The Story and Meaning Behind “Only Love Remains” by Paul McCartney, an Unforgettable Song from a Forgettable Album

Even on an album that largely got away from him, Paul McCartney was able to pull it together and deliver a ballad that can make even the coldest hearts swoon. The album was Press to Play, released in 1986, and the song in question is “Only Love Remains,” a forgotten wonder from one of rock’s greats.

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What is the song about? How did McCartney pull it together in the studio? And how did the song separate itself from the other material on that star-crossed album? Here is the story and meaning behind “Only Love Remains.”

Pressured “Press”

Just about every top musician of note, especially those who have been around as long as Paul McCartney, has had it happen to them: The album that just doesn’t work. If you asked McCartney fans which one of his records fit that category, more than a few would likely point to Press to Play (and we’re guessing that Sir Paul might agree).

The idea wasn’t a bad one. Sensing that his sound had become a bit stagnant after working on several albums in a row with former Beatles producer George Martin, McCartney looked to modernize. To that end, he hired Hugh Padgham, one of the top producers of the day based on his work with Genesis, The Police, and many others.

But the collaboration didn’t work. Press to Play sounds dated in a way that hardly any other McCartney release does. In Padgham’s defense, McCartney seemed to shy away from his usual melodic approach in an effort to stay out of the way of the clattering rhythms, and that left the songs sounding sterile. But one song that avoided that problem was the sweeping ballad “Only Love Remains.”

“Remains” Wins the Day

In an interview given to Sound on Sound magazine around the time Press to Play was released (as reported by Beatles Bible), McCartney sounded almost apologetic about including “Only Love Remains” on the record:

“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!”

Whereas other songs on the album meander about for a while before getting to the meat of the song, “Only Love Remains” doesn’t waste any time getting to the lovely melody. And, to accentuate that melody, McCartney included an orchestra. Tony Visconti, known for his work as David Bowie’s prime producer in the ‘70s, wrote the stirring but still unobtrusive score.

What is the Meaning of “Only Love Remains”?

“Only Love Remains” posits the theory that all else falls away in the end, but a special relationship is the one thing that sticks. McCartney brings us into the song on a somewhat downcast hypothetical: And if you take your love away from me. But then he disarms us with some humor. I’ll probably pretend I didn’t see, he sings, as if he can just ignore her leaving and it won’t happen.

Even in the second verse, the narrator is still pulled toward thoughts of heartbreak: If your love was to trickle through my fingers / What would it leave me with? But his answer suggests that even an abandoned love will persist: Only love remains. In the final moments of the song, McCartney leaves behind all the doubts and concentrates on enjoying his union: Together we’ll explore the great unknown / I’d say we won’t be going out tonight.

Linda McCartney was among the backing vocalists on the track, so it’s likely Paul just needed to look over to the vocal booth for inspiration. “Only Love Remains” is a gorgeous ballad, one that stands out even more considering its place on a rare Macca misfire of an album.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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