Saturday, 29 August 2020

Flaming Pie: Paul McCartney Archive Collection & The Top 20 Macca Albums – Ranked!

reviewed by Stuart Penney
Paul McCartney’s stock as a solo artist was uncharacteristically low during the 90s.  Once a chart-topping regular, he hadn't scored a US top 10 album since 1982's Tug of War and his 1993 LP Off the Ground had been poorly received, resulting in a four-year recording lay-off.  But then, in May 1997, came Flaming Pie
Arriving in the wake of the Beatles Anthology media blitz when the world was surfing a tidal wave of Fab-fueled nostalgia, it was McCartney’s most critically acclaimed album in a decade and, whisper it, one of the most satisfying records of his solo career.  Flaming Pie was a commercial success, too, peaking at #2 in the UK and US charts, held off the top spot on both sides of the Atlantic only by the Spice Girls’ mega-selling debut album Spice.  Those were strange times, indeed.
The title, should anyone in the Western world still be unaware, is a Lennon-ism dating from a July 1961 article John wrote for the Liverpool music paper Mersey Beat:  
“Many people ask what are 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’.  Thank you, mister man, they said, thanking him.”
It’s a bold claim, but I maintain Flaming Pie was also the last really great McCartney record.  As strong as any of his post-Beatles efforts, it’s right up there with Band On The Run, Ram and Tug Of War.  Packed with memorable tunes and blessed with a terrific production, courtesy of Jeff Lynne and George Martin, it was also, sadly, the final album Paul recorded with wife Linda who died in April 1998. 
And so the Paul McCartney Archive Collection rumbles on, albeit with glacial speed.  Beginning in November 2010 with Band On The Run, there have been just 13 back catalogue reissues in the decade since, plus the previously unreleased Wings Over Europe.  Of those, nine date from the 70s, four were 80s reissues, leaving Flaming Pie as the only 90s representative so far. 
As with previous archive reissues the available versions are many, varied and, at the higher end of the scale, frighteningly expensive.  They range from the basic two CD “Special Edition”, all the way up to the wallet-worrying 11 disc “Collectors Edition” which will set you back a week’s wages or more.  The latter features the entire contents of the already far-from-cheap 5CD/2DVD “Deluxe Edition”, plus exclusive half speed double LP vinyl versions in an exclusive gatefold sleeve and two LPs of home recordings in a hand-stamped white label sleeve.  Also included are posters, books and six silkscreened Linda McCartney art prints. 
For all but the most well-heeled McCartney completists, however, the double CD version is really all you need.  It contains the original 14-track album on the first disc, plus previously unreleased home recordings, demos, and non-album singles and B-sides on the second.
It really is hard to find a weak track on Flaming Pie.  “Calico Skies”, "The Song We Were Singing", "Little Willow", “Young Boy”, “Somedays”, “Heaven On A Sunday” and "Beautiful Night" are the pick, but it’s a uniformly solid album throughout, with only the Steve Miller collaboration “Used To Be Bad”, a generic blues/boogie, bringing the average down.  But even here, some tasty guitar playing from the always-reliable Miller saves the day.  
The acoustic home recordings are instantly charming and, in their own way, almost as worthwhile as the finished tracks.  Listen as people chatter and rattle around in the background (a phone even rings at one point on “Souvenir”) as Paul picks and strums his way through basic versions of the tracks.  A relaxed McCartney is not pushing his voice on the demos and seldom reaches for his falsetto, but the songs sound no worse for that.  Hearing these tunes stripped back to their bare bones and still holding up so well drives home how strong the basic material is.  The performances are so charmingly unpolished it’s almost like having him rehearsing in your living room. 
