Eric Stewart had dreams of being a Beatle. He watched their 1962 audition with gasped awe as his bandmates preferred The Shadows hand gestures and mimicking, aped their harmonies within The Mindbenders and 10cc, before delighting himself with the knowledge that Paul and Mike McCartney had chosen his studio to record the cabalistic McGear. Wounded by a near fatal car crash, McCartney’s chirpy voice woke Stewart from the other end of a hospital induced sleep, Stewart in turn dedicated his falsetto voice to the gigantic Tug of War album. Playing with the Beatle rhythm section during So Bad, Stewart could fancy himself a Harrison before Linda McCartney offered him the chance to play a Lennon with the chance to write with Paul McCartney. An ideal choice, Stewart’s past songs included dream like elegies ‘I’m Not In Love’, ‘I’m Mandy’, ‘Fly M’e and ‘Feel The Benefit’, idiosyncratic ballads which suggested McCartney’s newest record would remind listeners of his sixties haven.
Conversely, McCartney’s interests lay with producer Hugh Padgham, a technical savant who’d transformed Phil Collins bluesy ‘In The Air Tonight’ into the spooky drum heavy anthem beloved by millions. Amassing work with XTC, Split Enz and The Human League, Padgham’s CV boasted a penchant for the decade’s worthiness, yet Genesis’ Abacab and David Bowie’s Tonight did little to show this magic could be poured on the giants of the seventies. Stewart wasn’t enamoured with the newer sound, particularly afflicted on the songs he co-birthed. “God knows what happened,” Stewart sighed in 2017 before adding: “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”. Padgham, however, felt the fault was in the work itself. “I don’t think he was in an era of writing good songs,” Padgham admitted to Q magazine. Dutied as he was to critique the material, the former Wings frontman asked the 28-year-old engineer when he’d last written a number one. Faced with the lyricist behind ‘Eleanor Rigby’, ‘Junk’ and ‘Mull of Kintyre’, Padgham kept future criticisms to himself.
While they differed on the failings of the album, neither Stewart nor Padgham came to remember the album with fondness, one for the production, the other for the material—and yet both views are valid. Unlike the more habitual Tug of War and Give My Regards To Broadstreet, Press to Play is steeped from head to toe in eighties trickery, making it an uncomfortable listen to quibblers of the era. And there’s the case of the lyrics, light as they often are in subject and substance, the thoughtful ‘Tough On A Tightrope’ foolishly discarded as a B-side for the more immediate guitar oriented ‘Good Times Coming’. For all his criticisms, it is Stewart who comes across best on the record. When writing with the 10cc frontman, McCartney’s work veers from the exquisitely cerebral (‘Footprints’, ‘Pretty Little Head’) to the rip-rapaciously exciting (‘Move Over Busker’ is one of McCartney’s most inspired post seventies rockers). Writing alone, McCartney’s efforts veer from the unmemorable (‘Press’, ‘Only Love Remains’) to the unenjoyable (‘Talk More Talk’, ‘Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun’). As with all of his songs dating back to The Beatles, McCartney’s most astonishing works needed a critical eye from a fellow songwriter to perfect his craft from the masterful to the magical.
Horrified with the mechanised sound of the record, the joys of writing with a Beatle never left Stewart’s memory. “I went to his place telling him how beautiful it was walking through three feet of snow with the sun shining,” Stewart admitted to Culture Sonar. “He started singing ‘it’s beautiful outside’ which became ‘Footprints’. An amazing experience for me!” The experience of writing with McCartney left Stewart with the jaunty Yvonne’s ‘The One’ and the sombre ‘Code of Silence’, two pleasant standouts on 10cc’s disappointing ‘Mirror Mirror’.
Yet, little in hindsight could change popular opinion from writing Press to Play off as McCartney’s most disappointing of the eighties. It’s certainly his most dated, tinny as it reverberates from the speakers, McCartney forgetting to belt out instead of smoothing out the rougher vocals on the frantic ‘Angry’. Gifted though he was with Phil Collins drumming behind him and Pete Townshend slashing ahead of him, ‘Angry’ sounded tepid, tired, tampered, the furious panoply of parasitical paparazzi actions of its words nowhere to be heard in its music. Guilty as it was with many McCartney records, the bare bones of activated demoes lost in a sea of overproduced camaraderie. One producer who refused this bate was Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s sounds person who insisted that McCartney record his work free from bandmates. Though arduous the conditions, ‘Chaos’ and ‘Creation In The Backyard’ remains McCartney’s most startling work of the millennium.
And yet Press To Play ends with a startling moment of shimmered inspiration. Guided by Stewart’s reverence for sixties psychedelia, ‘However Absurd’ ended the album with one of McCartney’s more tasteful requiems. That it opened with a cascading chord ringing with psychical panache, McCartney painted a world where twitching dogs, sparked lovers, broken eggs and custom-made dinosaurs entered the common lexis with astonishing inventiveness. Mixing the mellow violins with the propulsive guitar riffs, the song ended with McCartney’s freshest slice of psychedelia in a decade. In one song, McCartney and Stewart harnessed the most fabulous of the Fabs, three years before the spectacled Elvis Costello mantled the title as Lennon reincarnate. And there it was on an album of gated drums, corybantic tapes and libidinous saxophones, a ballad to match The Beatles in their Magical Mystery guise. Stewart, if disappointed in the record, could take comfort that it was he, not Costello, who pointed McCartney back to pop greatness.