One of the more unlikely partnerships in rock history was the string of collaborations between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. In retrospect, it doesn't seem too much of a stretch, as Jackson came from the poppier side of R&B, and McCartney came from, well, McCartneyville, where you're as likely to find a punk/disco fusion with nautical lyrics as a Scottish ballad complete with bagpipes, so duets with former child stars are completely reasonable to expect. It's also a good thing that the duets came when both singers were near the height of their powers, before Jackson abandoned his singing career to become a professional grunter, and McCartney turned into a doddering icon presenting us with insights like "Talkin' 'bout freedom to sell concert tickets at a price equivalent to the per capita yearly income of Liberia."

   The first collaboration came when Jackson solicited a McCartney song to include on his album Off the Wall. Due to a conflict in production schedules, McCartney's own version was released earlier, so we get to compare the versions. Surprisingly, McCartney sings in a higher register than Jackson, but he clearly turns in a better recording. Jackson's rendition is light disco, with an awkward saxophone solo and a routine vocal.
   McCartney adds a completely new second melodic motif (heard in the strings between the verses, and sung as a bridge) that adds a minor key chord progression to the proceedings and gives the song a much broader emotional palette. The solo (either guitar or moog) is another highlight. Apart from some lackluster drumming (performed by Macca himself, I suspect), the Wings version of "Girlfriend" triumphs all over Jackson's.
"The Girl is Mine"
   For Jackson's 1982 album Thriller, he invited McCartney to sing a duet on Michael's composition, "The Girl is Mine." It's one of the lamest moments in either man's career. Over a backing more appropriate to Barney the Purple Dinosaur than Motown, they croon an insipid melody and proceed to have the least illuminating spat ever recorded: "Michael, we're not going to fight about this, okay?" "Paul, I think I told you, I'm a lover not a fighter." It goes downhill from there.
   The one redeeming feature of this recording is that it reminds you what a great voice McCartney had. When he enters after Jackson's first verse, the richness of his tone and the smoothness of his attack, compared with Jackson's thin timbre, are simply amazing. He demonstrates his range, too, goofing around at the end by dipping down on "The girl is mine."
"Say Say Say"
   McCartney apparently enjoyed his work with Jackson more than I did, because he invited Michael to write and sing two duets on his 1983 album Pipes of Peace. "Say Say Say" was an international smash hit, and takes advantage of both men's strengths. The composition is far more sophisticated than "The Girl is Mine", and bears the marks of McCartney's songwriting (although some elements, such as the rapid single notes in the verse, are more reminiscent of Jackson's work.) The song is powerful, catchy, and has some great harmonies on the "ooh ooh oohs". Working with McCartney seems to have taken some of the excess "whoo-hoos" out of Jackson's style, and provided some rhythmic urgency for McCartney, and they ride a great melody with a surprisingly chattery accompaniment to pop glory. It's a great arrangement that fills every corner with a different touch, combining the hallmark sounds of each performer: the big disco bass drum, the slap bass (that gets a one-note solo that is a marvelous contrast to the busyness of the rest of the mix), the harmonica, the horn line (sounding more like early Chicago than anything), and of course the great moment when it all comes together after the bridge.
"The Man"
   The second duet on Pipes of Peace sounds a lot more like a Michael Jackson ballad with some input from McCartney. Notable is the fuzzed-out lead guitar, which sounds a lot like McCartney's playing, and the neat turn of melodic phrase in the second half of the verses. The singing is two-part harmony throughout, and the two singers make an excellent blend. I have no idea what the lyrics are about, so maybe credit them to McCartney.

The Falling Out
   Who knows, perhaps they would have continued making popular duets for years. Jackson recorded a number of duets on later albums (including one with Stevie Wonder, providing a bit of "Three Degrees of Paul McCartney" for pop fans), and McCartney later sought out collaborators including Eric Stewart and Elvis Costello. However, it so happened that during the recording sessions Jackson asked McCartney for some financial advice, and McCartney told him to invest in music publishing. When the rights to the Beatles' catalog were auctioned, Jackson outbid McCartney, and they haven't spoken since. Apparently McCartney is miffed that his songs are being licensed for advertisements, but frankly, since the appearance of "Live and Let Die" in a Visa commercial, I don't think McCartney's arguments hold much water. It's just too bad we can't have Paul helping to "Heal the World" while Michael reminds everyone to remain "Cosmically Conscious."


  • From Nu On: So your conclusion is that McCartney is a better singer, performer and artist than Jackson?
    Get fuckin' real. Maybe McCartney was a greater "artist" (his songwriting is amazing), but you can forget calling the Beatles better performers or singers. When it comes to their performances and singing, the Beatles (and McCartney) are untalented and lame, while Jackson is pure electricity.
    Have you ever seen the Beatles dance? they look like stiff, rhythmless, epileptic puppets. And their "live" singing is mostly screeching. The Beatles was mostly a studio band that relied on "electronic chemicals" and a thousand different tricks to sweeten their sound.
    Next you'll claim that Paul McCartney is a better guitar player than Jimi Hendrix.

  • STEVE AND DENNIS AND ABE RESPOND: Dennis says, "Fo-wah." Abe says, "You have to go home because you're bad." Steve says: "Stop jumping to my conclusions. I said McCartney performs 'Girlfriend' better than Jackson does. Thanks for writing!"

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