Diving deep into the massive box set celebrating the best Paul McCartney album of the last 25 years
When Paul McCartney was told by his record label in the mid-’90s that there was no need for him to turn in a new album just then, he admitted he was irritated.
But it was only because he would’ve been competing with himself. EMI was gearing up for The Beatles Anthology releases, and putting out too much Beatle-related product at the same time wouldn’t help anybody commercially.
So McCartney didn’t rush to complete Flaming Pie, recording most of it in 1995 and 1996. It’s a thoughtful and reflective work, perhaps due in part to his revisiting his Beatles past for the Anthology project. Recording was also interrupted when McCartney’s wife, Linda, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surgery and chemotherapy seemed to have caught it in time, but this brush with mortality also lent a gravitas to the sessions. It all resulted in McCartney’s best album since Tug of War (1982).
Originally released in May 1997, Flaming Pie has now been given the “Paul McCartney Archive” treatment, reissued in two LP, three LP, and two CD formats as well as two different box sets, a Deluxe Edition ($256) and a Collector’s Edition ($600). And they’re really gone all out on the latter edition. Consider that the comparable edition of Wild Life/Red Rose Speedway (2018) was packed in an 11 ¼” x 13 ¼” x 5” box weighing less than 10 pounds. The ultimate Flaming Pie experience comes in a 17” x 21” x 3 ½” box that’s closer to 20 pounds. The booty includes art prints of Linda McCartney’s photos and a vinyl edition of the album, including a one-sided disc of “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” which Paul recorded with Allen Ginsberg.
VIDEO: Allen Ginsberg and Paul McCartney perform “The Ballad of the Skeletons”
The Deluxe/Collector’s editions also give you the most bonus tracks — 33 tracks — which really enables you to step inside the creation of the album; the accompanying that details the recording of the album is also excellent. But you won’t fare too badly with the 2 CD set, which offers 21 bonus tracks.
There are home demos for 11 of the album’s 14 songs, and it’s a fascinating experience to listen to them as a complete work of its own, an “unplugged” of sorts that achieves a greater sense of intimacy than the more streamlined television showcase of the same name did. “The Song We Were Singing” is McCartney’s reminiscence of that late teens/early twenties period when you stay up all night talking about the meaning of life with your friends, and the home demo has him carefully feeling his way through the song, singing verses he’d rewrite extensively for the buoyant final version. And “The World Tonight” seems to reference frenzy of the Beatlemania era, when “Everybody, everybody wanted something from you.” The home demo has a quiet calm, far different from the tougher final version, which is taut and edgy, the only real rocker on what’s essentially an inward-looking, contemplative album.
The title track references the Beatles’ own origin story, as “Translated from John Lennon,” who wrote a fanciful tale for Liverpool music publication Mersey Beat that a man on a flaming pie had appeared to the group and said “From this day on, you are Beatles with an ‘A.’” The song is a fun bit of wordplay, though you wonder why McCartney felt it necessary to encroach on a piece so strongly associated with his songwriting partner. McCartney’s authorized biography, Many Years From Now, published the same year Flaming Pie was released, exhibits a similar insecurity, revealing a man who, in spite of decades of worldwide acclaim, still feels vulnerable underneath.
VIDEO: Paul McCartney “Calico Skies”
That vulnerability is also on display in two of the album’s most touching love songs. “Calico Skies” is sweet and heartfelt, McCartney keeping his voice in an upper register, heightening the emotion as he sings “I’ll hold you for as long as you like/I’ll hold you for the rest of my life.” It’s a number reminiscent of the acoustic songs on The Beatles (aka The White Album). “Somedays” has a more melancholy tone, sung from the perspective of someone with the experience of life’s highs and lows, when the love for one’s partner has matured into a lasting bond, but the mysteries of one’s existence still remain. “Some days I don’t, I don’t remember why I’m here,” McCartney observes of his inner life, a man still searching for answers.
There are songs that also directly reference his own life; no made-up characters here, as in a song like “Mistress and Maid” (co-written with Elvis Costello) from the previous album, Off The Ground. You can’t help but think about McCartney’s own son James when listening to the mid-tempo “Young Boy,” sung from the perspective of an older person looking wistfully at someone just finding their way in the world, hoping they can avoid making the same kind of mistakes you did. “Little Willow” was written in tribute to Ringo Starr’s ex-wife, Maureen, who died of cancer in 1994. “I wanted to somehow convey how much I thought of her,” McCartney said in the album’s liner notes of this sad song of solace.
It’s not all serious. McCartney tapped Steve Miller to record with him during the sessions, and, after providing some tasty guitar on “Young Boy,” Miller urged McCartney to get in touch with his inner bluesman. The ensuing jam resulted in the laidback “Used to Be Bad,” a title which you know will lead to the follow up lyric, “But I don’t have to be bad no more,” an amusing declaration from two gentlemen who, compared to others in the rock ‘n’ roll arena, have never been that bad. “Really Love You” came out of another jam, this time with Ringo Starr and Jeff Lynne (who co-produced and played on a number of Flaming Pie’s tracks). A bit harder edged than the rest of the album, though with sillier lyrics, it’s the weakest track on the record, though it’s still allowed to run on for over five minutes. It’s obvious the guys are having fun, but it would’ve worked better as a B-side.
“If You Wanna” has the brisk energy you need in a song tailormade for drive time (references to Cadillacs and the coast abound). McCartney takes a soulful turn in “Souvenir,” and here, it’s the home recording that’s more affecting; it’s a rougher performance, and all the more moving for that, in contrast to the smooth sheen of the final version. “Heaven on a Sunday” has McCartney trading guitar licks with his son James, perfectly conjuring up the feeling of a long, lazy weekend.
McCartney brings the album to a conclusion by contrasting an indulgence in extravagance with the purity of simplicity. “Beautiful Night” was a song he’d been working on since 1986, dissatisfied with previously recorded versions, and the set’s 1995 demo demonstrates how it could’ve easily become a straight piano ballad. By the time of its final studio recording, it’s blossomed into a number featuring an orchestra and a rollicking extended fadeout. But then he coasts in for a gentle landing with “Great Day,” a simple number he and his wife would sing to entertain their kids. It’s an excellent final touch for an album that revolves around the themes of love and family.
It’s often the albums McCartney’s recorded without a band — whether that’s Wings, his Flowers in the Dirt/Off The Ground crew, or his current touring band — that are the strongest. Think of Ram, Band on the Run, Tug of War, and Flaming Pie. Aside from guests like Ringo Starr, Steve Miller, and Jeff Lynne (and the occasional orchestra), McCartney played most of the instruments himself, meaning there was no intermediary to get in the way of his creative vision. Flaming Pie is pure, undiluted McCartney, an album by a man who’s reached middle age, but has not let life’s ups and downs leave him too jaded. There’s a touch of melancholy to some of the album, but there’s also joy, and the prospect of another great day dawning, a day that will surely be worth living.