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Listening to Macca #7: Press to Play

Posted on the 31 July 2019 by Russellarbenfox
Listening to Macca #7: Press to PlayMid- to late-1980s McCartney was, I suspect, trying really hard, and just getting frustrated with what he likely thought were paltry results. He was in his 40s, media opportunities and technology was exploding all around him, and he surely wanted to be a part of it. He wrote a slight, over-synthed (though with a fine bass line) pop number, "Spies Like Us," for what was anticipated to be a big hit comedy in 1985, but the reviews were terrible (deservedly so), making the song something of an embarrassment. He was recruited to be the final performer at the British half of Live Aid, the biggest pop and rock concert spectacle ever up that time (and maybe ever since), and for two full minutes his microphone wasn't properly turned on (not to mention that the stars who played his back-up singers couldn't--or wouldn't--harmonize on "Let it Be"). The story that I remember hearing at the time was that it solidified his determination never to tour or play big concerts again. (At that point, it had already been nearly 10 years since he'd last gone on tour.) Obviously I'm imposing a narrative upon a diverse events more than 30 years in the past--but still, to me it makes sense. The decade that had started with him apparently finding some new creativity and resolve as Wings finally dissolved, unfortunately seemed to be slogging towards its end with Macca just not able to do what once came naturally, or so I imagine it must have felt to him.
Listening to Macca #7: Press to PlayAll this is essentially an introduction to my giving Press to Play, his way overproduced 1986 album, a D+--a lower grade than what I gave his barely-there first solo album McCartney or his somewhat desperate final Wings albums, London Town and Back to the Egg; the only work by Macca I think is worse is the embarrassing McCartney II. And that really makes no sense! McCartney was genuinely sweating it in the studio with this album, collaborating with some great pop/rock musicians--The Who's Pete Townshend, Genesis's Phil Collins, 10cc's Eric Stewart. And the album's 13 songs cover a lot of territory; this isn't Macca noodling around with a couple of loose ideas and themes and calling it good. I can recognize the work here, and I've tried to respect that; I've genuinely tried harder to like this album more than any other McCartney production I've listened to all year (I've certainly given it more listens, at least, than any of the others). But I'm sorry--I'm sure the album has its defenders, but to my ear, the hooks just aren't there. It is far, far less than the sum of its parts.
Sure, there are moments of really cool instrument work or surprising melodies throughout the album. The soaring bridge in the midst of the sappy ballad "Only Love Remains"; the propulsive beat at the beginning of "Move Over Busker," before it gets lost in an busy wall of sound; the great wacka-wacka guitars buried by a bunch of unnecessary strings towards the end of "Tough on a Tightrope"--all very good. But overall, few of the songs leave you with anything after they're finished. "However Absurd" probably has a wonderful, introspective song somewhere inside all the hollering and synth horns. I wish McCartney had come up with "Angry" when he'd been working with Stevie Wonder a couple of albums previously; he might have been able to brings its vague R&B feel forward. And I wish the delightfully poppy "Feel the Sun" had been fully developed, instead of being tacked onto the end of the unmemorable "Good Times Coming." I'll admit his vocal work on the Memphis-style burner "Stranglehold" is pretty wonderful, but the saxophone honks drive me nuts. "Pretty Little Head" is, well, clearly trying to be a Peter Gabriel song, so why not just give it to him to sing it? And the album's sole radio hit, "Press"? It's got a groove, but mainly I just remember the video.
In the end, I was frustrated by Press to Play; it should have been at least a decent album, but it really isn't. There's nothing on it that I could fairly call "bad," yet all of it is, I think, completely disposable nonetheless. A wasted effort. So what next for Macca? Well, I'm going to end this entry with just one album, because it seems to me the obsessively productive McCartney, circa 1988-1993, needs an entry separate from this misfire. What did he do? In short order he got back to touring; he released albums of electronic music, classic rock-and-roll standards, acoustic recordings, and a classical oratorio; and he hooked up with a song-writing partner who, by all accounts, was the first person to actually constructively challenge McCartney in the studio in more than 20 years. August will be a busy month, but it'll get the taste of Press to Play out of my mouth.

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