Friday 4 July 2008

Paul McCartney "Press To Play" (1986) ('Core' Review #88, Revised Edition 2014)

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Paul McCartney "Press To Play" (1986)

Track Listing: Stranglehold/ Good Times Comin’ ; Feel The Sun/ Talk More Talk/ Footprints/ Only Love Remains// Press/ Pretty Little Head/ Move Over Busker/ Angry/ However Absurd (UK and US tracklisting)

‘Do not mock me when I say this is not a lie…I’m loving you, I’m loving you, I’m loving you now!’

Back in the mid-1980s, Macca’s profile was at its lowest. Pipes Of Peace had been slated and sold less copies than expected. Then the soundtrack of 'Give My Regards To Broad Street' beat it, a badly received film project that destroyed any good will McCartney still had left (even if the soundtrack album is still pretty good). The next album had to be different. After coasting since the release of 'McCartney II' in 1980, Paul needed to prove that he could still be cutting edge, could push the envelope, could still be a relevant composer twenty years almost to the day after the release of 'Revolver'. Amazingly, against all the odds (and against what almost every other reviewer will tell you), McCartney did all that, releasing what might be my favourite album in this book. 'Press To Play' is an album that completely changes our perceptions of who Paul McCartney is, with a core of typically Macca-esque tracks at the heart of an album that was all about embracing change, adding quirky eccentricity and a modern surface pop sheen to songs that for the first time in a long time sounded like Paul McCartney songs. To date none of the Beatles had ever taken up a challenge of sounding quite this contemporary (Beatles were meant to set the fashions, not follow them) and only George Harrison will even try with the following year's 'Cloud Nine'. However, while the praise for George's electronically muddled and rather empty album went ridiculously over-the-top, the far deeper and more thoughtful 'Press To Play' was ignored, slammed by the few critics still listening for being 'more of the same'.

To this day 'Press To Play' has been tagged with the same labels as 'Peace' and 'Broad Street' as the nadir of McCartney's catalogue. Many fans have even called Press To Play boring, an album made using an over-slick production and under-written songs, but twenty years on – with Macca’s canon now including such duds as ‘Chaos and Creation’ (lots of the former but very little of the latter) and ‘Flaming Pie’ (flaming awful) these comments seem laughable. For me, though, it was and always will be a triumph, a courageous, boundary-breaking album that manages the twin rather difficult needs of making McCartney sound relevent in the era of a mid-1980s production quagmire while still proving that he had something to say. This is McCartney at his most pioneering again, trying his best to fight his way to the head of the musical pack rather than relying on the heavy shadow he always casts to see him through, taking the best of his recent albums and stringing them together into a new mix (the sweetness of ‘London Town’, the bonkers ideas of ‘Back To The Egg’, the danger of ‘McCartney II’, the glossy commercialism of ‘Tug Of War’ and ‘Pipes and Peace’). On this album Paul out-pops his pop contemporaries, out-risks his fellow forty-somethings busy on auto-pilot, out-laughs his new writing partner’s old band 10cc and out-thinks anything he’s made in a long long time. ‘Half serious’‘Press To Play’ both has its cake and eats it: unlike the last eight years of McCartney albums this one feels deeper, as if everything somehow matters again, with subject matters of death, communication, divorce and nostalgia in old age, though at the same time Paul pokes fun at the idea and suddenly everything is absurd including music. ‘Press To Play’ is a brilliant album, more consistent than most McCartney LPs and with nine tracks that offer us something Paul has never done before (and when the tenth is a close cousin to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ever so nearly as good, I’m not complaining). There are many AAA albums I've always felt never got a fair deal, being either more interesting or more brave than the ir reputation suggests (The Beach Boys' 'L.A. Light Album', The Kinks' 'Arthur' and 1979’s 'George Harrison' to name just three). But 'Press To Play' represents perhaps the widest gulf between what I hear and what everyone else seems to. Big and bold when it needs to be daring, daring when McCartney no longer had to be, humble and small when it has to, ‘Press To Play’, surely, is brilliant. So why does everyone seem to hate it? It can’t just be me can it?

Well, even the people who made it weren’t that sure about it. Producer Hugh Padgham, brought in to make Paul sound more contemporary, sheepishly admitted during the last week of sessions that he’d had a genuine nightmare that this record had come out and everyone hated it and blamed him for ending the career of a Beatle. Everyone laughed – only he wasn’t joking and indeed the release of this albu did hit both men’s careers (he’ll go on to wotk with Sting and McFly, which what with working with a Beatle makes him something of an insect musician expert, and sadly might well prove my point given that neither is exactly up to McCartney’s standards). The punchline is that, in the market place at least, that all came true: ‘Press To Play’ got bad reviews even for McCartney and everyone jumped on his grave: Paul had lost the plot, he’d stopped making proper music, Eric Stewart was no Lennon replacement and the pop stylings were too modern and his songs too old-fashioned. Worst of all, he’d stayed in the same place. Not since the music press missed the whole point that The Monkees were four actors had anybody been so wrong: ‘Press To Play’ doesn’t sound anything like any previous McCartney LP, that being the whole point. After all, what other McCartney albums contain a rocker with a slinky riff tied to stream-of-consciousness lyrics about lust as 'Stranglehold'? What other McCartney album is brave enough to attempt 'Pretty Little Head', a scary atmospheric dance song that shames any contemporary attempts at the same thing? What other McCartney album contains a lyric quite as surreally bold as the one for 'However Absurd'? (Except maybe ‘Talk More Talk’?) And even after you've digested all that lot, few other McCartney ballads are quite as lovely as 'Footprints' (a kind of sequel to 'Eleanor Rigby') or 'Only Love Remains' (a kind of sequel to [95] 'Silly Love Songs'?)

