Monday, 24 April 2017
Paul McCartney "Flaming Pie" (1997)
The Songs We Were Singing/The World Tonight/If You Wanna/ Somedays/Young Boy/Calico Skies/Flaming Pie/Heaven On A Sunday/Used To Be Bad/Souvenir/Little Willow/Really Love You/Beautiful Night/Great Day
'I go back so far I'm in front of me' or 'It always came back to the songs we were singing, at any particular time'
John and Paul had finally patched things up during the five years before Lennon's death and when the occasion deserved it the former partners had been glowing about each other's work. Macca's last single before Lennon's untimely death was 'Coming Up', a record John loved. Quite right too: adventurous and cutting edge, while still retaining hallmarks of Paul's sheer musicality, John recognised it as proof that his partner's musical curiosity was still beating strongly and thought that at last his sparring partner had given him something worth getting out of bed and worth putting baby and bread down for. I'd love to have known what Lennon might have made of McCartney's music after that point (and after their public falling out had coloured his feelings about Wings). Chances are 'Tug Of War' wouldn't have worked as well without Lennon's death to give it its haunted, unsure quality, while Lennon might have been tickled about his partner working with contemporary stars on 'Pipes Of Peace' while dismissive of the songs he used (John worked with Bowie and Elton - Paul worked with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder). I like to think that Lennon would have been one of us few lone voices praising 'Press To Play' to the hilt for its sheer daring and risk-taking, two things very much in keeping with the Lennon tradition, while John might well have been collaborating with Paul himself by 'Flowers In The Dirt' time, fulfilling the 'Lennon' role that Elvis Costello did on that album (while being rude about the very 1980s production, though to be fair 'Double Fantasy' doesn't exactly win 'production of the decade' award either). Would Lennon have been pushing for the Anthology project or refusing to take part? It's hard to tell - like George he may well have been sceptical but needed the money (he had to keep Yoko in cats and fur coats after all!) or may well have loved the idea of rummaging around in his boxes back home for titbits to show the others as per Paul and Ringo.
I sense, though, that he'd have got a bit cross about 'Flaming Pie' and The Beatles may well have been all over again again. The McCartney record released to 'cash-in' on the recent Anthology craze for all things Beatles, 'Flaming Pie' a record that takes the soft and easy option and is full of the Paul 'call me twinkle toes McCartney' excesses Lennon had spent half of the Beatle days trying to reign in. At least Paul was open about the inspiration, saying that listening back to the Anthology outtakes had reminded him 'what a great little band' The Beatles had once been and how quickly they worked on songs. Even the title is a pinch from Lennon's mock statement that he'd got the band name 'from a man on a flaming pie who said from now on you are Beatles with an 'A', a knowing wink to the audience that Paul was remembering his roots. But somewhere along the line things went wrong: too often on this album Paul tries to go for 'simple' as per the early Beatles but gets something that comes out as 'stupid'. Too often Paul sticks with being safe and cosy when he actually had a million things on his mind (it must have been an alarming thing to see so much footage of himself in his twenties - nobody shot as much footage as they did for The Beatles circa 1963-1966 and Macca was so hands-on during the making of 'Anthology' he saw most of it; plus Linda's failing health meant he had a lot to write about had he wanted to). Too often he goes for one-take when he should have gone for another ten (or a million - or however many it would have taken for him to realise how bad some of the material actually is). Too often he tries to go for 'cute' nonsense speak when it also sounds as if he sat down with something to say he never quite got out of his system ('The World Tonight' sounds like Paul's best, hardest track in years but reads like his silliest). Throughout much of this record there's a great album fighting to get out, but - a little like 'Anthology' - the whole thing has been 'butchered' for the biggest mass public audience possible and even the good and promising parts of this album suffers. If ever there was a Wings/solo album that proves how badly McCartney needed Lennon to sift throughy his good ideas and make them great then this is it. Not co-incidentally this is the first 'mainstream' (ie not 'McCartney' or 'McCartney II') made from the first as a 'solo' LP with no input from Wings, George Martin, Eric Stewart or the 'world tour' band in there somewhere. I have an image of Lennon hearing a copy of the supposedly Beatley 'Beautiful Night' (with Ringo on drums on this version so Paul may well have worked it into a Beatles reunion somewhere down the line), ranting and raving to Record Mirror and Rolling Stone about his partner all over again and retiring to jam guitars with his seventeen year old son Sean until Paul made 'something decent again'. In other words Macca used to be good, but now with anything Beatles connected a certified success he don't have to be good no mo-re.
There are, to be fair, moments when this album does exactly what it needed to, which is why in the wake of 'Anthology' it became Paul's best selling record in fifteen years and the one people noticed (it would have been number one if not for The Spice Girls - what a horrid year for music 1997 was). It helps too that this album was Paul's only 'mainstream' (ie non classical or 'Fireman' trance music) release of the Beatle-friendly Britpop-era. Songs like 'Great Day' and 'The Songs We Were Singing' (actually outtakes from the late-period Wings days) plus the empty singles 'Young Boy' and 'Beautiful Night' are exactly what the public thinks appear on all the McCartney LPs and what the public wanted to hear post-Anthology. However this is an album that sounds too often as if Paul is actively tailoring his songs to this new popular wave and writing his flimsiest songs as a result. As a 'real' look back at Anthology would have shown him, The Beatles may have been pretty and witty and frequently simple, but they were never ever flimsy. Paul could have taken 'A Day In The Life' as his model for this album - instead he seems to have chosen 'Love Me Do' and used any old one-note riff and simple repetitive lyric he could find. Unlike 'Chaos and Creation In The Backyard' though (an album where I really did think Macca had lost it in the Heather Mills era and could never write a decent song again) there's enough brilliance here to make you wish that Paul had ignored his new audience, accepted the fact that his new album would sell anyway and so pushed what he's really good at and which no one else can do better: such as the poignant weirdness of this album's latest forgotten, neglected mini-masterpieces 'Somedays' and 'Souvenir', songs that got ignored next to the 'what-the?' of the album singles. Not coincidentally these are also the two most Lennonish moments on a predominantly McCartneyesque record - which is the 'real' problem with this CD: for nearly thirty years now Paul had learnt to develop his own critical inner 'Lennon' and had slowly become rather good at it (is there a more Lennon-ish song in the McCartney catalogue than the surreal love song 'Winedark Open Sea', the moment of genius from last album 'Off The Ground'?) Calling this Paul's most 'Beatley' record as so many have is actually wrong; the Paul record with the least feel of Lennon about it, he's actually never sounded more solo.
