Bill King takes another look at the 1986 album that Macca has all but disowned due to its lack of success.
Paul McCartney was not really in a good place, creatively or careerwise, in late summer 1986, when his “Press to Play” album was released.
Although the album drew some critical praise for McCartney’s efforts to move in a new musical direction, the overall reception was mixed (even among fans), and its sales were off considerably from Paul’s usual showing (peaking at No. 30 on Billboard’s album chart and selling only 400,000 copies in the U.S.)
Not surprisingly, Macca in later years would dismiss “Press to Play” as “not very successful,” and, when he returned to touring three years later, he didn’t include any songs from the album in his set list. He still doesn’t.
A bit of backstory: After having critical and sales success with 1982’s “Tug of War,” on which he had reunited with George Martin, McCartney had tried to replicate that success by continuing to work with the former Beatles producer.
However, 1983’s “Pipes of Peace” was not as big a sales success (despite having a smash hit single in his teaming with Michael Jackson on “Say Say Say”) and, critically, was dismissed by many as “Tug of War” leftovers.
And, while the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” soundtrack album had some superb musical moments, the film from which it came was a resounding flop at the box office and with reviewers. The album didn’t sell as well as usual, either.
Licking his wounds, Macca decided to look for a different producer (or producers) and began a period of flailing about creatively that wouldn’t end until the close of the decade, when he put together a touring band and released the album “Flowers in the Dirt” (which, even then, utilized more than a half dozen different producers).
The year after “Broad Street” saw him working for the first time in his own studio (located in an old mill near his home) and partnering with former 10cc member Eric Stewart, who had played and sung on the past couple of albums and had appeared in Paul’s videos (and in the “Broad Street” film band). The two spent most of 1985 cowriting songs, and together they began work on what would become Paul’s 1986 album release. Unfortunately, Stewart was given the idea he was co-producing the new album with Macca, while Paul, who had worked with Phil Ramone (Billy Joel’s producer) and Hugh Padgham (The Police, Phil Collins) on a standalone movie-theme single, “Spies Like Us,” decided to include Padgham in the sessions for the new album. And, what started out as an engineering gig for Padgham soon became co-production, as Macca sought to give his songs a more “contemporary” sound.
Stewart was disappointed, and ended up leaving the sessions before the album was completed, though he did play in a one-shot band Macca put together that November to perform “Only Love Remains” from the album at the Royal Variety Show.
When interviewed by Ken Sharp for Beatlefan in 2003, Stewart was fairly diplomatic in explaining how he came to have a credit on “Press to Play” for “special contribution,” rather than being one of the producers:
“I contributed to the production side of the album in many ways, but because MPL had a written deal with Hugh Padgham as ‘producer,’ they decided to give me a ‘special contribution’ credit,” Stewart told Sharp.
“Hugh is a great engineer, one of the best in the world,” he said, “but a ‘producer,’ I personally don’t think so. For me, a good ‘producer’ is somebody who can come up with musical directions, change harmonies, suggest different instrumentation, etc., like George Martin, or myself, for that matter.”
As for why his songwriting partnership with McCartney came to an end, Stewart said, “Paul and I didn’t continue writing after ‘Press to Play,’ I think initially, because the album was not very successful. …
“I feel the project dragged on far, far too long, after I had left it, and the production direction changed many times …. I feel it had lost its way long before it hit the streets. It was a very different album from the one I had thought I was going to record with Paul, and, in retrospect, I can see the flaws quite clearly now.”
Stewart was more direct in a 2017 interview with Super Deluxe Edition, calling the album “a pile of crap. … It was ghastly, it was ghastly, and I really felt very sorry that I’d got myself involved and then was told to walk away from it when it was going so bloody well before Hugh got involved in the production side. I think he would admit himself now it was a grave mistake.”
McCartney took some of the blame in discussing past collaborations in his 1990 tour book, saying that his work with Stewart on the “Press to Play” album “didn’t really work out as well as I wanted it to, although we did a couple of nice things. But, it wasn’t a very successful album. It all got a little bit sticky, because he thought I’d wanted him to co-produce the album with me, and I must have led him to believe that. But, it all got a little bit dodgy because, then I said, Oh, we’re getting so and so to produce it, and he went into shock. So that fell through mainly because of that production misunderstanding.”