No other McCartney album ever tried to be quite so daring with the production either - Hugh Padgham's attempts to make McCartney sound huge and daring are in direct contrast to the last time McCartney tried to sound young and hip and misunderstood the directive (see 'Back To The Egg', if you're feeling brave enough): as 1980s albums go, this one is great: we can hear every word, the effects are an intrinsic part of the song and the synths are kept down to colour rather than being the whole band. We get endless guest stars strutting their stuff who never overpower Paul and these songs remember the importance of dynamics, playing subtlely as well as big. Throughout the drums boom, the guitars roar, the backing vocals sound bigger than ever, Paul's bass sits big and fat in the middle of the mix where it hasn't been since Wings days and you only need to look at the colourful drawings in the album booklet (actually Paul's doodled drawings of where all the instruments are in the mix) to realise how much work has gone into this album (compared to, say, 'Pipes Of Peace' which is nearly all leftovers). Above all else, there's an urgency to this album that hasn't been there in Paul's music for a while, a desperation to get word across before its all too late (parts of 'London Town' in fact - make the most of it, it won't be around long!) While the sumptuous ballads are the songs that stay in your memory after the record has finished playing, there's a tightness and desperation to the rockers, 'Press To Play' sounding like more than just another McCartney album. And then, after all that, the reviews called it 'bland', wrote McCartney off and 'Press To Play' became the first Macca/Wings album ever not to have a top ten record either on it or recorded at the same sessions. Is it really only just me who 'gets' this record?

Funnily enough, another writer I feel was hard-done by while making some of his greatest work was 10cc's Eric Stewart, who'd written some of 10cc's greatest songs in the early 1980s while recovering from a car crash (and in less of a mood to be funny than he had been before, giving his material an added bitter acidic tone that really suited him and diluted his sicklier side). Eric and Paul knew each other well - both were interested in engineering (a trade Eric had learnt when filling in time between his two hit bands The Mindbenders and 10cc, co-owning Strawberry Studios in Stockport where he engineered and produced works by many bands across the 1970s) and had first recorded together for 'Pipes Of Peace' (Eric's also the silent guitarist in sunglasses in the 'Broad Street' film). With that project’s critics' comments stinging in his ears (Paul has a thinner skin than you might suppose - unlike, say, John and George he seems to remember every bad review, however uncalled for). McCartney has always needed some sort of a collaborator throughout his work, if only to keep him on the straight and narrow, limit his ability to juggle several balls in the air at once by making him concentrate on the task in hand and being a sounding board to his ideas (Paul has many wonderful qualities - being a good judge of his own work isn't one of them). John Lennon is the obvious example of this (not the pair did much work together per se), but Linda does a fine job too in his solo career, not to mention Denny Laine, Michael Jackson or, later, Elvis Costello. The McCartney-Stewart collaboration is perhaps the most forgotten Macca one in the eyes of fans, but in many ways it’s the most natural pairing of them all. Both men shared a great sense of humour and a love of the surreal. They could also, though, tune in to the lives of the people around with a sympathy like few other writers. It was paul who sensed this and approached Eric, who agreed on condition that he engineer the record. Having released his recorded music on his own three years before and with no current record contract the timing couldn't have been better. After all, 10cc were compared to the Beatles a lot in their early days and McCartney in particular, with the two groups possessing the same adventurous nature soaked in pop sensibilities and above all an intelligence which put them streets ahead of the competition. Eric even fulfilled the ‘McCartney’ role in that band, being the group’s multi-tasking multi-talented guitarist/keyboardist/ joint lead vocalist and – in their group’s later days – chief writer. The pair were good foils for each other - both are natural melodicists, have a natural gift for production gloss (not the insult that sentence usually implies), have healthy senses of humour and, being right handed, Eric could sit mirroring Paul like John had (the two even play a pair of guitars together throughout many of the tracks on this album, each 'facing' each other in the mix as if mirroring this). Had Paul worked with Eric during 10cc's peak 'wacky' years this might have been a very different sort of an album - but Eric's recent brush with death had left him more concerned with making the most out of life; a theme Paul had always used strongly in his work. The question is not whether these two songwriters should have found any common ground as so many reviewers ask – it’s more whether the two found so much common ground they might just as well have stayed at home and written solo? But as it happens the wildest, weirdest, wackiest songs on the album are credited to Paul solo, his ideas revitalised and his horizons widened enough by the collaboration to accept the challenge on his own too.

The album also sounds boring to some now because you have to dig for the beauty and detail of this album; its not surface-level like so many later McCartney records that sound on great on first listen and then gradually taper off because you’ve already got the message on the second or third hearing. Goodness knows there’s been enough call in recent years from critics for Paul to re-write his good old 1960s classics in a modern day setting. But be careful what you wish for – McCartney finally gave in to public demand and came up with the godawful Beatles-by-numbers [275] Beautifiul Night and pointless Blackbird re-write [308] Jenny Wren. No what fans should have wanted – and praised Macca for – was the bravery in setting pop sensibilities inside a modern-day setting while still breaking new ground. McCartney is often accused of resting on his laurels, but compared to most 1960s artists with enough money not to have to prove anything, he’s been remarkably adventurous. For instance no other artist of the day would have dared to pull off the electro-funk instrumental Pretty Little Head, a track which might not sound as ‘modern’ as it did twenty years ago but still sounds as refreshingly scary and downright unusual as it ever did at the time. Songs like Footprints, meanwhile, sparkle so loudly with production values they sound like some oft-forgotten Madonna B-side, but through the poignancy of their lyrics and the hidden messages left to the audience’s imagination I would make the bold claim that some of these tracks are lyrically McCartney’s most mature and observational work since ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘Blackbird’. A sequel to the former far better than Jenny Wren is to the latter, recapturing the same feeling of loneliness and isolation in just a few descriptive words, rather than throwing the whole thing down our throats as per the later attempt. Sadly this isn't an album full of 'Eleanor Rigby's or it would unquestionably be the most popular Macca LP of the lot. But the other nine songs are deeper than average too. By 1986 most fans think they know what's coming next on a McCartney album: that all they do have to do in fact is 'press' to 'play' and they'll get all they need to know from a song, but whether because of a change in direction or Eric Stewart's influence, not many of these songs work as 'surface' material. 'Stranglehold' appears to be atypical McCartney songs about love; actually it's about an unhealthy obsession. 'Good Times Comin' appears on first hearing to be a typically sunny McCartney song about optimism but turns (especially on the unedited song only currently heard on bootleg, sadly) into a painful song about 'yesterday' not always being better than 'today'. 'Move Over Busker' tries hard to be comic, but it's got a middle eight that hints at the narrator's desperate chat-up lines coming from loneliness and despair.  Even 'Press', the poppiest McCartney song in a long long time, concludes in a pained middle eight that 'my mind's in a mess - Oklahoma was never like this!'

