Flipping through the booklet to Paul McCartney’s Ram reissue, you’ll find no scholarly liner-notes essay.
This is odd. Usually the reissue-packaging gods demand the positioning of an eager critic between you and the product, dispensing wisdom on how you might experience the music they’re standing in front of. What you find instead is a McCartney family-photo scrapbook: Paul draping himself playfully around monkey bars with his infant Stella. Mary, about three years old, hoisting fat headphones above her tiny head; on the opposite page, Linda nuzzling Paul, those same headphones ringed around his neck. In the photos, Paul looks dazed, as if he were smacked in the face with a pillow seconds before the shutter clicked. It drives the point home: Ram is a domestic-bliss album, one of the weirdest, earthiest, and most honest ever made. No wonder critics loathed it so passionately.
Or at least, some critics did. Sometimes an album gets a review so resoundingly negative that it lurks forever like a mournful spirit in its rear view mirror: Jon Landau, writing for Rolling Stone, claimed to hear in Ram “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far.” Which is intense. But people wanted impossible things from Beatles solo albums– closure, healing, apologies, explanations for what to do with their dashed expectations. John Lennon tried telling everyone outright “The dream is over” on Plastic Ono Band’s “God”, but that still wasn’t a cold-water jet hard enough to prepare people, apparently, for the whimsical pastoral oddity that was Ram.
Landau was right, however, that it did spell the end of something, which might be a clue to the vitriol: If “60s rock” was defined, in large part, by the existence of the Beatles, then Ram made it clear in a new, and newly painful, way that there would be no Beatles ever again. To use a messy-divorce metaphor: When your parents are still screaming red-faced at each other, it’s a nightmare, but you can still be assured they care. When one of them picks up and continues on living, it smarts in an entirely different way.
Ram, simply put, is the first Paul McCartney release completely devoid of John’s musical influence. Of course, John wiggled his way into some of the album’s lyrics– in those fresh, post-breakup years, the two couldn’t quite keep each other out of their music. But musically, Ram proposes an alternate universe where young Paul skipped church the morning of July 6, 1957, and the two never crossed paths. It’s breezy, abstracted, completely hallucinogen-free, and utterly lacking grandiose ambitions. Its an album whistled to itself. It’s purely Paul.
Or actually, “Paul and Linda.” This was another one of Paul’s chief Ram-related offenses: He not only invited his new photographer bride into the recording studio, he included her name on the record’s spine. Ram is the only album in recorded history credited to the artist duo “Paul and Linda McCartney,” and in the sense that Linda’s enthusiastically warbling vocals appear on almost every song, it’s entirely accurate. Some read Paul’s decision as the ultimate insult to his former partner: I’ve got a new collaborator now! Her name is Linda, and she never makes me feel stupid. In the album’s freewheeling spirit, however, the decision scans more like guilelessness and innocence. The songs don’t feel collaborative so much as cooperative: little schoolhouse plays that required every hand on deck to get off the ground. Paul had the most talent, so naturally he was up front, but he wanted everyone behind him, banging pots, hollering, whistling– whatever it is you did, make sure you’re back there doing it with gusto.
It is exactly this homemade charm that has caught on with generations of listeners as the initial furor around the album subsided. What 2012’s ears can find on Ram is a rock icon inventing an approach to pop music that would eventually become someone else’s indie pop. It had no trendy name here; it was just a disappointing Beatles solo album. But when Ben Stiller’s fussy, pedantic “Greenberg” character painstakingly assembles a mix for Greta Gerwig intended to display the breadth and depth of his pop-culture appreciation, he slides Ram’s “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” on there. It’s the song we see her singing along to enthusiastically in the following montage.
Critics hated “Uncle Albert”. “A major annoyance,” Christgau opined. Again, from the current moment we can only plead ignorance, assume that some serious shit had to be going down to clog everyone’s ears. Because “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is not only Ram’s centerpiece, it is clearly one of McCartney five greatest solo songs. As the slash in the title hints, it’s a multi-part song, starring two characters. To put its accomplishments in an egg-headed way: It fuses the conversational joy listeners associated with McCartney’s melodic gift to the compositional ambition everyone assumed was Lennon’s. To put it a simpler way: Every single second of this song is joyously, deliriously catchy, and no two seconds are the same. Do you think early Of Montreal, the White Stripes at their most vaudevillian, or the Fiery Furnaces took any lessons from this song?