For his part, Padgham told classicbands.com that, after being invited into the project by McCartney, “I went home incredibly excited to listen to a cassette of those demos that he had done with Eric Stewart from 10cc and I can honestly tell you now that I was underwhelmed when I heard those songs.”
At the time, he said, he thought maybe he was just failing to see the songs’ true merit, but, he added, if he’s “completely honest,” it “wasn’t a very good album.”
Padgham not only clashed with Stewart, he also said he found McCartney “quite annoying” in the studio.
And, he told Q magazine, “I don’t think he was in an era of writing good songs.”
Although critical appraisals would grow less enthusiastic as the years passed, initially “Press to Play” was one of Macca’s better reviewed albums of the time, with some early raves from prominent critics.
The Chicago Tribune’s Lynn Van Matre called it “McCartney’s most rocking album in ages” and said, “Much of it’s catchy, most of it’s fun, and it’s superior to McCartney’s efforts of recent years.”
In Rolling Stone, Anthony DeCurtis called it “one of the sturdiest LPs of McCartney’s post-Beatles career.”
DeCurtis went on to note: “The last time McCartney weighed in credibly was on 1982’s ‘Tug of War,’ an album fired by its central image of struggle, a reunion with Beatles producer George Martin and the need to address the artistic legacy left by the recently slain John Lennon. If ‘Pipes of Peace’ marked a return to pap and 1984’s ‘Give My Regards to Broad Street’ represented a retreat into Beatles revisionism, ‘Press to Play’ plants McCartney firmly in the present.”
The critic praised both the songs (“Stewart pushes McCartney in some new directions”) and Padgham’s production, saying the latter supplied the album with an “electronically dense contemporary sound that fleshes out McCartney’s melodies and gives the LP rhythmic kick.”
Ironically, some fans weren’t as quick to embrace the album. I remember when I first opened my review copy and put it on the turntable, a good friend who is a major Maccamaniac was with me. I kind of liked the new album; my friend didn’t like it at all.
That critical divide over the album continues to this day in fandom. When I decided to take a 35th anniversary look back at “Press to Play,” I asked some of Beatlefan’s editors for their thoughts on the album, pro or con.
Al Sussman, who gave the album mostly a thumbs-up in 1986, now feels “it hasn’t aged terribly well.”
While Al thinks there’s a good amount of “McCartney-worthy” material among the songs, “this was really the first time that Paul allowed a producer, Hugh Padgham, to impose his signature sound on a McCartney project (going on the theory that George Martin didn’t have a signature production sound). For instance, ‘Stranglehold’ sounds as if Phil Collins, not Macca, should be doing the vocal. Similar problem with ‘Press.’ It just doesn’t sound like a Paul McCartney record, though the song is a good one.”
And, Al said, “experimental tracks like ‘Talk More Talk’ and ‘Pretty Little Head’ have never done much for me, much like the first two Fireman records. Overall, I’d put ‘Press to Play’ somewhere in the middle of the post-Beatles McCartney canon — not a big misstep like ‘Driving Rain,’ but not in the ‘Band On the Run’/‘Tug of War’/‘Flaming Pie’/‘Chaos and Creation’ pantheon.”
Brad Hundt has a soft spot for the album, saying it “brings back memories of the summer of 1986, when I was 20 and a college student, so I feel a sentimental attachment to it. At the time I really liked it, appreciating McCartney’s effort to show his more experimental and adventurous side. And, let’s not forget, it netted McCartney some of his best reviews in years when it came out.”
While McCartney himself doesn’t appear to think much of it, and Padgham doesn’t hide his contempt for the album, Brad feels that, like “Pipes of Peace,” “it’s better than its reputation.”
Brad also rates “Press to Play” “somewhere in the middle of McCartney’s solo canon.”
