Press To Play
Whether you like his music or not, nobody can knock Paul McCartney's achievements as the world's most successful songwriter. In a rare interview he talks to Patrick Humphries about the music, recordings and personalities that combined to produce his first solo album for three years - 'Press To Play'.
A new Paul McCartney album is always a special event. But 'Press To Play' is a particularly exciting departure in many ways: it is Paul's first album of original material since 'Pipes Of Peace' three years ago. It is the first album to be recorded at his own studio too, which was built to Paul's exacting specifications. 'Press To Play' also marks the first time Paul has collaborated with producer Hugh Padgham, the man who has worked extensively with The Police, Genesis and Phil Collins. Another first for 'Press To Play' is that Paul has co-written six of the album's ten songs with Eric Stewart, formerly of 10cc.
Paul McCartney is already the world's most successful songwriter, with a list of classic songs to his name which are known and sung the world over. The songs on this latest album are sure to be added to the already awesome list of McCartney classics - from the exuberant 'Move Over Busker' to the wistful 'Footprints'; from the epic 'However Absurd' to the beautiful ballad 'Only Love Remains'.
Press To Play has something for everyone who loves Paul McCartney's music; and a few surprises! The elegant cover photo of Paul and Linda was taken by George Hurrell, a classic portraiture from The Golden Age of Hollywood, when he was one of the film capital's top photographers, capturing such legends as Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich on film.
The album sleeve also boasts a number of familiar names such as Pete Townshend and Phil Collins, as well as top 'behind the scenes men' such as Carlos Alomar and Jerry Marotta, whose skilled craftsmanship has previously contributed to record successes for such stars as David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Tears For Fears.
People will obviously be interested to learn how you chose the musicians to work with on Press To Play...
"Well, I knew I had Eric Stewart, who would play guitar, but Hugh (Padgham) was a great help on that score. He mentioned drummer Jerry Marotta, he mentioned Phil Collins as well, but I didn't want to get Phil too heavily involved because of the risk of people saying 'Oh you're just going for flavour of the month', and I really wanted a drummer to do the whole album not just one or two tracks. I knew Jerry's work from Peter Gabriel and Tears For Fears records, and Hugh recommended him as a good thwacker of a skin!
Carlos Alomar came in when we realised that there were certain types of guitar we wanted on some tracks that neither Eric nor myself could play. I actually played the guitar solo on 'Press' (the first single released from the album) and guitar on 'Pretty Little Head'. I play quite a bit of guitar, which is one of my departures on this album. Carlos played arpeggio guitar on 'Press', which really pulled the track together. He did a great solo on 'Good Times Coming' too...
I'd kept in touch with Pete (Townshend) after 'Rockestra' and Live Aid. Pete's actually only on 'Angry'. There's a chord riff I'd written a long time ago for something else, and every time I played it I felt like Pete Townshend! There was plenty of those windmill arms when I played it, and I always imagined him doing it. It actually only took two hours to get that track down on tape, which is incredibly quick these days - in the old days we'd have done an album by then!"
One element which makes Press To Play notable is that it is the first album to be recorded at Paul's own newly-built studio. What was that like?
"It gave me a lot more freedom. I could just go into the studio and make up tracks on the spot if I wanted. Some of the tracks are completely live - with real people! But the bass on 'Press', for example, that's a sequencer playing it. I messed around with stuff like that on the McCartney II album, but I never did it for real. It came more from a desire to familiarise myself with some of the newer recording techniques - using noise gates, synthesizers, sequencers, interfaces... Once you understand it, it's not difficult at all; it's like someone talking about a carburettor when there were blacksmiths. These days in the studio you can go up to 96 tracks, but frankly it gets cumbersome after 48 tracks, plus, how much sound can you actually get on a little groove...?
There's all these computers now as well, which means you can understand these things. But having a new studio, I didn't want to get a 'new' old-fashioned studio. 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!' But what you have to bear in mind is a story I heard off one engineer, about a group who had limitless recording time at this very expensive London studio - and they spent the first two days learning how to turn on the instruments and equipment! Two days looking at the manual learning how to turn the bloody things on! "
Of particular interest to Paul's many fans will undoubtedly be his new songwriting partnership with Eric Stewart, the man responsible for 10cc's biggest hits including 'I'm Not In Love' and 'Dreadlock Holiday'. How did the songwriting partnership come about?
