Classic Music Review: Flaming Pie by Paul McCartney

PMC-FP

Let me be clear up front: I am not a fan of any of The Beatles’ solo careers. George did a decent job on about a third of All Things Must Pass, and not a whole lot after that. Ringo played Ringo, meeting pleasantly low expectations. Lennon’s solo career was uneven at best, full of self-and-Yoko indulgence and faux radicalism. The one who really pisses me off, though, is McCartney, who produced oodles of sweet pap that found favor with the masses with its inoffensive, saccharine pleasantness. Whenever I hear Wings or shit like “Ebony and Ivory,” I get angry trying to reconcile that person with the man who wrote “Eleanor Rigby,” “For No One” and “Fool on the Hill,” much less the kid who opened his soul to Little Richard. The truth is that both Lennon and McCartney needed each other: Lennon to compensate for McCartney’s tendency towards the sweet; McCartney to temper Lennon’s leanings toward the sour. It was a healthy collaboration that turned into a healthy competition until they just got fucking sick of each other and went their separate ways.

That said, I couldn’t avoid going to see McCartney several years ago on his “Back in the U. S. A.” tour, primarily because I didn’t want to die without having seen a Beatle. Yes, it’s weird for a twenty-something woman to have a bucket list, but I think I have a good shot to outlive McCartney, who turns seventy-one today. Anyway, it was a great show, as he focused more on Beatles songs and some of his more tolerable Wings and solo act numbers, performing with great enthusiasm and energy. Of course, McCartney being McCartney, he had to piss me off somehow, and he did this by performing no songs from the only solo album I actually liked: Flaming Pie.

Prick.

With help from Jeff Lynne, Steve Miller and a host of others, Flaming Pie followed the period during which McCartney had been revisiting The Beatles’ catalog to prepare for the Anthology extravaganza. While that experience certainly influenced the composition of many of the songs, only a few are Beatle-quality efforts. Some might qualify as Beatle outtakes, B-sides or Let It Be filler; a few belong with the rest of the garbage from his solo albums. What weakens Flaming Pie most of all is McCartney’s attitude that he’s taking a trip down Memory Lane rather than taking an opportunity to continue to explore the endless possibility of rock ‘n’ roll, the music that never dies.

This weakness comes across in the opening number, “The Song We Were Singing.” It’s a nice song with lovely and simple interplay between bass and acoustic guitar in the verses, but throughout the song he seems to dismiss the massive breakthroughs in philosophical thought and social awareness that occurred during the 1960’s as stoner meanderings of little real value. In the process, he comes across as an old bourgeois asshole:

For a while, we could sit, smoke a pipe
And discuss all the vast intricacies of life
We could jaw through the night
Talk about a range of subjects, anything you like
Take a sip, see the world through a glass
And speculate about the cosmic solution
To the sound, blue guitars
Caught up in a philosophical discussion

The chorus, “But we always came back to the songs we were singing” is classic post-Beatle sentimental tripe, sung in a voice thick with nostalgia. The gestalt of the song is, “Oh, what crazy kids we were in our youth!” No, Sir Paul, you were part of a generation that tried to change the world and while they didn’t achieve world peace, they initiated the process of breaking down the many barriers that would have excluded me from reaching my potential and following my heart, and for that, I will always be grateful to that crazy generation. “Screw you, Sir Paul!” I say, respectfully and with proper deference to the title.

Lucky for us, Flaming Pie is not primarily a wistful look back on the salad days of youth. I first learned about Flaming Pie completely by accident via VH-1. One day back in my teens I was sitting around watching music videos when the video for “The World Tonight” popped up. The video itself was silly, with McCartney playing around with a boom box and a big yellow umbrella, looking unpleasantly plump. But the music was fantastic! The groove was hot and full of sway, and the vocal was reminiscent of some of his better Beatle rockers. The lyrics weren’t much to write home about, but compared to what passed for McCartney music at the time, “The World Tonight” was a breakthrough.

“If You Wanna” follows, making it two minor key rockers back-to-back. The lyrics here cross the line into inane (“I’ll take you to the coast for a holiday/You can be my guest, you can let me pay”), but the feel is undeniably strong, confirming that McCartney still knows how to rock. This was one of the Steve Miller tracks, which accounts for the blue note dominance of the lead guitar.