Being unsure how to record it, Paul had “Beautiful Night” hanging around for a couple of years and the demo here dates from 1995.  I found that surprising as it’s always been an absolute standout on Flaming Pie for me.  This glorious tune is, dare I say it, almost worthy of late Beatles and only the up-tempo coda and final drunken meltdown detracts from its melodic beauty. 
The multi disc versions also contain six excerpts from Paul’s 1995 radio show Oobu Joobu, featuring stories and music, mostly concerning the writing and recording of Flaming Pie.  While not essential, these short clips add to the bigger picture and flesh out the back story of a fine album.  Go the whole hog and you also get an hour long audio walk through Paul’s studio.  Without visuals you’ll probably only listen to it once, but it’s an interesting diversion for those who must have everything.  
When the Archive Collection was first announced, all existing titles in Paul’s catalogue were abruptly deleted (save a handful of his classical music albums) to make way for them.  This left the “McCartney” section in your local record/CD store looking very spartan indeed.  Ten years later and the racks are starting to fill up again, which is good to see.  There’s still a long way to go, however, with, so a little bird tells me, several collections of rare/unreleased material in the pipeline.  Let’s hope it’s not another decade before we get to see them. 
Flaming Pie 2020 Super Deluxe Edition 5CD/2DVD
CD1 - Remastered Album
1. The Song We Were Singing
2. The World Tonight
3. If You Wanna
4. Somedays
5. Young Boy
6. Calico Skies
7. Flaming Pie
8. Heaven On A Sunday
9. Used To Be Bad
10. Souvenir
11. Little Willow
12. Really Love You
13. Beautiful Night
14. Great Day
CD2 - Home Recordings
1. The Song We Were Singing [Home Recording]
2. The World Tonight [Home Recording]
3. If You Wanna [Home Recording]
4. Somedays [Home Recording]
5. Young Boy [Home Recording]
6. Calico Skies [Home Recording]
7. Flaming Pie [Home Recording]
8. Souvenir [Home Recording]
9. Little Willow [Home Recording]
10. Beautiful Night [1995 Demo]
11. Great Day [Home Recording]
CD3 - In The Studio
1. Great Day [Acoustic]
2. Calico Skies [Acoustic]
3. C'mon Down C'mon Baby
4. If You Wanna [Demo]
5. Beautiful Night [Run Through]
6. The Song We Were Singing [Rough Mix]
7. The World Tonight [Rough Mix]
8. Little Willow [Rough Mix]
9. Whole Life [Rough Mix]
10. Heaven On A Sunday [Rude Cassette]
CD4 - Flaming Pies
1. The Ballad Of The Skeletons
2. Looking For You
3. Broomstick
4. Love Come Tumbling Down
5. Same Love
6. Oobu Joobu Part 1
7. Oobu Joobu Part 2
8. Oobu Joobu Part 3
9. Oobu Joobu Part 4
10. Oobu Joobu Part 5
11. Oobu Joobu Part 6
CD5 - Flaming Pie At The Mill
1. Intro Paul chats about instruments from Abbey Road Studios
2. Paul Demos
3. Mellotron And Synthesizer / Mini Moog
4. Harpsichord
5. Celeste
6. Piano
7. Bill Black Bass
8. Drums
9. Höfner Bass
10. Guitar
11. Spinet
12. Bells
13. Control Room
1. In The World Tonight (Documentary)
DVD2 - Bonus Film
1. Beautiful Night
2. Making Of Beautiful Night
3. Little Willow
4. The World Tonight [Dir. Alistair Donald]
5. The World Tonight [Dir. Geoff Wonfor]
6. Young Boy [Dir. Alistair Donald]
7. Young Boy [Dir. Geoff Wonfor]
8. Flaming Pie EPK 1
9. Flaming Pie EPK 2
10. In The World Tonight EPK
11. Flaming Pie Album Artwork Meeting
12. TFI Friday Performances
13. David Frost Interview

