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Rock Flashback: “Ebony and Ivory”

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stevie wonder Rock Flashback: Ebony and Ivory

Stevie Wonder, April 2011 (Getty Images/Larry Busacca)

This week in 1982, “Ebony and Ivory” by [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Paul McCartney[/lastfm] and [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Stevie Wonder[/lastfm] hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It would stay there for seven weeks, tying [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Joan Jett[/lastfm]‘s “I Love Rock & Roll” as the longest-running #1 song of the year.

Time has not been kind to “Ebony and Ivory.” Blender named it one of the 10 worst songs of all time, and a BBC listener poll called it the worst duet ever. But let’s try and listen to it as people did 29 years ago.

When “Ebony and Ivory” was released in March 1982, it was a big deal as the return of one of the most popular artists of the last 20 years. Paul McCartney had scored at least one top-10 single every year between 1971 and 1980 — and in 1980, he’d hit #1 with the live single “Coming Up.” The year 1981 was the first since 1963 that McCartney hadn’t charted in the States in some configuration. His pairing with Stevie Wonder brought “Ebony and Ivory” even more buzz. Wonder was arguably even more dominant than McCartney had been in the ’70s.

Once the record was out, everybody wanted to hear it. The song blasted up the singles chart, debuting in the Hot 100 at #29, then going to 21, 6, 3, 2, and finally #1. McCartney’s album Tug of War was released in late April while “Ebony and Ivory” was blasting up the charts. It would spend three weeks at #1 just after Memorial Day 1982.

MTV was on the air in the spring of 1982, but was not yet driving musical taste as it would begin to do before the year was out. Nevertheless, Paul and Stevie made a video for the song — unlike the single, which they recorded together at the same session, the video was pieced together from separate performances.

It’s true that the metaphor of piano keys for racial harmony is simplistic, and the production, by George Martin, sounds a little dated. (That wet-sounding guitar noise all over it has never done much for me, and didn’t in 1982.) And it’s true that Tug of War is an album full of songs that sound just great but aren’t very deep. But I have trouble hating “Ebony and Ivory” anyhow. Perhaps you’ll use the comments to tell me why I should — or why I’m right not to.

Experience more Rock Flashbacks here.

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