Paul McCartney | Flaming Pie | (Capitol)
Five out of Five stars
Wow. Ummm, this really is something. Overwhelming almost. Those few words alone could sum up any critical reaction to this lavish five CD/two DVD/four LP box set. It is, in a word, mind-blowing. (Granted, that’s actually two words, but the description will still suffice.)
The latest entry in Macca’s archival series featuring expanded reissues of his seminal solo catalogue, the remake of Flaming Pie makes for the most ambitious offering yet, particularly the so-called “Collectors Edition” discussed here. It boasts five CDs — the original album, home recordings, demos, his “Oobu Joobu” series and quite a bit of unreleased material —along with four LPs containing the album and outtakes and two DVDs containing the original “In the World Tonight” documentary, as well as interviews, live performances, videos, and all sorts of other odds and sods. Add to that beautiful oversized art prints suitable for framing, handwritten lyrics, an expansive book documenting the making of the album, reproductions of original studio notes, an edition of his fanzine “Club Sandwich,” and extensive notes detailing each selection, and it becomes a treasure trove indeed. (Other editions careless ornate but still offer added music with a less intimidating price tag.)
Consequently, there’s a lot to digest as far as the larger edition is concerned, and its hefty cost — upwards of a few hundred dollars — is matched by its bulk. Bound in a 17” by 21” box, the entire package weighs several pounds, which makes it somewhat challenging as displaying is concerned. It’s not one that can simply be stuck on a shelf. Likewise, considering the art — and the artifacts — that accompany this edition, the value comes into focus. More than merely audio embellishment, the visual addendum makes this something a museum piece. And a rare acquisition as well.
Of course the focus necessarily falls back to the original album, which still stands as one of Paul’s best, although in retrospect it may have been a bit unappreciated. That’s easy to understand; after all, many of McCartney’s albums get an initial splash on release (Flaming Pie reached number two on both the U.S. and U.K. charts), and yet the impact seemed to fade all too quickly. Likewise, few if any of the album tracks made it into Macca’s live sets, all but dooming them to oblivion. Still, Flaming Pie — famously named for John Lennon’s facetious explanation of how the Beatles got their handle — is a solid album even on its own, with several song that still stand up some 25 years on. Given that it was released on the heels of McCartney’s involvement with the Beatles Anthology series, it was at least partially inspired by his look back at past achievements. In the handwritten notes that accompany the new box McCartney calls his involvement with the Anthology “ a refresher course that set the framework for this album.”
Of course, that’s a high bar, one that McCartney has always had to contend with throughout his solo career. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to negate Flaming Pie on the basis of its songs alone. Yes, it is, as is Paul’s norm, somewhat lightweight overall, but several standout selections — the effusive title track, the wistful “Calico Skies” the calming caress of the sweetly nostalgic “The Song We Were Singing,” the breezy “Young Boy,” and the steady groove of “The World Tonight” and “If You Wanna” — cast the album in tender trappings and a summery haze. Reunited with producer George Martin, fellow Fab Ringo Starr, old pal Steve Miller, and fellow traveler Jeff Lynne, the man who helmed the “Threetles” current Anthology recordings of “Real Love” and “Free As a Bird,” it’s a solid set of songs that still stand up well with this belated revisit.
Of course the other additives allow for added embellishment as well. Paul’s audio tour through his home studio and the commentary about the various instruments used in the recording of the new album and various Beatles classics should be of special interest to to archivists. Hearing him reproduce the opening mellotron riff of “Strawberry Fields Forever” offers a special fascination all its own. A CD of home demos find McCartney entirely on his own working out the songs on acoustic guitar. Another disc allows the listener to become a fly on the wall while the songs are worked out in the studio.
So too, the other discs delve into the oddities. The opening track on disc four, “The Ballad of the Skeletons” is easily one of the most unusual entries in the McCartney catalog, an unlikely collaboration with Allen Ginsberg that finds Paul, Phillip Glass, Marc Ribot, David Mansfield, and Lenny Kaye accompanying the poet on an expressive read of an otherwise obtuse offering. The ditties that make up the outtakes, the chat and alternative takes that encompass his “Oobu Joobu” series and the B-sides “Same Love,” “Love Comes Tumbling Down” and “Love Mix” mostly cater to the completist, but are interesting enough to warrant at least an initial listen. Likewise, the DVDs — the aforementioned documentary in particular — offer long-unseen footage of McCartney promoting the then-new album in a conversation with David Frost as well as behind the scenes footage taken during the album’s conception and creation.
It’s a lot to delve into. As much a scholarly treatise as serious source material, the relit Flaming Pie is finally served up with the stature it deserves.