PAUL McCARTNEY casts his mind back to the Nineties and recording his “Beatles-flavoured” album Flaming Pie.
“There’s always some sort of trigger that makes me think, ‘I fancy a bit of that’,” he says. “And I’d say the trigger for Flaming Pie was probably Jeff Lynne.”
It made perfect sense for Macca to ask the Electric Light Orchestra’s sonic whizz to co-produce.
Lynne had already sprinkled magic dust on George Harrison’s massive 1987 comeback album Cloud Nine and had joined “the quiet one” in The Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.
John Lennon once described ELO as “son of Beatles” because both bands discovered how to combine pop with lush orchestrations to thrilling effect.
In turn, Lynne remembers bandmate Roy Wood saying before he left to form Wizzard: “Oh, we’re going to carry on where The Beatles left off with I Am The Walrus.”
With their stars aligned, McCartney and Lynne began working together just before the Flaming Pie sessions on Beatles curiosities Free As A Bird and Real Love.
They were the final songs to feature John, Paul, George and Ringo, forming a key part of the ambitious multimedia Anthology project.
It was Lynne’s job to take Lennon’s primitive demos, recorded on cassette tape in 1977, and mix them with new parts performed by the surviving “Fab Three”.
When we’ve talked about ELO’s revival in recent years, the lovable Brummie always brings up The Beatles because of their huge impact on his life in music.
Back in 1968, when he was still a member of his first band, The Idle Race, Lynne was invited to Abbey Road while his idols were recording The White Album.
Still sounding like a kid in a sweet shop, he says: “Through the window into Studio One, I could see Paul on the mic and Ringo giving him the starting note of Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?.
“Then I looked into Studio Two and there was George Martin diving around the room, conducting about 12 cellos for Glass Onion.
“I couldn’t sleep for nights afterwards. The Beatles were my heroes, the heroes of all of us.”
Fast forward to 1995 and Lynne was working with the band he loved. “Free As A Bird was the hardest, most daunting thing I’ve had to do in my life,” he admits.
“The tape was in mono, with John’s voice stuck to the piano. Because he was only playing it to himself at home, he hadn’t bothered to stay in time either.“It was great that Paul ghosted a vocal underneath to give the song a bit of body. I hadn’t known Paul, only George, but when it was done, he came up and gave this great big hug.
“He said to me, ‘Well done, you’ve done it!’ I love Paul.”
And you can tell Paul feels the same about Jeff. In 2015, McCartney posted a video message to celebrate the ELO mastermind’s star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. “We love you so much, Jet Flynn!” he cried. “It’s funny,” Lynne reflects. “Paul’s the only one who ever thought of that name.” McCartney has fond recollections of working on Anthology, which he acknowledges as the catalyst for Flaming Pie.
Explaining why the project “excited” him, he says: “It reminded me of The Beatles’ standards and the standard of the songs. It was a good refresher course and gave me a framework for new material. “Anthology threw up all these Beatles memories. It was a very joyful period talking endlessly to Ringo and George about all the things we’d done.” He especially remembers bonding with George again. “All our old jokes, our old songs, the small things. Even from before The Beatles. Back when he was just my little buddy who I got in the band.”
In the months after Anthology was done, McCartney says he was “able to see more easily where to go next” and his thoughts turned to making a solo album, his first in four years.
Today, Flaming Pie stands as one of his most cherished records, filled with free-flowing energy and ranging from the driving rock of The World Tonight to the simple acoustic beauty of the Blackbird-like Calico Skies, written in a powercut by candlelight during Hurricane Bob.
Released in 1997, three months after the Queen knighted McCartney, the album marks some of the last happy times he spent with beloved wife Linda, who took the wistful pictures adorning the artwork.
She died from breast cancer, devastatingly young at 56, the following April.
McCartney’s people have given me transcripts of his only interviews for lovingly curated Flaming Pie reissues, which range from two-CD and two-LP versions to lavish box sets. It is clear from his vivid memories that the Fab Four were still very much on his mind post-Anthology, which explains the involvement of Ringo and “Fifth Beatle” producer George Martin as well as Linda and musician son James. The album title comes from a typical slice of what McCartney describes as “Lennonese”.
“When we started off as The Beatles, there was this local music paper called Mersey Beat,” he says.
“John was asked to do a little explanation (of us) and he said, ‘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’. “I just thought, ‘I’m the man on the flaming pie.’ John and I used to place great value on titles — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Rubber Soul. People would go, ‘What?!’ “So I really liked this leftfield idea of Flaming Pie.”
