A Dance to the Music of Time — “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five
from the 1973 album Band on the Run by Wings
did not chart (B-side to US #1 single “Band on the Run”)

Again and again we’ve been told: don’t have heroes. The people we look up to are always human, and sooner or later they will inevitably find ways to disappoint us. Even so, I can’t help idolizing two people, and the funny thing is they’re both old white men in the 70s. One of them is Michael Palin, one-sixth of comedy troupe Monty Python, frequent traveller and all-round nice man. The other is Paul McCartney, who surely needs even less introduction (I feel that “Beatle” is enough to cover things?). I have often joked to my friends that if both men should die, then we will truly have arrived at a new dark age. Perhaps even the end of the world.

I jest, but there is something about Paul McCartney that makes it impossible to imagine a world without him. He’s been a huge part of the world’s musical history since 1964 at the latest, and one look at the success of the Carpool Karaokes and Beatle reissues he’s done in the past couple of years show that he has never gone away from it. Even people who aren’t Beatlemaniacs surely must acknowledge that the British Invasion sent rock music spinning in a completely different direction. Then with a bit of a sneer they might point out that he has also contributed a MIGHTY amount of maudlin mush to the music industry: “Silly Love Songs”. “Wonderful Christmastime”. ESPECIALLY “Ebony and Ivory”. Well yes, that is quite a large part of his repertoire (and I will never go on to defend that last one). But that’s not the whole story. I submit, ladies and gentlemen, the perfect 1973 composition “Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Five” (henceforth “1985” for reasons of sanity), as my one and only defence.

The story of its parent album, Band on the Run, is worthy of a chapter in a history book itself: the story goes that Paul wanted to go somewhere fun for his next project with Wings, his Beatle-breakup-rebound band, and picked Lagos from a list of label EMI’s studios. (Why he didn’t choose Rio de Janeiro or Beijing from that same list is beyond me, but then again who am I to question the infinite wisdom of Paul McCartney?) Expecting a tropical paradise, Wings and co. stumbled into a country freshly emerged from a civil war, with crime and poverty running — well, not so much rampant as it was everywhere. The McCartneys were robbed at one point, and loads of demo cassettes were lost. They can’t have been especially happy during their time there — the inner sleeve photo has them standing behind a bunch of Nigerian children, trying their best to not look completely miserable — so small wonder that the whole album is a perfect analogy for anyone who’s looking to escape. (You may not be surprised to learn that I have been playing it relentlessly since April.)

For an album with such a theme, though, it’s remarkably relaxed. Save for the harder rock of “Jet”, there’s no sign of rush or drive on the album: all the songs are simply gentle saunters through feelings of bliss, a catalogue of escapism rather than actual escape itself. But perhaps Paul was just saving all that tension up, because that all changes with “1985”, the last song on Band on the Run. For the first time since “Jet”, the second song on the album, there’s a sense of urgency, the pitter-patter of the piano sounding like it’s stalking you. All that energy simmering beneath the surface is at once brought back, and you feel like you’re actually on the run. What you are running from is not revealed at this stage: it is enough to know that you are escaping from something. It’s a strong piano hook underlaid with a steady, thumping drumbeat: a rhythmic sense of action that refuses to go away, and the drawling orchestrations coming at you from every direction. It sounds so alien, and yet it’s slowly enveloping the environment, slowly getting louder.

When the lyrics finally come in — after almost a minute of pure instrumentals — they’re not helpful either. What are supposed to make of “no one ever left alive/ In 1985 will ever do”? What does that even mean? In five and a half minutes, the song only goes through three sentences, and none of them make any sense at all. But it doesn’t matter: the confusion of the words is just adding to the sense of impending doom that you’re feeling, the disorienting chaos that you can feel while moving through this sonic waste land. Paul does this kind of thing a lot: set against a riff that hooks you hard and makes you forget what’s going on, the lyrics more often than not become filler, a jumble that doesn’t really cohere together. But whereas this would be considered a cardinal sin in the hands of lesser songwriters, we’re completely fine with him doing it here. It’s probably even for the best: he doesn’t need to say anything more than “oh, I…” as the electronic buzz bounces between the ears, that wordless moan saying more about the situation than a fully-developed verse could ever do.

