“flaming pie” – paul mccartney (1997)

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Summer is a funny season when it comes to my schedule.  I always think I’m going to take it easy each summer, but I find myself much more active than any other time of the year.  This summer has been full of media league softball games, volunteering, festivals, and music classes.  All I want to do during the summer is to just enjoy the lovely weather at my leisure and not rush. However, that doesn’t happen.  Things are happening and I want to be involved.  I guess it is a subconscious need to not take opportunities for granted because it will all be over someday.

I started my week thinking it was going to business as usual.  I was thinking about my normal routine of commitments and extracurricular activities and trying to balance those with a healthy social life while trying not to neglect personal self-care time (try to at least).  A friend had invited me to a show at Millennium Park, but I declined because that conflicted with my class.

A few weeks ago, I enrolled in my first ensemble class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. My options were limited because I didn’t want to book a class on the weekend (I’ll usually do that during winter time).  Mondays were dedicated to softball, Tuesdays were volunteer nights, and the other nights of the week were where I try to fit errands, chores, and other mundane life stuff.  So, the only day I felt comfortable filling was Wednesday.

The only ensemble class available to me that was convenient was the Beatles ensemble.  According to the class description, we were going to work on Abbey Road.  I thought that was pretty cool.  I had been thinking of taking an ensemble class since it was recommended to me by my previous instructor.

When I went to my first class a few weeks ago, I was confused by what was going on.  Immediately, we just started playing through Let It Be in its entirety.  And not only that, but everyone knew the songs really well.  I had later learned that the ensemble class has been meeting for a long time and they had been working on Let It Be a lot so they could play some cuts at the Square Roots festival put on by the school.

While that is all well and good, I had to quickly adjust to this new class format.  Previously, in the core guitar classes, we would be given a song or two while the instructor goes over the strumming pattern, chords, and any applicable riffs.  We would work on small parts of the songs together focusing on repetition so we could get muscle memory down before playing through the song a few times.  That influenced my expectation about how this ensemble class would go.

While I am fairly decent at the guitar, I’m still at a lower skill level than many of my classmates.  So, this class for me was like being thrown into the deep end of a pool and learning to swim out of fear of drowning.  There was no breaking down the songs like my previous classes, so the method of learning was different.  While intimidating, there is still some value to this.  It teaches me to play with people and to keep up.  And all the while I’m thinking, thankfully no one can hear how bad I am playing right now because there are so many other skilled performers playing in unison.

That class has been going for a few weeks.  And, on Monday morning, I was fully expecting to go to class.  By the end of the day, things would change.

I was at the gym and got an email from a classmate.  I opened it up while on the Stairmaster and I almost fell off out of surprise.  This email was saying that the ensemble class was being invited to go to the Paul McCartney show at Tinley Park for free and that our visit would include access to the sound check.

How awesome is that?!  I immediately went to Google Maps to see how I could get to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre where Paul was playing.  To my dismay, it wasn’t accessible by the Metra.  I replied asking if anyone wanted to carpool.  I got an affirmative.  Great!  Next was to ask for the time off at work so I could make it to the sound check and rearranging my already packed schedule.  But, hey, moving scheduled errands around is a small price to pay to see Paul McCartney.

In my excitement, I went through some storage boxes to find my concert shirt from the last, and only, time I saw Paul McCartney.  That was July 26, 2010.  I had just recently graduated college and was about to temporarily relocate to Alaska to work on some projects.  Paul had scheduled a stop in Nashville on his cheekily named Up and Coming Tour.  This was significant because this would be Paul’s first time playing Nashville in any incarnation of his long and winding career.  I wasn’t going to miss this chance to see a Beatle.

The show was great.  I had nosebleed seats because I was a recent graduate who didn’t’ make that much money.  Still, it was a memorable experience.  I had a great time.  I was satisfied that I had seen a Beatle.  In the last seven years, Paul has toured a few times.  Even Ringo went out and played some shows.  However, as much as I love them and knew it would be a great show, I never had the urge to go back out to a show.  Big concerts can get expensive and I was satisfied with my one-time experience.  Though, that attitude changed for this show.  It was free and I had a ride.

Currently on his One on One tour, Paul was originally scheduled to play one show at Tinley Park.  Due to overwhelming demand, a second show was added and that was the show the ensemble class was invited to. I left work at noon and met a classmate at the Old Town School.  She had agreed to drive a couple of us to the show.  We had to get to the venue by 3:30. Along the way, we encountered a lot of heavy stop and go traffic on the interstate which extended our original 60-minute drive to a 90-minute drive.  We passed the time with stories, good conversation, and some Beatles music when the traffic let up.