That's despite the fact that, yet again, Paul hides behind several 'special guest names', meaning that it's not until the 2001 sequel 'Driving Rain' that we truly get the solo Paul album (and even that features an early version of what will become his excellent 21st century touring band). The guests here simply get in the way, even more than they did on 'Tug Of War' and 'Pipes Of Peace' because even while 'slumming it' Paul can't get 'down' to their level. Steve Miller was, back in the 1960s, a promising talent enough for Paul to hang out at his recording sessions (famously pounding the drums through a rough and tumble song 'My Darkest Hour' to let off steam after another Apple business meeting row), but by the 1990s had become something of a parody of himself writing clichéd blues songs about nothing. Ringo, too, almost guarantees this album a few extra million sales by his presence, but does nothing to warrant that here, performing what had become for him by the 1990s characteristically sloppy drumming (though to be fair Ringo's 1995 album 'Vertical Man' was a much more genuinely Beatley record and a much stronger effort than this one ever was). It speaks volumes that Paul, who was still coming up with new ideas more often than not up to this point, sounds like he fits in right at home with both. Was there ever a more pointless McCartney song than the made up jam 'Really Love You' (featuring both?) A more derivative song than 'Used To Be Bad' (featuring Stevie)? Or a more disappointing song than the hum-drum 'Beautiful Night' (featuring Ringo and which had already become infamous amongst bootleggers after multiple abandoned versions - all better than this one)? While we've mentioned in a few reviews that Paul was always a poor judge of his own material at least we fans were used to getting lots of his creativity to sift through including exclusive B-sides and an album every few months. It speaks volumes that this album came only after a four year gap, that it comes with two outtakes as part of the track listing and that there were no exclusive outtakes from this record for the first time ev-uh, only rejects dating back ten or twenty years.
At least the solo McCartney overdubbed tracks are better - though they lack the punch of the near-solo 'Band On The Run' or the mystery of a 'McCartney' or a 'McCartney II'. Paul has long needed a collaborator to knock his best ideas into shape and that goes for performance as well as compositionally. Many of these performances sound lumpy, all too obviously the work of multiple McCartneys working a little like the music video for 'Coming Up', all slightly out of synch with each other. The songs that work best are always the ones treated solo and acoustic, with Paul singing live on his own. What Paul perhaps should have done though was treat this album like a sequel to 'Ram', the album was growing in reputation year on year in the 1990s. The songs share the same sense of 'don't-mention-The-Beatles' even though back in 1971 that was about the only experience of making music McCartney had so inevitably came out sounding Beatles, plus the songs share the same sense of pointed gibberish (ie they're aimed at someone but written in a way that we don't know who - only in later years did Paul admit 'Little Willow' was made after the death of Maureen Starkey, for instance). Plus I'm willing to bet these songs would have sounded better heard with the same sparser-but-with-horns ('Ram' is an album with a style all to itself!) Then there's the fact that, for the second and sadly last time in his career Paul pretty much made this album as a joint project with wife Linda.
Forget the celebrities, forget the multi-layered McCartneys, even forget the mini Beatles reunion towards the end of the CD - this is a last precious chance to hear the husband and wife blend in action and it gets me every time. Linda's harmonial fingerprints are all over this record and always on the best songs: she adds the cosy awe to 'The Songs We Were Singing', the sense of terror on 'In The World Tonight', the beautiful counter-tag to 'Heaven On A Sunday' and she's the only person awake on the hammed up 'Beautiful Night'. Not since the Wings days has Paul made such use of his wife - despite or maybe even because of her own troubles during this period. Breast cancer looms large in the McCartney story - one of the big 'I so get you!' moments in their early relationship was when they learnt that the other's mum had died from the illness when they were teenagers and that neither ever quite got over the loss. Linda too was diagnosed in 1995, her illness the nasty unspoken present-day shadow to Anthology's reflective nostalgia, but rallied across 1996 and the first half of 1997. Though she stayed away from the press as best she could (shocking the media, who hadn't quite realised how bad things were, by turning up bald to daughter Stella's first big fashion parade in London) Beatle fans knew who sick she really was, so it was a happy surprise to hear how much of Linda's fingerprints there were on this album. Paul admitted later that he composed many of this album's songs on the spot while sitting in waiting rooms for her to have treatment (including the Royal Liverpool Hospital which now has their own 'Linda McCartney Wing' paid for by Paul, which I am very thankful for given that this was where I got my diagnosis of m.e. in the early days of creating this website) although, in typical McCartney fashion, he spends most of this album grinning with thumbs aloft pretending everything's fine and will leave the bitterness of these years until the low-key successor 'Driving Rain'. Paul also finds room to jam with his then-eighteen-year-old son James for what's, sadly, a one-off performance never to be repeated on 'Heaven On A Sunday' (where James' electric Neil Young-style feedback breaks won over many plaudits who assumed it was Paul himself playing; it's a better cameo than the seven year old reading out poetry in funny voices on 'Talk More Talk' anyway!) Father and son need a re-match, especially now Heather Mills is no longer around to upset the family apple-cart (and James has grown into quite a convincing performer in his own right: those Neil Young links aren't just in passing either with a gorgeous rendition of Neil's 'Old Man' doing the rounds - James' 'You and Me Individually' has much of his dad's acoustic sense of wonder too). Linda must have been very proud.