I always skip the next song, “Somedays,” a rather stiff acoustic ballad with really stupid lyrics and an over-the top lead vocal that is out of balance with the rest of the song. But I love “Young Boy,” another Steve Miller collaboration that combines McCartney’s natural gift for melody with a breezy rhythm and that sense of empathy for the young that characterized “Hey Jude.” Steve Miller delivers a knockout lead solo that culminates in one of those stunning McCartney bass runs that send shivers up and down my spine.

 

Flaming Pie is not a strong album for McCartney ballads, as “Calico Skies” demonstrates. Nice melody and all that, but he sings it in an excessively syrupy voice that drives me up the wall. We can leave it behind and move on to the title track, where McCartney has the most fun he’s had being silly and absurdist since “Smile Away” on Ram. The man on the flaming pie is, of course, a figment of John Lennon’s imagination who told the fledgling band, “From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’.” Paul plays with the nonsensical image, creating a lyrical experience that defies explanation but works. And the fucking song rocks!

 

 

The flow vanishes about 11 seconds into “Heaven on a Sunday,” a song that clearly belongs in the shitpile of his solo career and is made more offensive by Sir Paul giving his kid the lead guitar spot on the record. I hate the tendency to turn rock stars into royalty in part because the mindset leads to shit like this where just because you happen to be the kid of someone famous you get opportunities that more talented kids would die for. Well, we’ve already seen that Paul forgot everything he learned in the 60’s, like a commitment to equal opportunity, so we shouldn’t be surprised.

What is surprising is that at this late stage in his career, after twenty-five years of producing waste, McCartney could come up with a killer song like “Souvenir,” my favorite song on the album. Harkening back to his R&B roots, this is a superb number with a stunning lead guitar riff—a sexy run of blue notes with touches of dissonance that is completely captivating. Paul sings this one like he means it, and I love the fade into the lo-fi vocal over the scratchy sound of vinyl.

This is followed by “Little Willow,” a song that some might find overtly sentimental, but one that I find both moving and beautiful. Written for the children of the late Maureen Starkey after she died of cancer, “Little Willow” is a sensitive and touching song about a difficult subject that is impossible for a child to grasp. Here Paul reins in his tendency to overdo the emotional aspect of a song, focusing his energies on helping the children deal with the sad reality of death, expressing the same level of genuine empathy he expressed for Julian Lennon in “Hey, Jude.”

I rarely listen to the rest of Flaming Pie. The extended back-and-forth jam between McCartney and Miller on “Really Love You” sounds contrived and is thoroughly predictable. Many people think “Beautiful Night” is a great song, and I suppose if you like overproduced, overlong tunes, this could work for you. “Great Day” is a tiny song fragment that I suppose is a good way to end a Beatles, er, McCartney album.

Flaming Pie can be considered a net positive for McCartney, not because he was trying to reproduce the sound of The Beatles but because the experience with the Anthology appears to have reminded him of the quality of The Beatles’ work. It was nice to hear that he still retained some of the talent and creative spark that brought him acclaim in the first place, and even though he pisses me off from time to time, I’m still grateful he was born on this day seventy-one years ago.

17 responses

  1. […] Paul McCartney, Flaming Pie […]

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  2. Macca… SOLO! Argh! You verbalised my feelings about his solo career really well.

    I’ll share an amusing story with you relating to that. I moved to Liverpool in 1998 (I stayed there for 11 years) and in my earliest days I met a Mexican Beatle freak who professed to be a huge fan of all the solo work as well. One evening I paid a visit and we got onto McCartney solo where I ranted that I feel it’s a perpetual embarrassment that a man who wrote some truly amazing songs in The Beatles was incapable of writing anything anywhere near as good as that since all I ever heard was a plain insult. This superfan then dug out a large CD folder containing every damn Beatles and solo album ever released and told me they were gonna prove to me that he had written some amazing stuff.

    It was both surreal and hilarious as they looked at each CD, searched their memory bank, would pull a face then moved on to the next album. This happened for EVERY album and by the end, the most recent being “Flaming Pie” I was asked if I’d heard that – I had, hence that was skipped and the superfan admitted defeat that there really was not one single song the equal to his best Beatles work to be found anywhere!

    Indeed, “Flaming Pie” was much hyped at the time and heralded as a return to form thanks in part to The Beatles’ Anthology projects reinvigorating Macca. One of my pals in my old hometown bought the CD and exclaimed it was Macca’s best album yet two weeks later after further listens admitted it had a handful of OK tracks but was too patchy. I borrowed and listened to it and it was pleasant… but not enough substance in most tracks. Might revisit the album and remind myself of the tracks you enjoyed – since I have much trust and respect for the tracks you enjoy, so maybe I might enjoy them afresh.