What a lot of people thought they heard on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, and everywhere else on the album, is cloying cuteness. But it turns out you can say a lot of things– things like “go fuck yourself” (“3 Legs”), “everything is fucked” (“Too Many People”), and even “let’s go fuck, honey” (“Eat At Home)”– with a big, dimpled grin on your face. “It’s just the critics who say, ‘Well, John was the biting tongue; Paul’s the sentimental one,'” Linda observed shrewdly in a dual Playboy interview from 1984. “John was biting, but he was also sentimental. Paul was sentimental, but he could be very biting. They were more similar than they were different.”
The joy of paying close attention to Ram is gradually discovering that Paul was humming darker things under his breath than it seemed. “Smile Away”, for instance, is a messy, romping slab of Buddy Holly rock. Paul makes a joke about his stinky feet. The chorus goes “Smile away, smile away, smile away, smile away, smile away.” But it’s not just “smile,” a brief, cost-free act that can last a second. It’s “Smile Away”, keeping a fixed grin as conversation grows unpleasant. In interviews of the period, Paul was asked repeatedly if he felt lost without his collaborating partner, if he was motivated solely by commercial success, how he felt about being “the cute Beatle.” The backing vocal chant behind “Smile Away” goes, by turns, “Don’t know how to do that” and “Learning how to do that.” “Smile away horribly, now,” Paul slurs over the song’s fadeout. Yes, he’s fine. No, he and Linda will not become the next “John and Yoko.” But thanks so much for asking. If you tell a dog it’s a brainless fleabag with the same tone of voice you use to say “Good boy,” it will still wag its tail.
The album is riddled with dark grace notes like this: “Monkberry Moon Delight” has an absolutely unhinged vocal take, Paul gulping and sobbing right next to your inner ear. The imagery is surrealist, but anything but whimsical: “When a rattle of rats had awoken/ The sinews, the nerves, and the veins,” he bellows. It could be a latter-day Tom Waits performance. “Too Many People” opens with Paul warbling “piece of cake,” but the lyrics themselves wag their finger at societal injustices, former bandmates– basically everybody. The lyrics to “3 Legs” are full of hobbling animals with missing limbs.
The almost-title song “Ram On”, could serve as the album’s redeeming spirit: A haunting, indelible little tune drifts past on ukulele as Paul croons, “Ram on, give your heart to somebody/ Soon, right away.” The title is a play on his old stage name “Paul Ramon,” which makes the song a private little prayer; a mirror image, perhaps, to John Lennon’s “Hold On”. The song is reprised, late in the record, functioning like a calming breeze. “I want a horse, I want a sheep/ Want to get me a good night’s sleep,” Paul jauntily sings on “Heart of the Country”, a city boy’s vision of the country if ever there was one, and another clue to the record’s mindstate. For Paul, the country isn’t just a place where crops grow; it’s “a place where holy people grow.” Now that American cities everywhere are having their Great Pastoral Moment, full of artisans churning goat’s-milk yogurt and canning their own jams, Ram feels like particularly ripe fruit.
This reissue comes with a disc of extras from the period, which hardcore McCartney fans will already know well. They are lovely, an extension of the album’s mood and world without interrupting it or diluting it. Songs like “Another Day” and “Hey Diddle” feel like a cracked-open door onto the kind of records Paul could have conceivably gone on making forever. A few years later, he had returned, presumably chastened, to crafting over-arching concept records about fictitious bands, the sort of thing he’d gotten a lot of applause for in the past. But the bracingly pure and simple air of Ram has resonated further.
There’s an exchange between Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins in the movie Bull Durham that has always stuck with me. In the scene, Robbin’s character prevails on Crash Davis to answer why “You don’t like me.” Costner’s response goes as follows: “You got a gift. When you were a baby, the Gods reached down and turned your right arm into a thunderbolt. You got a Hall-Of-Fame arm, but you’re pissing it away.”
Let’s face it, don’t we have that same perception of Paul McCartney? Today, his writing partner of the Glory Years is practically a deity. It was Lennon who was the tortured soul, it was Lennon who could define what made us human, it was Lennon who was the true artiste. Paul was the man who wrote the silly love songs with the catchy melodies. Over the years, McCartney has been saddled with such a reputation due to the simple fact he is still present and active. Whereas Lennon’s career represented untapped potential because it was ended prematurely, Paul has been a solo artist three times as long as he was a Beatle. That means there has been a much greater span for people to forget just how good he was capable of being.
