Album Review: “Flaming Pie” — Paul McCartney (1997)

Flaming Pie is held in especially high esteem by Paul McCartney fans, as the 1997 release was viewed as something of a “return to form” for McCartney as a solo artist. The album came at an interesting time in his career, as it was his first rock record since 1993’s Off The Ground. While McCartney had never taken a four-year hiatus between mainstream pop/rock records, it wasn’t like the guy was slacking on the job. In the interim he had released 1993’s ambient techno Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest as part of The Firemen, a duo formed with producer Youth. He also released a live album as well as continued to write, record, and experiment.

And of course McCartney joined George Harrison and Ringo Starr and Apple Corps on the ambitious Beatles Anthology project, which included an 8-hour televised documentary, a hardcover book, and of course a 6-disc release of unreleased Beatles outtakes, demos, live tracks, and more, spread over 3 separate double-albums. ELO uber-guru and producer Jeff Lynne came in to work with the remaining Threetles for their “new” tunes “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, using archival demo tapes of John Lennon’s vocals to produce new studio tracks.

The arrangement must have been considered fruitful by all parties, as McCartney asked Lynne to work with him on his next record. The Flaming Pie recording sessions with Lynne began in November 1995 at The Mill studio, and continued in February and May 1996, producing nine of the album’s fourteen tracks. Before that time period, McCartney spent extensive time with Steve Miller in the first half of 1995 (the pair had collaborated several times over the previous 30 years), recording with engineer Geoff Emerick. Three of those tracks ended up on Flaming Pie, as well as two older recordings from 1992, during which McCartney worked with Beatles producer George Martin.

The vast majority of Flaming Pie represents McCartney’s collaboration with Lynne. What’s impressive about these tracks is that they are devoid of those extremely recognizable Jeff Lynne production values that characterized much of Lynne’s production work of the 80s and 90s: the loud drum sound, layers of guitars, an amped-up acoustic backbone, zestful orchestrations, extensive vocal harmonies, and so forth. Lynne opted for a lighter touch here, with occasional hints of his usual stylesets without any of the excess. The result is a fantastic sounding record: rich and full but very natural without artificial bombast.

So what about the songs then?

Much has been bandied about that Paul McCartney found deep inspiration while digging back through The Beatles’ archive and history as part of the Anthology¬†project, resulting in a strong desire to focus on a high quality record. To “up his game”, so to speak. To make each track count and not just end up as “filler” between the album’s more focused and prominent songs.

To that end, Paul McCartney succeeded. Flaming Pie is his best work since 1982’s Tug Of War, and is arguably an even better record. Whether it was working with Jeff Lynne, coming off the Beatles Anthology project, collaborating with Steve Miller, or some combination thereof, McCartney sounds confident and in full command of his abilities here.

The album opens with two Jeff Lynne productions, starting with the anthemic “The Songs We Were Singing”, a testimony the universality of the musical condition. The tasteful orchestrations weave beautifully underneath the song’s acoustic spine, as McCartney opines about how musical memory outlasts the transient pseudo-intellectual ephemera of the day. If that doesn’t scream McCartney as an artist, I don’t know what does. It’s a beautifully rousing piece, which leads directly into “The World Tonight”, a solid rocker that features echoes of that Jeff Lynne sound: the drum sound, the harmonies, the prominent acoustic guitar sound amidst the electric riffs and locked-down bass pattern. The song delves into taking the philosophical long-view approach to existence; in this case, to McCartney’s own existential footprint. Hiding from the press, people wanting everything from him, people talking smack about him, he just wanting to be closed off with his music… the only way to step out of that mindset is to make your universe bigger than just you. Learning from your past to guide your future. It’s a strong and starkly honest song from McCartney.

“If You Wanna” is the first of the album’s three collaborations with Steve Miller, an uptempo minor-key rocker filled with choice bluesy licks from Miller and McCartney. There’s an air of romantic desperation mixed with arrogance or entitlement or control in the lyrics; the protagonist is ready for his object of desire, but nothing is going to happen until SHE’s ready, and he’s tempting her with his car, his vacation home, whatever material temptations he can provide. Not the usual fare from McCartney, but a strong album cut.

“Somedays” is a Lynne-produced ballad, and very much in the McCartney wheelhouse. It features lush orchestration, a strong melodic base with fine vocal harmonies, and a wondrous oboe accompaniment from Roy Carter. In light of Linda McCartney’s death from breast cancer one year after the album’s release, the lyrics take on an added dimension of longing, sadness, but ultimately uplifting revelation of what, in the end, is the only true reality that matters.

