Paul McCartney has been on such a great roll since 1997’s superb LP ‘Flaming Pie,’ all the way through 2013’s ‘New’ really, it’s sometimes easy to forget what a bad decade the 1980’s were for the former Beatle. I am a big Paul fan, but having purchased the abysmal 1986 LP, ‘Press To Play’ even I lost faith. I still shudder when I think about his ill conceived movie project ‘Give My Regards To Broadstreet.’
The decade had started for McCartney with such promise. His 1982 LP, ‘Tug of War’ which was partially a response to the senseless murder of John Lennon was such an amazing record. The title track remains one of my favorite McCartney tracks. “Here Today” was one of the most touching of the many, many tribute songs for John Lennon by any artist. I will admit the two Stevie Wonder collaborations on the album were utter cheeseball, especially the song “Ebony And Ivory,” which still makes me jump to the fast forward button when it comes on the stereo.
His follow up to ‘Tug of War,’ 1983’s ‘Pipes of Peace’ has aged better than we received it back in 1983. It was almost a carbon copy of the formula that had produced ‘Tug of War’ and I think it sold reasonably well. I wasn’t a big fan of that record, nor was anybody I knew. That LP seemed to signal the beginning of a downturn for Paul. After that, man, McCartney hit the skids. He released some awful records. Looking at it from a macro view, 1983 to really, 1997 was an awful patch for McCartney. I will admit there were some exceptions, I loved his ‘Unplugged’ album.
It’s hard to understand what went wrong with McCartney. One has to wonder if he was more deeply affected by the lost of his old comrade and later frenemy, John Lennon. In the second half of the 70s Lennon had withdrawn to self imposed exile to become a house husband/father. In that void, McCartney recorded some of his best, and best selling records. It’s always been my theory, as an armchair bourbon psychologist, if subconsciously McCartney was recording for the broader audience on one level in the late 70s, but down deep was really trying to impress Lennon. Maybe Lennon was a psychological governor in his head, preventing bad ideas and choking off some of Paul’s “cheesier” instincts. With Lennon gone, maybe McCartney became a tad unmoored from a creative standpoint.
One of the exceptions from this fallow period for McCartney was 1989’s decade ending, ‘Flowers In the Dirt.’ It was a good McCartney album, although I’d say not a great McCartney album. It was certainly seen as somewhat of a comeback at the time, although not the big comeback that was hoped for. “My Brave Face” was the first single, which was ok. If you delve into the album a little deeper there are some great deep tracks on this album. “Figure of Eight,” “Rough Ride,” “Put It There” and “This One” are all really strong tracks.
What the LP was also noted for, besides being a bit of a “return to form” for McCartney, was it marked a collaboration with Elvis Costello. The two wrote a number of songs together that ended up on both McCartney’s records and others on Costello’s albums. I have to admit, it was an inspired pairing. Elvis was another guy from Liverpool, who was kind of prickly, who seemed to click musically with McCartney and even wore glasses… remind you of anybody? I don’t know if Costello pushed McCartney or vice versa but it was a great musical collaboration. The song “Veronica” the two wrote together was even a hit for Costello. And, naturally, some of the better tracks the two wrote together ended up on ‘Flowers In The Dirt.’ One highlight was the great duet, “You Want Her Too.” “That Day Is Done” and “Don’t Be Careless Love” were also great collaborations by the duo.
Fast forward to now, and McCartney has given “Flowers In The Dirt” the deluxe/special edition treatment. I was sort of “meh” about the whole thing until I recently put the bonus tracks on. Typically bonus tracks can be a mixed bag. Sometimes their great songs that just didn’t fit on an album. At their worst they’re “remixes” which I loath. A lot of times bonus tracks are just the tossed off, rough demo’s and aren’t worth listening to.
Not so here! On “Flowers In The Dirt” there are nine demos of just McCartney and Costello working through songs with a piano, acoustic guitar and vocal harmonies. I have to tell you, I like these demos better than the actual album that was released. Costello wasn’t likely trying to imitate John Lennon but his vocals paired with McCartney have that same vibe if not the same magical harmonies. These demos, half of which were released in more produced/polished, finished versions on the album, half of which were not, are a revelation. It’s great to hear McCartney singing so passionately. It’s like hearing a couple of guys get up in a bar and bash out a quick acoustic set. I had the same feeling I had when I listened to the Beatles ‘Anthology’ discs when I listened to these demos.
I have to wonder what happens to a McCartney song between it’s rough hewn inception, like we hear on these demos, and the actual produced, released product. The guy is one of the greatest rock and rollers of all time, he might take a cue from these demos and stop polishing off these great rough edges.
Is ‘Flowers In The Dirt’ worth purchasing, or repurchasing just for these bonus tracks? Well, if you don’t have ‘Flowers’ in your collection I’d say definitely. If you already own the record, I’ll leave it up to you as to whether it’s worth a re-buy, but these demos are awfully sweet. Paul and Elvis might want to consider collaborating again… it’s that good.