"I'd known Eric socially back in the sixties when he was in The Mindbenders" remembered Paul. "He, Linda and I started doing harmonies on 'Tug Of War' and 'Pipes Of Peace'... It started very casually with Eric, I just said 'Fancy coming round one day to try out some stuff?' We started off with 'Stranglehold', putting rhythmic words in, using lyrics like a bongo, accenting the words. We both enjoyed the experience, then went on together to write the six songs that are featured on the album...
I remembered the old way I'd written songs with John, the two acoustic guitars facing each other, like a mirror, but better! 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."
Was there still a certain joy to the craft of songwriting, even with so many classic songs to your name?
"I'm not a great one for looking back, it's what I've done now that interests me. To be honest, I still don't know how many songs I've written. I heard the other day that there were over 3,000 cover versions of 'Yesterday', which is quite interesting...
When I write a song it's as if I hadn't written it - I don't know where they come from. 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."
On then to the songs which constitute Press To Play, with Paul's track by track comments:
ANGRY: "That's me being pretty straightforward, although there is a crazy synth thing on there. The backing track is me, Phil Collins and Pete Townshend, which is a nice little rhythm section! That took maybe two hours to record, while the actual take was around 20 minutes long. They're just so good those guys - you just tell Phil 'It's a fast one, and it stops here!'...
What makes me angry are things like Thatcher's attitude to the blacks in South Africa, and Reagan calling it South America. People who burn children with cigarettes. That sort of thing makes me angry - not bad reviews of my albums."
TALK MORE TALK: "The basic track was done in a day. Lyrically it was picking out quotes that I liked from, I think, a Tom Waits interview. 'I don't actually like sitting down music', great things like that, random cut-outs. 'A master can highlight the phrases his words to digress'. I liked the surrealism of that line. I like 'art' films, Bunuel, Bergman, 'The Seventh Seal'. I could never make out what the hell they were about, but there was something attractive about the abstractness of them. So I've gone that way on 'Talk More Talk' and 'However Absurd', which are the two main surrealist lyrics."
HOWEVER ABSURD: "It did suggest the epic finale - which is why it's at the end of the album! For me, it was another thing you start off and think 'Ooh no, that's too Beatley, so I won't do it'. So I resisted it for a while, but I kept coming back to 'Why? Tell me one good reason why you're resisting this Beatles influence?' Cos if anyone's got a right to do it, there's three guys alive who've got the right to do it. I've got past the point of comparisons with The Beatles, or being accused of being a 'Beatle Stylist', but I mean, I was involved in all that stuff very heavily, and realising it was a good system then, why ignore it now?
There's a sort of 'Walrus' intro to this track, but of course any time you play that style on piano it evokes that. It's a style I know and love. The lyrics on this song are a bit bizarre, but then again they make a kind of sense, a strange kind of sense. But then I find that things in life don't always make sense, they're not always conveniently wrapped up with a little sticker that says 'This is very sensible!' Sometimes they are completely absurd, which is what the song is about. In the middle section it explains itself a bit, less surrealist: 'Something special between us... Words wouldn't get my feelings through... However absurd it may seem.' That's taking off into 'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran - there's a line of his that always used to attract me and John, which was 'Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you'. So it's that kind of meaning to 'However Absurd'."
MOVE OVER BUSKER: "That's got a good American rock 'n' roll feel to it. I think originally it was called 'Move Over Buster', which Eric and I thought was a bit ordinary. So we just kicked it about a little bit and it came out 'busker', then that gave us more possibilities about wandering round and meeting people...
There's a bit of harmless sexism in the lyrics - that strong British tradition, you know, of seaside postcards. Nell Gwynne, well you know the archetypal image of her, with her oranges and all! Then there's Mae West 'in her sweaty vest' - that's an old Beatle joke 'and here's Miranda in her little sweaty vest'; just one of those insanities. Then we get Errol Flynn, looking out of his motor home, another one who was supposedly renowned for his sexual prowess."
PRETTY LITTLE HEAD: "That was done very quickly, without thinking too much about it. I had a new studio, a new producer, a new songwriting partner, so I wanted to try something different. We'd push it a bit further just to see what would happen. That was an old philosophy of The Beatles - particularly on things like 'Sergeant Pepper' - you'd just start off with a backwards track, something zany, then you'd make up something from what it suggested. It's quite a nice way of working - a bit like abstract art...