Paul was the first to strike in the aftermath of The Beatles with McCartney, a scattershot record that was both charming and bewildering. At the time, there was a general consensus of “Really? Is this the best you could come up with?” But the man had just left the pressure cooker that was The Beatles! Give Macca some time to decompress, relax, smoke some pot with Linda and get back to the business of being a former Beatle.
McCartney had been the work of one man, existing as both an artistic emancipation from The Beatles as well as a sort of musical therapy. With the first step truly encapsulating a “solo” record, the next phase would have to include the use of outside musicians. And so, the McCartneys found themselves on their way to NYC, the site where Paul would recruit some new blood and record the album that would eventually be titled Ram.
While the homespun niceties of bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250
McCartney aren’t completely done away with on Ram, it would be a mistake to label the record as McCartney II. There is a definite edge to much of the material on Ram that simply wasn’t there on his debut record. Perhaps the acrimonious breakup of the Fab Four finally had settled in; perhaps Macca simply wanted to rock out. Whatever the case, there is a bitterness and even a hint of rage present on the opening track “Too Many People” that indicated McCartney was pissed off at somebody/something.
The semi-irritating trend that did continue over from McCartney is the handful of vapid mini-tunes. The title track for instance isn’t some terrible slight against rock ‘n’ roll, but it begs the question of just why the hell it is on the album. There’s nothing there that’s interesting or thought-provoking; it would seem to be the very definition of filler. Actually, I take that back; the true definition is the minute-long reprise of “Ram On” tacked on at the end of the record.
But if you’re looking for the perfect encapsulation of McCartney’s solo escapades, it’s the hit single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” No one can deny the musicianship and the inherently appealing quality of the track. There’s no shame in admitting that I’ve caught myself whistling the “Hands Across The Water” reprise numerous times over the last few weeks. I also can’t deny that the following sounds incredibly snobbish and elitist; but what’s the point?!? Paul McCartney was blessed with the “Hall-Of-Fame arm,” the ability to be one of the greats, a pinnacle he did indeed reach if but for a short time. The man could wake up and write a hit song within five minutes — while making breakfast I’m quite sure. Is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Hasley” really the work of a man trying his absolute hardest?
The maddening, tear-your-hair out moment comes when Ram finishes spinning, and you look back over the entire experience. There is some great music here. The aforementioned “Too Many People” gathers steam quickly before exploding into a series of wailing solos near the end; the track is easily the best rock song McCartney had written since “Get Back.” The remastered edition has added “Another Day” to the tracklist, McCartney’s first hit post-Beatles and a disarmingly cheery tune about the drudgery of everyday life for the modern, working woman. And finally, the melodramatic, Broadway leanings of “Back Seat Of My Car” hit home every single time.
Therein lies the great contradiction in trying to critically look at Paul McCartney post-Beatles. We knew he was capable of greatness. We know because it’s still being played on the radio today. But these ensuing decades have undeniable eroded away at his reputation, if just slightly. How many of the other greats could brilliantly express the young, teenage angst of “Back Seat Of My Car,” but at the same time churn out the inane ramblings of “Monkberry Moon Delight”? It doesn’t matter that The Beatles wrote plenty of terrible songs; in the minds of the public and rock world they are ironclad and untouchable. The solo career of Paul McCartney is a man trying to once again spin straw into gold. Never mind the fact that when he was on, he was as good – if not better – than anyone else. McCartney stood no chance of following The Beatles. He was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.
Second time ’round, and lo! what a wonderful effort. This time around Paul has got a professional drummer (Denny Seiwell) and his wife (Linda McCartney, if you’re not informed) to help him with the playing, so there are no significant problems with songs being underarranged or something. Actually, just for fun, the album is credited to ‘Paul & Linda McCartney’ – evil tongues say that Paul only did this to earn more money from the record company, and they were even sued by some record company executives or managers who wanted Linda to prove her composing skills, heh, heh… in any case, she probably did prove something, because the family won the lawsuit. Oh well.
Some songs on here do feel a little bit thin when it comes to full-fledged arrangements, but it’s certainly less of a throwaway than before: thin or thick, all of the songs are finished products. Hey, what’s that I said? This is a great album! All the songs display a great songwriting talent – a talent equal to that of one of the Beatles, indeed! How could this guy write just as well as Paul McCartney of Beatles’ fame? Oh, see, lots of people usually forget that this is Paul McCartney of Beatles’ fame. They usually treat him as a separate Paul McCartney, and that’s where the problem lies.
