Flowers In The Dirt, Paul McCartney’s eighth solo studio album, and his final one of the 1980s, was a commercial success and marked a creative return to form.
The 1980s was a decade of highs and lows for the former Beatle. It began with a drugs bust and incarceration in a Tokyo prison, continued with the loss of John Lennon, the disbanding of Wings, and a succession of albums and singles of varying quality.
Creatively adrift, McCartney took stock in the wake of Press To Play, 1986’s attempt at a modern sound which was largely spurned by the public. The Choba B CCCP collection of rock ‘n’ roll classics helped reignite his muse, and a songwriting collaboration with Elvis Costello took the musical renaissance a step further.
McCartney and MacManus
McCartney and Costello – real name Declan MacManus – had first met in 1982, when they were both working on albums at AIR Studios in London. McCartney was recording Tug Of War, while Costello was making Imperial Bedroom. Linking the two was former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who was producing Imperial Bedroom and engineering Tug Of War at the same time.
The two musicians met in the summer of 1987 at MPL’s offices in Soho Square, London. They began by finishing off some half-completed songs: Costello’s ‘Pads, Paws And Claws’ and ‘Veronica’, and McCartney’s ‘Back On My Feet’.
The pair then reconvened at McCartney’s home studio in Sussex, writing a series of songs together and recording 24-track demos. According to Costello, they wrote together in the office above the studio, using “two acoustic guitars, an electric piano and a big notebook”.
Costello encouraged McCartney to jettison his public persona and focus on his songwriting. Interviewed by Musician magazine, he said: “There’s no denying that he has a way of sort of defending himself by being charming and smiling and thumbs-up and all the bit. I said once that I thought he should try and step from behind that, at least insofar as the music was concerned.”
The collaboration reignited a creative spark for McCartney, and helped tighten some of the weaknesses of his solo works. However, Costello favoured raw production, and drew on a number of melodic ideas which recalled The Beatles. Both these factors eventually led McCartney to choose other producers to work on Flowers In The Dirt.
The thing with Elvis was that I kept picking up this slight feeling of John. I would sing a line and he would come up with a witty acerbic foil to it, like John used to. I said to Elvis, ‘This is getting a bit like me and John. I’m being me and you’re being him. How come you get all the witty lines and I get the dumb-twit ones?’ But Elvis has this great sarcastic quality in his voice. I said, ‘My God, that’s mine and John’s whole style.’ I’d write some romantic line and John would write the acid put-down, It wasn’t eerie; it was nice having that rapport. It is the nearest I have come to John. We sat down as equals.
Nine songs by Costello and McCartney are known to have been demoed at this time, eight of which have been bootlegged: ‘The Lovers That Never Were’, ‘Twenty-Five Fingers’, ‘Tommy’s Coming Home’, ‘So Like Candy’, ‘You Want Her Too’, Playboy To A Man’, ‘Don’t Be Careless Love’, and ‘My Brave Face’. Of those, ‘Tommy’s Coming Home’ and ‘Twenty-Five Fingers’ remain unreleased. Another song, ‘Flying To My Home’, was also written at this time.
I started writing the bridge of ‘My Brave Face’, that Beatley descending ‘Ever since you’ve been away…’ We were doing a vocal rehearsal in the kitchen and he sang the line ‘Take me to that place.’ I hit the low harmony on ‘place’ and he went, ‘Oh no, no. This is getting to be too much. That’s exactly like ‘There’s A Place’ or ‘I’ll Get You’’.
Three of the songs – ‘You Want Her Too’, ‘Don’t Be Careless Love’ and ‘My Brave Face’ – were subsequently recorded for Flowers On The Dirt. ‘The Lovers That Never Were’ was recorded for Off The Ground in 1993, while ‘So Like Candy’ and ‘Playboy To A Man’ appeared on Costello’s 1991 album Mighty Like A Rose.