Flaming Pie is not only one of Paul McCartney's strongest solo albums, it is also one of the most enjoyable albums of the 1990s. It was released in 1997 and became number one in the UK and number two in the US1. In many ways a transitional album, it marks a fundamental change in the way that Paul approached music, and manages to be both more light-hearted and more mature than his previous studio albums.
Paul described making the record with the words:
I wanted to have some fun and not sweat it. That's been the spirit of making this record. You've got to have a laugh, because it's just a record. So I called up a bunch of friends and family and we just got on and did it. And we had fun making it. Hopefully you'll hear that in the songs.
Friends and Family
The 'Friends and Family' Paul mentioned that were involved in the album were:
By far best known for ELO, the Electric Light Orchestra, Lynne had also produced George Harrison's Cloud Nine (1987) album and been a member of the Traveling Wilburys with George. George had insisted that Lynne, rather than George Martin, produce The Beatles Anthology singles 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' as he had felt that Martin had favoured Paul McCartney and John Lennon while neglecting his own talents, and he wanted a neutral/friendly opinion. This led to Paul working with Lynne on some of the album's tracks.
The legendary Beatles recording manager whose contribution was so great he is one of the people often nicknamed the Fifth Beatle. It was Martin that offered the Beatles a recording contract with EMI's division Parlophone. Yet when he asked for a bonus or pay rise after the records he had produced for EMI in 1963 alone had made over £2¼ million and was refused, Martin formed his own company, Associated Independent Recordings, or AIR for short. The Beatles continued to record with him, relying on him to provide orchestration for many of their tracks and to be experimental.
He continued to work with Paul even after the Beatles split up, with both working on the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die2 as well as Paul's studio albums Tug of War, Pipes of Peace and Give My Regards to Broad Street. In the 1990s he selected the tracks for The Beatles Anthology project.
Paul and Linda's son James was born in 1977 and named after his father and grandfather3. He would later co-write two songs on Paul's 2001 album Driving Rain.
Paul's wife since 1969, Linda McCartney had collaborated with Paul on much of his solo work and had been a member of his band Wings. For Flaming Pie, not only did she provide backing vocals but she also took the photographs for both the cover and the information booklet. This was the last Paul McCartney album she contributed to before her death from breast cancer in April 1998. A posthumous solo album, Wide Prairie, was released in the October of that year.
A blues musician for whom Paul played drums on his track 'My Dark Hour' in 1969, during the turbulent time in which John, George and Ringo wanted to sign Allen Klein as their manager. They kept in touch and, in 1995, Paul requested that Miller collaborate with him. They performed together both in Miller's Sun Valley Studio and in his own studio.
What Is Different?
The album marks a sea-change in Paul McCartney's attitude to his music, and not because it was the first album he had released since becoming Sir Paul McCartney4. No, more importantly, it was his first solo album released since the The Beatles Anthology project.
There were many ways that The Beatles Anthology project affected the album Flaming Pie. Firstly, in the 1980s and early 90s, Paul had been in the habit of releasing an album on average every two years. With three Anthology albums due, EMI requested that Paul not release an album during this period. They did not want Paul competing with the Beatles as this could damage potential sales5. Instead of the usual two years, Paul therefore had four years in which to craft the album. Having four years' worth of material at the end of this time ensured he was able to pick the best of a much wider crop of songs.
The Beatles Anthology project also reunited Paul with many of the people that he would work on Flaming Pie with. Both Ringo Starr and George Martin had collaborated with Paul in the former and would influence this album. He had also found working with Jeff Lynne a positive experience and invited him to work on Flaming Pie following their collaboration on The Beatles Anthology singles.
One of the biggest influences was that before The Beatles Anthology project, Paul distanced himself from the Beatles and was anxious to prove that he could have an independent career. With the exception of the two John Lennon tributes, his own 'Here Today', and performing with George on 'All Those Years Ago', Paul never looked back. Yet almost as if The Beatles Anthology reminded him that he had been a Beatle and that it was quite an accomplishment, Flaming Pie is full of reflective references to the past, setting a trend that would increase with each new album released since.