For a long while 'Pretty Little Head' was an instrumental. I drummed on it, Jerry Marotta played vibes, and Eric Stewart played keyboards, so we all switched roles to send us off in a different direction. Eventually you pull it back and make some sort of sense of it.
Again, the lyrics on this one are pretty exotic. I see it as a tribe who live in the hills who descend from their caves once every blue moon to bring silks and precious stones, so that their princess doesn't have to worry her pretty little head. What's kinda nice is that it can also be an ordinary family, and the pretty little head is the kid. The father protecting his family so that you won't have to worry your pretty little head."
ONLY LOVE REMAINS: "People ask if I feel an album's incomplete without a ballad, and I do think that a little bit. I know there are people who like them who will inevitably gravitate towards that particular track... People who've heard the album say 'That's the McCartney I like'. So I sorta put it on for them, and for myself, because I'm pretty romantic by nature. It's not so much the feeling 'Now we must do the compulsory ballad', it's more that I can write them, and I like them. I like the quiet moment, and this song is that reflective moment - and it comes at the end of Side One, so if you're not in that mood, you can always take it off!"
GOOD TIMES COMING / FEEL THE SUN: "There's a nostalgic air about hot summers that have gone. It's a pretty strong feeling, even for people who are only 17, they can remember a summer when they were 10. In Britain you tend not to get too much of that stuff anyway, so you tend to remember 'em.
To me the song is three summers: one when I was a kid going to Butlins in my short trousers, feeling embarrassed cos I wanted long trousers. That was a good one, sort of donkeys on the beach summer.
Then the second verse is a bit more grown up, when I imagine you're working, so I associate that lyric with The Beatles - 'It was a silly season, was it the best? We didn't need a reason, just a rest!' That's one of my favourite lines on the album. It reminded me of The Beatles because of some photos taken by Dezo Hoffman, great shots of us in old-fashioned Victorian bathing gear, John doing the Charleston - classic stuff.
Then the third verse is kinda ominous, talking about a great summer before the war; that takes the good-time edge off it. I remember I heard there were a couple of really cracking summers in 1936 and 1937, or whenever, but Hitler was just round the corner. I always imagined people playing a great game of cricket, in their whites, everything as it should be: gentle applause, tea... and then the next year they're all gonna be off at war. That's the twist in the tail of that song."
FOOTPRINTS "From summer to winter. The song was written on a snowy day. It came from an image of a magpie looking for food out in the snow. Eric and I changed the magpie to an old man, although the magpie came back for the third verse. The old man is out there looking for Yule logs or something, like the character in Good King Wenceslas. He's lonely. Does he live on his own? What do we know about him? The song goes into what his story might have been, the heartaches there might have been, the girl he might have left behind, the paths he didn't take, the moves he didn't make, etcetera."
PRESS: "'Oklahoma was never like this'. That can mean whatever you want it to mean. To me, when you're writing songs, you often get a line you assume you're going to edit later, you're going to knock it out and put something sensible in. But every time I came to that line, I couldn't sing anything else - just the scanning, the way it sang. People would have understood it if it was 'Liverpool was never like this', but it wouldn't have sung the same. It's a symbol for the provinces, the sticks, the out of the way places. The line just wouldn't change, and when you meet such resistance from the lyrics themselves, you have to give in."
In concluding the interview, I asked Paul if there are any plans for him to tour or promote the album...
"I do things step by step, there's a lot of work involved in getting an album out, checking the cover and stuff. After it's finally out, yes I am looking at getting a band together, but the difficult thing is the chemistry. A supergroup suffers from that. I prefer to go the other way and use unknown musicians. To put a group together as good as the one at the Prince's Trust concert would be great mind you!"
Finally, is it possible that Paul McCartney MBE has any ambitions left?
"My ambition is to edit down the millions of ideas I get and channel them into what I want to do."
To neatly wrap the whole package up are Paul's own 'stereo drawings', doodles he drew while mixing of the new album was taking place, featured on the album's sleeve so that you the listener could fully appreciate the sounds you are hearing.
All that's left to do now is to Press To Play.
Interview by Patrick Humphries
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