We get to the venue and stand around for about an hour waiting for the sound check to start.  I mingled with classmates and met some people affiliated with the school who tagged along for this adventure.  Funny enough, I was the only one wearing a Beatles shirt in any form.  Mine was the tour shirt from the show I saw in 2010.  No one else was wearing any Paul or Beatles shirts which seemed funny to me.  That is the kind of thing you think about while you’re waiting around for a once in a lifetime experience such as seeing a Paul McCartney sound check.

After an hour, we get ushered in to take out seats.  A sound check coordinator was going over some details with us.  Standard stuff like don’t take videos (pictures were fine) and to dance around having a good time.  Paul doesn’t like people standing there looking at phones or with arms crossed which made sense.

Paul arrived via helicopter and took the stage a few minutes later.  After playfully addressing the hundred or so people in the sound check audience, the band started performing.  This was incredibly exciting.  It was like a personal concert.  Paul played for 45 minutes testing various guitars, pianos, and a ukulele.  He opened up jamming a rockabilly instrumental.  The rest of the set included various Wings, Beatles, and solo songs as well as covers like “Midnight Special.”  The variety was cool and I loved hearing “Only Mama Knows” from his underrated 2007 album Memory Almost Full.

After the sound check, we waited around for the show.  And, naturally, the show was stellar.  Paul played a 39-song set!  And what is great about a career like his is that almost every song is a classic.  He even pulled out deep cuts like the offbeat “Temporary Secretary” from his second solo album.  Paul would also connect with the audience by telling stories in between songs that showed off his humor and appreciation for being there.  Songs from the Beatles and Wings catalogue were featured quite extensively.  However, he also played cuts from his latest album New released in 2013 as well as the track “FourFiveSeconds” which he recorded with Rihanna and Kanye West.  He made a point to tell the audience that “FourFiveSeconds” was the most recent song he recorded (released in 2015) because, earlier in the set, he played “In Spite of All the Danger” which as the earliest tune he had ever recorded when he was a member of the pre-Beatles skiffle group the Quarrymen.

Paul has had such an amazing career.  So many great songs that will last generations.  To only pick one song from his discography was an absolute challenge.  There are songs from his solo career that I have loved since high school.  And since I have already covered the Beatles in this blog, I cannot go pick a song from their stellar catalogue.  Perhaps Wings?  Or maybe even a track from his side projects like the Firemen? Why not a solo song from the concert?

So many songs to consider, but I think I’ll stray off the path of mainstream (or as non-mainstream as I can get with a Beatle).  Flaming Pie was released in 1997 and recommended to me by a friend in college.  While it is not the most obscure entry in his career (did you know he has put out classical music compositions?), I appreciate the album for it’s sound and context.

Prior to its release, the Beatles Anthology project was being released.  This include the documentary plus three double-disc albums over two years.  Paul was working on tracks for Flaming Pie as early as 1992, but the studio executives asked him to not release any materials until the anthology project was concluded.  Paul, at first did not like that decision but came around to see that it made sense. Not only did it make sense from a marketing and sales perspective, it also gave Paul an opportunity to focus his complete attention on the anthology project and the history of his own band.  Paul described the experience “was a refresher course that set the framework for this album.”

“Calico Skies” was the first song written for the record.  And it is certainly my favorite song from the album.  However, the album-titled track is the one I listen to the most.  “Flaming Pie” is simply just a fun song and an overlooked entry in his vast catalogue.  It is utter nonsense with a jovial backing track.  It puts me in a good mood with its absurd imagery.  It is a track that perfectly represents Paul.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the chance to see Paul perform again.  I didn’t expect to after the 2010 concert.  However, life is full of surprises and opportunities.  The key is to know what to do when that happens.

“a day in the life” – the beatles (1967)

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I have a lot of fun writing this weekly blog, but it can be a real challenge sometimes.  Part of what makes it challenging are the rules and guidelines I set for myself when I think of what to write next.  For one, I don’t repeat an artist if I have already written about them.  This really makes it harder to write about the artists I love most because when I publish that post, that’s it.  I wrote a post that felt timely or relevant based on recent cultural or personal events only to realize a few months later that I would’ve rather written about a different song because that one will become relevant at that time.  This is why there are artists I absolutely love that I’ve been hesitant to include such as the Police or the Clash.

The other challenge is to not feel forced when writing about a song that week.  I enjoy the discipline of keeping this up as a hobby on a weekly basis.  However, there are times when I don’t really have a song in mind to write about.  There are plenty of times when an artist or song sticks with me for the week and it results in a well-written and thought out post.  It is because that song made an impact on me that week because it related to some milestone or an event.  But, sometimes, I just have nothing going on and I churn out something just to do it.  I don’t like to do that, but I want to be consistent.

The Beatles are an example of a band that I adore that I hesitated for a long time to discuss.  I am a fan.  I enjoy their music and it had a significant influence on me during my adolescent years.  While I didn’t listen much during college or my subsequent adulthood years because I’ve been exploring and discovering other types of music, they had always been a part of me.