The other change in the way Paul worked was that, in the albums before Flaming Pie, critics felt that after composing and recording a rough diamond of a song, he would polish and polish and polish and polish that song until the sparkle had been all-but worn away. With Flaming Pie, inspired by how the early Beatles records had been sung and recorded so quickly, he appealingly allowed the songs to be recorded quicker and have a much rougher, raw sound.
Paul admitted his inspiration with the words:
I came off the back of 'The Beatles Anthology' with an urge to do some new music. The 'Anthology' was very good for me because it reminded me of The Beatles' standards and... in a way was a refresher course that set the framework for this album.
The title was inspired by an article that John wrote for Mersey Beat in 1961 explaining how the group had acquired the Beatles name, long before they were famous. Entitled Being A Short Diversion On The Dubious Origins Of Beatles, an excerpt reads:
Once upon a time there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type. When they were together they wondered what for after all, what for? So all of a sudden they all grew guitars and fashioned a noise. Funnily enough, no-one was interested... many people ask what are the Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision - a man appeared on a Flaming Pie and said unto them 'From this day on you are Beatles with an A'. 'Thankyou, Mister Man,' they said, thanking him...
John Lennon would later publish two books in this style, In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works. When interviewed for his 1997 album Flaming Pie, Paul McCartney said:
We were asked what the meaning of the name the Beatles was, and John wrote a little piece in the 'Mersey Beat', which was the local music paper in Liverpool. It was a kinda joke piece, and it was kinda biblical, sort of thing...
... When we were doing the 'Anthology' it became a matter of much glee for those of us who had been in the group that certain people involved in the 'Anthology' actually thought John had had a vision and took it literally, which is no, it was a joke, believe me. It's kinda Liverpool humour, a little of the Goons, it really was a joke - he didn't have a vision... If he had said a man on a Flaming Phoenix, maybe you could keep a straight face and believe him, or Flaming Chariot, maybe, but the minute he said 'pie', it was a kinda humour. And it became a bit of a thing, and it later came to me that I should write a song about the Man on the Flaming Pie, and make him a complete nutter.
In keeping with the 'pie' theme, the songs are listed as 'Ingredients' on the album's back cover.
The songs were recorded over a period of four years in Paul's studio, Hog Hill Mill, in East Sussex, George Martin's AIR Studio in London and Steve Miller's studio in Sun Valley, Idaho, USA.
The 54-minute-long album was released on LP, CD and cassette.
'The Song We Were Singing'
The opening song was written when Paul was in Jamaica. It was produced by Jeff Lynne, who also played electric and acoustic guitars and keyboard while Paul played electric, acoustic, bass guitars and harmonium. In addition, Paul used Bill Black's former stand-up double bass that can be heard on many of Elvis Presley's earliest hits, including 'Heartbreak Hotel'. The song was very much inspired by his relationship with John, which he described with the words:
I was remembering the 60s, sitting around late at night, dossing, smoking, drinking wine, hanging out [with John]. We were taking a sip, seeing the world through a glass, talking about the cosmic solution. It's that time in your life when you get a chance for all that.
'The World Tonight'
Another song by Paul and Jeff Lynne heavily inspired by Paul's relationship with John. He stated:
'I go back so far, I'm in front of me' – I don't know where that came from, but if I'd been writing with John he would have gone, 'Okay, leave that one in; we don't know what it means but we do know what it means'.
Paul had originally conceived the song as an acoustic track, however, encouraged by Jeff Lynne and Linda, it became heavier.
It's got a bit of a tougher riff on it. Actually, there's a bit more of my heavier guitar on this album. When Linda and I first met, she'd say, 'I didn't know you played heavy guitar like that, I love that'... So when it came to this album Linda said, 'really play guitar, don't just get someone to play it'.
