In the mid-Nineties, Paul McCartney reminisced on his fab years for The Beatles Anthology doc, received his knighthood from Her Majesty (indeed, a pretty nice girl), and hosted a freewheeling radio show, Oobu Joobu, that allowed him to goof off as he DJ’d rehearsal tapes and oddities from throughout his life.
Those experiences put him in an excellent frame of mind for whipping up 1997’s Flaming Pie, a sturdy potpourri of rockers, ballads, and jams that sound more inspired (and more enjoyable) than his previous record, 1993’s Off the Ground. With George Martin co-producing and guest appearances by Ringo Starr, Jeff Lynne, and Steve Miller, he hit some personal high-water marks for the decade. “Beautiful Night” was a gloriously soppy, everything-but-the-kitchen sink ballad. The title cut was whimsical and owed a debt to John Lennon (“It came in a vision,” Lennon once said, “a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day forward you are Beatles with an A'”). And the guitar-snarling “The World Tonight” remains one of his sharpest solo singles; you believe Sir Paul when he sings, “I go back so far, I’m in front of me,” even if you don’t know what he means. These songs sounded urgent enough to forgive some of the LP’s fluff, like “Somedays” and “Young Boy” and the meandering blues jam “Really Love You.”
McCartney puts Flaming Pie under a microscope on the super-deluxe reissue with home recordings, studio run-throughs, outtakes, and a whole lotta Oobu Joobu for a fascinating portrait of his creative renaissance. His home demos are sparse and intimate, as he strums “The World Tonight” on an acoustic guitar, and treats “Flaming Pie” like Daniel Johnston–style outsider art, banging away on a piano and singing as nasally as possible. Ringing phones and barking dogs attempt to interrupt him throughout, but he keeps his fab focus. On the studio run-through of “Beautiful Night,” you hear Ringo tell him how he needs to “get into it,” and the “rude cassette” version of “Heaven on a Sunday” sounds subversive with its drum machine beat and jazzy vibraphone line; it even devolves into a sing-along with Macca and his mates (maybe Ringo?) riotously singing, “You’re a baha-stard,” and laughing like a they were having a night out singing music hall in a cigar bar. The outtake “The Ballad of the Skeletons” features Allen Ginsberg roasting late-Nineties politics, and “Looking for You” finds Paul hollering like Nilsson Schmilsson as Ringo keeps a steady beat.
But what pulls it all together and makes it feel like more than an archival project are the inclusions of excerpts from McCartney’s Oobu Joobu shows and a one-hour guided tour of his home studio. On one of the radio shows, he talks about how he tagged along with his wife, Linda, to a cooking class and just plucked away on an acoustic until he stumbled on the chords for Flaming Pie’s “Young Boy,” as she was chopping onions. Imagine looking for some flour and finding McCartney in the cupboard with a new tune. (He also includes recipes and rare photos Linda took in the accompanying book.)
And the studio tour, Flaming Pie at the Mill, is a manic journey from Mellotron to drum set to a guitar he bought in the Sixties, as he explains the roles each instrument played on Flaming Pie and in the Beatles. He sings a little “Heartbreak Hotel” while playing a bass once owned by Elvis Presley’s sideman Bill Black, demonstrates the flute sound on “Strawberry Fields,” and reminisces not so fondly about the toilet paper at Abbey Road Studios (it was imprinted with “Property of EMI”) after playing some bells from there. All of the pieces in the box set complete a puzzle that explains how McCartney found himself again and hit the stride that has propelled him to the present day.