There's also a half-theme that's easy to miss unless you've played the album near-constantly for thirty years like I have. This is an album all about communication or rather mis-communication - with life being so much easier for almost all of these characters if they'd come out and said something rather than hiding behind an 'I'm coping' veneer (as per 'Footprints') or taken drastic action and run away (as per 'Pretty Little Head', although admittedly that storyline is so muddled it's only clear from the peculiar music video featuring lots of giant talking McCartney heads). 'Talk More Talk' makes the theme obvious, a very Lennon song about how language can be nonsense (it even starts with Paul Linda and their then nine-year-old-son James reading out random extracts from books found dotted around the McCartney household; sadly I haven't yet tracked down where the phrase 'grey flannel trousers' has come from). 'Good Times Coming' tries to communicate by use of memory, ostensibly the memories of a married couple but more about Paul and the listener, a key McCartney song if only because it's the first time (barring 'Broad Street's recycled Beatle songs) that he's come close to acknowledging his 'ever present past'. Even the album’s front cover of Paul and Linda, shot using a genuinely antique movie camera, ties into this theme of memory and preservation. 'Angry' takes the opposite tack, a song where the narrator is a little too quick to turn his slight grievances into hurtful words (with a guesting Pete Townshend angrily windmilling his partner into submission). 'Move Over Busker' and 'However Absurd' take wordplay to new heights - the first off-putting in its sheer OTT expressions, the latter rather charming in running out of words to express how the narrator feels (and listen out for another of this album's excellent middle eights: 'I couldn't say the words - words couldn't get my feelings through, but still I keep talking to you' - the motto of the album there in a nutshell and neatly mirroring the 'half of what I say is meaningless' line from 'Julia'). Paul is usually such a natural communicator he has never written an album on this theme whereas so many of his peers have (most notably Pink Floyd’s ‘Division Bell’ is a lot like this album; both of them even have ‘giant heads’ on the front cover). There's a lot going on in 'Press To Play', but unlike most McCartney albums you do have to work for it - which might be why so many critics missed it and called this album 'bland'.

The album only sounded dull to us in the mid-1980s because it seemed like everything else out on the market and synth drums were already getting on people’s nerves (it doesn’t help that the drum patterns on this album rarely vary from track to track) but nowadays, when this sort of thing is only really accessible on compilation albums, it sounds refreshing with McCartney bigger and more powerful than he’s ever sounded before. Perhaps part of the problem is that it didn’t sound like any other album out in 1986: the drums are more variable than most, the synths aren’t as heavy and there’s a whole other layer of colour added by paul on top, as if he couldn’t bear to leave his songs quite as bare as most people did back in this era.  Undoubtedly this album is over-slick in places but, unlike a lot of musicians who used lush production to cover up for the fact that they couldn’t actually play, big glossy production has always suited Macca’s often complex songs and these are more complex than average,  his usual big expansive soundscape at its best here, all booming sound effects and speaker-hopping extras. What a shame there’s only one LP of this stuff so that 'Press To Play' gets to be somewhat orphaned in Macca's canon rather than part of an overall pattern, abandoned when people turned round and hated this LP (after a half-sequel in ‘Retrun To Pepperland’, which is this album without the wit or imagination). The sad truth is that 'Press To Play' ended in troubled circumstances the same way it began, with McCartney and Stewart falling out when Paul reneged over his offer of letting Eric engineer it the way he wanted to (chances are it would have had a dryer, crisper sound more like greatest and final 10cc album ‘Windows In The Jungle’). Speculation varies as to how much input into the production work on this album Stewart actually had (effectively out of work again once this album's sessions finished, Stewart was trying to find his way back into the engineering world - having a credit on a McCartney album, even one as poorly received as this one, would have given him extra clout within the industry). We don't know why Paul refused - did he not think Eric was capable? Or did he just have another big name lined up? Was Hugh Padgham simply a bigger name so he went with his ‘other’ star? Or is this another example of the album's 'mis-communication' going on?! But surely, hearing the echoing sounds of this LP – quite unlike any other McCartney solo – Paul was at least vaguely influenced by Eric’s work with 10cc which often sought to hide its quiet insecurities with the sheer brightness of the sound and it might have sounded even better with Stewart on board.

Overall, Press To Play might not be the greatest McCartney album ever but it's certainly the man's most under-rated work, getting it ever so nearly right ever so nearly all of the time. There are many reasons to love it. It’s funnier than any other McCartney record, in a delicious ‘you and me against the world’ way that cuts right through the usual pop treacle. It’s his poppiest record, full of every gadget he can find in 1986 that bring out his love of pop hooks and riffs (there are several good ones on this LP). There are, even so, more instantly recognisably McCartney moments than any previous album (‘Only Love Remains’ in particular is every McCartney ballad and silly love song rolled into one). And yet iut’s deeper than we’ve had for years, with songs about the curlety of the moern capitalist Thatcherist world and how crazy things are becoming suddenly. It takes guts to throw money at an album loosely about the evils of money and ‘Press To Play’ is a fascinating hybrid of all sorts of things. Last but not least, Macca also gets to show off his wide vocal range like never before, swapping from Little Richard-type R and B to falsetto a la London Town’s  track [110] ‘Girlfriend’, to a deeper version of Michael Jackson’s effortless pop on Press, to introspective singer-songwriter and even a bit of music-hall cockney on Move Over Busker. Add in one of Macca’s prettiest, most sorely neglected songs in the whole of his back catalogue (Footprints), an updated sounding1960s-freakbeat with a 1980s budget (Pretty Little Head) and a classic Macca ballad (Only Love Remains) and suddenly Press To Play looks less like a confused album from a washed up artist as so many people took this record to be than an on-the-ball release from a musician with pure inspiration seeping though his veins. In many ways, you can wave goodbye to McCartney as a multi-talented pioneering, ‘struggling’ artist after this album, as he responds to this album’s reception by retreating into himself (at least until he turns into ‘The Fireman’ in the 1990s). This wraps up a pretty incredible twenty-year burst where Paul only ever really made minor mistakes (and even most of those are handily on the same three albums: ‘Wings At The Speed Of Sound’  ‘Back To The Egg’ and ‘Pipes Of Peace’). This album, usually lumped in as being ‘even worse thsan those’ is actually head and shoulders above most of the McCartney catalogue. As Macca tells us at the end of Good Times Comin’, ‘all the beauty, all the pain – will it ever be the same again?’ Sadly the answer so far seems to be ‘no’ – but then McCartney has always had the ability to surprise us when we least expect it. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next (editor's note: and I was right, as you'll be seeing with the album reviews at the end of this book, written after this review was first published in 2008: in order dance, crooning and back-to-basics pop!) Surely, surely, surely, dear readers, it can’t only be me who hears what a fab little album this is?