The Top 20 Paul McCartney Albums – Ranked!
20: Choba B CCCP (1988)
Paul’s “Russian Album” of (mostly) 50s rock & roll covers was initially issued only in the Soviet Union, before gaining worldwide release three years later.  While not a major work, it’s far more listenable today than John Lennon’s own muddy-sounding Rock ‘n’ Roll album from 1975.  
Highlight: “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”. Duke Ellington’s 1942 ballroom hit never sounded better.
19: London Town (1978)
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  Inter-band democracy seldom works at this level and four of the five McCartney/Laine co-compositions on London Town are forgettable at best (the honorable exception being the title track).  We can’t blame Denny for the wildly misjudged “Famous Groupies”, however, of which the least said, the better.  On the plus side we have the poptastic “With A Little Luck” and “Girlfriend” plus, best of all, the beautiful “I’m Carrying”.  So, it wasn’t all bad news.

Highlight: “I’m Carrying”. 

18: Back To The Egg (1979)
In which Laurence Juber and Steve Holley join Paul, Linda and Denny Laine for what proved to be the final Wings album.  This line-up promised great things, but Paul’s famed Japanese drug bust put the kibosh on any future Wings activity.  A patchy album with three or four great tracks.
Highlight: “Old Siam Sir”
17: Strawberries Oceans Ships Forest – The Fireman (1993)
Consisting of samples taken mostly from the Off The Ground and Back To The Egg album sessions, this is probably the most interesting of the ambient techno albums Paul made with Killing Joke/Orb producer Youth.  Wonderfully hypnotic.
Highlight: It’s all good but I won’t pretend I can distinguish one track from another.  Let’s go with “Pure Trance”.

16: Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005)
After more than 40 years at the label, this was McCartney’s final album for EMI (he re-signed with them in 2016).  Another late career highlight, it was recorded mostly solo with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead/Beck) producing.
Highlight: “Jenny Wren”.

15: McCartney II (1980)
In which the solo Paul dabbles in electronica, with varying degrees of success.  It’s a mixed bag, but “Coming Up”, “Temporary Secretary” and “Waterfalls” are as good as anything he recorded during this period.  
Highlight: “Coming Up”

14: Wings Over America (1976)
Recorded during May/June 1976 at dates in America (with studio overdubs added later in London) this expansive triple album saw McCartney performing Beatles songs live for the first time in his solo career.  Otherwise the set list drew heavily on the Band On The Run, Venus and Mars and Speed Of Sound albums.  Inexplicably, Denny Laine’s throwaway version of the Paul Simon song “Richard Cory” was included during the acoustic bracket. 
Highlight: “The Long and Winding Road”.

13: Give My Regards To Broad Street (1984)
The film was a glorious failure, to be sure.  But the soundtrack album was pretty darn good, Beatles re-recordings notwithstanding.  The 9 minute “Eleanor Rigby / Eleanor’s Dream” still scrubs up well, as do revamped versions of recent favourites “Ballroom Dancing”, “Wanderlust” and “Silly Love Songs”.  “No More Lonely Nights” was Paul’s best song in years and exists in several radically different versions, from ballad to disco, all of them good. 
Highlight: “No More Lonely Nights (Ballad)”.
12: Pipes Of Peace (1983)
Much of Pipes of Peace was written / recorded during the Tug of War sessions and it was a weaker album than its predecessor.  Still, Macca’s leftovers are another man’s pop gold and the Michael Jackson duets “Say, Say, Say” and “The Man”, were both US chart-topping singles.  
Highlight: “Pipes Of Peace”

11: Wings Wild Life (1971)
Call me a sentimental old fool, but the cover photo showing Paul standing waist deep in a river while holding his literally priceless Epiphone Texan acoustic (the “Yesterday” guitar) never fails to fill me with foreboding at what might have gone wrong.  Often dismissed as a confused hodgepodge of half-realised musical ideas, the debut Wings album has aged gracefully and contains some tremendous music, albeit sounding very much of its time.  The raucous, powerful title track, the tuneful “Tomorrow” and the sublime “Some People Never Know” are all top notch efforts, while a bizarre cover of the 1956 Mickey and Sylvia hit “Love Is Strange”, delivered reggae style, only adds to the delight. 
Highlight: “Some People Never Know”.