Kit O’Toole remains a fan of the album. “While I understand that ‘Press to Play’ was a departure from Paul McCartney’s typical sound, I’ve felt this album has gotten a bad rap over the years. I applaud him for taking a risk and trying more experimental sounds and composition styles. … Not every song works on the same level, but I still enjoy ‘Press to Play’ as a welcome departure from McCartney’s typical style.”
Back in 1986, in my review of the advance single “Press,” released six weeks before the album, I said that if one could judge by that tune and the others included on the extended 12-inch single, it seemed fairly certain that the album would take chances. Musically, I said, there’s not much more you could ask of McCartney at this point.
As it turned out, I said in my review of “Press to Play” in Beatlefan #47 (August-September, 1986), that pretty well summed up the album.
“It’s definitely a different sort of album from what McCartney fans have gotten used to,” I wrote, “but that, to me, is its strength. Instead of churning out another batch of patented, instantly recognizable potential singles, McCartney has tried out some new sounds and approaches.
“The result is a bit too inconsistent to be called a really great McCartney album. And, some of the stylistically varied music may be so alien to the McCartney mainstream that its charms won’t be evident on first listen.
“But, ‘Press to Play’ is a welcome addition to the catalog because it boasts an energy and creativity indicative of an artist once more exploring the boundaries of contemporary music, rather than a craftsman simply turning out variations on previous great works.”
Recently, I went back and listened to the album and its associated B-sides, to see whether my original generally positive evaluation still stood.
Originally, the album came out with 10 songs on the vinyl LP (then still the standard mode of release) and three extra songs on the compact disc (a format that was relatively new at the time, and which many fans didn’t yet have).
Here’s my track-by-track comparison of what I said in 1986, and what I think 35 years later:
The album opened with “Stranglehold,” one of the eight songs on it cowritten by McCartney and Stewart, which I said in 1986 was “a hard-edged rocker with a nice sax solo. The processing on McCartney’s vocal may leave some casual listeners under the impression they’re listening to someone else.” Listening to it in 2021, I was considerably less impressed, not finding much of interest for me in the track.
In my original Beatlefan review, I wrote: “The next four songs are the LP’s best,” starting with “Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun,” which I described as “a catchy ode to a summer holiday, complete with a bouncy reggae beat. The vocal this time is high and breathy, and the second half sports a feel-good chorus that will have you singing along in no time.” As opposed to the opening track, I like this one even more now. To me, despite the fact that it sounds at times very much like The Police, it’s classic McCartney, with its hooky earworms and catchy chorus. I’m still humming it a day later.
“Talk More Talk,” I wrote in 1986, “is an elaborate production number that brings to mind a musical meeting of McCartney and The Police. There are snatches of spoken dialogue interspersed throughout this midtempo rocker, and the backing relies heavily on drum machines and synthesizers, definitely showing the influence of Padgham. The chorus’ hook is pure McCartney, however.” Now, I find this one sounds awfully dated. The best McCartney recordings are ageless; this isn’t one of them.
The two prettiest tunes on the album, I said in 1986, are “Footprints” and “Only Love Remains.”
The former, another McCartney-Stewart effort, “paints a poetic picture that’s complemented by the track’s shimmering sound. McCartney sings it with a slightly husky voice, which fits right in with the lyric’s tale of an ‘old hand.’ A Spanish guitar also is well used here,” I wrote. Listening now, I really like the slightly Latin beat, the shimmering backing and the Spanish guitar solo. One of the best tracks on the album, I think.
“Only Love Remains,” I said in 1986, “is one of those beautiful love ballads at which McCartney always has excelled. It’s lushly but tastefully produced, with an orchestral backing arranged by Tony Visconti.” Al said he thinks this is still one of Macca’s greatest love songs, and I’m inclined to agree.
Back in the day, the vinyl LP’s second side opened with “Press.” In my review of the single, I had said that it showed a bit of hip-hop influence in its danceable percussion and scratching, and was “one of his most energetic — and interestingly different — recordings in quite a while. The mixture of drum machines, synthesizers, sequencers and electric guitar is quite upbeat, and wears well with repeated listenings.” In my album review, I said of the track: “People seem either to like it very much or dislike it completely. Its chart action [it peaked at No. 21 in the U.S. and No. 25 in the U.K.] indicates the latter group predominates. I like it more and more, as time goes by, however.” And, I still like it.
