If there’s one word I’d use to describe Paul McCartney’s 1986 album Press To Play, it would probably end up being ‘homogenized’.
Let’s take a fourth-dimensional step thataway and appraise where Sir Paul was standing by the mid-1980s. The Wings era was long since gone, even more of a cultural relic than anything he ever did as a Beatle. John Lennon’s murder in December 1980 practically deified the man, often at Paul’s expense. As far as Pop Culture at Large was concerned, John was the “serious artist”, the “real” creative force behind The Beatles. Paul’s solo work was basically summed up by “Silly Love Songs” and “Ebony and Ivory”; critical reassessment of and larger respect for his post-Beatles material wouldn’t come for a long while afterword.
Not that Paul didn’t experience commercial success in the early-to-mid 80s; 1982’s Tug Of War was a huge seller and garnered some strong reviews, but the prevailing success of the maudlin “Ebony and Ivory” single cast a long shadow over his work, reinforcing for many of his detractors that McCartney was only capable of producing lightweight melodic ‘fluff’ and little else [conveniently forgetting much of the album’s stronger, more substantial, and higher quality tracks, but that’s neither here nor there]. Sadly, the follow-up Pipes of Peace did little to assuage those criticisms. The album simply wasn’t very strong, consisting of many Tug of War leftovers, and featuring an inescapable single in “Say Say Say”, a Michael Jackson collaboration that, despite its success, could best be described as ear-worm drivel.
The less said about Give My Regards To Broad Street, the better, except to say whatever goodwill was generated by Tug Of War — at least among mainstream musical snooty-snoots — seemed to have evaporated by the end of 1984.
In essence, McCartney was at a bigger crossroad in 1985 than at any time post-breakup of The Beatles. His previous project was drenched in nostalgia for both Beatles and Wings hits (with a few new tracks thrown in for good measure), whereas the two albums before that, while commercially successful, neither broke new artistic ground nor reflected a style or sound that could be described as contemporary, let alone cutting edge. Neither left much lasting impact outside of two or three hit singles. Paul McCartney was left with a few commercial/artistic choices: continue to ride the nostalgia train for all it was worth, remain entrenched in the Pop/Adult Contemporary easy vibe, or drive his sound into the present by adopting the production and musical styles du jour and establish himself as an artist of the times.
He opted for the latter, and to show he meant business McCartney got together with famed producer Hugh Padgham. He who created the “gated drum” audio technique that gave so many albums of that era that prototypical “80s sound”, Padgham helped shape ginormously-selling albums for Genesis, Phil Collins, and The Police (as well as producing the likes of David Bowie, The Human League, Howard Jones, Paul Young, and other artists of the day). Paul also continued his collaboration with Eric Stewart of 10cc, who co-wrote six of the album’s tracks, and got a bunch of guest artists like Phil Collins and Pete Townshend to jump in on a few tracks.
But two things were readily apparent with Press To Play. The first was that Paul McCartney, for the first time in his post-Beatles career, was creating an album equal to and of its time. Something that could stand toe-to-toe with the Phil Collinses, Lionel Richies, Steve Winwoods, Eric Claptons, and other similarly themed solo acts of the era in terms of overall sound and production. The second readily apparent result was that Press To Play ended up being a reasonably good album but perhaps not a good Paul McCartney album.
The bulk of the album was recorded in April through May and October through December of 1985. In between those sessions he recorded the theme to the 1985 Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd flick “Spies Like Us”, which ended up becoming a Top 10 hit for McCartney (his last to date). The single (co-produced by Padgham and Phil Ramone) was a harbinger of sorts for Paul’s “new sound”, which was eventually confirmed by the first album single “Press”, which was released in July of 1986. The single hit the Top 30 in both the US and UK but failed to leave much lasting impression. The album finally dropped on August 22, 1986 to better reviews than Paul had been receiving of late, but Press To Play failed to catch on with listeners. It went Gold in the UK but ended up as one his worst selling albums in the US with only 250,000 copies moved.