And I think that that’s the best thing about “1985”: even against a sonic crash that is so epic, one that demands every iota of your attention, Paul’s voice is still there, gasping out the words in his rocker voice (which you don’t hear very often in Paul songs), almost like he’s going “hey, I’m the main character here, I’m the one taking us through this escape plan. Don’t you lose me”. And you don’t, you hang on to his every word, because you’re just constantly focused at how cool Paul sounds doing it. The music is breathy and urgent, but the only urgency you find in Paul is that of a man in the heat of the moment. He’s gibbering here, but he also makes it abundantly clear that he’s gibbering only because he’s so in love with you. He doesn’t care that the world is ending around him — or maybe he does, but he knows that people in these situations don’t care that much anymore. You don’t run around looking for last-ditch solutions when the end of the world is imminent, or spend days just freaking out. You look out to someone who can keep you company in those most desperate moments, and in this song’s case, it’s Paul McCartney.

And somehow you trust him. Not only do you actually believe that you’re escaping from something, you also believe in “1985” that you are escaping with Paul McCartney, a safe pair of hands taking care of you (and only you). He’s so confident that the situation’s under control, he even finds the time to distract you while he’s doing it: Paul does a lot of weird sidenotes and screams, which you can hear flitting in and out of the song: at one point, he gasps, “ladies and gentlemen, huh, huh, huuuuuuhhhhh”, as if he’s actively showing off to an audience. There’s no other word for it: he’s excited. He’s so devoted to engaging the listener that the end of the world, the reason for all this chaos, means only peanuts to him. Here is a man is who looks at the apocalypse, and stands it down in the name of love.

What truly carries the song, then, is not the words or the music or the cinematic atmosphere, though those help a lot. It is the relationship that Paul establishes between you and him, a personal relationship where he isn’t just taking a detached role — he’s the person you need, the one you can rely on to take you away, the person who seems to understand what you want most. That’s the thing I love most about Paul McCartney and his songs: he rarely assumes that he knows you or how you feel. He knows he’ll never understand how sad and conflicted you are, because he’s far too mature (or maybe far too self-confident) to be caught up in pitying himself. So instead he does the next best thing: shine a light upon you, make sure that you feel loved and cared for. This is a running theme in Paul’s songs: so many of them have as their pronouns “you” or “we” or “she”. This is not to say that there aren’t any “I”s around, as there is in “1985”, but even when that happens, he talks more about the person being sung to, the things about her that make him happy. As early as “She Loves You”, we already find ourselves being comforted, being told that we’re actually worthy of love, and the list goes on through the Beatles, Wings and his solo career.

In “Hey Jude”, “Let It Be”, especially this song: he makes you feel like you’re there, and that you — and only you — are the person who’s being sung to. Like there’s only one person to whom this song can apply. And that’s where his magic lies. I’ve never been to a Paul McCartney concert, but every single report about one of his concerts has told the same story: he always singles out the one person in the room who’s hearing his songs for the first time. He makes them feel like he’s singing it just for them.

In a sense, he really does form a contrast with John Lennon. The latter made a living out of sharing constantly how conflicted he felt: you always feel like he’s voicing out your thoughts, writing words for you as you struggle to piece those unfathomable fragments together. (That’s the reason why, as I’ve said before, John’s “Imagine” doesn’t work: he speaks to you rather than speaking as you, which shifted him out of his comfort zone and inadvertently revealed how condescending he could be.) But Paul doesn’t need to voice out your thoughts, he knows that self-pity doesn’t work. So instead he tries to comfort you, tries to make you feel like you’re human. And it works, even as you realize that you could never live up to be a genius like Paul, even when you realize he’s speaking from a much more privileged position. He still makes you feel loved, treats you with the love and care you deserve. That’s hard to come by, in our modern day and age.

When Band on the Run came out, it had a massive effect on Paul’s fortunes. Prior to this he’d been lambasted for more than three years as the man who broke up the Beatles (guilty whether he likes it or not), but by December 1973 much of this ill will had evaporated: the world had moved on without the Fab Four, and its greatest agitators (John and George) were starting to bring out shit songs. Even so, few were expecting him to stray from the gooey shit of Wings’ first two albums. (To be fair, Wild Life really is crap.) But maybe it was the high-pressure atmosphere of Lagos that helped Paul find his mojo back: critics poured praise on Band on the Run, and to this day it’s considered his best achievement since the Beatles. And despite it being a lowly cut on the album, Paul still plays “1985” on his live tours — more than any of the other songs. His voice is going, but when he hits those falsetto notes, the moment is surreal.

And I think that’s the ultimately why I love Paul McCartney: his ability to make the world fade away, if only for a moment. He might be the one who actually escapes, but he takes us on for the ride, and along the way perhaps he also imparts some wisdom on us that will give us the strength we need, to help us become better people. He tells us how to find love, assures us that whatever happens — even when the end of the world has come — we still have love to rely on. And isn’t that the most wonderful thing?

Happy birthday, Paul.



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