"Oklahoma was never like this!" Paul McCartney proclaims on Press to Play, and certainly the 1986 album contains perhaps some of the strangest songs of McCartney's illustrious career. Fans remain divided on the work—some view it as one of McCartney's weakest efforts, while others maintain that it includes some hidden gems. Even McCartney has yet to perform any of Press to Play's songs live. Regardless of this debate, the album features some his most ambitious work, and deserves a second listen.
Looking for a new direction, McCartney hired producer Hugh Padgham, who had previously worked with Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and the Police, to name a few artists. McCartney also gained a new writing partner—Eric Stewart, best known as a member of 10cc ("I'm Not in Love"). Initially producer Phil Ramone took part in early sessions; while he recorded numerous tracks with McCartney, the most notable one being "Spies Like Us" from the 1985 film of the same title. Special guests such as Phil Collins, Pete Townshend, and Stewart also contributed to Press to Play. On paper, the combination of this talent would seemingly result in a massive hit, but the album peaked at number 137 on the Billboard charts, making it one of the worst-selling albums of McCartney's career.
Did Press to Play deserve this chilly commercial reception? Granted, some of the songs are downright weird. "Pretty Little Head" features almost mystical lyrics, such as "Hillmen come down from the lava/Forging across the mighty river flow." At various points McCartney chants "Ursa Major/Ursa Minor." The cut "Talk More Talk" begins with a warped voice talking of "sleazy instruments, half talked, half baked ideas," then McCartney engages in intriguing wordplay: "Words of a feather are worn in a hat/...Digital organ, finishing stretch/Instrumentation, analogue gretsch." While these songs' meanings remain a puzzle, one has to give him credit for experimenting with different sounds and images.
The album does contain some rockers—"Stranglehold" slowly builds into a catchy chorus, while the roaring "Angry" shows that McCartney could sound gritty as well as smooth and romantic. Like other Press tracks, "Move Over Busker" contains strange words, conjuring images of Mae West "in her sweaty vest," but he delivers the lyrics with a wink while wielding a blaring guitar. He also fuses two seemingly different tunes together: "Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun." The former reggae-tinged song rings of nostalgia ("I was thinking about that summer/So long ago/...That was a golden summer"), while the latter track uses the sun to symbolize optimism and the healing power of love. The result is a clever and contagious groove fusing two song fragments together seamlessly. Another track, "Write Away," has its own charm, its foot-tapping beat and playful synthesizer parts sounding as if he recorded the song at his home, a la the homespun quality of McCartney or McCartney II.
Press to Play's two highlights were released as singles, although surprisingly did not chart very high. This is a mystery, as both songs exemplify McCartney's gifts as a pop songwriter and performer. The first, "Press," contains a chugging beat and an enthusiastic rock vocal. "When you want me to love you/Just tell me to press!" he exclaims, "Oklahoma was never like this." Again, the song's meaning remains vague, but the beat, hot guitar riffs, and McCartney's slightly raspy vocals add to the tune's appeal. In my opinion, the video for this song is one of McCartney's best, simply showing him riding the tube and interacting with delighted passengers.
From his time with the Beatles to his solo career, McCartney has demonstrated that he is a superior ballad craftsman. Nowhere is this more evident than on "Only Love Remains," a gorgeous slow number with the singer/songwriter doing what he does best: sitting at the piano and singing simple lyrics straight from the heart. "I want you back again and again/Till the word has lost its meaning," he croons, bringing "a happy ending to our song." With his usual skill, McCartney's words beautifully imagine "when all our friends have gone and we're alone/There's nothing left to shout about/...Let tonight be the one we remember." This is a mature, deep love he is examining—after all the noise of life "love is all that stays/Only love remains." Unlike many other Press to Play tracks, "Only Love Remains" boasts a spare arrangement, giving it a timeless quality. While the song found a home on adult contemporary radio, it inexplicably never became a huge hit.
Last Updated: 04/23/10 18:38
Yes, Press to Play contains synthesizers and electronic drums, two staples of '80s music. And yes, these elements date some of the songs. But as with many McCartney albums, some hidden treasures lie amongst the track list. In addition, he should be acknowledged for taking risks and trying to expand his repertoire. Press to Play, along with McCartney II, arguably laid the foundation for his future musical experiments under the name The Fireman (particularly the first two albums, Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest and Rushes). Hopefully McCartney will someday authorize the album to be released on iTunes and other online music stores so listeners can discover the avant garde side of the rock legend.