The theme of this record, then, isn't mortality even though Paul could certainly have gone there with his Beatle-head on (the fab four wrote some of the best songs about death from 'Eleanor Rigby' on down). Nor is it the expected nostalgia fest where the 1960s were great and everything modern is ghastly (which is what 'Off The Ground' sort of tried to do but got trounced for with a pre-Britpop era not quite ready for it yet in 1993). Instead it's largely an album about living in the world in the present. Macca celebrates seeing 'the world tonight', although he doesn't always sound happy about what he sees (the world in 1997 seems to involve fleeing the paparazzi and hiding). He watches the 'young boys' around him trying to get laid the way the early Beatles did. He tries to appreciate 'beautiful nights' and 'great days' without sounding terribly convinced about either. He blissfully acknowledges peace when it arrives fleetingly 'like heaven on a Sunday', simply enjoying the moment. If this was a Ringo LP he'd be stopping to smell the roses about here too. 'If You Wanna' is an oddly lustful song, celebrating the fact that the narrator is Paul McCartney and get away with anything, as long as nobody finds out (and he doesn't, say, put everything down in the lyrics of a song!) And then, on this album's stunning sudden moment of urgency and passion he takes in every sight he can, every smell, every sound and files them away as 'souvenirs' from what he knows is surely the calm before the storm, to be looked back on in sadder, more adult days when his world has crumbled all around him. After a lifetime writing love songs for Linda its deeply moving to hear Paul's panicked voice as, for the first time in his career, he asks his wife to tell him that she loves him too so that he can have this moment to look back on. Only occasionally does this album revert to the expected and go back to the past, although even then not in the same 'how much I loved the old days' way of Paul's most recent albums 'Memory Almost Full' and 'New'. Paul's return to the 'Songs We Were Singing' is a bit of an in-joke, this being a let-period Wings song nearly twenty years old (and is thus nostalgic for a time when Paul could be openly nostalgic without people like me jumping on him!), 'Flaming Pie' bears no Beatle resemblance bar the title (though many fans have tried to squeeze links in its really a return to the Lennonish surrealism of 'I Am The Walrus' and 'I Dig A Pony' after a false start of Paul's own on his most out-there LP 'Press To Play') and 'Used To Be Bad' is clearly a misnomer, a clumsy 'Getting Better' for the middle-aged.
I've spent the past twenty years since this album came out (the same gap as - gulp! - this album was to 'Sgt Peppers' at the time) thinking I ought to like it more than I do. Many of my friends I grew up with loved it - and they hated most Beatle-things I played them including the 'real' McCartney classics like 'Ram' 'London Town' and 'Flowers In The Dirt'. Many of the critics loved it - even though they'd spent the past decade hounding Paul for daring to be alive and making music when John wasn't. Sometimes I'll get teased back to this album and enjoy bits of it more than I remembered - 'Calico Skies', for instance, has grown on me from a lightweight McCartney derivative bit of nonsense to a sweet love song that makes perfect sense despite the surrealist bent; 'The World Tonight' is a sharp in search of a song that's actually quite a daring mixture of perhaps the most of-the-time backing track with the most out-of-it lyric and vocal; 'Heaven On A Sunday' continues to not do much with a grace and ease Paul has tried to return to several times since but never topped; 'Somedays' and 'Souvenir' sounded great at the time and keep getting better, real bits of emotion shining through perhaps Paul's least emotional album to date (and in case you think I've missed out 'Little Willow' that's the worst of the lot, a Hallmark Greetings Card version of emotion for a friend because Paul thinks he ought to write something; compare to 'Here Today' and 'Lonely Road' for how badly affected by grief Paul really can be).
However most of this album is candy floss and a disappointment after a four year absence. Everything else on this album isn't just poor but atrocious and awful, consisting of songs that I never ev-uh want to hear again (and I'm the kind of fan that enjoyed 'Pipes Of Peace', well most of it!) 'Go ahead' snarls the title track 'have a vision!' - no thanks, I prefer my McCartney better rooted in reality, for better or worse and there's precious little realism on this album to be found. A combination of the fuss from Anthology and Paul's sudden critical high standing (he broke off from sessions to make this album to receive a knighthood after all - things like that clearly go to your head even when you're a Beatle!) and his uneasiness over saying something about Linda's health out loud means that we get an album that spends it's time trying to hide the truth from us and instead of giving us what we want to know insists on offering up what we want to hear: something a Beatley, a little like early Wings and with more pop than sixteen episodes of 'Pop Go The Beatles', the 'sound' Paul pretended he was harking back to after making 'Anthology' but clearly was only pretending to. Paul said at the time that he'd forgotten what a 'great little band' The Beatles were, but he missed one important factor: they knew when they were a great little band and when they weren't and much of the best stuff from 'Anthology' comes not from going 'wow this is amazing and as good as the real thing!' so much as 'wow, who'd have guessed a future classic sounded so bad just hours before it was hammered into shape?' Jeff Lynne's Travelling Wilbury-lite production (on some of the album anyway) gives this record even more of a feeling of 'ersatz Beatles' rather than the real thing we were looking forward to. 'Flaming Pie' isn't the sound of The Beatles, as half-promised, at all but the Anthology Beatles back when the band were still on their first demos, first thoughts and the songs hadn't yet benefitted from the collaborative process taking a bad song and making it better. 'Flaming Pie' is one of those album that proves that Paul needs help from somebody, anybody - unfortunately for him he's about to lose the only person who comes out of this record with their heads held high and without Linda the McCartney records will never be quite the same again.
