499. ‘Ebony and Ivory’, by Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder

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*

23 thoughts on “499. ‘Ebony and Ivory’, by Paul McCartney with Stevie Wonder

  1. As ever, a very well-thought-out and interesting read. It got me thinking even more than usual…I’m a great admirer of Macca and his achievements (who could say otherwise?), but wouldn’t call myself his biggest fan. Too much of his work, for me, comes from the head rather than the heart. I’m a George Harrison man really – anyway – for a long time, I couldn’t hear this record without being reminded of the comment in its review as a new release in NME about how if you listen closely enough you can hear the sound of somebody choking on his own halo. But reading this post, it made me realise the fundamental difference between the post-Beatle work of John and Paul. Nearly every time I hear a John record, I can’t help feeling negative in some way. Perhaps it’s partly the shadow of Mark David Chapman looming over his memory, in which case I can hardly blame John. But when I hear a Paul record, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it’s unbearably twee. But now it occurs to me that you get the feeling Paul’s music might have lurched too far towards the cosy, the cute, the frothy, the let’s get our slippers on and sit round by the fire and pretend everything is wonderful kinda thing. Yet you do get the feeling that he wants to try and make the world a more positive place. I wouldn’t say it has converted me to liking this record, but I think I can at last be a little more charitable about it. OK, I’m getting old, where are my slippers…

    • No doubt Paul’s music, even this one, is well-intentioned. And yeah, no doubt he’s a fantastic songwriter. I mean… ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’ alone would be enough to cement anyone’s reputation. But imagine Lennon singing the ‘Oh why don’t we…?’ line here. You’d have no doubt that Lennon knew exactly why we couldn’t live together in perfect harmony… It’s a pseudo-personality test: are you more John or Paul. Musically, and in terms of my view of the world, I’m a John.

  2. It’s a very easy song to poke fun of which people were doing almost immediately given that Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo performed a version of “Ebony and Ivory” on SNL in 1982 as Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra respectively. Ultimately, the main issue is the naive execution of the lyrics thinking that racism is something that’s easily solved by just looking past differences and how we’re all the same. Paul has even said in writing the song he thought all those problems ere solved in the ’60s but then realized with “Ebony and Ivory” that there’s still tension which explains why the song feels so naive and self-satisfied. There’s this great blurb too from Tom Breihan’s review of the song about why the song doesn’t work, “This is the central problem with “Ebony And Ivory,” the reason that it’s aged so poorly. Racial division is not the kind of thing that can be solved through amiable adult contemporary music. It can’t be solved through angry brick-thrower music, either, but at least angry brick-thrower music seems to give more of a shit about the problem. In “Ebony And Ivory,” there’s no acknowledgment that the balance of power might be fucked up, that racial divisions are the result of historical crimes and atrocities. It’s just: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony/ Side by side on my piano keyboard/ Oh lord, why don’t we?” McCartney asks the question, and I don’t know if he’s interested in the answer. A rich and aristocratic pop star posing this question in 1982 has the same kind of energy as a major corporation putting up a vague racial-solidarity tweet amidst police riots today.”

    • I’d say that this is better intentioned than your average corporation doing a BLM or Pride month tweet. Nowadays that comes from a fear of being seen to NOT have done it. Nobody in 1982, I assume, was demanding a song about racial equality from Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. So the intention was pure. But… it’s still a pretty awful song, lyrically and musically.

      • Yeah the music feels very sickly with the synths and that ugly sounding guitar line in the middle and outro breaks. There’s also backing vocals from Linda and Danny Laine from Wings as well as Eric Stewart of both 10cc and the Mindbenders. On Paul’s part, he did make “Blackbird” which was inspired by the civil rights movement in the US so he can make good uplifting equality anthems but this just feels very weak and laughable in its intention. And of course this all star teaming wound up being a smash spending seven weeks on top in America largely thanks to the big name recognition more than anything. Will say I’m a bit surprised this was Stevie Wonder’s first UK #1 and not his acclaimed stuff from the ‘70s or his early child star material from the ‘60s considering he first hit #1 in the US even before the Beatles arrived here with 1963’s “Fingertips Pt. 2” live recording as Little Stevie Wonder.

