"Tug of War" was the title track from Paul McCartney's 1982 album, his first after the assassination of John Lennon in 1980. The album was a reunion of sorts - production was handled by Beatles producer George Martin, and Ringo Starr is featured on drums here and there. Upon release Tug of War was viewed as a strong comeback album, in comparison to prior efforts.
The song itself is a baroque pop masterpiece. It begins as a slightly sad acoustic guitar song, with a clear division between verse and refrain: Verses - sad lyrics about the struggle to survive, the necessity of conflict (pushing and pulling) Refrain - a hopeful statement looking for a future where these struggles are no longer necessary
In the beginning verses you begin to hear subtle bass / orchestra touches in the background, especially during the lyric: "But with one thing and another, We were trying to outdo each other In a tug of war"
In the refrain the first serious production values are revealed, with searing background vocals (sung by Paul) to reinforce the "In another world" statement: "In another world We could stand up on top of the mountain With our flag unfurled"
In traditional pop song form, the verse and refrain repeat once before the bridge, or "middle 8." The bridge presents a changeup. It begins with a crash and some electric guitar, and the tone changes to a harder-edged, more somber sound. That to match the lyrics:
"In years to come they may discover What the air we breathe and the life we lead Are all about But it won't be soon enough Soon enough for me"
This is repeated a few times before going back to the refrain, and here is where George Martin's orchestral mastery comes to the fore: With the "In another world" statement, you begin to hear trumpet shouting triumphantly around McCartney's background vocals and swelling strings, all leading to a loud marching snare and a repeat of the refrain's central message: "We will be dancing to the beat of a different drum."
The song then returns to the first verse, and laments once more our day to day struggles, the need for the push and pull. Ultimately, this is a sad - yet triumphant! - song, wrapped up in gorgeous orchestration. It evokes - somewhat intentionally, the famed "push and pull" between McCartney and Lennon. But it is more than that. Here, a Paul McCartney of 40 years of age is looking at the world around him, the world of 1982, and he sees the state of the world getting more dire all the time: The escalating nuclear arms race (outscoring each other indeed), the growing disparity between the haves and the have nots, and asks - when will all this change? Will I live long enough to see the other side?
It's a shame this excellent, wistful track was released in the New Wave / dance-focused early 1980s; it decidedly did not sound like a single, whereas 10 years prior it would have been everywhere. Perhaps if the radio landscape were different, this song would hold the classic status it deserves. It should be remembered as McCartney's post-Beatles masterpiece - his "Imagine," if you will. And hopefully one day it will be.