    Of course since then… well… no comment! The best thing I thought the guy wrote since the Beatles split was the statement he released after Linda died where he talked about her death… that was a beautiful moving tribute that actually brought tears to my eyes. A pity his music can’t touch me like that… sure it brings tears to my eyes but tears of frustration and rage!

    In his defence, whilst living in Liverpool I did learn he does a hell of a lot for his home city… he’s a regular visitor and has put in tons of money for schemes and local charities. Sure his music may have sucked for too long but Scousers love and revere him since he’s never forgotten where he came from so I’ll give him credit for that. I did have the chance to meet him on one occasion… of course saying “I did have the chance” instantly and correctly implies I turned it down! I was in a quandary about it trying to make my mind up but in the end decided not to since I dunno… I guess I didn’t want to be disappointed and the only Beatle I would had wanted to meet was John anyway!

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    1. Flaming Pie is his best solo effort but that ain’t saying much. It’s certainly not Beatles-at-their-peak or close to it. I like the way you wore down the fanatics with cold hard facts.

      Funny—I’ve never had the slightest desire to meet any musician or famous person. I doubt very much that any such encounter would be authentic and I’ve found artists often dissemble when talking about their art. If I had to make one exception, it would be June Tabor.

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  3. A friend of mine didn’t like “Good Day Sunshine,” saying it was one of Paul’s post Beatles schmaltz songs. I informed him it was from 1966, Beatles era. He did an instant re-evaluation and decided he liked it reasonably well. McCartney continues writing and performing music while up against this mindset that anything he did/does after the Beatles is lacking depth or just isn’t good because it isn’t “Beatles”. There are definitely some light songs in his post-1970 repertoire. There are also songs where he has this light pop veneer but if you see what’s going on with the lyrics there is more bite than he’s often given credit for. The album Ram contains a lot of hidden and not so hidden bite. It received horrible reviews when first released, everyone calling it fluff. But that has given way to many saying it’s arguably his strongest post Beatles effort. Perhaps in another 20 or 30 years people will be able to just hear the music on its own terms instead of against the expectation that Paul would be able to synthesize within himself the creative power of all four Beatles. No one could live up to that expectation.

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    1. I have a slightly different take. It wasn’t that I expected him to live up to the expectations set by The Beatles, which would be unfair (as you noted) and technically impossible (because of different collaborators). My problem with McCartney is mostly that he stopped taking lyrics seriously. Musically he has done some interesting stuff in his post-Beatles career, but his lyrics are frigging atrocious. “Uncle Albert,” “Let Me In,” “Jet” are complete and utter nonsense. Since you mention “Good Day Sunshine,” I would point out that the lyrics are at least consistent with a theme and contain some clever and concrete lines (and brilliantly-written music). So does “When I’m Sixty-Four.” McCartney always had a schmaltz weakness, which doesn’t bother me that much (Lennon could have used a little more schmaltz to balance his solo work), but the lyrics would qualify as embarrassing and disappointing even if The Beatles had never existed.

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      1. I agree that sometimes his lyrics are not the greatest. But there is good stuff sprinkled throughout. If he’d only put out half the songs he’s written since 1970, the better half, he’d probably be considered a lot more positively. Just having another person (John) fighting for half the space on an album eliminated a lot of weaker material in those years. The same can be said of Lennon’s post-Beatles catalog as well. Very uneven.

        Veering into the pop psych realm, I’ve often wondered if the Tate/LaBianca murders and Charles Manson’s claim that he was following messages hidden in Beatles albums affected McCartney’s music afterword. Even subconsciously, I could see someone choosing the light and innocuous after people have been diced and sliced because a nut took your music SO seriously. May be pointless speculation, and McCartney would likely never say so even if it were true, but … ?

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        1. afterward, not afterword.

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        2. Interesting theory! I do think the quantity argument is a good one, and you also had George Martin there (at least in the first few years) to serve as another quality control inspector. I’d also add that even without comparing their solo work to their Beatles, none of the Beatles’ work was particularly stellar. I’m an equal opportunity Beatle-basher!

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  4. But everyone’s going to have different takes on music. It’s all personal preference once you get past technical proficiency. Peace.

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    1. I agree with the first sentence with the caveat that I would apply technical proficiency to lyrics as well as musicianship. Peace to you!