When it came to baking his musical pie, McCartney also enjoyed fruitful sessions in Idaho and England with US rocker Steve Miller, best known for Seventies hit The Joker. (The less said the better about his other big one, Abracadabra, and the very non-PC line: “I wanna reach out and grab ya.”)
But first, let’s hear more of McCartney’s desire to work with Jeff Lynne.
“I knew he made good records and I enjoyed working on Free As A Bird with him,” he says. “He’s a fun guy and we share a similar school of thought. “He’s good on harmonies and precise with his production. You don’t get too many rough edges.” McCartney says they both rely on intuition rather than formal training. “Despite the success of The Beatles, none of us could ever read or write a note of music. And Jeff was the same,” he recalls. “He quite rightly said, ‘We just make it all up, don’t we?’ And that’s it. That’s our skill. “Obviously, we work like mad. We put in our 10,000 hours — and that’s the equivalent of going to the Berklee school of music.”
It was Lynne who came up with the idea of bringing Ringo into the Flaming Pie sessions.
“I’d been saying to Ringo for years it’d be great to do something,” says McCartney. “We’d never really done that much outside The Beatles. “One night, Jeff suggested, ‘Why don’t you get Ringo in?’ and I said, ‘OK!’ ”
Macca dusted down an old composition, Beautiful Night, one he hadn’t quite cracked, and presented it to his old drumming mucker.
“Right away it was like the old days,” he says. “I realised we hadn’t done this for so long, but it was really comfortable.
“As we were coming out of the studio, Ringo was doing an impression of a doorman, ‘All right then, on your way’. If you listen closely, you can hear we left that in.”
McCartney didn’t want the fun to end there. “Ringo was playing great so I said, ‘Why don’t we do a jam?’ I grabbed my Hofner bass, he started up on the drums and Jeff came in on guitar, the three of us getting a little R&B thing going.”
He says he let his head go to a “mystical place” and was “totally ad-libbing”.“When I played it back, Ringo said, ‘It’s relentless’. That was Really Love You.” When asked today what Ringo adds to the album, McCartney gives a one-word answer: “Magic.”
Then he brings things full circle and talks of another special reunion, when Ringo joined him on stage last year in Los Angeles.
“We were doing Helter Skelter together. He’s drumming away and I’m singing facing front. But when I wasn’t on the mic, in the solo breaks, I really made a point of turning round and watching this guy drum.“And, my God, I’m thinking of the memories across this ten-yard gap — him on the drums and me on the bass, the lifetime that’s going on here. It is magic.“These days, he and I get quite emotional about it, because we should.”
One of Flaming Pie’s most touching songs, Little Willow, was written in response to the untimely death at 48 from leukaemia of Ringo’s first wife, Maureen Starkey, a Liverpool hairdresser who became part of The Beatles’ Swinging Sixties scene.
McCartney says: “Even if I’m writing something very specific, I veil it. If I want to write about loneliness, it will be Eleanor Rigby who carries the can. “With Little Willow, I was very affected by Maureen’s death. The fragility of life is in that song. But it wasn’t called Maureen, if you get what I’m saying. It was called Little Willow.”
During the writing of Flaming Pie, McCartney was also able to share precious times with Linda.
“I would drive Linda to one of her cookery assignments,” he remembers.“On one particular day, I had driven her to a photo session at a farmhouse in Kent.“I kept out of the way and went upstairs. I knew Linda would be about two hours, so I set myself a deadline to write a song. And Somedays was it.“John and I used to play this game and I don’t think it ever took us more than three hours or so.”
For the exquisite Somedays, McCartney recorded it by himself, playing every instrument — but he knew something was missing.
“I thought it could use a little arrangement, so I rang George Martin. Who better? I said, ‘I’ve got this little tune, what do you think?’ “He said, ‘Oh, you haven’t lost your touch, Paul’. Good old George!”
Exuberant single Young Boy featured Steve Miller, an acquaintance from the last days of The Beatles. The song comes with another Linda anecdote.
McCartney says: “I wrote it on Long Island in the time it took Linda to cook lunch — vegetable soup, aubergine casserole and applesauce cake.”
He also credits his late wife with encouraging the “heavier guitar” on Flaming Pie. “When Linda and I first met, she’d say, ‘I didn’t know you played heavy guitar like that. I love it’.“My style is a little naïve, not amazingly technical, a bit like Neil Young. I feel an affinity with Neil.”
All that’s left to say is that it’s been great to hear about this fascinating chapter in McCartney’s life less ordinary, which took place around 25 years ago, 25 years after the Fab Four went their separate ways.
It proves that if you take the man out of The Beatles, you can’t take The Beatles out of the man.