The Songs:

Back to the album proper and things start promisingly with [195] Stranglehold, a curiously constructed song with a laid-back verse underlined by a snappy drum lick and eventually giving way to a sudden shot of adrenalin in the chorus. There are many great riffs in McCartney’s catalogue, far more than he’s ever given credit for, and this may well be my favourite: it starts off as a slow and slinky Elvis Costello style affair, turns on a sixpence into a funky bass-driving rockabilly number and only then goes one better for the triumphant chorus which sounds like the best musical you’ve ever been to in your life. It is, for once too, a perfect fit for the lyrics which are about not Paul’s usual theme of love but obsession: the more he sees of a girl he can’t have ‘back at the bar’ the more desperate he gets to know you, the slippery slope going back round the whole thing again after a cycle that’s taken two whole minutes. And over that there’s another horn riff that kicks in halfway through also dominates the song – am I right in thinking this is the first time a full horn section appears on a Macca song since Got To Get You Into My Life? ([79] Listen To What The Man Said only features a lone saxophone, however loud the part may sound). The song is highlighted by some notably tight band playing, whose overall ensemble effect is contradicted by a loose-limbed squealing saxophone, the sound of the girl playing hard to get. Some well-recorded drums literally reverberate around the room and explode into the chorus and the track certainly grabs your attention, switching from a simple 4/4 riff to some tempo that sounds like its got lots of complicated quavers in it (ie in something/8 time, I can’t quite work out what it is – anybody got the sheet music for this track?!?) The ‘stalking’ lyrics, with Macca not taking no for an answer when trying to chat up a girl, are astonishingly different to anything he’s given us before and it’s perfect for the man of a thousand voices who goes from childishly creepy to earthily passionate within the space of a few bars. Starting out with some corny chat-up lines, Macca moves on to some weirdly cryptic verses: he offers this complete stranger the chance to ‘lay low and to never to be found’ before asking her to ‘take a gamble’ (which makes for a delightful rhyme with ‘I think we can skip the pre-amble’; that sounds like an Eric Stewart line to me!) Listen out for the line ‘Can I get you to slip me the answer?’ – the audible chuckle in Macca’s voice when he sings this line probably relates to a memory of the old Beatles Maharishi story, when John Lennon barged his way into a dual-helicopter flight with the Beatles’ new guru in the hope that he’d ‘slip me the answer’ to life, the universe and everything while the other Beatles weren’t looking. For this song this mysterious girl holds all the answers to life and Paul isn’t going to go without finding out more. The great thing is, it was all true: this is, more or less, what happened the night Paul met Linda at the Bag O’Nails Club in London in  1967 and asked her if she’d like to go to another place with him – Paul realising that ‘you’ve got one on me and I’ve got to know more abouyt ya!’ This song is, along with [58] Let Me Roll It, also the closest McCartney ever came to writing one of those obsessive, hypnotic love songs that Lennon specialised in during the late 60s/ early 70s (think anything with ‘Yoko’ in the title but also and especially I Want You (She’s So Heavy), more tough than romantic and far from being a smooth series of chat-up lines is desperate for things not to go wrong. An interesting acoustic rocker with a heavy booming sound, ‘Stranglehold’ is perhaps a little too awkward and angular to become the well-loved track that many forgotten Macca songs are to those in the know, but its one that certainly earns our respect, being adventurous in both writing and production and McCartney at his most commercial all in one go sucking us in section by section.

[196] Good Times Coming/Feel The Sun has a similarly weird structure, being one of Macca’s many two-songs-in-one-that-don’t-really-go-together medleys that become increasingly common in this period. But whereas sticking the fairly impressive [21] Uncle Albert with the pointless Admiral Halsey from Ram did neither song any favours and putting the great [129] ‘Winter Rose’ with the teeth-grindingly awful ‘Love Awake’ on ‘Back To The Egg’ was a huge mistake, these two songs at least have a similar theme (if nothing in common musically) and work together really well. The first-half of the song is gently rocking 1980s sounding pop, with sweetly nostalgic lyrics that also speak of their hope for the future, while the second half is more like an 1980s version of 1960s soul, celebrating good times in the present day. Macca taps into some fairly inoffensive universal memories here (blazing hot sunshine, holidays, being in love, etc), but he was actually thinking about The Beatles when he wrote it. There had been enough water under the bridger by now for Paul to look back on that period with fondness and more than a little awe, comparing it to memories of a ‘golden summer’ when it never rained in your memory and everything was brilliant. Has there ever been a better description of Beatlemania than four friends leaping into the ether and shouting ‘geronimo!’ Dr Who style while hoping for the best? Paul calls it a ‘silly season’ and adds in a neat tip of the hat to ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (a song built around similar chords) when he sighs ‘we didn’t need a reason – just a rest!’ ‘Wasn’t it hot?’ he sighs, with the sunshine surely a metaphor as it always seems to be in these books for creativity and sighing that ‘there was something about the weather – not like any other holiday’. This was a period of his life that was special and unified, as signified by the chanting Paul and Lindas whom open this track ‘Ram’ style. Singing in his falsetto Paul also sounds twenty years younger, cute and cuddly, but there’s still just a hint of something ugly lurking through this track, waiting to pounce once the narrator goes back to the present day (in fact this song is a near-cousin of 10cc’s Memories, a song reviewed on this list,—is this solo McCartney song ‘inspired’ by Eric’s work perhaps?) Listen out for the way McCartney sings that this all took place ‘before the wa-r-r-r-r-r’, dragging the line out as if making some cosmic full stop between his life as it was and as it is now, surely remembering the Beatles’ split. The sudden switch to a down-scaling minor key (‘I’m loving you, I’m loving you, I’m loving now’) also sounds as if the narrator is doing his best to get back to the starting point of the song, clinging on to some ‘golden age’ because he realises its all about to end (and, so the lyrics imply, the narrator was too busy to enjoy this idyllic period in his life the first time round). After a pained falsetto cry that’s left hanging in the air (‘Good time coming in?’) the second section begins in a deep growl. Yes, is the answer: the past was wonderful, but so the future is and Paul feels the sun coming out again. Or at least it might: Paul is doubtful, wondering ‘will it ever be the same again?’ but he soothes himself with a blast of gorgeous summery sunshiney pop that recalls ‘Good Day Sunshine’. Sticking just to a single verse and endless repeated choruses, the ‘Feel The Sun’ section is a lot more simplistic than the first but no worse than that with a catchy riff and a simplistic joy that makes it sound like it’s a ‘White Alnbum’ outtake. There were many verses cut from the finished version (you can hear the edit at 3:48) which were highly contradictory: ‘You send me letters I don’t quite understand, you seem to sign them but they’re not written by your hand, get out of town girl get out fast, you better get out while the money lasts, are you in trouble tell me what will you do? If you got troubles I’d much rather be with you, feel the sunshine touching away, feel the sunshine coming back again! Feel the sun all around, feel the warmth of the ground, see the sky shining for youuuuu!’ A cute couple of songs about the past and the future now that Macca has hit middle-age with a bang, this is another clever song that’s almost the only listenable moment on the horrid ‘Pure McCartney’ compilation meant to rescue obscure songs like these.

