We’re almost at the five-hundredth number one single. Thirty years since the very first chart, twenty years since Stevie Wonder released his first singles, well over ten years since The Beatles disbanded… It’s amazing that we had to wait this long to meet a solo McCartney, or any kind of Wonder, chart-topper.
Ebony and Ivory, by Paul McCartney (his 1st of three solo #1s) with Stevie Wonder (his 1st of two #1s)
3 weeks, 18th April – 9th May 1982
I’d have happily waited a bit longer, to be honest. The best you can say about this anthem of love and acceptance is that it’s well-intentioned. Ebony and ivory, Live together in perfect harmony, Side by side on my piano keyboard… If piano keys, inanimate slices of elephant tusk and timber, can sit happily together then Oh Lord, why don’t we…? (To be fair, the metaphor of ebony and ivory as black and white people wasn’t invented by McCartney and Wonder. It had been around since the 1840s.)
Did this song sound clumsy at the time? It’s not as if the early ‘80s were a racial utopia; but given the events of the past few years this definitely sounds clumsy. Yet you can’t judge the past by the standards of today. You also shouldn’t judge a song by the artists involved but, come on, how can you listen to this and not compare it to what you know both McCartney and Stevie Wonder were actually capable of?
Away from the lyrics, the music does little to save this record: soft-rock guitars, horns, and a cheesy-sounding sitar mean that the song coasts along fairly forgettably. And yet, beating at the heart of this record is a good pop song. No way were two of the century’s best songwriters going to get together and write something completely irredeemable. It’s not awful – though I can see why it would be tempting to kick this record more than it deserves – and of course it was a ginormous hit around the globe. (Apart from South Africa, where it was banned after Wonder dedicated it to Nelson Mandela.)
It’s tempting to imagine what John Lennon would have had to say, had he been alive. Is it a coincidence that McCartney started churning out crap like this not long after his one-time partner died? Probably. But compare Lennon’s great protest songs – ‘Working Class Hero’, ‘Give Peace a Chance’, ‘Imagine’ and ‘Happy Xmas’ – to this. Even at his most idealistic (and I gave ‘Imagine’ some stick when it topped the charts) he was hectoring us, berating us, making us confront uneasy truths, rather than simply singing about how nice it would be if we were all chums. Lennon often sang those songs like he knew he’d be disappointed: listen to his sneering It’s easy… on ‘All You Need Is Love’. McCartney sings this like he believes every word.
Anyway. ‘Ebony and Ivory’ has nothing to do with John Lennon. It’s hard on Macca that his late bandmate gets brought up. Hard, but inevitable. The saddest thing here is that this is probably neither McCartney nor Stevie Wonder’s worst musical crime of the decade. There is more to come from both of them as we forage towards the heart of the 1980s. Up next, we hit 500! *Applause* With another song about peace and love! *Groans*