Paul McCartney - Press to Play
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I mean, fuck Brian Wilson: Paul McCartney should have been drooling in a sandbox; maybe then he’d get more respect. If you’re as mad as the proverbial hatter, as Wilson no doubt was and is, critics will by rights sneer at the output of a professed family man whose only purported vice is smoking insane amounts of pot and writing silly love songs. While Sir Paulie was becoming the ‘70s biggest-selling artist releasing singles like “Jet” and “Let’Em In” that rivaled Elton John’s in sheer hummable banality, Wilson was supposedly tinkering on lost masterpieces, his sanity as out of reach as the Holy Grail. The dude was out of the game, so again, fuck him.
Really, kids: Paul is seriously wack. The man took whimsy to demented heights. Although a fool and a pothead, he’s also an ace jingle writer who if he possessed a gram of humility (“He’s an egomaniac about everything except his bass playing,” egomaniac John Lennon noted) would be producing the Badly Drawn Boys, New Pornographers, and Ben Folds of the world. Who else would title a song “Little Lamb Dragonfly”? Could Bernie Taupin stoop to write a chorus with the indelible lines, “wo wo wo, wo wo” (“My Love”)? Is Linda a better one-finger keyboardist than New Order’s Gillian Gilbert? Why isn’t “Freedom” as good as Wham’s “Freedom”—or George Michael’s?
We ask these questions because Paul’s Other Band was, you know, the greatest ever. I’m not going to reignite the old argument of whether Paul or John was the true genius because, frankly, both could suck. Instead I’m going to defend Press to Play, a McCartney album forgotten at the time of its release even though it’s no better or worse than London Town or Red Rose Speedway and, in its disgusting expensive way, more enjoyable than Important Statements like Tug of War. So there.
In 1986, McCartney saw the future, and the future was David Bowie’s Tonight and Genesis’ Invisible Touch; thus, he hired their producer, Hugh Padgham, only the second time he’d handed over the reins to someone else (Chris Thomas got the honor for 1979’s Back to the Egg. Someone else can defend that one.). All things considered, Press to Play is a listenable success, although, as our own Matthew Weiner remarked not long ago, in a dated kind of way. Booming drums, enough echo start an avalanche, Fairlight synthesizers, cowrites with 10cc’s Eric Stewart (huh?)—they’re all here, at the service of a songwriter whose baroque arrangements sound as addled as his most vibrant marijuana fever-dreams.
Let’s get the good stuff out of the way: “Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun” are two more songs Macca couldn’t be bothered to finish, as per habit, so he slaps’em together with a lite-reggae vibe and a Queen-meets-“Good Day Sunshine” vocal melody so delectable that forgive his indolence. The epic ambitions of “However Absurd” disguise the fact that the song is defiantly about nothing at all. The fragile “Footprints” redeems its soppy lyrics about magpies and tears in snow. “Stranglehold” is a rocker of surprising vigor, kept, alas, from becoming another “Jet” by underwhelming production; still, it deserves rediscovery. If only Macca had worked with Steve Lillywhite…
And yet, on trifles like “Talk More Talk” (pseudo-surrealist voice-overs) and “Pretty Little Head (tribe of hillmen looking at Ursa Major or something),” the opulent production actually mitigates what on earlier Wings albums would have been unbearable McCartney nonsense; the latter in particular exists mainly as an excuse for McCartney to show off new gizmos, like the electronically altered voice, and synthetic drums lifted from Genesis’ “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.”
But all these pale before “Press,” the most inane song in a career full of inanities. For many years I had no idea what the hell it was about—until Weiner suggested it was about fucking. It takes either guilelessness of the Little Orphan Annie kind or spectacular weed to open a song with, “Darling, I love you very, very, very, very much!” Let me count the ways, Paulie. “Tell me to press / Right there, that’s it, yes!” he huffs, and then the coup de grace: “Oklahoma was never like this!” (did he come yet?) Paul lavishes enough production values on “Press” to give Trever Horn pause, and so his quest for nookie (see? The rich are like you and me) becomes obsessive instead of gross: computerized drum thwacks, psychotic Linda harmonies, metal-ish guitar solo. It stalled at a lowly Number 21 on the charts: a disgraceful state of affairs. If Peter Gabriel could hit number one with a song about his penis that summer, what conspiracy kept Paul’s “My Ding A Ling” from the summit?
McCartney would recover from this flop, most impressively when his first world tour in 15 years became 1989’s highest-grossing attraction. Call it nostalgia, or guilt; it’s the same thing really. On its heels Flowers in the Dirt was a repudiation of the Macca we love/hate: no imperialist odes to aborigines, just loads of silly love songs, dull arena thumpers, and a few almost-good Elvis Costello collaborations (the spectacular “My Brave Face” is one of the best should-have-been-a-hits of the last 20 years).
Press To Play remains out of print, but used copies are easy to find (I got mine for two bucks on Half.com). It’s worth owning for “Press” alone (no, it’s not on Wingspan; Sir Paul must wear a dignified mien at all times). Steal a copy if you have to.