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Revisiting a lost Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaboration recorded at George Martin’s AIR studio.
Mention a Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaboration and most people will likely think of the hit single “Ebony and Ivory”, a well-meaning but treacly plea for racial harmony. Included on McCartney’s 1982 album Tug Of War, “Ebony And Ivory” was an inescapable hit on radio and MTV that year, but the cloying lyrical metaphor – yes, they use a piano’s black and white keys as stand-ins for Black and white people – and syrupy adult rock arrangement haven’t aged well.
Buried in Tug Of War, however, is another Wonder-McCartney duet that four decades later deserves a moment in the spotlight: the electro-funk workout “What’s That You’re Doing?” Recorded in 1981 at George Martin’s AIR studio in Montserrat, the song is built on a bubbling Wonder synth jam, with McCartney providing melodic counterpoint via an 8-bar bridge and a chorus section powered by Paperback Writer-style vocal harmonies.
The backbone of the song is a stark and percussive keyboard groove, propelled by a drum machine and synth stabs. An intense slab of early 80’s rhythms and tones, it’s not hard to imagine crews of b-boys and b-girls hitting the floor to this.
Fundamentally, “What’s That You’re Doing?” is a Stevie Wonder composition. In addition to his established reputation as a hit-maker, by the early 80’s Wonder was widely acknowledged as a synthesizer virtuoso and a consistent purveyor of funk grooves. As McCartney described it, originally “What’s That You’re Doing? “started off with Stevie Wonder jamming — Stevie is an inveterate jammer, as they say – and he was on the Yamaha CS80 synthesizer and started playing.” Added McCartney, “He started off on the riff and he built most of the song up actually just from a jam.”
That Wonder could produce a song like “What’s That You’re Doing?” should surprise no one. McCartney co-creating a song like this, though, is less expected. Still, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a shock, considering McCartney’s long (albeit less-known) history of musical experimentation. The seagull-sounding tape loops on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” after all, were McCartney’s brainchild — recorded with him coaching the other three Beatles on the mechanics of tape looping
(For more on McCartney’s under-publicized track record of musical left turns and experiments, see ‘The Unknown Paul McCartney’ by Ian Peel.)
As infectious and funky as it is, “What’s That You’re Doing?” was never released as a single (though in 2005 it was given an indie rock remix and released as a b-side of an ultra-rare 12” single credited to McCartney’s Twin Freaks collaboration with Freelance Hellraiser). As such, it has remained buried as an album cut on a middling McCartney solo album full of MOR adult rock — and far from where fans of pulsating beats would find it. As a result, the track never really found that audience of b-boys and electro-funk crate diggers.
Which is to say, perhaps it’s time for listeners to give this song a re-assessment.