When Paul McCartney Fell Short on ‘Press to Play’
In the mid-'80s Paul McCartney was eager to redeem himself as an artist after the significant flop of his 1984 soundtrack album Give My Regards to Broad Street.
With a newly built studio and plenty of technological tools at his disposal, McCartney aimed to use synthesized sounds in a way that was more comprehensive than they were employed on his previous records, like McCartney II. He enlisted the assistance of producer Hugh Padgham - who had recently worked with Genesis, XTC and the Police - to help him achieve a more polished, contemporary sound.
"Of course I was bowled over," Padgham later recalled being approached by McCartney. But he admitted his high hopes were swiftly snuffed out when he heard the initial tapes he was given. "I went home incredibly excited to listen to a cassette of those demos that he had done with Eric Stewart from 10cc, and I can honestly tell you now that I was underwhelmed when I heard those songs. I thought, Well, hang on, who am I to know, as a little 28-year-old guy, that Paul McCartney has given me these songs that are not very impressive? It must be me not being able to sort of see these songs that are effectively them sitting around a campfire with a couple of acoustic guitars."
Padgham pushed forward with the project but not without hinting at how he felt about the material. "When we started working on the record, Hugh came in one day and said he'd had a dream," McCartney told The New York Times in 1986, a few days after Press to Play was released. "He dreamed he woke up one morning and had made this really bad, syrupy album with me, an album he hated, and that it had blown his whole career. We took that as a little warning."
Listen to Paul McCartney's 'Stranglehold'
In addition to Stewart, McCartney brought in a few other famous faces: The Who's Pete Townshend and Genesis' Phil Collins both appear on a song called "Angry," while David Bowie's guitarist and longtime producer, Carlos Alomar and Tony Visconti, respectively, contributed to the album as well.
McCartney's collaborations with Stewart had begun somewhat casually: The musicians and their wives lived close to one another and would meet up to write songs in a fashion McCartney was familiar with. "I remembered the old way I’d written songs with John [Lennon], the two acoustic guitars facing each other, like a mirror but better!" he told Sound on Sound in October 1986. "Like an objective mirror, you’re looking at the person playing chords, but it’s not you. I’d never really tried to do that with anyone else: I’d either sit on my own with a guitar or piano, or with Michael Jackson doing lyrics, or Stevie [Wonder] and I just made that other one up. But it was never across the acoustics, which I’d always found a very complete way of writing.”
But that didn't mean McCartney was angling to make an acoustic album. "There’s all these computers now as well, which means you can understand these things," he said. "We did have a lot of these gimmicks to play around with, and sometimes they are more trouble than they’re worth, but occasionally you crack it and go ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that before!’"
Somewhere in between the original acoustic tapes and the album's release in August 1986, the material was drastically reworked. After cowriting six of the LP's songs with McCartney, Stewart was dismissed from the project, allegedly in favor of heavier involvement from Padgham. "God knows what happened," Stewart later recalled, "but by the time it was finished there were four producers involved, and they’d messed up those songs, like 'Angry', totally changed them, a great song called 'Stranglehold,' which was a beautiful song we’d written together, buggered it all up with blipping saxes going all the way through the verses."
Listen to Paul McCartney's 'Angry'
Although the album would reach No. 8 on the U.K. charts, it failed to make the Top 20 in the U.S.; Press to Play would end up one of McCartney's poorest-selling albums. Padgham later said the record isn't one he looks back on fondly.
"I don't think it was that great," he said. "I don't think he was in an era of writing good songs. ... But what are you going to do as a 28-year-old when you've suddenly been asked to record an album with one of the greatest guys in pop music ever? You're not gonna say no, are you?"
McCartney, however, was more positive about the experience. “I’m not a great one for looking back - it’s what I’ve done now that interests me," he said. "I think you have to have a little bit of talent, though, to know what to do with it when it arrives! I still find a magic about writing a new song, still the same feeling I ever had.”