Following the critical drubbing and mixed commercial performances of Pipes Of Peace, Give My Regards To Broad Street, and the standalone UK single ‘We All Stand Together’, Paul McCartney needed a critical and commercial hit in order to revitalise his career and reputation. Press To Play found him rethinking his musical direction, bringing a slick, modern feel to his writing and recordings.
Press To Play was his sixth solo album, and his first collection of new compositions since 1983. McCartney brought to an end his three-album collaboration with George Martin, and instead brought in Hugh Padgham for production duties. Padgham had previously worked with musicians including Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins – both of whom guested on Press To Play – Genesis, The Police, and XTC.
Whereas George Martin used new musical technology sparingly and with subtlety, Padgham was keen to draw on the full range of 1980s effects, from modern synthesisers to digital recording. The results often sounded sterile and lacked the organic aesthetic of analogue recording, to the album’s detriment; following Press To Play’s release McCartney moved away from computerised production towards a more natural sound.
Seven of the album’s 14 tracks, and a further three single b-sides, were co-written with Eric Stewart, formerly of 10cc. The first song they wrote together was ‘Stranglehold’, the album’s opening song.
In the studio
McCartney’s Hog Hill Mill studio in East Sussex was completed by April 1985, when the first sessions for Press To Play began. The sessions lasted from 11am until 8pm on Monday to Friday, and featured three musicians: McCartney, Eric Stewart, and drummer Jerry Marotta.
The trio recorded backing tracks and some overdubs for 13 songs: ‘Talk More Talk’, ‘Move Over Busker’, ‘Good Times Coming’, ‘Feel The Sun’, ‘It’s Not True’, ‘Press’, ‘However Absurd’, ‘Stranglehold’, ‘Footprints’, ‘Write Away’, ‘Tough On A Tightrope’, ‘Pretty Little Head’, and the unreleased ‘Yvonne’s The One’. The recordings were given rough mixes and the album was announced for a July 1985 release.
EMI pushed back the release to February, then April, 1986. In the interim McCartney took the opportunity to rework some of the songs and recorded new ones.
From October to December 1985 more recording took place, this time at McCartney’s Scottish studio. He completed work on ‘Angry’, ‘Hanglide’, and ‘Only Love Remains’, the latter a big ballad scored by Tony Visconti, which was recorded live in the studio.
When the day came to record, Paul had the 30 or so musicians taken down to Sussex by coach. The plan was to try and record a rhythm track in the morning, to be safe, and overdub the orchestral instruments in the afternoon. Once that was achieved we had a go recording the entire ensemble with Paul singing and playing live. The musicians from the orchestra spent the morning and lunchtime in the local pub and were well lubricated by the time we sent for them around 2:30 p.m. We managed the overdub, then set up for the live performance. I stood next to him as he played piano and sang, while I conducted the orchestra; it was like having my own private McCartney concert. I would look over to Paul for a cue and he would smile and continue to sing to me. He never made a mistake and each take was a ‘keeper’.
Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy
McCartney recruited a range of leading musicians to perform on the album, including guitarist Carlos Alomar and The Who’s Pete Townshend. The latter performed on ‘Angry’, which was recorded live in the studio with Phil Collins on drums in less than three hours.
I’d kept in touch with Pete after ‘Rockestra’ and Live Aid. Pete’s actually only on ‘Angry’. There’s a chord riff I’d written a long time ago for something else, and every time I played it I felt like Pete Townshend! There was plenty of those windmill arms when I played it, and I always imagined him doing it. It actually only took two hours to get that track down on tape, which is incredibly quick these days – in the old days we’d have done an album by then!
Sound On Sound, October 1986
The album also nodded to McCartney’s past with The Beatles, on ‘However Absurd’. Having long resisted the temptation to record in the style of his former band, he once again embraced their psychedelic period with some playful lyrics that touched upon the limitations of words to convey meaning.
It did suggest the epic finale – which is why it’s at the end of the album! For me, it was another thing you start off and think ‘Ooh no, that’s too Beatley, so I won’t do it’. So I resisted it for a while, but I kept coming back to ‘Why? Tell me one good reason why you’re resisting this Beatles influence?’ Cos if anyone’s got a right to do it, there’s three guys alive who’ve got the right to do it. I’ve got past the point of comparisons with The Beatles, or being accused of being a ‘Beatle Stylist’, but I mean, I was involved in all that stuff very heavily, and realising it was a good system then, why ignore it now?
There’s a sort of ‘Walrus’ intro to this track, but of course any time you play that style on piano it evokes that. It’s a style I know and love.
Sound On Sound, October 1986
Final mixing was done from 14-18 April 1986 and Press To Play was scheduled for release in June, but it was eventually pushed back until August.
The cover photograph of Paul and Linda was taken by George Hurrell, a Hollywood veteran who used the same box camera he had used in the 1930s and 40s.
The inside gatefold featured mixing diagrams made by McCartney in the studio, to demonstrate where he wanted the vocals and instruments to appear in the stereo spectrum.
Initial UK copies of Press To Play – 45,000 were made – included a version of ‘Press’ remixed by Bert Bevans and Steve Forward. This was subsequently replaced by a second pressing which featured the original mix by Hugh Padgham. Both mixes had appeared on a limited edition 10″ single.
Press To Play was released worldwide by EMI, and marked McCartney’s return to the label following a brief period with Columbia Records in the USA and Canada.
Press To Play became the lowest-selling album of McCartney’s career. It reached number eight in the UK charts, but in the US peaked at number 30 and failed to be certified gold, selling just 250,000 copies. The singles ‘Pretty Little Head’ and ‘Only Love Remains’ also sold poorly.
The lack of commercial success alarmed McCartney and affected his confidence. He embarked on a range of new creative endeavours over the next two years to revive his public status. These included songwriting collaborations with Elvis Costello, the Choba B CCCP collection of rock ‘n’ roll oldies, and eventually the album widely considered his return to form: 1989’s Flowers In The Dirt.
In 1993 a remastered version of Press to Play was released on CD as part of the Paul McCartney Collection series. It included two bonus tracks: his 1985 single ‘Spies Like Us’ and an alternative mix of 1987’s ‘Once Upon A Long Ago’.