Revisiting Paul McCartney’s ‘Pipes of Peace’
By the early '80s, with the Beatles and Wings completely in the past, Paul McCartney got down to the business of focusing on his solo career in earnest, resulting in an outpouring of material that included some of his most massive pop hits.
McCartney's fifth proper solo outing, Pipes of Peace, arrived on Oct. 31, 1983, roughly a year and a half after 1982's Grammy-nominated Tug of War. As astute listeners quickly realized, 'Pipes' acted as a sort of complement to 'War' -- not only through the way their titles answered one another, but in musical terms, with each record containing a trio of high-profile collaborations, as well as appearances from Ringo Starr and ex-Wings member Denny Laine.
Where the Tug of War sessions found McCartney recording a pair of duets with Stevie Wonder (including the hit single "Ebony and Ivory"), for Pipes of Peace, he ended up working with Michael Jackson, who reached out during the months leading up to his record-shattering Thriller LP. "He said he wanted to make hits, so I said, 'Great. Come on,'" recalled McCartney in a 1983 interview, and the results included a No. 1 single from Pipes of Peace in "Say Say Say."
Oddly enough, given the momentous nature of their collaboration, McCartney later professed not to take his time with Jackson all that seriously. "It was more like we were singing on one another's records," he told Playboy in 1984. "Michael and I happened to write a couple of songs together. But we never actually sat down and thought, We're now a songwriting team. I think Michael and I both treated it as a kind of ... just a nice thing to do." And even though Jackson would soon become the biggest pop star on the planet, McCartney definitely didn't regard it as a meeting of equals; as he added later in his chat with Playboy, "I don't particularly admire him as a writer, because he hasn't
done much. I admire Stevie Wonder more."
As it happened, the parallels between Pipes of Peace and Tug of War were more or less deliberate. As McCartney pointed out during his 1983 interview with the BBC, many of the songs from both albums were recorded during the same sessions, and his original plan had been to release War as a double album. "Record companies don't like double albums -- they panic," he explained. "So we said we'd split it into two albums -- Tug of War 1 and Tug of War 2,' but that became a boring idea."
Both albums ended up being produced by George Martin, already legendary for his work with the Beatles, and a comforting presence in the studio -- not only for fans of the Fab Four's classics, but for McCartney himself, if only because it meant less running around. "I've been producing a lot of my own stuff, and it's hard work," he told the BBC. "It's a bit schizophrenic ... it's nice to have someone else there to say, 'That was lousy. Do it again.'"
Listen to Paul McCartney's 'Pipes of Peace'
While Pipes of Peace proved to be a platinum-selling Top 20 hit, critics were a little less impressed with the end result than they'd been with Tug of War, partly because of McCartney's ongoing reliance on middle-of-the-road ballads. Admitting in a 1983 interview that he felt like his new material didn't "come as easily" as it had during his early career, he was quick to point out, "I've written so many songs -- they can't all be good as each other." But that didn't mean he was bashing his latest work, or giving any quarter to those who complained about his fondness for love songs. "It can be dangerous writing a straight love song, because I know people can say 'Oh, there's another soppy love song,'" he told the BBC. "But if you like it and you do like those kind of feelings, you just have to say 'Sod it, I'm going to do it.'"
It's possible that McCartney's focus on the new material wasn't as tight as it might have been if he hadn't also been working on Give My Regards to Broad Street, the 1984 film that found him starring as himself in a musical about some missing master tapes -- and whose soundtrack included re-recordings of Beatles hits. Although that album included a Top 10 hit in the David Gilmour-assisted "No More Lonely Nights," it signaled the start of a fallow period that continued through 1986's somewhat dimly received Press to Play. But change was on the horizon. As far back as late 1983, McCartney spoke of wanting to get "back to feel rather than technology," and with 1988's roots-oriented Choba B CCCP, he started a commercial and creative renaissance that's continued more or less unbroken.