That is why planning this post for me was difficult.  I didn’t want to just write about any Beatles song because it would be a missed opportunity to write something meaningful.  So much of their catalogue is important to me and requires inspiration.  Then again, what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before?  So much has been written that praises the Beatles as the greatest band ever.  So, what can I say that would be any different than pure adulation.

It is during those struggles that I rely on cultural milestones.  And even then, I still hesitate because I just don’t want to be one of many yelling into the noise.  However, sometimes it is necessary to call out those milestones and contribute a perspective.  Even if it may be an unpopular one.  These were the things I had considered over the last few weeks when countless media outlets were buzzing about the 50th anniversary release of the Beatles’ 1967 studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  I had to ask myself: do I jump on this bandwagon and what should I say?

So, let’s cut to the chase.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is just simply not a good album.

Ok.

I got that off my chest.

Are we all ok?

Alright, let’s move on.

In 1966, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece record Pet Sounds and the music world was turned upside down.  Everyone everywhere had to make their own Pet Sounds.  You couldn’t just do rock and roll anymore.  You had to have more personal and poetic songwriting, compose lush orchestrations, and include abstract noises to add depth, complexity, and mystery to a record.  You couldn’t just make music anymore.  You had to make art.

A year later, the Beatles released their own version of Pet Sounds.  The biggest credit that gets attributed to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it legitimized the album as a complete work of heart.  The music industry, prior to 1967, was a singles market.  You had to put out a hit if you were going to get anywhere.  And that had been the standard since the beginning.  Prior to the mid-1960s, rock and pop albums were just collections of previously released singles.  When the Beatles confirmed they would quit touring and just focus on studio music, this album was the result of that.

I have a lot of issues with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Until the remixed 50th anniversary release, I always felt this was a poorly mixed record.  Some of the songwriting is unimaginative.  There is needless nostalgia throughout though this record was released during one of the most culturally exciting and volatile times of the 20th century.  And the concept of the fake band isn’t enough for me to be convinced that this album wasn’t merely a record made by a band that was becoming increasingly out of touch.

However, the biggest flaw with the record is with the songs on the record.  Song for song, this is a terrible record.  And the Beatles were capable of releasing records full of great songs.  I maintain that Rubber Soul and Revolver continue to be the best Beatles records.  However, the faux band concept somehow earns Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the credit of being a better work of art because it is more complete and should be experienced as a whole.  Even then, to make that happen, you must have good songs.

I help organize an album discussion group and a few months ago, we discussed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  It was our most well attended discussion to date and it was spirited.  A lot was said about this record.  Most of it praise, but there was some acknowledgement that the album is flawed.

One thing we did during that discussion that we hadn’t really done before was poll everyone regarding the songs they liked and disliked the most.  You only needed to pick one.  As we went around the table, the songs that people liked were fairly similar.  Most of the table said a “A Day in the Life” or “With A Little Help from My Friends” with one person chiming in with “Getting Better.”  And, frankly, those are not bad choices.  But what it does tell you is that there are really only two songs that are enjoyable on the record to both casual listeners are critics.

This became more apparent when discussing the songs we hated the most.  Almost every song was mentioned as we went around the table.  There was not a clear choice when it came to the weakest point on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  “Lovely Rita,” Good Morning,” and the other tracks closing side one and opening side two were all mentioned as being just filler or just simply not good songs.  And that begs the question: how can this album be celebrated to the point of being considered the greatest album of all time in many circles but still be filled with bad songs?

In the latest episode of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, the hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis revisited the album.  Both were very critical of the album and even suggested that people who say they love this album hadn’t listened to it in a long time.  I know I hadn’t.  Prior to that album discussion group, I hadn’t listened to the album in its entirety since my freshman year of college.  There was one quote that was the most striking from the conservation.  Kot stated “I don’t really have a reason to listen to this record other than this one song.”  And the song he was referring to was “A Day in the Life.”

“A Day in the Life” is the only really good song on the record.  Coming in at a distant second is “With a Little Help from My Friends,” but the Joe Cocker cover is much better.  However, the closing track is a near perfect song that does exemplify the genius of the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would’ve been a much better album if the other songs had tapped into what made “A Day in the Life” one of the Beatles’ masterpieces.  Incredibly complex and dynamic, the orchestral glissandos, the avant-garde production, and the poignant lyrics make a real statement that pop music can be considered high art.

1967 was a fantastic year for music.  A lot of great albums were released that year.  While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been dominating all of the music journalism sites and blogs, it doesn’t negate the quality of records that receive less than fair celebration.  The Beatles sell.  People love nostalgia.  It is as simple as that.  And if you are going to spend some time with the Beatles, explore their albums and not be sold by the hype of the most overrated album of all time.