'If You Wanna'
This song had been written on Paul's 1993 'New World Tour'. He had a day off in Minneapolis, the home town of Prince6, and was inspired to try and write a Prince-style 'driving across America' song. It was recorded with Steve Miller in 1995.
The most haunting song on the album, orchestrated by Sir George Martin. Paul described its genesis simply with the words:
I'd driven Linda to a photo session for one of her cookery assignments. Knowing she'd be about two hours, I set myself a deadline to write a song in that time, so that when she'd finished and would say, 'Did you get bored? What did you do?' I could say, 'Oh, I wrote this song. Wanna hear it?'
This song is a strong example of Paul realising his maturity; for the first time, Paul is singing as a father advising the next generation rather than singing about young love from his own perspective. He described writing it with the words:
This was another written against the clock. I wrote it in the time that it took Linda to cook a lunch for a feature in the 'New York Times'...
'Young Boy' is just about a young guy looking for a way to find love and basically I suppose I was thinking of my own son, who's 19, though he'd kill me for saying that. It's for anyone around that age, looking for love. I remember the feeling well. I remember thinking, 'There's three hundred million people out there and one of them is the right one for me.' But you don't know if you'll ever meet them or how you'll do it. It's a pretty scary feeling. So this song is for all those people.
Paul collaborated with Steve Miller on this song, recording it in Sun Valley, Idaho.
A short love and anti-war song written during a powercut caused by Hurricane Bob in August 1991. It was recorded a year later, produced by George Martin. Paul explained:
Bob the hurricane knocked out all the power... I couldn't play records, so I made up little acoustic pieces. This was one of them.
This was the first song recorded for the album, with Paul the only musician credited on the track, performing vocals, acoustic guitar and knee-slap percussion.
A fun, cheeky song that Paul composed shortly after recording 'Souvenir' with Jeff Lynne. It was recorded within four hours.
'Heaven on a Sunday'
A song Paul wrote while sailing on holiday that could be subtitled 'McCartney, McCartney and Son', with Paul, Linda and James all performing, accompanied by Jeff Lynne on acoustic guitar. For his first appearance on record, James McCartney provides the guitar solo. Paul proudly announced:
I thought it would be a nice idea to play with him, as he's getting really good on guitar... I played the acoustic stuff and left the young Turk to play the hot electric stuff.
'Used to be Bad'
Having enjoyed playing together, Paul and Steve Miller held a blues jam session. Miller played guitar riffs while Paul played the drums, and they alternated singing lyrics into one shared microphone.
A song composed in Jamaica, with Paul aiming for a soul R&B feel. This was one of Paul's favourite songs on the album:
I would have loved it as a single, but I knew that no-one on Earth would ever have chosen it as a single.
Perhaps the most moving and emotional song on the album, which is described in the booklet as written after Paul learned of the death of a dear friend, but without stating who the friend was. In fact, the song was written after he learned of the death of Ringo's first wife Maureen. Although Paul has found coming to terms with grief difficult and has only been able to cope by distancing himself from it, his first thought was for her children, Zak, Lee and Jason. Unable to write a letter to express his regret, he instead wrote a song:
The morning I heard the news I couldn't think of anything else, so I wrote this to convey how much I thought of her. It's certainly heartfelt and I hope it'll help the kids. Instead of writing a letter I wrote a song.
The song was later included on the double album Diana – A Tribute following the Princess of Wales' death in 1997. A music video for this song appears on The McCartney Years collection, showing a young mother diagnosed with a serious illness, and her relationship with her two children.
'Really Love You'
This is the first song to be credited to McCartney/Starr, as it came from a jam session during the recording of the album. Paul described the song with the words:
Doing 'Beautiful Night' with Ringo wasn't enough. I wanted more fun. So we jammed. The actor's worst dream is being on stage not knowing what play he's in – doing this vocal was like that, you can go anywhere. You've got to clear your mind – and play bass – let your head go and ad-lib it all.
