There have been so many new releases, archival releases, reissues and box sets released since October, I think I could spend my next six paychecks just on music and still not be caught up.
Too much music? What a delightful problem to have!
One recent release I’ve been able to enjoy is the reissue of Paul McCartney’s “Flowers in the Dirt” album, a record originally released in 1989. Noteworthy for its collaborations with Elvis Costello, it’s also the first McCartney disc released during my lifetime where I remember some of these songs as new releases on the radio.
(I was born in 1980, but I was too young to remember or notice tracks from “McCartney II,” “Tug of War,” “Pipes of Peace” or “Press to Play” … but I do recall the song “No More Lonely Nights” from the “Give My Regards to Broad Street” soundtrack. Songs like “Ebony and Ivory” and “Say Say Say” were on the periphery of my music knowledge, but I can’t say I paid much attention to them.)
I’ve been enjoying Paul McCartney’s archival releases the last several years (my biggest issue is the length between releases, as the man has a vast catalog and to date only eight of them have been reissued in this series), but “Flowers in the Dirt” has a special place in my heart.
I’ve written before about how both of my parents are music fans, and how there always seemed to be music playing in our homes. Records, cassettes, the radio, there always was something going.
I have just a small fragment of a memory of sitting in the back seat of a car and hearing this catchy song intro: “My brave, my brave, myyyyyy braaaaaave faaaaaace …”
At the time, I wasn’t really a critical listener. I wasn’t listening to voices and thinking, “Hey, that might be the same guy who sings ‘Hey Jude’,” or anything like that. I just liked the sound. I liked the lively bass.
It wasn’t until a handful of years later when I was really getting into The Beatles in a major way that I stumbled back across this song and other highlights from “Flowers in the Dirt.” I’d already absorbed all my dad’s Beatles records and had been filling in the blanks with CD purchases of my own.
One day I asked to borrow his cassettes of McCartney’s “Tripping the Live Fantastic” live album. This release captured Paul’s first big tour in about a decade, since Wings disbanded. The tour also promoted the “Flowers in the Dirt” record, and several songs were featured.
I loved those cassettes. I loved the music. I admit that some of the performances were perhaps a little cringe-worthy (especially the Martin Luther King Jr. excerpts during “The Fool on the Hill”), and I am not a fan of Hamish Stuart’s vocals (too hoarse or gruff to suit a harmony / chorus role on this material), but the music felt very involved and exciting, and it gave me exposure to some music (solo and Beatles) that I’d not heard before.
And to this day, the recording of “Hey Jude” on “Tripping the Live Fantastic” just may be my father’s favorite. So that gives this release an extra sentimental touch for me.
Hearing songs like “Figure of Eight,” “This One,” “Put It There” and “My Brave Face” gave me the incentive to pick up a CD copy of “Flowers in the Dirt,” which was probably only my third or fourth solo McCartney CD at the time. I listened to it over and over and over again.
I wasn’t a fan of every song, at least at first.
Songs “Distractions,” “We Got Married,” “Don’t Be Careless Love,” “How Many People” and “Ou est le Soleil?” in particular did very little for me (and the last track especially drove me nuts).
I actually loved the introduction to “Don’t Be Careless Love,” with its vocal harmonies and yearning lead, but then it launches into a very Eighties sound that ruined the rest of the song for me.
But the other songs all tickled me in some form or another.
“My Brace Face” took me back to my childhood, hearing it on the radio. “Rough Ride” had this nice, gnarly mood to it. “You Want Her Too” featured a vocal give-and-take with Costello and had such a cool intro, like some fairground organ, but the lyrical approach was more like “We Can Work It Out Part II.”
Then there’s “Put It There,” a lovely song of friendship. “Figure of Eight” is a pleasant enough rocker, and “This One” gets me flying high every time. “That Day is Done” has a great stomping meter to it, and “Motor of Love” is a great late-night torch ballad.
I found that the more I listened to “Flowers in the Dirt,” the deeper I got into the moods of the songs. It wasn’t just that I liked the songs more, or that I heard details that I hadn’t noticed before, but there was emotional core that I was tapping into. Granted, I was in my early teens and thus more likely to project my own angst and romantic notions onto anything around me, but I really identified with the “regret of a love gone wrong” vibe of “My Brave Face,” the competitiveness of “You Want Her Too,” the warm companionship of “Put It There,” and the anthemic surrealism of “This One.”
