Run. Appearing here with Chris Spedding and Dave Edmunds on guitars, along with the ever-faithful Ringo Starr at the drums, McCartney tears into a straight-forward little groover about a reformed rebel now reduced to kitchen-pass adventures — and he sounds like he’s having no small amount of fun doing it.

Of course, even this tough little aside can’t save Broadstreet, which featured a big single with David Gilmour in “No More Lonely Nights” but precious little else to recommend it to anyone other than the true diehard.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: On a sizzling summer night in 2013, Paul McCartney showed why he’s still one of rock ‘n’ roll’s signature showmen, playing a set packed with hits from across his career.]

“ONE OF THESE DAYS,” (McCARTNEY II, 1980): Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the strongest tracks on the goof-ball experimental dud McCartney II finds Paul at work with an acoustic guitar. Sure, he double tracks, and weirdly synthesizes, his voice. But that’s the extent of the adornments to found on this quietly effective ballad.

Now, “quietly effective” may sound like a back-handed compliment. It certainly would have been a huge disappointment in previous decades; in truth, the song — with its pastoral imagery — sounds like it could have been a throwaway from The White Album. But in the 1980s, and on an album that found McCartney focused so completely on at-home doodles with a new-fangled keyboard — that counts as high praise.

Elsewhere, there are the beginnings of a crunchy rocker on “On the Way,” the almost too-sweet “Waterfalls” and a stripped-down run through of “Coming Up” that his band Wings would thankfully transform into a charttopping hit. None of it is perfect, but the melodic and approachable “One of These Days” gets closest.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Laurence Juber, who served as lead guitarist in the final Wings incarnation, talks about Paul McCartney’s transition back toward a solo career and ‘McCartney II.’]

“STRANGLEHOLD,” (PRESS TO PLAY, 1986): This song’s positioning at the lead track on the often exhaustingly mechanized Press To Play should have had McCartney brought in on false-advertising charges. Who could have guessed that the gleaming pile of MTV-ready, Hugh Padgham-produced dreck that was Paul’s lead single “Press” lay dead ahead?

There are, however, the first frail flowerings of a creative rebound for McCartney to be found here — even if the old-man attitude seems a little heavy handed on tracks like “Angry.” But, more often, you’re stuck with things like “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun,” which was as light-weight as anything on the second side of Wings albums like London Town and, maybe more particularly, Red Rose Speedway — since it too featured a series of half-finished ideas masquerading as a medley. “Talk More Talk” and “Pretty Little Head” are, even now, largely nonsensical.

Do yourself a favor, though, and go back to “Strangehold.” McCartney finds a smart little reed-honking groove, then barks out the lyrics with a whiskey-shot of vigor on this minor classic. For all of the times he’d gotten lost in billowing clouds of whimsy — or in the case of Press to Play, billowing clouds of Fairlight synths — he very nearly pulls off a “Jet”-level anthem here. Next, he’s tear through the oldies-filled Choba B CCCP, and finally start to get his mojo back.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Paul McCartney guitarist Brian Ray discusses the on-going Out There tour, his early stint with Etta James and a fun new side project called the Bayonets.]

“TAKE IT AWAY,” (TUG OF WAR, 1982): Celebrated at the time as a partial Beatles reunion, “Take it Away” certainly starts that way, with an off-kilter rhythm courtesy of Ringo and all of the tasteful hallmarks of a George Martin production — right down to the stoic piano accompaniment.

The song’s most interesting new element, however, comes from 10cc alum Eric Stewart, whose presence clearly sparked McCartney to dabble in some of that group’s now-famous layering of background vocals. “Take It Away” ends with a soaring loop of wordless sighs from a thousand Pauls, Erics and Lindas.

In between, you have one of McCartney’s patented pop confections — with a feverish horn counterpoint, deceptively intricate bass, and an indecipherable narrative straight out of Wings at their chart-busting peak. Together with the paper-thin Steve Wonder duet “Ebony and Ivory,” and what may be his most varied (code for: unfocused) solo recording, this track would help McCartney to a No. 1 album ranking — his last, so far. Quirky, yet accessible, “Take It Away,” a great Wings song that wasn’t, should have been the bigger hit.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Drummer Denny Seiwell discusses the start of Paul McCartney’s Wings and other things, quipping: ‘Play with one Beatle, and it really f*cks up your jazz career.’]

“YOU WANT HER TOO,” (FLOWERS IN THE DIRT, 1989): 1980s-era track? Check. Guest singer? Yep. Lyrics about a romantic entanglement? Well, sure. But this, thankfully, is a world away from earlier of-the-moment Jacko piffles like “The Girl Is Mine” or “Say, Say, Say.”

Instead, Elvis Costello sings just behind McCartney, scowling and howling with a spittle-flying venom, even as “You Want Her Too” swerves through a brilliant series of episodic moments. In so doing, this song — more so even than their radio singles “Veronica” and “My Brave Face” — is a perfect synthesis of everything that made this brief, but very fruitful, time together such a left turn from the missteps that sunk the bulk of McCartney’s work in this decade.

It seemed the spell of 1980s disappointments could only be broken with an outside voice, some new collaborator in the vein of John Lennon. McCartney found that person in Costello, who helped him back to the charts — and, more importantly, back to respectability. From its kaleidoscopic bookends, to its straight-razor wit, to its sharp-elbowed call-and-response presentation, this song plays out like a canny update of Beatles successes like “We Can Work it Out” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” without feeling derivative. Then it all ends, hilariously, with a crashing big-band coda.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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