Back in the summer of 1996 Britain had a long spell of bad weather (it was revenge from the angry music Gods for The Spice Girls I tell you!) and over in their Mull of Kintyre barn the McCartney clan experienced a number of bad power cuts. Forced back on their own devices for entertainment, Paul discovered a battered old acoustic guitar he'd left behind and spent the evenings busking away some of his past favourites original and covers in a series of informal concerts that would have been decidedly more entertaining than anything on 'Anthology'. After exhausting his regular supply Paul remembered some songs from the late 1970s which had been written at the same Scottish farmhouse on an acoustic guitar so as not to wake his sleeping children that had been family favourites without ever quite blossoming into full songs. 'The Songs We Were Singing' is an interesting choice because, in context, it makes perfect sense: it's exactly the nostalgic Paul-as-he-always-was that the world wanted to hear immediately post-Anthology and has the ring of authentic McCartneyicity to it which only his 1970s compositions really have in quite such abundance. It's a song that looks backwards, to 'songs we were singing at any particular time', written to be revived decades apart at times like these though it probably started life as something to give the McCartrney clan to sing round the piano in the pub the next time they had a big get together. Unfortunately for the McCartney of 1997, what would have been a throwaway had it been recorded in the late 1970s now sounds like one of his most substantial works for a while. Paul reflects on getting nothing done and merely 'jawing through the night', but it's clearly in empty nothing moments like this that memories are made of. A night of power cut that could have been disastrous instead becomes a chance to remember he and Linda at the mid-point of their marriage, looking up at the stars, clutching a guitar and 'caught up in a philosophical discussion - anything you like'. What seemed like just another normal night in the McCartney household circa 1979 now takes on a whole new meaning - these days are running short and it's natural for Paul to turn to a song like this as a memory of how great times were to sustain him when times are running short. It's only natural, then, that he should get to perform it near solo with just wife Linda on vocals, the way they always were. Paul also subtlety changed the arrangement, adding a moment of almost unbearable poignancy before the last verse, the guitar note of doom hanging in the air as he waits for life to strike, before picking up the tune for what he knows will be one last time round. This verse, which may well have been added in 1997 (unless it's just missing from my bootleg copy - Paul did sometimes demo songs a few times over) is much darker all of a sudden though its easy to miss on first hearing: the air that once seemed so clear is now seen 'through a glass' (darkly as the Rolling Stones would say), 'philosophical discussions' have now turned to searching for 'cosmic solutions' and the sound in the air is now 'blue guitars', not an old acoustic. This is the sound of a man who knows life is about to change and is desperate for it not to - because he's only just realised, in this time and space, just how perfect his life really was all along. Not the greatest of McCartney songs then (and I could name at least a dozen stronger still unissued at the time) but perfect timing for it to be remembered and revisited here in context.
'The World Tonight' also suggests this album is going to be kind of OK, with the kind of electric freakbeat noise you half-remember from 'Revolver' (Britpop, in other words). The lyrics too sound...intriguing, though like many of Macca's surrealist lyrics they fade away to nothing when you try to properly listen to them. In a nutshell it's a tale about another of Paul's strong female role models, this time on the run from the paparazzi and where 'everybody' around them 'wanted something from you'. Next there's a 'secret conversation' where this female that Paul so badly admires finally breaks down and cries and reveals that they're human after all before wishing that the ground would 'swallow' them. These lines might be about Linda and the McCartney's increasingly desperate (yet largely successful) attempts to give Linda a bit of privacy during her illness - however nothing directly fits (well only the vision of the un-named her 'swaying to the music' maybe). However three months after this album came out they sounded like spooky fortune-telling. With an eerie coincidence (which is, surely, the 'real' sound of The Beatles not what was on 'Anthology') this tale almost perfectly captures Princess Diana's final days in August 1997. Having previously been seen as something of an aloof figure she'd cried on TV that same year about her breakup with Prince Charles and was on the run from the paparazzi for most of the ensuing months - the only detail wrong is the lack of mention of a car in a Paris tunnel (Paul, suddenly a keen Royalist after getting his Knighthood - again what would Lennon have said? He'd surely have been offered one too and might have accepted to make a point about 'that Gulf War thing - and the re-issue of 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts! - may well have written the song with Princess Di half in mind anyway). The verses don't fit with the chorus though, which is clever but part of the wrong song entirely. 'I go back so far I'm in front of me!' is perhaps the album's only true Anthology reference, Paul told by EMI not to 'bother' releasing an album in 1995 or 1996 or he'd be competing with himself for sales (nobody told Ringo that apparently!) It's a clever one though, especially in a couplet that's really about offering advice to wannabe Beatles that they can be whoever they want to be if they wish and work hard enough - there's no way the young McCartney could have guessed everything ahead of him for instance. The end is puzzling though: why can Paul's suddenly see 'the world tonight' and what does he mean by that? Is he really undergoing some Nostrodamus style fortune telling that got lucky? Is he having an acid flashback to what the meaning of life really is (the music certainly suggests that period in his life). Or is he just observing the world with more vigour than normal, 'seeing it in a different light'? Alas this song is perhaps more style than substance, but at least compared to most of the album it's well made and features a terrific screamed vocal in the grand McCartney tradition.
