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.
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.