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Want to hear Paul McCartney's Most Adventurous Album? Just Press to Play


"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/Paul McCartneyUrsa 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.

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.

Last Updated: 04/23/10 18:38

view comments Comments (17)

17 people have commented on this story so far. Tell us what you think below.
by Nowhere Fan : Norwegian Wood May 1, 2010 5:14 PM EDT (Guest)  click to register
McCartney is THE KING of nonsensical: Jet, Junior`s farm, Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, Mumbo, Bip Bop, Flaming Pie, Helter Skelter, Getting Closer, etc. I`m not English, but I don`t find McCartney clumsy with words. He can write clish├ęs on the purpose of it being a hit song. You know, like giving people what they want. Something catchy that top the charts. Lightweight entertainment. And he can write storytelling lyrics, from "She`s leaving Home" to "Riding To Vanity Fair". He can write nonsensical lyrics, like the before mentioned songs. He can write soft love songs, and hey, McCartney can write whatever genre he choose to write. That makes me him more calculated than clumsy. If not calculated, at least he seems to be in total control of whatever direction he choose. You name it, he write it. : )
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by GJohnson : Raleigh,NC May 1, 2010 11:53 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
This is certainly one of the more fringe albums for Sir Paul. I have heard earlier versions of some of these songs and prefer some of them. I always thought he was trying for what Lennon could do so well and create a nonsensical, yet memorable flow of words that just meshed so well together. Other attempts like Flaming Pie is an example. The best he has done on this was the more cohesive and serious House of Wax I think. That is his best attempt. I personally find a great deal of symbolism in that song so I would not label it nonsensical. Press To Play, sorry to say, I think is a miss. His lyrics are sophomoric and clumsy, he really had trouble with lyrics through the 80`s I think, also on Pipes of Peace. Hit his stride again with Flowers in the Dirt, miss again with Off The Ground and has been phenomenal since then. Had that same problem after the Beatles broke up with RAM and Wildlife.
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by Nowhere Fan : Norwegian Wood April 28, 2010 12:49 PM EDT (Guest)  click to register
Well, by the mid-80`s the musical climate was changing and chart success became less relevant for musical value, I think. Remember that records by Tom Waits and R.E.M. in the 80`s, to name a few, didn`t chart very high either. But those records are classics these days anyway. And the most exciting records in the 2000`s, by artists like The Flaming Lips, Wilco and Arcade Fire, are not big commercial successes either. To me, the combination of a cathcy tune and charting high was more relevant in the 60`s and the 70`s. The last McCartney number 1 single was "Say Say say", in America, and "Pipes Of peace", in the UK. But it`s not like McCartney didn`t keep on turning out catchy songs. To this day! But the general public, or marketing, was looking going somewhere else. Eurodance in the 90`s, for excample. And hip hop. : )
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by David Huret : lille, france April 28, 2010 10:53 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
#30 on the billboard chart, not 137; in other words, not a commercial success (by his standards) and not a total flop either. Same comment for the album`s musical value. IMHO.
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by Nowhere Fan : Norwegian Wood April 28, 2010 9:12 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
Yes. I prefer the vinyl version and usually play that one. The bonus CD-tracks are not bad, and a couple of the songs is maybe preferable to some on the album. But as an album-concept, it makes the record overlong and more eclectic than nessecary. It becomes uneven instead. The ten original LP tracks makes for a good, tight McCartney in the mid-80`s album. The rest belongs in a box set of outtakes. Or on a second CD on a remastered rerelease. There`s lots of outtakes from the same erea to choose from. : )
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by Paul : Little Rock, AR, USA April 27, 2010 9:49 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
An excellent concept album - influenced by Pete Townshend`s All the Best Cowboys and PeterGrabriel/Genesis. Unfortunately, the original CD tacked on the end three "bonus" tracks which weren`t on the original vinyl album. The bonus songs are very good, but they really jumble the concept.
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by Scott Murray : Apex, NC April 27, 2010 8:56 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
I too loved P2P; had some gems like Press, a decent rocker with nifty licks, etc; Pretty Little Head (12 inch single was even better); and Only Love Remains! Check out YouTube`s solo version of Paul at a piano performing this gem live! Outstanding! The album cover alone was beautiful!
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by Nowhere Fan : Norwegaian Wood April 26, 2010 9:43 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
A good comedy song. I agree. I sometimes wonder if people misunderstand McCartney`s humor. Or just don`t get it. If you look at underappreciated McCartney-records and songs, it`s often his most humorus and playful ones. I talk to people and some of them say "McCartney II" is a bad album. Then I say I think it`s a funny album with lots of funny songs, like "Temporary Secretary" and "Bogey Music". And then they look at me like I`m crazy or something. : )
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by Markus : Stockholm, Sweden April 26, 2010 4:36 AM EDT (Guest)  click to register
To bad he skipped the "Only Love Remains" video in the "McCartney-Years Box", because that`s both a great song and a great video!
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by steven wilson : UNITED STATES April 25, 2010 11:05 PM EDT (Guest)  click to register
move over busker is my fave classic macca comedy song
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by Nowhere Fan : Norwegian Wood April 25, 2010 5:34 PM EDT