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  5. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    McCartney never stopped to being a melodic genius. He was the greatest songwriter of the last century, a musical genius. I agree that he was not the best lyricist of the world, I not like much nonsense lyrics, but using this criterie we will trash many acclaimed and spectacular albums and artists. In fact, I find VERY common, almost the rule in rock music, nonsense lyrics. A great song like Life On Mars, by David Bowie, have totally nonsense lyrics and many other Bowie songs. Another thing, I like much more the nonsense, innofensive and inocent McCartney lyrics than those polemychal and very indecent lyrics of many songs by The Doors and The Velvet Underground And Nico.

    I believe that people tend to underrate The Beatles solo careers because of steorotype images. The idea that Lennon was the artistical and McCartney the banal and comercial is very exagerated and make many critics against McCartney because of lack of deeper knowing. The main creative mind behind the second phase of The Beatles was McCartney. Many of the innovations of that time were by McCartney, but people seem to forget this. McCartney made bad banal songs, but who says that Lennon did not made these kind of songs also? People have selective memory. Band On The Run and Ram are the greatest solo albums by McCartney, great albums really.

    I believe that you also undersevedly underrate Paul’s solo career. But I don’t blame you. I consider that your error in unintentional and inconscient. Frankly, new generations to come and actual generation already like more McCartney’s albums more than the public and critic liked that time. They didn’t live the original and had a much more impartial and unaffected analysis. Is there any Paul McCartney’s album so good like a Beatles? No, Beatles standards were simply too high and nobody since them reached their level. But I agree that the lack of competition with Lennon diminished Paul’s creativity. In fact, McCartney recognized in a interview that the lack of competition with Lennon was tailoring his creativity

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  6. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    I listened to this album few days ago. It is really great! Not a masterpiece of Beatles level, but an album that would be the absolute peak of MANY other artists. Side One is near to perfect. I understand your criticism against the first song in the album, but still is delivered with sincerity and is moving. The World Tonight is very good and rocks very well
    If You Wanna also mantains the high level. The lyrics may not be really clever, but the song is really good, well-performed and engaging. I love the song Somedays. Honestly, I can’t see the problems that you appointed. Great melody, good lyrics in my opinion. In fact, this song made George Martin clap hands to McCartney after they recorded it. Young Boy is great, Calico Skies is one of my favorite songs by him in his whole career, McCartney’s ballads are very strong here in my opinion. Flaming Pie closes well the first side. The album would be five star for me if not for some songs in the second side. Heaven On A Sunday is decent, not atrocious, but sub-par. The songs with Steve Miller really put the album down. This album would be a 4,5/5 stars for me without these songs. Beautiful Night may be overlong and overproduced, I understand your criticism, but the song is simply great enough to survive this. The melody is great, especially when the song starts, a part that really grabs me and I love. The refrain is good, but the best of this song is its start. After all, Flaming Pie is a great album that I recommend to everybody and also the album that started a new creative peak for McCartney that continued for the whole 2000s. It is incredible how McCartney managed to have a second peak, he has been more consistent than he was in the 80s decade, that saw still some truly great material, as some songs of Flowers In The Dirt and a half of the album Tug Of War. I want to listen Ram, I listened some few songs and loved, it seems to be a wonderful album in its charm, unpretentiouness and pure naturality, delightening the listener with the simple, but beautiful things in common life. I am also very curious of Chaos And Creation. Many people say that McCartney almost always manage to have some great songs in his worst albums and that his career would be full of truly classic albums if he had released just one album every three years with only his absolute great songs, instead of one album each years. There are many hidden gems in his rich and diverse, tough uneven, solo catalogue waiting to be discovered. His lyrics may not be always great and declined with time, but he still retained his almost incomparable magical touch for great melodies after The Beatles broke, as the 70s decade shows and as even some songs that you called crap show also.

    Just one thing I have to ask: many say that the 80s was McCartney’s worst decade by far. But in fact, almost every artists that peaked in the 60s decade had a hard creative period in the 80s decade. Many of these artists, McCartney being one of them, managed to recover in the 90s decade. Is this a coincidency? Or is there a logical explication for this? Keep well.

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  7. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    You said that the lyrics of Somedays were stupid, but you did not explain why. This is a hole in your review.

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    1. This isn’t a term paper! The review is complete.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

        Sorry. It was not my intention irritate you.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Apology accepted. One more thing: I had to rescue one of your comments from the spam folder because it had too many links. I know it’s a hassle but if you have things you think I should read, send the links in separate comments.

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