[197] Talk More Talk is another surprisingly scatter-brained track that just won’t sit still, with swooshing drums and a whole host of sound effects plus Paul, Linda and a then nine-year-old son James speaking some weird phrases picked out at random from magazines (mostly music ones, plus James getting involved by getting out his storybooks) that are sped up or slowed down to sound like other people. Some of these lines are just grey flannel trousers, to quote a phrase, but some are fascinating: ‘I don’t like sitting down music!’ ‘I hear water going through the pipes!’ ‘Music is Ideas’ ‘Sleazy instruments, half talked half baked ideas’. It’s a cute family moment of the sort the early Wings would do.  Interestingly, this is one of the few songs on the album not written with Eric Stewart – and yet it’s probably the most 10cc-sounding song on the album, thanks to the production values and the slightly off-beat (some would say ‘wacky’) lyrics. In fact the words are confusing, even for this album, but feature some delightful Lennonish wordplay, seemingly included just for the relish of putting words together that shouldn’t normally go, especially those with a particularly interesting sound. Indeed, this song is surely the only time ‘grey flannel trousers’ ‘biodegradable’ and ‘analogue gretsch’ have been included as part of the same song lyric! Now that we’re a few years after the shock of Lennon’s death, this song seems to be Macca again thinking about his old writing partner with fondness rather than as competition, belatedly ‘studying’ the Lennonesque approach of playing with words and speaking gibberish while sounding as if you mean what you’re saying (an old Lennon trick, that). For instance, take the very Lennon-ish idea that seems to lie at the heart of the song: that when somebody opens their mouth to say something, the conversation can go literally anywhere and how liberating the narrator finds this. Yes communication ought to mean something when you have something important to say, but even talking gibberish to his loved ones seems like good fun.  Like Lennon’s similarly fun and funky Dig A Pony (a candidate for the most misunderstood and under-rated Beatles track of all), the track celebrates nonsense rather than trying to argue how seriously nonsense words should be taken. You might not want to hear a whole album’s worth of this stuff, but it’s nice to hear McCartney so involved with his experiments again, adding to his repertoire and adding more strings to his bow and the effects are nicely done, especially the rolling drum pattern and acoustic guitar riff which both sound distinctly other-worldly. The big epic production ought to clash with such a simple (some would say silly) song, but somehow it works: even a track like this is important enough to deserve a big booming drum production, several layers of stinging guitars and a whole choir of backing vocalists with at least three Pauls singing in completely contrasting styles. The tune too is gorgeous, dodging from a staccato rhythm verse to a rounded singalong chorus that’s all melody. Hey I feel fredd enough to do this myself: I am a houseowner. Animal Gretsch. Max The Singing Dog. Catalunia The Third. Clanudsprod. Aloha Nui. A Blazer And Grey Flannel Trousers. No hang on, that last one is still silly.

[198] Footprints is back on familiar territory and is one of ther single most gorgeous overlooked creations in the whole of the McCartney songbook. The song finaly returns to the ‘folky’ sound abandoned somewhere around 1968, with Macca and Eric duetting on acoustic guitars (Macca’s on the left and Eric the right), there is some stunning flamenco playing from Paul in the solo and there’s more of this album’s range of stunning sound effects tinkling in the speakers dancing like snowdrops. It sounds gorgeous – one of Macca’s greatest ever backing tracks – and that’s not even the best part. This time there’s a ‘proper’ song to go with the effects: a lovely return to the scene of Eleanor Rigby, with a lonely widow left on his own looking back over his life and trying to hide his emotions and keep up ‘the face he keeps in the jar by the door’ whenever he’s with other people. He’s struggling to cope on his own and everything seems so strange, like the snow-white blanket that’s covered the outside and has left the wildlife so confused, changing all he used to know and making the unfamiliar seem weird. His footprints now seem like so many ‘paths he didn’t take, moves he didn’t make’ mocking him, especially the fact that he himself was so cold and emotionless that he never told her he never loved her. There he is for the rest of the song, hiding his demeanour between an icy composure long after her death, even though his heart would melt even the ice and snow that surrounds him. Macca ratchets up the heartstrings with the cry that ‘he can’t help feeling that she migbht come back some daaaaaaaay!’, a wail that’s left unanswered.  Although the snow falls to cover up his footprints and the years move on to cover up his memories, this widow cannot forget his past, a sentiment that’s tied up in the song’s cyclical structure which keeps bringing the narrator back again and again to one of Macca’s most yearning choruses, no matter how far he tries to wander away from it. Some of these lyrics are prime McCartney: little touches like the line ‘his friends have flown away’ – we know from inference that this lonely old man only ever cared for nature besides his wife and this simple line about the birds all flying away when winter falls disaster strikes to leave the poor man even more alone is one of the most moving sentences in his canon. The poetic chorus with its mid-line mirror rhymes of ‘Oh I’d like it’ and ‘snow white blanket’ also reveals far more care than critics usually give McCartney’s lyrics. As for the recording, this is what we really mean by the 1960s meeting the 1980s. The complex structure and empathy with elder generations is typical for McCartney circa 1965/66, but the period trappings somehow suit this song to a tee as well, all snow-filled landscapes and chiming wintery percussion sound effects that really suit this bleak little song. Macca also sings it straight. There’s no getting around it: from the next album onward, even the most potentially moving McCartney songs are frequently ruined by a duff vocal track that makes Paul sound as if he’s ‘playing’ at the emotions in his ‘story-telling’ songs and doesn’t believe a word of them by the time he’s standing in front of a microphone singing them. In this song Macca is spot on – for almost the last time – and the seriousness with which this song is played is a big factor in its success, with Paul’s weary sighing vocal adding much to the pathos of the song. One wonders, too, if Paul thought of this song after losing Linda twelve years later. A forgotten classic, right up there with almost anything McCartney ever wrote, this song has been forgotten for far too long, a path that fans didn’t take – and they should.If we’d have appreciated this stuff, we might not have been cursed with ‘Flaming Pie’.