      • Yes ‘Blackbird’ is a good shout, though you could listen to it and easily not realised what it’s about.

        And yes it is a surprise that Stevie Wonder waited this long. He was having hits – I think ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ were #2s – but nothing like his US success

      • Yeah I didn’t realize the true meaning of “Blackbird” until seeing Paul in concert where he likes to bring up that story when he plays the song. If anything, “Blackbird” shows he better at singing about quality in more veiled metaphors than something as obvious as the black and white keys on a piano.

        For Stevie in the US, “Ebony and Ivory” was his first #1 since the ’70s after “Sir Duke” and by this point wasn’t in his classic album ’70s phase but was already a big respected icon to the point where he was still have able to have big hits as we’ll see further down the road. He’s one of those artists where it’s insane looking at how long he had hits for starting from his Little Stevie Wonder child star days in the early ’60s to the mid-’80s as an established legend.

  3. I’m a huge Beatles fan and also like many of Paul McCartney’s songs thereafter. I agree “Ebony and Ivory” is not his best. Overall, however, I think the “Tug of War” album, on which this tune appears, is one of Macca’s best solo albums. His other duet with Steve Wonder on that record, “What’s That You’re Doing?” is better.

  4. Bland, bland, and…did I mention bland? He needed Lennon kicking him in the ass…even in his imagination….saying all of that… this song does have a good melody but it’s just so boring.

    I agree with Christian…Tug of War IS one of his best albums… I mean the Wings albums were still him solo really. He really sunk down after this album because the 80s took hold of him in songs like “So Bad.”

    • I guess McCartney does have the ‘unfair’ disadvantage of being alive, and of having time to make unmemorable music… Whose to say Lennon wouldn’t have done similar in the 80s?

      • Oh I liked Double Fantasy BUT…I was more happy with “Nobody Told Me” because it was rawer…it was more John. Double Fantasy WAS too mellow for my tastes. He had Cheap Trick helping him at one point but Ono thought it was too rough.

        So yea…he could have went that way.

        I’m sorry to go off topic here…

        You want to read something interesting? Jack Douglas who produced it is interviewed. I found out things I had no clue about.
        If you have time…it IS interesting.

        https://www.heydullblog.com/double-fantasy/jack-douglas-in-beatlefan-1999/

      • That is interesting… Imagine being one of the very last people to see him alive! And interesting that he and Yoko liked to record their songs for the album separately…

      • I hope you liked it…thanks for reading. Yea there were rumors also that they might not have been together much longer…anyway back to point….yes he could have went the McCartney way but I doubt he would have went all the way down that path.

        You explained it perfectly…I’ll take the idealism over the bland.

  5. Well intentioned. People were hapoy to see stevie get a number one. But it wasnt worthy of either in comparison to stuff they recorded in 1980 and 1981. In other words, pauls album Tug Of War has an outstanding title track and a wonderful tribute to john, not to mention a great catchy follow up in take it away. Stevie was on form with masterblaster, lately, happy birthday all among his best with do i do due any day now. So i dont agree with an often expressed view that they were slacking and past it just because of one dollop of sentiment. Paul had just been all experimental with coming up uk version, waterfalls and temporary secretary and was clearly willing to welcome the 80s in all by his lonesome with no collabs. And they had both mostly been firing on all cylinders, bar the tail end of wings, since the early 60s, though both had peaked years before, obv.

    • It is an inherent danger in just listening to number ones, you miss all the other stuff… Obviously I know a lot of Stevie Wonder’s songs, but where they fit in his discography I’m not always sure. Then along comes this clanger and it’s the first we’ve heard from him. It clouds your judgement, definitely. Plus I have a silly soft-spot for his next #1, whereas to my ears all McCartney’s eighties chart-toppers are pretty dire

      • Ooh thats a shame re macca then, i rather like pipes of peace. I will allow you to refer to it as someone at the time did – pipes of piss, oops! I didnt agree but it was funny😃 the frog chorus wasnt far from getting there that year too were it not for some monster charity discs blocking it….

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