Jesus of Cool: Paul McCartney, Dearly De-Charted in the ’80s

Written by Jesus of Cool, Music

Whether you were a child of the ’60s or (like me) of the ’70s, the Beatles’ perpetual presence on the radio seemed something of a birthright. Every “official” Beatles single between “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “The Long and Winding Road” reached the Billboard Top 40, and for five years after the band’s 1970 breakup all four members were reliable fixtures on AM radio. That omnipresence began to fade in 1975 as John Lennon went into retirement, George Harrison’s hitmaking became hit-or-miss, and Ringo … well, Ringo seemed to lose his mojo right around the time he found producer Arif Mardin.

But Paul McCartney found a way to remain radio-relevant straight through the ’70s, making the Top 40 even with drivel like “Letting Go,” “Girls’ School,” “London Town” and the singles from Wings’ last album, the brutal 1979 Back to the Egg. (His chartmaking prowess survived a lot of lousy singles, to be sure; it’s not for nothin’ that McCartney-written “classics” made my lists of the Worst Number One hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.)

Paul McCartney under arrest in Tokyo, 1980A couple of funny things happened to Macca on the way to the ’80s, however. Sixteen days into the new decade, he was handcuffed at Tokyo International Airport while trying to smuggle a rather large quantity of weed into the country, and instead of giving him a slap on the hand and looking the other way, Japanese authorities locked him up for nine days and threatened to throw away the key (before eventually relenting). He returned home to find erstwhile bandmate Denny Laine exploiting the event with a single called “Japanese Tears,” and suddenly Paul found himself without a band once again.

He retreated to a home studio, much as he had as the Beatles were splitting, and emerged with a solo album that was even more idiosyncratic than his first one had been a decade earlier. But then, after the first single from that McCartney II album (“Coming Up”) topped the charts in customary fashion, he released another one – and it didn’t even make the Hot 100, much less the Top 40.

That single was “Waterfalls” (download), a lovely ballad whose quality is hard to deny, but whose utter pop-chart failure is easy to understand. Its lethargic pace and bare-bones production values hardly fit on the radio during the summer of 1980 alongside “Funkytown,” “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” and “Upside Down” – Christopher Cross’ “Sailing” was about as slow as programmers were willing to go.

And while McCartney II sold admirably that summer, those same radio programmers had already rejected the processed vocals that permeated the album. Instead of playing the album version of “Coming Up,” which had been released as an A-side, they had flipped it over and made a huge hit out of the pre-Tokyo “live” version on the B-side, which featured Wings and a “natural” vocal from Paul. (Thus, as it would turn out, the only Number One single credited by Billboard to “Paul McCartney” as a solo artist actually featured the band he had recently jettisoned.)

The failure of “Waterfalls” at radio and in record stores (it did “Bubble Under” at #106, on a separate chart that Billboard ran at the time) foretold the slow decline in McCartney’s commercial fortunes during the ’80s. His last Top 10 hit was the theme from the film Spies Like Us in 1986, and by the end of the decade he needed a boost from Elvis Costello to extract one last Top 40 hit with “My Brave Face.” Since then he has been, in Popdose parlance (courtesy of our colleague Dave Steed), a “Bottom Feeder,” never (so far) to get another sniff of broad-based pop success.

I’ll leave it to Steed to provide you with downloads of Macca’s three other Bottom 60 singles of the ’80s. One of them is familiar to most fans – the title track from the 1982 Tug of War album, which only reached #53. Another is the follow-up to “My Brave Face” from the ’89 Flowers in the Dirt album, “This One,” which barely crept onto the chart at #94 despite the hype surrounding Paul’s first U.S. tour in 23 years.

I would, however, like to say a few words on behalf of the other McCartney single that failed to reach the Top 40 during the ’80s. “Stranglehold” was a true delight: the leadoff track to the 1986 Press to Play album, and a recording that updated his sound (with help from producer Hugh Padgham) in a manner both low-key and – here’s a word you don’t hear associated much with Macca – hip.

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Its failure to gain traction at radio, or to chart higher than #81, surprised the industry and served as a clear signal that even the biggest-selling songwriter in history was not immune to the vicissitudes of time or the tyranny of demographics. McCartney has bounced back (occasionally) in terms of album sales, but – despite coming relatively close with a couple tracks off 1997’s excellent Flaming Pie album – never recaptured the hitmaking magic, and by now almost certainly never will.

Paul enjoyed his last Top 10 hit at age 43, his last Top 40 hit at age 47. By contrast, Madonna reached the Top 5 this spring with “4 Minutes” – just weeks before her 50th birthday. Ain’t that a kick in the head?