[199] Only Love Remains is at last pure McCartney (and I do mean Pure McCartney, not what that awful compilation tried to pretend) without any of the mega productions of the rest of the album or an attempt to deliver anything different. The melody is so rounded and perfectly formed that the song goes round and round in a circle quite beautifully, like a work of art even without the words. And the words too are pure McCartney: in an ever changing world where everything is confused the only thing that remains stable is love. As so often happens on McCartney’s ‘silly love songs’ the result sounds somewhere between withcraft and magic. It seems amazing to Paul that the whole world is made up of people desperately trying to pair up with suitable soulmates, to ‘find the right boy for the right girl’. Imagining a series of cupids planning our destiny, Paul is shocked at the idea that anybody finds anyone at all and sighs thateven when he gets wrong and wants to walk he can’t – he knows how rare, precious and beautiful love is and how there was only one girl in the world for him. His response to a tiff is to ‘explore the great unknown’ with the person he’s been married to for seventeen years because she’s still full of surprises and he still loves getting to know her. Fittingly Linda joins in on some rare harmonies on this album and it’s a shame she wasn’t here more – this song feels like a sequel to earlier songs from their relationship that were sung as duets like [33] ‘I Am Your Singer’. There’s even the same swell into a second section that goes from being the most humble and grateful sounding song in the universe to making it epic. Not the most original McCartney song maybe, but this sweet and beautiful ballad is sorely neglected (and a surprise flop when released as a single). I wonder too if Paul was inspired to write this song to contradict the awful Lloyd Webber song ‘Love Changes Everything?’

‘Only Love Rermains’ was the romantic side of Paul that we’ve heard quite a lot down the years – but [200] ‘Press’ is a little bit different. This is the sensual side, with Paul craving not just his lover’s mind and soul as per normal but her body too. He’s stuck in company when all he wants to do is to make love to his wife – so he hits on the idea of a ‘secret code’ passed by touch that only the two of them know. There is more production than ever before on this song and normally I’d be complaining, but this simple pop song sounds great given such a big budget. Paul is suffering from a fever of lurrrrve and the clattering 1980s drums are the perfect representation of his inability to sit still. Eric also plays a superb guitar solo, full of fire and passion that finaly gives this song an all too brief release. Again, the lyrics probably wouldn’t win any awards, but the song’s infectious enthusiasm and Macca’s terrific vocal – covering the whole of his range from high Little Richard shriek to dispassionate bass - certainly deserve a nomination and get the song out of trouble. Yes parts are silly (‘That’s it! Right there! Yes!’) but the tune is a fun one (the melody stretching Paul from a Lou Reed growl to a Little Richard style soaring scream in the space of a few lines) and the lyrics have their moments too. ‘You can give me what I want I must confess, my body needs attention my mind is in a mess’ is a classic pop couplet abd Macca even throws out his goody-two-shoes image by claiming that the romance he saw in his youth in shows like ‘Oklahoma’ was never x-rated enough for what he’s experienced: that ‘it was never like this!’ The catchy, tricky melody is actually dead simple when you take all the effects out the way, but at least here McCartney isn’t pretending to make this song something it can’t be and its breezy poppiness makes for a welcome change (especially placed here on the album, between the album’s slowest track and it’s most heavy-going song). One thought though: given that this song is basically an invitation to sex, it makes Paul’s decision to film a music video of it down a London tube a bit creepy! (There’s a great bit when he’s mouthing to an old lady ‘A little bit harder, yeah!’) There are a whole bunch of remixes of this song doing the rounds, some of them even in the digital age on iTunes, and while none are quite as fab as the compact four minute original the six minute 12” mix is the best, adding a longer introduction and much ore drums. Delaying the song by an extra couple of minutes is a dumb move in most cases (it’s why the 12” mixes went out of fashion along with the discoteques they were played in) but thematically this one makes sense, delaying the teasing touch of McCartney’s vocals for that bit longer. Even I baulk at the ‘dub’ mix though, which goes round and round in circles for what seems like an eternity (there’s only so much foreplay one can manage…)

[201] Pretty Little Head is another truly fascinating song that no other millionaire songwriters could possibly be brave enough to try. For months during the album sessions this was a weirdo instrumental based around some creepy synthsiser sounds intended for a B-side before Paul hit on how good this song could be and he added the first verse that came into his head. A tale of panic and worry for a girl innocent lost and adrift in a dangerous world (something made much clearer in the terrific music video which was the biggest loss from ‘The McCartney Collection’ DVD set), it’s a scary world full of things out to get you and fighting gangs that might lead you to get caught up in their battles (‘Ursa Major! Ursas Minor!’ as if the two celestial entities are a microcosm of a battle being fought on Earth). You wouldn’t know it from the lyric sheet, but the video makes it clear that the track is harking back to another Macca classic, ‘She’s Leaving Home’. An impressionable teenager, fed up with the restrictions and routines of family life, flees for a brave new future she plans to live out on her own. Despite the welcoming presence of a 100-foot tall Macca who comes to the runaway’s rescue in the video, the ending of this song as heard on the record sounds more desperate than certain and its never-ending chant accompanied by layers of feedback make for one of the most chilling moments in Macca’s solo canon, relentlessly pushing on with their horror movie scenario.But whereas Macca’s earlier song is sympathetic to both sides and quite romantic in its own sweet way (perhaps because he was closwer in age to the children not the parents), ‘Pretty Little Head’ sets out to destroy that image completely, presenting a murky scary world where monsters hide behind every corner waiting to grab innocents off the streets. Despite the welcoming presence of a 100-foot tall Macca who comes to the runaway’s rescue in the video, the ending of this song as heard on the record sounds more desperate than certain and its never-ending chant accompanied by layers of feedback make for one of the most chilling moments in Macca’s solo canon, relentlessly pushing on with their horror movie scenario.

