One of the most fascinating – and overlooked – gems in Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles catalogue followed the patchy success of Give My Regards to Broad Street. A collaborative effort with Eric Stewart, who co-wrote six of its ten songs and two of its three bonus tracks, it was entitled Press to Play and was released in 1986. It followed a fairly quiet year for Paul in 1985, during which his public profile was confined to an appearance at the London Live Aid concert on 13 July and the release as a single of the title song to the Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd comedy Spies Like Us.
Without any band to back him, Macca appeared solo at Live Aid, immediately before the finale at the Wembley Stadium concert, singing “Let It Be” and accompanying himself on the piano. The performance was marred by the fact that his voice microphone was switched off until nearly halfway through the song, with the result that only the piano was audible throughout. The wild cheering of the audience in the middle of the song was attributable to the fact that the technician or engineer responsible at last realized the problem and turned Paul’s microphone on, so that the crowd could hear him sing. To rectify matters as best he could after the event, McCartney went into the recording studio the next day and overdubbed a vocal to replace the portion that had been lost. The overdubbed vocal is what listeners today hear on the first part of the performance as captured on DVD. Midway through the song, Macca was joined onstage by organizer Bob Geldof, the Who’s Pete Townshend, David Bowie and Alison Moyet on backing vocals. Townshend, in an exuberant mood, reached over and playfully tickled Paul twice while he was playing.
While Press to Play was in the process of being recorded, McCartney was hired to write and record a theme song for Spies Like Us, his second such commission for a full-length feature film in which he did not himself appear. (The first, of course, was coincidentally also for a spy movie, the triumphant “Live and Let Die”.) Co-produced by Paul with Phil Ramone (Billy Joel’s producer) and Hugh Padgham, “Spies Like Us” was a reasonable rocker with a driving concluding refrain that was probably the song’s most appealing feature. Backed by a leftover from the days of Wings, “My Carnival”, the single reached number 7 in the United States and number 13 on the English chart.
Whereas “Spies Like Us” is somewhat of a throwaway, Press to Play certainly was not. Everything about the album betokens care in its creation: marketed (in its original vinyl incarnation) in a gatefold sleeve, it sported a highly stylized front-cover monochrome photograph of Paul and Linda McCartney taken by thirties Hollywood photographer George Hurrell, who used the same camera for the snap that he did for shoots in the 1930s. The McCartneys were meticulously groomed and painstakingly made up for the picture in the matinée-idol style of yesteryear, Linda to such an extent that she was barely recognizable.
In addition to the carefully composed photograph on its front cover, the album sleeve sported, in respect of each track, an elaborate multicoloured pencil drawing by Paul showing the placement of instruments in the sound spectrum from left to right. Those drawings have been reproduced on the booklet accompanying the CD reissue, and there are similar drawings also for the three bonus tracks, “Write Away”, “It’s Not True” and “Tough on a Tightrope”, which did not appear on the vinyl version of the album but were used as material for B-sides of singles.
The other sign of conscientious planning of the album was the choice of producer – Hugh Padgham, who by that stage had achieved huge prominence in the recording industry as a result in particular of his co-production of the two most successful studio albums by the Police, Ghost in the Machine (1981) and Synchronicity (1983), and of various records by Phil Collins and Genesis. One did not hire as heavyweight a producer as Padgham had by 1985 become in order to record a lightweight album, and Press to Play boasted highly elaborate musical arrangements on a set of songs that combined the studio gloss of albums like Abbey Road and Band on the Run with the experimental leanings of records like Wild Life and McCartney II – though Press to Play is infinitely stronger than the latter two albums.
The original version of Press to Play (excluding the three extra tracks now tacked on to the CD reissue) is, in fact, close to being a masterpiece. The axis around which it revolves consists of five key tracks: “Stranglehold”, “Talk More Talk”, “Pretty Little Head”, “Move Over Busker” and “However Absurd”, all of which find Macca moving away from the middle of the road to rock out as he did on Ram (“Stranglehold”, “Move Over Busker”) or to experiment with off-kilter arrangements, Lennonesque lyrical absurdism or both (“Talk More Talk”, “Pretty Little Head”, “However Absurd”). “Stranglehold” moves with controlled tension like a caged panther pacing up and down, ready to strike, referencing John Lennon (“Can I get you to slip me the answer?”) before lapsing into a terrific sing-along chorus. “Move Over Busker” is a rollicking knees-up, played and sung with glorious abandon.
But it is “Talk More Talk” and “Pretty Little Head” that give Press to Play its experimental flavour and dominate the entire album. Opening, closing and interspersed – very much in the style of Pink Floyd musique concrète – with a babble of spoken voices reciting disconnected or apparently meaningless phrases (“I hear water going through the pipes”, “A master can tell, highlight the phrases his words to digress” etc), “Talk More Talk” fashions a lyric from bits of jargon and contemporary buzzwords (“Outstanding to memory, major free flow./Bio-degradable, look out below”), making the point with its chorus (“Talk, more talk. Chat, more chat./Words of a feather are worn in a hat”) that much of what we hear around us every day is nothing more than a senseless jumble of verbiage. “Pretty Little Head” is even more out of left-field, driven along by an other-worldly instrumental arrangement, punctuated with the odd chorus of “Ursa Major . . . Ursa Minor” or “Hillmen, hillmen, hillmen, hillmen”, and replete with strange non sequiturs (“Hillmen come down from the lava. Forging across the mighty river flow. . . . Always forever, only so you don’t worry/Your pretty little head”). This is the closest that Paul McCartney has ever come to the extraordinary Joycean wordplay achieved by John Lennon on “I Am the Walrus”.
The remaining tracks on Press to Play are not of quite the same high standard, but none of the material can be described as falling short of expectations. “Footprints”, a delicate and sometimes touching portrait of an “old hand” gathering firewood in a frozen wasteland, is this record’s musical equivalent of “Bluebird” from Band on the Run, while “Only Love Remains” is a study in romantic elegance and the track that the listener can probably identify the most closely with the chic of the album’s cover photo. “Good Times Coming” is a cross between a reggae number and a typical Genesis record of the 1980s, which segues into more standard McCartney fare in the form of the optimistic “Feel the Sun”. “Press”, released as the lead single from the album without any significant impact on major charts, is a fairly lightweight expression of sexual desire in a synth-based pop song, and probably the weakest track on Press to Play. “Angry” is an expression of rage, an emotion not normally associated with Paul McCartney.
In all, Press to Play is one of the strongest albums in Paul’s solo catalogue, ranking just below the standard of Tug of War. It never quite reaches the extraordinary heights of, say, “The Pound Is Sinking” but the standard of the album is more consistent than on Tug of War, which dips near the end (particularly on “Ebony and Ivory”). It merits a grading of four and a half stars out of a possible five.
Press to Play, which survives (and indeed rewards) repeated playing over the years, is generally dismissed by record critics – wrongly so. It is far more a case of Paul McCartney reconnecting with his classic strengths, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine in All Music Guide to Rock (2002) would have it, than the “expertly crafted fluff” that The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (2004) calls the album.