Looking back at the album nearly three decades later, it’s all too easy to dismiss the album as ‘dated’. Padgham’s production is indelible; there’s no doubt at any point that this album reeks of the mid-1980s. It’s smooth, slick, compressed, groove-driven, sanded down, consistent… and as I mentioned in the introductory line to this review, homogenized. Everything fits and flows together nicely, with no real peaks or deep valleys. Press To Play is a pleasant, enjoyably listenable, and perfectly reasonable pop album from 1986. But there’s a certain emptiness to the album, a slight hollowness at the center. The unmistakable McCartney magic that can send a pop tune into the stratosphere, that pronounced musicality held in high relief… it’s missing. What’s left in its place certainly isn’t bad by any means — it’s often quite good — but it certainly doesn’t feel… tangible.
To wit, take the opening trio of tunes. I kind of like “Stranglehold”, the opening track, with its rockabilly-tinged intro and the driving funk of its bassline. At the very least, it assures the listener right off the bat that McCartney is spreading his wings a bit. The same can be said for “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun”, a fun, bouncy little number which engages in neo-retro-reggae’ism and a catchy sing-along chorus. The percussive rhythms of “Talk More Talk” are so appealing, they almost make up for the embarrassingly awful spoken-word elements peppered throughout the song. But while listening to all three of these tunes, there wasn’t a single moment when I wasn’t thinking that I was listening to the soundtrack of some John Hughes/Savage Steve Holland movie during a montage sequence featuring adorably perky and freshly pressed white suburban teens trying on parachute pants at the mall.
And that’s when it hit me: I was listening to background music, rather than something that was actively engaging me as a listener.
The rest of the album fares mostly the same, with a few exceptions. I enjoyed the acoustic disjunction of the icy “Footprints”, which could have benefitted from a lighter touch; the layers of production, the swirling synths, and multi-tracked vocals are distracting. “Only Love Remains” is probably the first song on the album that sounds truly McCartneyesque, replete with soaring vocals and emblematic tunefulness. But again, it’s a bit overblown, exponentially amplified into an epic realm of orchestral balladry that it really didn’t need.
The lead-off single “Press” is a bit of a disappointment. It’s the sixth song on the album, and thus far it’s been the weakest of the lot. It’s lyrically shallow and musically thin. Sequenced drum rhythms and a synth backbone bring us into “Pretty Little Head”, a spacey number (co-written with Eric Stewart) that acquits itself as a serviceable song (if a rather odd one). It’s laden with all sorts of flourishes that lend some interesting texture, but it still doesn’t add to much more than a weirdly experimental 80s piece. You’d never know it was McCartney without someone tipping you off ahead of time.
Some necessary rock is brought to the table with “Move Over Busker”, with Pete Townshend lending his guitar talents to the track. It’s one of the more likable album cuts, one that roots itself to a memorable melody and brings some much-needed energy to the album after the previous two tracks. Townshend also appears on the following track “Angry”, another rock number that seemed like a little bit Bowie, a little Rod Stewart, and a little Oingo Boingo, all wrapped up in Paul’s scratchier rock vocal stylings. Again, an agreeable rock number. Maybe not a standout, but enjoyable enough on its own.
The album ends with “However Absurd”, a strange ballad that seems to revolve around a theme lamenting a communication breakdown of sorts. Who really knows… or cares. It aims to be a big epic closer, filled with lifting orchestral strings and woodwinds that emerged right out of Sting’s “Dream of the Blue Turtles” album. The whole thing feels cobbled together from a dozen different sources, and none of it feels really genuine. If nothing else, it reinforces the overall suspicion that Paul McCartney is more of a guest artist on his own album, no matter how little that might be true. It might be completely untrue (and by most accounts, it’s probably utterly and entirely untrue) but that notion succinctly sums up the album: “A Pleasant Top-40 80s Sounding Record Featuring Paul McCartney and Friends.”
So Press To Play — what a strange record. Oh it does just fine on its own; as previously mentioned, it’s a good album but it’s just not a good McCartney album, at least not in the strictest sense. The hooks, the melody, the balladry and musicality, it’s all buried under heavy production values or suppressed entirely. It remains a reasonable project but it’s one I rarely (if ever) revisit when I want to explore the treasures of McCartney’s vast solo catalog.