Nothing on this song takes the easy route: Paul doesn’t sound like Paul (you can barely hear him, even though he’s shouting, multiple times over), the synths are played not to give us chirpy riffs but to create a sonic landscape that’s terrifying and the howling Eric Stewart guitars far from letting off steam onlyadd to the tension. Only at the end does the song finally go where most McCartney songs do: ‘I’m gonna take care of you!’ Paul suddenly explodes near the end (or at least he does in the superior 12” mix, also used for the video), a promise that he usually makes without thinking but here sounds desperate – and wrong, as the song explodes in a fizz of fireworks, panic and mayhem. He’s lost: for pretty much the only time on a McCartney song the darkness wins and he can’t save the one he loves, all set to a hypnotic beat that’s relentless and doesn’t let up for a second. Perhaps the most adventurous and most wildly-off-the-beaten track McCartney song of all (yep, even counting [52] Loup and [117] Morse Moose) this song still sounds nothing short of astonishing today (what must it have sounded like then?!), as out of place in the middle of this album as Revolution Nine is on the White Album. Interestingly, this Macca-Stewart collaboration sounds like nothing either man ever wrote again, although it is as bold as Eric often was when pushed to his best – and Macca too. Perhaps oddly, given the two men’s great melodic strengths, the basic, rhythmic, hypnotic style of these sorts of songs/mood pieces have always suited Macca rather well and suggests a lurking hidden talent we still haven’t quite seen nurtured properly (after the McCartney films, poetry, paintings, animation and children’s books its surely only a matter of time…) In many ways though ‘Pretty Little Head’  is a dance track pure and simple, based around one of the best drum patterns ever created and an early sign of the restless experimentalism that will end upmas ‘The Fireman’ (though never quite as successfully as here). Most Macca records want to give you a warm aural hug but this one sounds like a cold shower and as 1980s a song as someone so intrinsically a part of the 1960s outlook could ever possibly write. For a multi-millionaire with nothing to prove, ‘Pretty Little Head’ is a stunningly brave track that only a great talent like McCartney would even dream of pulling off. What a shame that, these days, these experiments are left for one-off limited edition projects, ones which only the converted fans know about – more songs like this on mainstream projects would do far more for McCartney’s critical standing than all the hit singles in the world.

[202] Move Over Busker is another weird song, one much more like Eric’s work with 10cc and full of their bawdy humour. Alas the mood is arguably too light compared to what this song could have been: other than telling us that the narrator wants to squeeze Nell Gwynn’s oranges and spies Mae West in a sweaty vest, there’s no story line going on here at all as Paul gets jealous and tells everyone around him to get lost (there’s a typical Eric Stewart style pun that instead of ‘move over buster’ this is a star singing to a musician down the subway. I’ve often wondered if ‘Your chance is coming in a little while’ is a reference to how both men’s career had been fading across the 1980s and the song switches back, The Who’s ‘Punk and the Godfather’ style, between the man whose made it and the wannabe who dreams of it on the middle eight. ‘I’ve been waiting’ Macca screams, ‘but I’m impatient!’ To his horror all he sees is his rock heros messing around enjoying their fame instead of getting over it; no wonder he ends the song huffily telling himself off (‘My time has come!’ Paul croons while the backing vocalists call out ‘you got it coming, coming to you!’) The song works because of the contrast between the two sections: the main verses and choruses are self-indulgent and silly, full of jokes and a melody that would be laidback if the drums just gave it a rest a bit. The middle eight though and the snappy opening are full of impatience and restlessness: ‘You’ve got it coming!’ they snap like a gang from ‘West Side Story’. ‘Come on come on!’ My guess is that this song is more Eric’s works than Pauls’: it goes nicely with the sort of things he was writing for last 10cc album ‘Windows In The Jungle’ when he nearly died in a car accident and couldn’t bring himself to write the silly funny jokey songs he was famous for; however his record company wouldn’t let him be entirely ‘straight’ so he made his jokes sardonic, the sound of a man laughing at the world because if he stopped for a second he’d start crying (it’s an album well worth seeking out for fans of this album). Too eccentric for many fans, this is another song that gets bonus points for sheer courage and a nicely epic production makes this song sound much more substantial than it should.

[203] Angry is another curious song from this albu’s second side and for once the overbearing production doesn’t quite get things right. This needs to be a sparse power-trio rocker, especially given that Paul is being backed by two of the greatest players of his generation: a windmilling Pete Townshend bravely returning after the [126] ‘Rockestra’ fiasco and Phil Collins making his only appearance alongside Paul (unless you count a crowd scene in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ as a teenage Beatle fan). They sound great together, so much so that you wish you could hear a lot more of them underneath all that period echo and noise and backing singers, while Townshend’s stinging riff is actually a lot simpler than any he ever played for The Who, one repeated slashed note that finally explodes into a ringing pearl of notes. For someone so associated with peace there aren’t have some nasty songs in the McCartney canon and this is another one: like [111] ‘I’ve Had Enough’and large swathes of ‘Ram’ he’s been patient for too long and has boiled over. ‘What the hell gives you the right to tell me what to do with my life?’ he sneers, perhaps aiming this song at all the critics taking potshots at him. Less a song, more a list of complaints set to a killer riff, it’s a good job the performance is as strong as it is as it makes the song feel less flimsy, especially Macca’s garbled lyric that finally makes good on  the promise of [28] ‘Mumbo’ but with actual words this time. It’s also nice to hear Linda popping up for harmonies on the song’s chorus (she’s gone awol on this albumfor a while now), so presumably she didn’t take these surprisingly uncharitable lyrics that on the surface are about an annoying spouse to heart, noisily tellding her husband to ‘pipe down’ instead! Even if Angry seems like one of the more ordinary songs on the album, it seems to have had a suspiciously long shelf-life. They’d never admit to it of course, but I’ve heard so many rap and dance tracks built on this bass/drum pattern and even the guitar riff over the last ten years that it’s obvious somebody young and trendy (or younger and trendier than me at least) must have liked this album, even if in truth its just the sound of two old ‘custom-made dinosaurs’ (see the lyric for the next track) doing their own impression of new wave. A bit of a waste of two such good friends and one of the weaker tracks on the album, but it’s good to hear Paul so emotional about something at last with the smoke still in his nostrils.