'If You Wanna' is more like Merseybeat era Beatles but with one important difference: it's rubbish! Paul plays the part of a Drive My Car-style star whose made it and trying to chat up an ex from his posh seat, promising to 'make arrangements for the trip' and coming on to her with all the subtlety of a Carry On film. Subtlety was a huge part of The Beatles' success and part of their spirit: why be blatant about something when a good part of their audience was hip enough to know what they were saying anyway? In that sense this song isn't Beatley at all, just silly, only catching the ear for the Buddy Hollyish middle eight (and even that's lyrically pure rubbish and still oddly coarse: 'When you want to love me this is what you need - to be thinking of me when you plant the seed'; Lennon probably wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry at that line). McCartney can, of course, do lustful when he wants to: 'Hi Hi Hi' is a good example of Paul when his inhibitions are down, while 'Girl's School' is an even better example if you understand what, erm, influenced it! This song is just lazy though, one dimensional sexist stereotypes from a writer who once gave us 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'For No One' and who once understood the needs of lonely middle-aged women like the one in the song better than any young man in their twenties had any right to. Yuck!
'Somedays' is a cut above most of the album and the record's biggest grower, for all its solemn ponderousness on first hearings. It starts off like any McCartney love song to Linda: 'Somedays I look at you with eyes that shine'. Then the second line throws the rug away from under your feet: 'Somedays I don't, I can't believe that you are mine'. Even after all those years, even after all those love songs, Linda still feels like a mystery, something wonderful that Paul never felt he quite deserved and he sounds haunted here, kicking himself for not quite realising this earlier now he's nearly lost her altogether. The rest of the world goes madly on - people are playing football, keeping time, running to the clock doing errands. But for Paul there is no time because his love is timeless and he loses goodness knows how long staring into his lover's soul. There then follows one of the greatest instrumental breaks of any McCrtney album as Paul and son James mirror each other on twin acoustic guitars, like two lovers leading a merry dance around each other, each independent but with the same goals and leading to the same finishing point. It's a stunning moment, beaten only by Paul's suddenly choked voice on the reprise as he nearly breaks down on the repeat of the line 'can't believe that you are mine'. Next the song sashays sideways, harking back to the defensive early Wings days as Paul refers to the critical backlashes and infers again, 'Long Haired Lady' style, that 'love is long' and 'we don't need anybody else to tell us how to feel'. Paul then turns the song to the listener, inviting us to believe that we are capable of just as much love as well. Then Paul is off down memory lane in a wider, Anthology sense, 'laughing' to 'think how young we were' and sadly reflecting that soon, once this golden time in his life is over, Paul might be joining the confused, saddened, struggling masses, crying for all of us who 'fear the worst'. I could have lived without the tacky string arrangement which tries to make this last push an 'epic' (arranger David Snell is no George Martin) and the sudden rush of harmonies on the 'each one of us is love' line is almost unbearably tacky. Still, for a good 90% of the recording, this song is perfect - totally McCartney in its honest yet guarded lyric, beautiful melancholic tune that sounds as if it's been around for centuries and exquisite, detailed performance. Easily an album highlight, somedays and everydays.
By contrast the only ambition 'Young Boy' has is to be the album single - and it doesn't even manage that terribly well, being a surprise flop in most countries when released a few months ahead of the album. This is one of those rare McCartney songs I don't understand at all - admittedly I probably don't understand any of them in the right way at all really, but this one I don't begin to understand. Is the young boy struggling to find love or a cocky confident wunderkid who finds it easy? Are we meant to sympathise with him, hate him, coo alongside him or wish we were young too? Are we really meant to think of this song as a return to a classy classic mid-period Beatles sound when it really sounds like an ELO B-side? You would except McCartney to be an expert on matters of love, given that he's written some of the best and most recognisable love songs of the past half century. But his advice here is shallow and puerile - the poor young kid's gotta 'find out for himself' what love really is and 'doesn't need a helping hand' from someone like Paul. Fair enough - everyone's idea of love is different and like snowflakes no two relationships are ever the same - but why write a song about it then? Doesn't this single line make songs like 'Yesterday' 'Maybe I'm Amazed' and 'Silly Love Songs' obsolete in one go? Isn't the whole point of having someone like McCartney around to sum up the un-sayable and put together poetically what we stumble around trying to express in our lives the whole 'point' of a good half of that glorious back catalogue? In context, with bands like Oasis and Blur snapping at his heels, this song sounds more like it's about a career than about love - and it would actually make more sense as a 'you think you know what it's like to be a popstar young ones? Well heck I'm not gonna teach you!' kind of song than the one we got. Jeff Lynne has never been more annoying either, filling in every available empty space with noise just, seemingly, for the hell of it. A wretched blot on an otherwise great singles discography. It's still the second favourite of my singles pulled from the album however...