10: Flowers In The Dirt (1989)
Working with Elvis Costello seemed to put a spring in Paul’s step and this was a huge improvement over the lacklustre Press To Play.  “My Brave Face”, “Figure Of Eight”, “Put It There” and “This One” were instant McCartney classics and only the dated 80s production prevents a higher placing today.
Highlight: “My Brave Face”.

9: Wingspan: Hits And History (2001)
A wealth of non-album singles, unusual mixes and deep cut album tracks make this the best McCartney hits compilation.  Contains 40 tracks dating from 1970 - 1984.
Highlight: “C Moon”.
8: Wings At The Speed Of Sound (1976)
Democracy abounds as Paul surrenders lead vocal duties to other band members on no less than five tracks.  Jimmy McCulloch sings the self-penned (and eerily prophetic) “Wino Junko”, while Linda sends the twee-o-meter off the scale with “Cook Of The House”.  The real meat of the album (if you’ll forgive the expression), however, rests with “Silly Love Songs”, “Let ‘Em In”, “She’s My Baby” and “Beware My Love”, bulletproof McCartney classics all.
Highlight: “Silly Love Songs”.

7: Red Rose Speedway (1973)
Best remembered for the big hit single “My Love”, Red Rose Speedway offers several other delights, not least “Little Lamb Dragonfly”, “When The Night” and the beautifully constructed 11 minute medley which closes side two.  But Henry McCullough’s once in a lifetime guitar solo on “My Love” is the money shot here. 
Highlight: “My Love”.
6: Venus And Mars (1975)
Sounding like a more polished version of Band On The Run and recorded with the same line-up, this was the album Wings toured the world with during 1975/76.  The songs were strong, with “Letting Go”, “Call Me Back Again” and “Listen To What The Man Said” the pick, but it all sounds a little too slick today. 
Highlight: “Call Me Back Again”.

5: Tug Of War (1982)
The first McCartney album released after Lennon’s death, Tug Of War received more exposure than perhaps it might have done under normal circumstances.  Featuring an all-star cast including Stevie Wonder, Eric Stewart, Carl Perkins and Ringo, it covered a lot of musical styles, from rockabilly to funk.  The “Ebony and Ivory” duet with Stevie is generally reviled these days, but it’s a fine song, despite the mawkish sentiments.  
Highlight: “Here Today”, Paul’s tribute to John.

4: Flaming Pie (1997)
With hardly a weak track it was his most satisfying record in more than a decade.  It’s a threadbare cliché, but this really was a major return to form.  The last great McCartney album?
Highlight: “Beautiful Night”.

3: McCartney (1970)
Paul’s debut solo album oozes rustic charm.  Lesser artists would give their pension plans for songs like “Maybe I’m Amazed”, “Every Night”, “Teddy Boy”, “Junk” and “That Would Be Something”, but here they are casually tossed into the mix as home recordings with Paul playing all the instruments.  His melodic genius is such that these songs stand tall without production trickery of any kind.
Highlight: “Maybe I’m Amazed. 

2: Band On The Run (1973)
Recorded as a trio with Linda and Denny Laine, this is where it all came together for McCartney and Wings.  47 years on, this timeless album holds up just as well as it did in 1973.  A huge seller packed with classic songs, it made number one around the world, shifting three million copies in the US alone.  
Highlight: “Band On The Run”.

1: Ram (1971)
Music was pouring out of McCartney in the early post-Beatles years and he threw everything but the kitchen sink into his second solo album.  Changing direction in the blink of an eye, this album is a kaleidoscopic mixture of heavy rock (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), acoustic folk (“Heart Of The Country”), blues (“3 Legs”) and all points in between.  The John and Paul feud rumbled on in the lyrics of “Too Many People” and “Dear Boy”, while “The Back Seat Of My Car” is widescreen pop at its best.  Somewhat underrated on release, Ram has grown in stature over the years and is now regarded as a major work.
Highlight: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”.

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