 [204] However Absurd is another 10CC-like special to end the album on, a surreal landscape that many people compared to psychedelia but is really more like Eric’s usual work depicting life as a strange place. Like something off 10cc’s Original Soundtrack album, this song is made up of lots of surreal and seemingly un-connected images set to a gloriously melancholy tune: some of these fascinating lyrics comes off sounding like great nuggets of philosophical insight into life, some like pure gibberish, some a bit of both, with everything thrown into the pot because life is a mystery to us all in the end. The most memorable images include ‘breaking eggs in a dish (just a Linda McCartney cookery lesson? Or some message about the fragility of our existence?), ‘living dreams with mouths ajar’ (a wonderful picture both of somebody literally sleeping and of somebody dazed as they dream of how great their lives could be in the future) ‘everything is under the sun, but nothing is for keeps’ (life and death, right there) and ‘wide awake, we go to sleep’ (what can’t you make out of that picturesque sentence?) However absurd life may seem, though, it’s all we’ve got and we have to make the most of it, confusing messy and surreal as it may be. As shown by these ‘sleeping’ metaphors, this might be a dream-world in this song, full of sub-conscious images that might or might not relate to our real lives, perhaps telling the narrator to admit that a past relationship is over. (However absurd, these images are obviously meant to be the sort of things that somebody could dream about, but despite playing this album non-stop for two decades I’ve never had dreams like this. Then again, most of most of my dreams seem to end up with me buying some rare CD from some obscure record shop I never find again and it must be the most horrible dream going because the music isn’t there when I wake up and it sounded so great in my head too. Typical. Does anybody else out there have that problem?!) Fittingly, Macca’s voice sounds like its been put through a blender, rather like Lennon’s Leslie-speaker effect on ‘I’m Only Sleeping’, giving him an old-man paper-thin quality that adds to this song’s where-did-it-go-wrong? regretful feel (although the lyrics could be happy or sad, at least until the relatively clear middle eight). Ah, that middle eight. As he often does across this album Macca again uses a brief thirty-second burst to tell us what’s really on his mind, interrupting another seemingly ‘nonsense’ song with a message so mournful it makes us look back at the rest of the song to have a see if there are any other ‘hidden messages’ that relate to this idea. This brief section is another one looking at man’s failure to talk to each other and the cost of this lapse to our relationships (the sort of theme Talk More Talk sounded like it was going to discuss before the production work got in the way). We need to talk about our true feelings, says Macca, not the sort of random nonsense we discuss in real life, ‘however absurd they may seem’, because ‘something’s fallen between us’ (In another career-best line Macca, or maybe it’s Eric, tells us: ‘Words couldn’t get my feelings though, and so I keep talking to you’. Hmm, I could write a whole review about that sentence…but I won’t. Not yet, anyway). Like the rest of the album, you’re confused – is this a heartbreaking confession from an ex-Beatle whose not sure where his life is taking him? Or just a list of stream-of-consciousness words written to fill out another glossy song? Perhaps, ultimately, it doesn’t matter – this is another example of McCartney at his most adventurous, diving right back into his poetical box of tricks for another song designed to stretch his palette just that little bit further and it’s another monster of a song, building up a head of steam to the point where this song is exploding by the end. Alas, though, on perhaps the production’s one poor trick it doesn’t end fully but fades, violently, leaving some woodwind fluttering in mid-air.

So ends the most remarkable album of Paul’s career – a drescription usually held back for ‘Band On The Run’ (which by contrast just does what Paul always does, only with confidence and in bite-sixe chunks with a decent engineer). McCartney threw everything at this album to get a hit, including working with an experienced hitmaker in both the writing and production areas and he certainly came up with his most contemporary sounding record full of period technology. However unlike most mid 1980s records (‘Pipes of Peace’ very much included) there is substance to go with the surface sound and rather than standing still Paul pushes himself like never before, coming up with nine songs that would have been impossible to include on any previous album and yet nestle nicely on this one, together with ‘Only Love Remains’ which may well be the single most Mccartneyesque song in his catalogue. It’s a sound that left many of his fans scratching their heads and even more refusing to buy this album at all, full of oblique words and an overblown production coated in more sound effects than a Pink Floyd record. But Paul sounds good like this: his occasionally hollow ideas got filled in by his co-writer,  his occasionally hollow productions got filled in by his producer and Paul was temporarily freed of the need to keep doing what he always did. It sounds like a bargain to me. All you have to do to find out if you agree is press to play – although that said, you do have the hard task of finding the flipping thing first, with ‘Press’ by far the most obscure of all the mainstream rock and roll studio albums of original material Paul ever made. That, dear readers, is a tragedy. The failure of this album meant that Paul stopped trying and stretching himself and we’ve never had an album anywhere near close to this good from him again since.

'Wings At The Speed Of Sound' (1976)

'London Town' (1978)

'Back To The Egg' (1979)

'McCartney II' (Original Double Album) (1980)

'Tug Of War' (1982)

'Pipes Of Peace' (1983)

'Press To Play' (1986)

'Flowers In The Dirt' (1989)

'Driving Rain' (2001)
'Chaos and Creation In The Back Yard' (2005)

'Memory Almost Full' (2006)

'New' (2013)

The Best Unreleased McCartney/Wings Recordings

Surviving TV and Film Footage

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part One: 1967-1987

Live/Wings/Solo/Compilations/Classical/Unreleased Albums Part Two: 1987-1997

Live/Wings Solo/Compilations/Classical Albums Part Three: 1997-2015

Non-Album Recordings Part One 1970-1984

Non-Album Recordings Part Two 1985-2015

Essay: Not So Silly Love Songs

Key Concerts and Cover Versions


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