There is one big problem with a lot of what I and other reviewers do, dear readers, and that's the problem of changing your mind. If I'd have written this review ten years ago when this site was brand new I would have told you that 'Calico Skies' too is awful, a hum-drum song full of gibberish verses that's all too clearly about some kind of generic love that's so woefully simple Macca probably wrote it his sleep. His rather smug, throwaway dismissive vocal certainly doesn't suggest he spent much time thinking about it at the time and probably didn't get beyond a first draft. I have reason to believe that this song was planned as the album's final single before Paul got cold feet and decided it wasn't working, dropping it at the last minute (strangely none of this album's three singles did that well in the charts though the album did). However, as time has gone on, I've got a better understanding of this song which now sounds like a Lennonish outburst of absurdist surrealism that still says exactly what it needs to. Lovers as a pack of crazy soldiers? That's an odd image but one that actually makes a lot of sense - it's not just a machine, it doesn't work out if you don't work at it as another earlier McCartney song put it ('We Got Married'). 'Calico skies?' Actually that's perfect, if unlikely in realistic terms: love is a cloth interwoven by man and wife where they live out their lives against a background of their own making, not a 100% natural thing they can leave to their own devices. It also makes for a neat and subtle little nature versus nurture battle - the opening verse tells us that love is fate, that the narrator was destined for this moment 'since I opened my eyes' - the second verse that the couple didn't get love for free but had to work at it. In essence this is the Paul and Linda love story writ large in what's pretty much its final act - an easygoing natural meeting of soulmates who still didn't have it easy with so many pressures from every side. In this context what used to sound the single sappiest middle eight in Paul's discography ('I will hold you for as long as you like, I love you for the rest of my life') now also sounds less like the cliché it did at the time than the rooting to reality this song needed to show that it really was 'about' a real person after all - and a tribute that, however much longer he lived, the Paul 'n' Linda love song really would last for the rest of his life. In later years, specifically after Linda died, Paul finally seemed to understand what was perhaps too new to him at the time he recorded this song and it's become something of a retrospective hit popular in concert (the live version on 'Back In The World/US' CD/DVD knocks spots off this one - even though there's all of three years' difference it's the performance of a wiser, sadder, more experienced man). This song is also one of those occasional McCartney songs that always sounds good when performed in a cover version - where generally it's slower and more heartfelt than the almost preening arrangement given here - whether it's a hit version by Nancy Sieranni or an acoustic reading by a hot and happening Uruguayan band! (Shoutout to Cecilia!) What used to sound one of Pau's worst songs now sounds like one of his best - proof that sometimes even cloth-eared reviewers get things wrong. I love this song now and will for the rest of my life...
I've waited twenty years in vain to see if the title track 'Flaming Pie' sounds any better with age...Nope, this pie pretty much came with a sell-by date of 1997 when random clunky piano jams like this were suddenly in (it sounds like Paul Weller having a nervous breakdown!) Paul loves the absurd and surrealism at least as much as John - McCartney's song lyrics too often come with Lennonish doodles, he recorded the band's first two major avant garde statements (the tape loops on 'Tomorrow Never Knows' and the still unheard - or so we think - Beatles piece 'Carnival Of Light') and collected surrealist paintings, of which one by Magritte inspired the Apple logo. But Paul never took his love for 'is it high end or low end or both?' culture and turned it into a piece of creative writing as naturally as Lennon, to who was far more fluent in gobbledegook however much both men appreciated the art-form. 'Flaming Pie' tries hard to be an 'I Am The Walrus' but in the end its not even an 'I Dig A Pony', a nonsense bunch of maxims and metaphors thrown together and baked in one big Beatle-referencing pie. This singer of a thousand voices turns on his most annoying, his mock-crooner (see 'Bogey Music' and 'When The Night') and tries, yet again, that bit too hard to get wid da kids (which in Paul's head means being rude and crude: 'Tuck my shirt in and zip my fly!') The central conceit of the track ('Go ahead, have a vision!') also sounds dangerous from a man whose clearly still smoking something legally he probably shouldn't be: though drugs remain a major influence on musicians now and most likely forev-uh by the 1990s we'd seen enough people like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix et al die from overdoses and complications that people had begun to realise that taking drugs was one thing - celebrating them was not. Only Amy Winehouse bucked the trend and the fact she died just a few short years after singing a song about refusing to go to rehab, no no no, only underlined the point more and killed the 'party' response movement in its tracks. This song sounds out of place in every which way - its low-cut 'Lady Madonna' piano groove really stands out on an album largely played on piano, it's madcap grinning is at odds with the deep thoughts of most of the other songs, it's way out of kilter for the average pop song around in 1997 and in McCartney's canon is a complete and not terribly likeable one-off.
Thank goodness, then, for the tonic of 'Heaven On A Sunday', one of the album's higher points. Though the song doesn't do much except fill in the title (this is a song about short pockets of bliss in a hectic life and treasuring them) it does so rather sweetly. It's a family affair, Paul turning in some particularly strong jazzy bass chords (at last returning to the adventurous style not really heard since his Beatle days - maybe he had been paying attention through the making of 'Anthology' after all?!) and a deliciously warm vocal. Son James shines on the Neil Young-like electric guitar frills that chase his dad's acoustic round the room in a way that belies his young age and inexperience but confirms the talent in the family genes. And best of all, on what is the last true love song for Paul's lifelong greatest muse, Linda pops up on a gorgeous tag, singing back to her husband the lovely line 'If I only had one love yours would be the one I'd choose'. Admittedly Paul rather over-does his vocal so his rendition comes out more like 'yours would be the one-eyed shoes' but as always, even hidden in the mix, Linda instantly 'gets' this song and makes the most of her cameo part. This blissful, sweet song about living in the moment then does the unthinkable - a sense of worry begins to creep in as the present turns to the future, the whole song shifting awkwardly to a manic minor chord as the twin guitarists sound not so much blissed out as panicked. In retrospect there are a lot more 'clues' about the real state of things in the McCartney household than we realised or were told about at the time. This truly is Heaven on a Sunday, with the single best performance on the album making the most of a so-so song, but Hell is waiting on Monday morning and already sharpening it's claws waiting to pounce.
