On release, Press to Play received a mixed critical reception and it was McCartney's poorest selling studio album up to that point. Although it failed to make the top 20 in America, the album peaked at number 8 on the UK Albums Chart and achieved gold status from the BPI in September 1986. Four singles were issued from Press to Play: "Press", "Pretty Little Head", "Stranglehold" and "Only Love Remains". "Press" was a minor success, peaking at number 21 in the US. The music video for the song featured McCartney walking around Piccadilly Circus tube station in London, catching a tube train and speaking with members of the general public.
After the box office flop of the musical film Give My Regards to Broad Street, McCartney decided that it was time for a change of pace in his solo career. In an attempt to give his music a more contemporary sound, he joined forces with Hugh Padgham, an in-demand, multiple award-winning producer famed for having recorded Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Genesis, The Human League, The Police, and XTC. Beginning in March 1985, McCartney began recording Press to Play, having written several new songs, many with current collaborator, 10cc guitarist Eric Stewart who co-wrote six of the album's ten songs, McCartney claimed that "When we started working on the record, Hugh came in one day and said he'd had a dream," McCartney recalled when he visited New York City in 1986. "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". Guesting on the album would be The Who's lead guitarist, Pete Townshend, Genesis' drummer and lead vocalist Phil Collins, Split Enz's keyboard maestro Eddie Rayner and Eric Stewart himself. Carlos Alomar also overdubbed electric guitar on several tracks, including "Press", "Good Times Coming/Feel the Sun", "It's Not True", "Tough on a Tightrope", "Write Away" and "Move Over Busker", according to his recollections included in the book Paul McCartney: Recording Sessions (1969–2013).
The album would not be finished until the end of the year, by which time only one song would see release from its sessions – the title track to the film Spies Like Us, joined by Phil Ramone in the producer's chair. "Spies Like Us", a non-album single backed by Wings' 1975 recording "My Carnival", proved to be a US top 10 hit, setting the stage for Press to Play.
The album's cover features Paul McCartney and his then-wife, Linda McCartney. The album cover's photograph was taken by George Hurrell, using the same box camera that he used in Hollywood in the 1930s and the 1940s. Hurrell was renowned for his photographs of movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s like Clark Gable and Greta Garbo, to which the album's cover was meant to pay homage.
"Press", a slick up-tempo pop song, was released in July 1986 and went on to become the album's sole top 30 hit. Press to Play itself appeared on 25 August in the United States and 1 September in the United Kingdom. It received lukewarm reviews and proved to be McCartney's weakest-selling studio album up to that point.
Peaking at number 8 in the UK, its chart life was brief, while in the US, Press to Play failed to go gold, peaking at number 30 and selling only 250,000 copies. The follow-up singles, "Pretty Little Head" and "Only Love Remains", performed poorly on the charts. As a result of this disappointing commercial reception, author Howard Sounes writes, McCartney appointed a former Polydor Records executive, Richard Ogden, as his manager, "to help revive his career".
In 1993, Press to Play was remastered and reissued on the CD as part of The Paul McCartney Collection series with his 1985 hit "Spies Like Us" and an alternate mix of impending 1987 UK success "Once Upon a Long Ago" as bonus tracks. In this edition "Press" (4:25) was replaced by the 4:43 remixed version.
AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine admired the track "Press", but gave the album a star rating of 2.5 out of 5, saying: "McCartney is dabbling in each of his strengths, just to see what works. It doesn't wind up as one of his stronger albums, but it's more interesting than some of his more consistent ones, and those aforementioned cuts demonstrate that he could still cut effective pop records when he put his mind to it."
In a review for the Chicago Tribune, critic Lynn Van Matre wrote of the album: "No doubt about it, this is McCartney's most rocking album in ages. Much of it's catchy, most of it's fun, and it's superior to McCartney's efforts of recent years." In the Los Angeles Times, Terry Atkinson praised "Press" as "a sprightly, sunny delight – one of the most playful, positive pop songs ever written about the joy of sex and its link with love", but opined that overall "the album finds McCartney as lost as usual and Stewart of little help". Atkinson concluded: "'Press to Play,' though it shows some signs of recovery, is basically just another in a long line (over 12 years!) of post-'Band on the Run' letdowns by a once almost unimaginably creative artist."
More recently, Kit O'Toole of Blogcritics has contended that much of the album belongs among McCartney's "most ambitious work" and that the adventurousness of the project is unfairly overlooked. O'Toole adds: "Press to Play, along with McCartney II, arguably laid the foundation for his future musical experiments under the name The Fireman (particularly the first two albums, Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest and Rushes)."
Hugh Padgham – mixer except "Press" mixed by Bert Bevans and Steve Forward; and "It's Not True" mixed by Julian Mendelsohn. (And on CD reissue, "Once Upon a Long Ago", mixed by former Beatles producer George Martin.)