I’m not the biggest fan of “Young Boy”. It’s certainly a decent enough track on its own (the album’s second collaboration with Steve Miller), reasonably catchy and melodic, but it doesn’t really stand out much on its own. The same can’t be said for “Calico Skies”, a wonderfully produced piece from the 1992 sessions with George Martin. This track features McCartney on vocals and acoustic guitar, the latter showcasing a magnificent baroque-inspired accompaniment. I’ve probably said “This is McCartney doing his best McCartney” more times than I probably should over the course of reviewing his catalog. And yet it still applies here. “Calico Skies” is a standout track in the acoustic tradition of “Blackbird”, “And I Love Her”, “Here Today”, “Put It There”, and so forth.

The title track is very Lynne-esque in structure and phrasing, but again without the stylistic excess and with plenty of McCartney flourishes (check out the saloon-esque piano line between verses). It’s a solid album track, named after a John Lennon parable about how The Beatles got their name. Google it. It’s pretty silly. There’s also a touch of “Mr. Blue Sky” in that outro. This is a fun little nonsense number in the middle of the record, and it works well.

“Heaven on a Sunday” is a breezy, gentle piece of MOR, an earnest ode to the wonderful simple pleasures of stopping to enjoy the restful, peaceful moments of existence. Paul’s son James provides the electric guitar solo that melds well with Paul’s acoustic response. The overall result is an enjoyable song that is reminiscent of some of Paul’s and/or Wings’s better mid 70s work. Bit of a Yacht Rock vibe, and why not? It works for this number.

“Used To Be Bad” is the album’s final collaboration between Paul McCartney and Steve Miller, and this is a true duet, with Paul and Steve trading off on vocals on an unabashed blues rock number. Miller also takes lead guitar on this track, with Paul handling most of the other instrumentation. While I’m admittedly not much of a Steve Miller Band guy — thank Classic Rock radio for ruining his hit songs by playing them into the ground, ad nauseam, for decades — I admit to enjoying “Used To Be Bad” for what it is: a straightforward blues rock number with not much in terms of lyrics or musical inspiration, but enjoyable enough.

The three-quarter time shuffle of “Souvenir”, along with its muscular chorus and strong vocal harmonies, goes a long way towards making a mostly unremarkable song a bit more palatable, but it still feels like a lesser album track. But this is forgotten quickly with the arrival of “Little Willow”, a beautiful, comforting track Paul composed for the children of Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen, who had recently passed away from cancer. (Remember the “Thanks Mo!” line that followed “Get Back” on the Let It Be album? That was Paul’s shout out to Maureen). This tune is absolutely lovely, beautifully composed, performed, and produced.

Speaking of Ringo Starr, the man himself joins Paul on “Really Love You”, playing drums, providing background vocals, and co-writing the track as well. Ringo’s drum work is instantly recognizable, and Lynne realizes this by giving Ringo’s pounding metronomic rhythm the space it needs in this driving blues rock number. I enjoy this track more than “Used To Be Bad”. It has some really inspired swing and verve to it. Paul’s bass playing is deep in the pocket with Ringo’s drums, a classic rhythm section with both men perfectly commanding the soundscape. Ringo returns to that same soundscape for the follow-up track, “Beautiful Night”, a pretty little ballad that doesn’t really go anywhere interesting lyrically, but is so well produced with lush orchestrations and a strongly earnest vocal performance from Paul. The uptempo finish is particularly engaging, especially compounded with Ringo’s background vocals.

If “Beautiful Night” is the epic closer, “Great Day” is the cheeky, scrappy encore. Paul comes out, takes center stage with an acoustic guitar and delivers a simple message of hope and optimism in his farewell to his audience. This track was recorded back in 1992 with George Martin, and while I wouldn’t quite call it the “Her Majesty” to this album’s Abbey Road, because comparing anything to Abbey Road is stinkin’ thinkin’, it’s a fun, good-natured closer to a strong album.

And what a strong album Flaming Pie turned out to be. Fourteen album tracks and not a dud in the bunch, resulting in a record that features a sustained level of quality lacking in much of McCartney’s catalog. Looking at Flaming Pie in the context of McCartney’s entire solo output, it clearly marks the end of his solo “middle period” (1982 – 1997) and the beginning of new era that showcased a more focused strength and consistency in his music. Follow-up albums of original material, like 2001’s Driving Rain, 2005’s Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard, 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and 2013’s New may have their peaks and valleys, but they maintain the momentum Paul originated from upping his game with 1997’s Flaming Pie.