As always happens, my attention shifted and I listened to other albums, other artists. Sure, sometimes I’d pick up “Flowers in the Dirt” and enjoy it anew, and I never lost my fondness for it. But as future McCartney albums came out (particularly “Flaming Pie,” “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” and “New”), it was easier for me to overlook the treasures on Macca’s 1989 record.
When I was in college, I was visiting a thrift store and was thumbing through music in bins. I came across a bootleg of Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello’s demos, and that definitely caught my eye. I scanned the back, and recognized “My Brave Face,” “You Want Her Too” and a couple of the other songs. So I picked it up. The quality wasn’t the world’s best, but it was great hearing Paul and Elvis goading each other along, and clearly having a great time.
One of the benefits of the 2017 reissue to “Flowers in the Dirt” is that these demos have been included on bonus discs. I’m sure there are some folks who will prefer the demos over the finished tracks, but I’m happy to have both officially available now.
Many people over the years have discussed what Elvis Costello brought to the table as a writing partner with Paul, comparing Costello to another notable bespectacled songwriting partner from McCartney’s past. I can understand the attraction of trying to compare Elvis to John Lennon, especially in terms of resparking McCartney’s songwriting, but I think it’d be an exaggeration and it’s unnecessary. Paul has written with many artists over the years (including Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson), and worked with many more (Steve Miller, Carl Perkins, Brian Wilson, etc.).
Elvis definitely encouraged Paul to pull out the old Hofner bass, and the fun the two had together in the studio definitely seems to have given this material a liveliness that Paul had been missing on “Press to Play,” and those are excellent qualities. Whatever influence Costello had on Sir Paul, I think it stands on its own merits and doesn’t need a Lennon comparison.
Over the last several years, McCartney has reissued deluxe editions of “McCartney,” “McCartney II,” “Band on the Run,” “Ram,” “Wings Over America,” “Venus and Mars,” “Wings at the Speed of Sound” and now, this year, “Flowers in the Dirt.” These reissues have offered editions that include bonus tracks (singles, B-sides, live versions, remixes, etc.), making each reissue a treasure trove.
We’ve yet to see reissues of Wings’ “Wild Life,” “Red Rose Speedway,” “London Town” and “Back to the Egg,” or McCartney’s solo “Press to Play.” Would he consider releasing these, and perhaps “Choba B CCCP,” “Unplugged,” “Off the Ground” and other records? I suppose time will tell.
But for now, I am enjoying “Flowers in the Dirt.” I’ve even come around on “We Got Married,” “Don’t Be Careless Love” and “How Many People.” I look at “Distractions” as a very pleasant ballad that just doesn’t do much for me, it floats away on the spring breezes.
And I don’t think it matters how many years pass, or how many remasterings are done, “Ou est le Soleil” will probably always send me running for the hills.
With the 2017 remaster, Paul’s voice on “Put It There” seems even more gentle and personal. My first listen of the reissued version was on headphones, and I was almost moved to tears by it.
“Flowers in the Dirt” never seemed to have the depth or the range on CD that I’d found on my original vinyl pressing, but this reissue does sound much better. The dynamics and the little details stand out more.
The production decisions made in the late 1980s remain, because those are hallmarks of the songs and of the album. So if you didn’t like them before, you may still find them bothersome. Basically, if you hated the album before, there won’t be much here to change your opinion. But I love the record, and I think the remastering does a great job of polishing the songs and enhancing the freshness and vitality of the performances.
As the weather warms up in my part of the world, it’s a great time to roll down the windows and blast this music. “Flowers in the Dirt” returns to us at a perfect time, and I hope many more people discover the great songs on this album.
Now I’m going to sign off from here and give this album several more listens.
I’m going to let the music transport me back in time, to being that little boy in the back seat of his parents’ car.
And relive the memories that came from being that teen boy, hearing these songs.
And reflect on the college student who found a bootleg that developed his appreciation for the songs even more.
Music … what a magical thing. And “Flowers in the Dirt” has plenty of that magic to spare.