Anyway, there are lots of fantastic musical ideas displayed all through this record. Ram is, in fact, the ideal place to start with Paul if you’re looking for something relatively calm, stripped down and cozy: whereas later on Paul would incorporate a lot of bombast into his work, especially in the mid-Seventies when he was successfully posturing as a glammy stadium-rocker, on Ram he simply plays the part of a humble little farmer – just look at him handling the ram on the front cover! (Which, was, by the way, later parodied by John on the back cover of Imagine, where he was holding a fat pig by the ears).
If there is a theme underlying the album, it’s the theme of ‘quiet silly little fun’: Paul sings about the advantages of living in the country, the fussiness of big city life, the pure delights of family life and the innocent pleasures of teenage days. All of this is, of course, drenched in his usual ‘nonsensic’ approach and heavily spiced with moments of sheer delirium, but that doesn’t make the album any less entertaining – on the contrary, I adore this delirium. And isn’t delirium the highest form of art, by the way?
Let’s run around, then. First of all, for those who doubted it, Paul shows us that he can still pull off a mean funny rocker: the groovy ‘Smile Away’ with its famous line ‘well I can smell your feet a mile away – smile away!’ is just the thing for you, based on a gruff, dirty, smelly (yeah) little riff and graced by stingy, exciting guitar solos, plus the doo-wop harmonies borrowed from another age. From another age also comes the wonderful Beach Boys-like retro harmony number ‘The Back Seat Of My Car’, a perfect ode for all the little dudes and doves. From the recently passed age we have the terrific psychedelic brain-muddler ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ – the song would have easily fit on Magical Mystery Tour, if only for the fact that not a single line in the verses ever makes sense.
But who wants sense when one gets a magnificent vocal melody instead, not to mention the guy almost throwing a fit as he keeps repeating the title of the song over and over in some mantraic trance – almost like Harrison repeating ‘Hare Krishna’ in ‘My Sweet Lord’? Isn’t that absolutely, totally hilarious?
Practically everything on here rules, yes, even including the Twenties-inspired comic number ‘Three Legs’ (lots of critics thought it was about the lame fate of the band, but that’s at least arguable). No matter that these songs sound so ‘home-made’: it only makes them closer to you. Where does he get those brilliant melodies? Like, for example, the slightly sad, but bouncy acoustic riff of the title track? Or the sharp, mercilessly pounding piano chords of ‘Dear Boy’? Or the jolly Mellotron (don’t tell me it’s a real trumpet) cookie in ‘Admiral Halsey’? Or the catchy happy lines of ‘Eat At Home’? Did he really think of all of them himself?
The two songs, however, that come close to being the greatest on this album are the two side-openers. ‘Too Many People’ has some great lyrics, an unforgettable hook in each verse, and one of the best codas to a Paul song: if you haven’t heard that frantic guitar solo at the end, or the way it suddenly transforms itself into a lot of overdubbed ‘stinging’ acoustic guitars, you don’t know nothing about Paul at all. And ‘Heart Of The Country’ may be silly and lightweight, but I deem it a logical successor of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’, only in a more funny context.
I don’t give a damn about what that song really meant for Paul (about finally settling down and solving his old-time problems, probably), but it sure means a lot for me, and don’t you dare write it off as stupid pop crap! It’s an epochal song. And don’t forget the wonderful pop suite of ‘Long Haired Lady’ which sounds like one of the most gentle and mysterious love ballads I’ve ever heard. Sounds very Brit-flavoured, too. Who’s that long-haired lady? Is it Linda McCartney or the Queen of May?
So, you probably already understood that this is my favourite McCartney album. Indeed, I prefer it even to such a highly-acclaimed album as Band On The Run, just because it’s so home-made and fresh and delicious, and also because lots of these cool tunes could have easily made their way onto The Beatles or Abbey Road or anywhere like that. And let me tell you this: I totally and absolutely despise even the slightest effort to dismiss the album as ‘lightweight’ or ‘charming, but disposable’, or anything like that. It’s absolute hogwash that ‘music should make sense’.
Music should impress; and this music is so well-written, memorable and catchy that it can’t but impress. And in any case, I don’t really see how Ram can be more ‘lightweight’ than, say, A Hard Day’s Night. Personally, I would take these funny little Edward Lear-like lyrics over the Beatles’ early love cliches any day of my life. And the melodies rule. They rule.
This is unquestionably the best pop album of 1971 and one of the best pop albums of the entire decade. A true classic.