Our series on live Paul McCartney concludes with a perfect example of how live recordings often improve upon studio versions. Some artists use concerts as an occasion to play deep album tracks that may have been unfairly overlooked, and McCartney took that opportunity in 2009 by including “Flaming Pie” on his Summer Live ’09 Tour setlist.
His energetic performance of the 1997 tune was captured on the CD/DVD Good Evening New York City, which chronicled his 2009 three-night gig to inaugurate the new Citi Field.
Before discussing the live version, a brief history of “Flaming Pie” is necessary for fully appreciating the track. During 1995, McCartney was riding high on the success of The Beatles Anthology, a multi-part documentary intended to serve as a definitive history of the band.
As a bonus for fans, the surviving Beatles reunited to record new songs, two of which would be officially released: “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” two John Lennon compositions. Since he had recorded demos of both songs, his voice was used on the final versions. Electric Light Orchestra founder and frequent George Harrison collaborator Jeff Lynne was tapped to helm the project, a huge task due to the poor sound quality of the Lennon demos. The two singles became big hits, and the documentary garnered huge ratings in the UK and US.
Feeling nostalgic after the experience, McCartney decided to incorporate Beatles history in his upcoming solo album. He recruited Lynne to co-produce the project, and Beatles producer George Martin also took part in some sessions.
Perhaps the most telling connection to McCartney’s past was a quirky track he composed (which would become the album’s title): “Flaming Pie,” a title he borrowed from a Lennon joke. When first asked how the Beatles got their moniker, Lennon told the legendary Liverpool paper Mersey Beat in 1961:
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 in 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.
Lennon would tell variations of this story throughout the Beatles’ early days, probably in response to the often tedious questions reporters posed to the group. When this anecdote resurfaced in Anthology, McCartney decided to compose a song based on the words “flaming pie.”
Using a healthy dose of Lennon-esque word play, he wrote some of the most offbeat lyrics of his career, with memorable lines such as “I took my brains out and stretched ‘em on the rack; now I’m not so sure I’m ever gonna get ‘em back.” The original midtempo track featured unusual piano breaks played Fats Domino style and a pounding drumbeat reminiscent of Starr’s unique style.
When released in 1997, the album Flaming Pie netted McCartney with great critical acclaim, even though the three released singles (“The World Tonight,” “Young Boy,” and “Beautiful Night”) failed to significantly impact the US charts. Perhaps considered too eccentric, the title track was never released as a single.
When McCartney undertook his 2009 tour, he apparently decided to throw his diehard fans a few bones by including lesser-known Beatles and solo tracks in his setlists. “Flaming Pie” made a delightfully surprising return after sporadic appearances over the years, and the live version almost supersedes the studio original.
The Good Evening New York City version worked seamlessly with the rest of the heavier-leaning tracks. Drummer Abe Laboriel, Jr.’s enthusiastic style added a harder-edged sound, while guitarists Rusty Anderson and Brian Ray laid down a gritty-sounding cushion for McCartney’s still-intact voice. As he plucked his famous Hofner bass, McCartney’s clear vocals emphasized the loopy fun of the lyrics: “Stick my tongue out and lick my nose; tuck my shirt in and zip my fly,” he sang. “Go ahead, have a vision; I’m the man on the flaming pie.” Paul “Wix” Wickens perfectly replicated the rollicking piano sections, but this was not simply a retread of the original version: instead, McCartney and his band breathed new life and energy into an already stellar tune.
As McCartney continues his current “Out There” tour and celebrates his recent Bonnaroo performance, he has demonstrated that at 71 he still loves to rock. He remains a compelling live performer, and has the unique distinction of not only playing beloved songs, but continually improving upon them.