The rest of the second side of the 10-song LP was devoted to four more McCartney-Stewart songs. “Unfortunately,” I wrote back then, “they fail to live up to their potential.”
I described “Pretty Little Head” as “the album’s strangest cut,” and said it was “an attempt to re-create musically the atmosphere of a science fiction novel. Its mix of vibes, tom-toms and synthesizers is interesting, and the ‘Ursa Major, Ursa Minor’ chorus is quite hummable, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together very well.” Listening in 2021, I liked the track’s use of vibraphone and neo-psychedelic feel, but not the overly processed vocal.
“Move Over Busker,” the name-dropping lament of a street musician with greater aspirations, starts out promisingly, I said then, but “degenerates into a run-of-the-mill rocker reminiscent of mid-’70s boogie bands.” Now, I find myself liking this one much more. It would have been great to hear it performed in concert.
“Angry,” I said originally, “is a big disappointment. I expected a track featuring Pete Townshend on guitar and Phil Collins on drums to be a little special, but it’s a rather unremarkable punkish rocker. The best thing about it is its high energy level.” I had exactly the same reaction on listening to it again recently.
The last track on the original LP was “However Absurd,” which I characterized then as “an overly orchestrated plodder with mostly nonsense lyrics. This one never really gets going.” Looking at the notes I took on my recent listen, before I’d gone back and read my original review, I find that I had the same reaction: “plodding, never really gets going.”
As I noted in my 1986 review, the compact disc featured three extra tracks. “It’s Not True” had been the B-side of the “Press” single I’d reviewed in the previous issue, and I’d described it as “a ballad sung in a rather high voice and spiced up with a harder, more midtempo chorus.” Obviously, it didn’t impress me much, and I don’t have much to add to that now.
“Write Away,” I described as “a jazzy, Al Jarreau sort of number with some very nice singing by McCartney.” Listening now, I find it upbeat, bouncy and with some very nice, jazzy guitar. Not bad.
“Tough on a Tightrope,” I wrote, was “a midtempo McCartney song that rambles on too long and sounds too familiar.” And, I had the same reaction all these years later.
Finally, another track from the sessions, appearing only as a B-side on the 12-inch vinyl single of “Press,” was “Hanglide,” an instrumental written by McCartney and Stewart. Back then, I wrote that it was “an intriguing number built around a constant backing of clapping and percussion that has a definite jungle feel to it. Laid over this is a mix of synthesizers, strings, woodwinds and guitar. The whole thing sounds like movie soundtrack music.” Now, I’d amend that slightly to mediocre soundtrack music.
It’s also worth noting that this was the era when Paul really got into releasing multiple mixes and edits of songs in different configurations. For example, “Press” had a 3:21 version called the “video edit,” a 4:41 edit played on MTV (with some longer percussion breaks and a couple of extra spoken lines) and the 6:28 “dub” version from the 12-inch single, which had most of the vocals removed and made it more of a dance track.
A couple of other notes of interest: McCartney’s cousin, Kate Robbins, provided some of the album’s backing harmonies, and his son, James, was among the speakers on “Talk More Talk.” Paul followed up the album by working on the “Cold Cuts” collection … which still hasn’t come out. And, by the end of 1986, Paul was talking about putting a band together for touring (it wouldn’t happen until 1989) and was planning for Phil Ramone to produce his next album. (They did work together, with some of the tracks used as future B-sides on CD singles, but Ramone did not produce the next album.)
Overall, I found that, in 2021, I liked six of the 14 tracks on “Press to Play,” and wasn’t that fond of the other eight, which is slightly more negative than I was about it in 1986. And, in most cases, that was because I didn’t really like Padgham’s cluttered, gimmicky overproduction and processed sound.
So, Al was right: There is some worthy material here, but the album hasn’t aged all that well. And, in the overall picture, he and Brad have it pegged correctly: definitely middle-of-the-pack McCartney.
— Bill King