You may pay through the nose, but nobody does these big deluxe sets better than McCartney. There are booklets, reproductions, photos, archival treasures and a guitar pick, enough reading and perusing to cover the better part of a day. The box itself is a manufacturing gem, lovely quality paper and packaging. It's filled with Linda-snapped images from intimate settings, and virtually every bit of publicity churned out by the official McCartney company back in the day. Then there are the five CD's and two DVD's worth of listening and viewing. Better set aside two days.
But why Flaming Pie? Most people can't even remember the 1997 album, let alone name one song featured on it. It certainly has nowhere near the acclaim of Band On The Run, Ram, or even the later gem Flowers In The Dirt. Well, it turns out to be one of those peaks McCartney hits every few years, when he needs to get back, get off his comfortable throne, and make some music that lives up to his name.
The mid-'90's were a quiet period for McCartney, at least in terms of new studio albums. His latest was 1993's Off The Ground, a somewhat lifeless affair with strained songwriting. He was still very busy though, having done a classical album, an ambient one as The Fireman, and gone on a world tour, with a live album following. After that, it was his old band taking his time and the headlines. The Beatles Anthology hit TV screens in 1995, and the accompanying CD collections put the group back at the toppermost of the poppermost. The band was as big as, well, The Beatles again, and the group members spent tons of time together reliving the old days in interviews, and even recording two new songs using old Lennon demos.
It was that experience that inspired McCartney for his next album. He remembered how the group used to knock off a new song in a three-hour session, and not worry it to death. He vowed to make his sessions simpler and faster, and more relaxed. He also enjoyed being a Beatle again briefly, and vowed to work with Ringo again sooner than later. Plus, he liked Jeff Lynne a lot, who had produced the "Free As A Bird" and "Real Love" sessions, and wanted to work with him again.
With the Anthology albums at number one, McCartney realized even he couldn't compete with The Beatles, so he laid low, vacationed and wrote a few new tunes. It took about four years to get Flaming Pie finished and released in 1997, but in truth each session had only lasted a couple of days. McCartney went for the simpler approach, and instead of lining up a band, he mostly worked solo or with one other musician, mirroring the first solo sessions he'd done on 1970's McCartney album. After all, he could play almost everything.
Lynne produced about half the album, and joined in on guitar, keyboards and vocals, with McCartney covering the rest. Some tracks stayed simple and acoustic, just Paul and guitar, in the "Blackbird" style. When he felt like a guitar duel, he got his 19-year-old son James, who did a fine job. And he rang up an old friend, Steve Miller, with the two jamming away, Paul on drums and Miller on guitar, to start. The only time he did give up the drum stool was when Ringo dropped in for a couple, because, you know, he's Ringo.
There was surprisingly limited interest in the record on release. Yes, it hit #2 on the British and U.S. album charts, but that was more through reputation and leftover Beatle buzz. There were no hits, despite several singles and videos being released. But the deep state McCartney fans (they are out there, believe it), swore there were some classics on it, if you listened more than once or twice.
And that's exactly what I found, living with this box for a few days. "The World Tonight" showcases an edgier McCartney side, guitar rock similar to high period Wings songs like "Let Me Roll It." "Young Boy," the best of the Steve Miller cuts, is one of those ridiculous earworms he makes, light and breezy and instantly hummable. "Calico Skies" and "Little Willow" are acoustic gems that sooth from the first note, timeless songs you can imagine some British minstrel singing at the king's court a few centuries back. The capper though was "Beautiful Night." McCartney always knows when he's hit a home run, and he dug into it with gusto. It starts out simply enough, but explodes near the end, in the style of "Live And Let Die." George Martin comes aboard to add brass and strings, Ringo hits that classic drum sound, and as a cherry on top, joins Paul on vocals, as close to a Beatles song as we could hope for, a "Hey Jude" moment.
Then you get going on the box set bonuses. There's a disc of most of the songs done as acoustic home demos, either guitar or piano. Then comes a disc of studio run-throughs, early attempts and rough mixes. Disc four is my favourite, a collection of recordings that didn't make the album, including a leftover Miller jam issued as a b-side, and a wacky production done with poet Alan Ginsberg called The Ballad Of The Skeletons. The best thing here is the inclusion of the "Oobu Joobu" sessions, a limited radio show he produced that featured some of his unreleased music, experiments and out-takes.
A fifth CD, and the two DVD's get a little tiresome, as they collect all the promotional material created for the album. These are interviews and documentaries that do provide lots of access to McCartney and his recording techniques, but there's too much repetition among the various mini-docs, electronic press kits and official videos. Well, at least they tried to give it all, as in the past McCartney has been criticized for not including everything. There are some highlights, including a solo performance on a British TV show, with live Paul drumming and singing along to various video Pauls in TV monitors. And a revealing interview by David Frost is the only mention of Linda McCartney's then-recent cancer diagnosis, which was playing behind the scenes during the album's launch.
So yes, Flaming Pie is one of the better McCartney albums, and only includes a couple of those embarrassing lyrics that he seems to think funny. In this case, the whole "Flaming Pie" song, a take on John Lennon's made-up story about how The Beatles came to be named ("a man on a flaming pie"), is just a goof, although it does rock. And one of the Miller cuts, a blues jam, only proves McCartney can't do the blues. But there are several really great songs, it's a grand overall listen, and there could be a couple of numbers here that would make it to your personal McCartney mixtape. And if you don't want the massive doorstop edition, there's a two-CD set that should satisfy your ears