By contrast 'Used To Be Bad' really is, erm, 'So Bad' to quote another McCartney lyric, never mind used to be. Not since Stevie Wonder busked 'What's That You're Doing?' during the making of 'Tug Of War' have we heard Paul playing such second fiddle to a guest star - and with all due respect Stevie Miller is no Stevie Wonder. Generic blues, of the sort Credence Clearwater Revival and Canned Heat would have stuck on a B-side, this song is a poor man's 'Getting Better' with a lyric that instead of showing how adult the narrator has become shows what a child he still is. For a third time on this oddly coarse and suggestive album we get more sexual innuendo than in a Carry On film, with a narrator who used to think he was 'ugly' and 'put upon the shelf' now working the confidence he feels in everyday life. Paul sounds very out of place duetting, though this song works best in a sort of re-working of the Elvis Costello duet on 'You Want Her Too' with Paul re-cast as the hapless naive innocent good to Miller's more knowing nods and winks. Both are good to a blind horse, so they say, but not to a deaf Beatle. This should have ended up on Miller's album, ended up a B-side or been stuck in the vaults for all eternity. The song is credited to both men jointly, incidentally, even though it's clearly a Miller song - it's nice of Paul to share the blame.
At last this uneven rollercoaster of a record peaks with its most sublime moment 'Souvenirs'. Paul is often at his best when offering a warm aural hug to the listener and trying to convey his heartfelt optimism to the rest of us - I've never understood the critics who see Paul as cold and calculating when the man can write songs like 'Don't Let It Bring You Down' and 'Someone Who Cares'. This song is just as special and even more poignant because, more than both these works, it sounds like it's written not to us so much as himself. Paul never tells us what is wrong, leaving things nicely ambiguous, but it's clear something is stopping him waving his thumbs-aloft as normal and even a Beatle needs a hug from time to time (he may, too, have written it for Ringo who'd just lost his ex wife Maureen given the placing with the next song). Paul sighs along with us: he's been there and it's horrid: the tears that won't stop flowing and - in the second-best line on the album - the memories now frozen in time that can never be added to so they feel 'just like souvenirs' when souvenirs aren't enough. In an emotionally charged middle eight Paul promises to be there 'like a friend' and promises 'everything is gonna come right in the end' with such conviction he sounds like he means it. He then moves further out of his comfort range, on an unexpected key change that pitches his voice high and wobbly, as he promises to hold us tight and never let go as he waits for us to tell him what we 'want to do'. This part of the song at least sounds as if it was written for Linda, during what must have been that awful moment when she heard the bad news about her cancer and for the first time in a long time here, for a few precious seconds, we get a glimpse of the 'real' McCartney behind that mask (to be heard much more across the next record, the under-rated 'Driving Rain'). It's an extraordinary moment, not ruined even when Paul goes all 'arty' and tries to turn this song into a production job with scratchy gramophone crackle (the idea presumably being that this was a promise made long ago and these words of comfort too are used as a 'souvenir'). A fitting tribute to Paul and Linda (who sings her 'cynical' deep voice her as per 'I Lie Around' on the backing - it sounds eerily like Denny Laine is in the room), a crumb of comfort for Paul in the years that lie ahead and a light in the darkness to any listener going through their own emotional pain, this is one hell of a cracking song. Paul's best of the decade alongside 'Winedark Open Sea'.
By contrast 'Little Willow' is about as sincere as a Spice Girls ballad. Paul tries to offer specific comfort, to the family of Maureen Starkey whom he'd been close to during the Beatle years and aims to write another upbeat singalong in 'Hey Jude' style (written for Cynthia and Julian Lennon). She died of leukaemia in December 1994 at the shockingly young age of 48 and missing out on the fuss caused by Anthology by a few months (of all the original batch of Beatle wives and girlfriends she's the one who would have loved the extra fuss and nostalgia the most). But listening to this song you wouldn't know it was about a specific anybody, never mind someone Paul once shared an Indian Ashram, hotel rooms and several intense years that only eight Beatles-with-wives would have known (Maureen was the second of this pack of eight to die, after John). The main difference between this track and the similar 'Souvenirs' is that this song knows it's a pop song and Paul and Jeff Lynne between them can't help overstuffing it with McCartneyesque moments that dilute any magic ('No one's out to break your heart, it only seems that way - hey!', that Godawful faux Wilburys choir, the high pitched Frog Song Chorus style 'ahhhhs'). That's a shame because the central image is pretty darn good, the idea of a weeping willows being buffeted in storms that rage around it but somehow coming through without breaking. The idea that life is made up of these sad moments and that none of them are planned to destroy us but feel like they do anyway is a strong one too, worthy of a sensitive soul like McCartney. But if ever an album needed a collaborator to bring out his better, more substantial side it's this one - and if ever a track needed that it's 'Little Willow' which is 10% moving to 90% crocodile tears.
Mr Starkey turns up next on the jam session 'Really Love You', which was busked by the two ex-Beatles and Jeff Lynne during time off making 'Beautiful Night' (so the participants could be sick, perhaps?!) That it still manages to come out sounding more like ELO than The Beatles despite the DNA in the room says much about the impact Lynne was having on the participants (like a rash Lynne's ELO-ness quickly spreads from George's solo albums to Ringo's then Anthology and then to Paul's, a production itch that even The Beatles can't escape collectively or apart). Paul, in case you hadn't guessed, has his 'album' head on and figures that he can get away with any old rubbish if it has a McCartney-Starkey writing credit. So he makes up some words on the spot to try to turn it into a 'song'- alas some not very good ones. In retrospect it sounds like a try-out for the 'Electric Arguments' album he'll go on to make as 'The Fireman' in another decade's time and it's interesting that the first thing that pops into Macca's head in both cases is the idea of 'light' and 'night'. However Youth is a good collaborator who won't let his 'boss' stop there and coaxes something extra out of him to tie up these loose ends - producer Jeff Lynne lets through such questionable lines as the improvised 'I love you baby like a bear needs a break - I need your heart baby, hopping round on a plate!' Had the mood in the room been more fun I'd have gone with it - tracks like 'Big Barn Bed' didn't make a whole lotta sense either but that's part of their charm. But this is a Steve Miller-style 12 bar blues and hardly the sound to be clowning around with, plus it gets boring in less than a minute - five is definitely overkill. Another of the 'Flaming Pie' songs perhaps better kept for a B-side or the vaults? It speaks volumes that any of the actual era B-sides (all of them recorded sometime in the 1970s or 1980s and rejected several times over, but broadcast in 1995 as part of Maca's Oobu Joobu' radio show in which he did a 'Lost Lennon Tapes') are way better than this - yes even 'Atlantic Ocean'.