Ringo simply described the song by saying:
This song was originally composed in 1986 and a demo version was recorded during his Flowers in the Dirt sessions, yet although the song clearly had potential, it didn't quite feel right. Ten years later Paul invited Ringo, with whom he hadn't recorded for a decade either, to his studio. He had bought Ringo an exact replica of his drum set to help him feel at home.
I unearthed this old song for when Ringo was coming, changed a few lyrics and it was really like the old days. I realised that we hadn't done this for so long, but it was very comfortable, and it was still there.
Paul had tweaked the lyrics7 and added an upbeat coda since the original 1986 version, which was included on the single release. With new orchestration by George Martin overdubbed at Abbey Road, this is the most Beatle-sounding song on the album, which Paul admitted, saying:
I didn't consciously start off trying to make a Beatles sound, although these days I don't try to avoid it.
Ringo simply described the song as 'joyous'.
The accompanying music video caused a minor amount of controversy. Directed by Julian Temple, it was set in present day Liverpool. At the start, Ringo is annoyed by his young, inconsiderately noisy neighbours, two parents are having a serious argument in front of their television-watching children, a young woman and a young man have never met and both are lonely, and no-one is paying any attention to anyone else. This is seen by Sir Paul, who watches from a camera obscura at the top of the city. He switches all electricity off across the city, creating a beautiful night free from distraction. Suddenly all of Liverpool comes together; Ringo starts drumming with his neighbours, the family stops arguing and bonds, and the young woman, played by actress Emma Moore, runs through the streets of the city, dodging zebras. Pausing only to free the fireflies she keeps in a jar in a kitchen cupboard, she goes skinny dipping in the River Mersey. There she meets a young man who is also fond of swimming, and in the end the people of Liverpool throw their televisions away.
The controversy came from the fact that during this video, that was over five minutes long, Emma's bare breasts were, in fact, visible for less than a second. Newspapers quickly reported this shocking fact with headlines such as 'Hey Nude', the video was banned outright by MTV and Oprah Winfrey would only broadcast a censored version. The edited version is available to watch on The McCartney Years collection.
The final song on the album is a short, sweet, hopeful ditty that Paul and Linda used to sing in the early 1970s. When Hurricane Bob resulted in a powercut where they were staying on Long Island, as well as composing 'Calico Skies', Paul played this song on his acoustic guitar, recording it the following year.
It's just a little upbeat song of hope – to the point and in the spirit of this whole album.
The album became Paul's 81st Gold Record, reaching Gold in America in three days and it was Gold both sides of the Atlantic.
As part of the launch of Flaming Pie, Paul decided to hold a live Internet question-and-answer session on 17 May, 1997, which was screened live on VH-1. They were swamped with 2,476,092 questions, which it has been estimated would have taken Paul over two years to answer. Paul stated:
It's an awful lot to ask of anyone, I don't think we'll get through all the questions – but we'll give it a go.
This was a Guinness World Record for both the biggest audience and the most questions asked for a 30-minute webcast.
Flaming Pie was nominated for a Grammy award, but lost to Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind.
One way to judge an album's legacy is to see how many of its songs are still performed following the release of more recent studio albums. In the 20 years since the album was released, Paul continues to perform many of the songs, which have appeared on subsequent live albums. Instrumental versions of 'Somedays' and 'Calico Skies' appear on the 1999 album Working Classical. 'Calico Skies' also appears on his 2003 live Back in the World album. 'Calico Skies', along with 'Flaming Pie', can also be found on 2009 live album Good Evening New York City. Paul performed 'Flaming Pie' at his award-winning 2004 Glastonbury appearance, which featured Paul 'Wix' Wickens on keyboards8.
Of the 67 tracks that Paul chose in 2016 to represent his entire solo career on the deluxe version of the Pure album, eight came from Flaming Pie: 'The Song We Were Singing', 'Flaming Pie', 'Calico Skies', 'The World Tonight', 'Souvenir', 'Beautiful Night', 'Little Willow' and 'Great Day'9.