I'd still rather listen to 'Really Love You' on repeat for a year than the song the pair should have been making though - second album single 'Beautiful Night'. This song had been kicking around since the abandoned 'Return To Pepperland' sessions of 1987 but nobody quite knew how to arrange it - Paul wanted 'big' and got lots of people to do arrangements for him over the years including George Martin, but was never happy and thought the song deserved more. He was wrong. Everything that's ever made you cringe about McCartney sometimes - the clumsy couplets, the archness, the facileness, the smugness, the nonsense, the nursery rhyme-ness, the complete lack of ability to notice when he's lapsed into any of these again - is heard on this track more than perhaps any other in his mighty back catalogue. 'Someone's gone out fishing' is not the best starting line of his back catalogue and it gets worse: 'I'm left stranded (bah-dahhh!) wondering why' he exclaims, like a bad cross between Nat King Cole and Cole Porter. This song means nothing - literally nothing. It thinks it's being another of those 'revel in the moments' songs like 'Heaven On A Sunday' (perhaps writing the new song reminded Paul about the old?) but it has nothing to say and says it with such a great deal of tedium. Who is this beautiful night spent with? We don't know. Why is it a beautiful night? We never find out. What makes up a beautiful night? By the end we don't care. Along the way we learn that they've got Castles in Versailles (thanks for that Paul - even 'castles in the sky' would have been a lazy but acceptable re-write and I'm not the man who came up with the lyric for 'Yesterday'), that there are boats on the ocean (who'd-a thought it?) and that, in a moment of eloquence, 'things can go wrong - things can go right'. All this to a background that sounds like ELO covering 'I Am The Walrus' and treating it as a middle of the road piece. Just when you're about to despair of the song ever ending at last the OTT orchestra topples and falls off its perch into an ugly mess on the control room floor. 'At last' you think 'my purgatory is over!' but nope: suddenly we're off again with a horrific tagged on coda that goes on for another minute and does nothing except repeat the title twenty-four times over (yes I counted - it was a lot more entertaining than listening to it as a song!) During the course of this Ringo decides he fancies a bit of the ad lib Goon Show malarkey he's remembered via the Beatles at the BBC and Anthology sets and pretends to be a doorman. His ex-colleague, who used to be so up for this sort of thing, hasn't got a clue what's going on and the 'what the?' silence that follows Ringo speaks more about the Beatle relations than ten hours of Anthology. It's all utterly misguided and woefully inadequately performed, designed to nearly-end the album with the kind of fireworks heard on the end of '1985', only to cough and splutter into something akin to the blooming 'Crossroads' theme yet again. Though this is one of the few album songs that isn't suggestive or innuendo laden anywhere, Paul decided to go there for the music video of the song anyway and the song was banned for its blatant full-frontal nudity (not from Paul, thankfully, but two models hired for the film who take all their clothes off and jump in a lake which got the Beatle into more trouble than he'd been in with the censors since 'Give Ireland Back To The Irish'. After sitting through this song it's Paul you want to run off and jump in the lake, although to be honest time would be better spent lingering on those last shots of a clearly poor Linda lighting candles at a window and plainly wondering what the hell is going on?!?) A beautiful night? It leaves a nasty hangover...
We follow a 'Beautiful Night' with a 'Great Day'. One sense that Paul only revived this second late 1970s 'power-cut' song just so he could use that pun because it's another very unsubstantial song - the sort of thing would be labelled 'link' on earlier albums. However it's still better than a good half of this album and in context makes more sense than it would have done on, say, 'Back To The Egg'. It's a last gasp of McCartney optimism from the last time McCartney felt comfortable and safe, surrounded by the love of his life who sings some characteristically beautiful harmonies, telling us that we have every reason to feel happy and alive and ready to go to sleep in the certainty that tomorrow is going to be equally great. There's a sudden switch to the minor key on the Beatley middle eight ('Hold on, it won't be long...') but it's more a passing thought than a warning. Instead Paul is standing there, grabbing a chair and telling us wide awake, for goodness sake, that it's going to be a great day. Sadly his future is more likely to hold a lonely road...
Overall then 'Flaming Pie' is perhaps the most extreme album of Paul's career, caught between great days, beautiful nights and awful nightmares that should never been allowed anywhere near a released record. Far from being inspired by his recent trip down memory lane with The Beatles for the most part Paul sounds terrified, afraid that he won't live up to his ever present past - and when he tries to compete with the innocence yet adultness of his past he badly fails. Parts of this record truly are awful - the worst he ever wrote, at least until the similarly shoddy 'Chaos and Creation In The Backyard'. The fact that this was greeted as a stunning return to form really shows just how badly the public wanted a return to form from a Beatle, not what this album was truly worth. However, you can excuse Paul for having a ,lot on his mind during this troubled period and for not letting us in on the secret about why just yet and keeping it to himself on this, perhaps his most 'family' record. The trouble with offering us a The parts that work, though, are the ones where his subconscious doubts and worries shine through, not the moments when Paul is trying to pretend that nothing is happening. It's those moments when 'Flaming Pie' becomes hot, just when it's at its rawest - alas too often this stodgy mixture of ugly songs and lost opportunities isn't much of a meal for fans at all.