“Ram” Turns 50

Having done a couple of posts on Paul McCartney, and over two dozen on the Beatles, I am planning a new one that will take into account his work of the last three decades, which I haven’t explored in any depth apart from a few well-known tunes. But I’m saving that for his 80th birthday, one year from today. Meanwhile, a month ago, my favorite McCartney album turned 50.

Ram was released on May 17, 1971. Technically, it is a “Paul and Linda McCartney” album, situated between his debut solo effort McCartney (1970), on which he played all the instruments, and the first album credited to Wings, the mostly abysmal Wild Life (1971). Critics savaged Ram upon its release, but in America it shot up to #1 on the charts, as did its lead single, the glorious, majestic “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”. The latter song may be the first Beatle/post-Beatle product I ever heard, coming out as it did before my sixth birthday, and being pretty much ubiquitous at the time. It may well be my favorite post-Beatle Beatle-song, especially, once its gets cooking on its second half, with its chugging music hall rhythm, Lionel Jefferies style comic vocalizations. and nutty falsettoes, so reminiscent of the Fab Four at their prime.

Today, Ram generally places second in most critics’ assessments of McCartney’s solo albums, behind 1973’s Band on the Run. Why did music writers hate it so much when it came out? Rolling Stone‘s Jon Landau, for example, called it “inconsequential” and “irrelevant” at the time. But Landau is the same guy who thought Bruce Springsteen was a genius, so I’m inclined to take his views cum grano salis. Landau and his contemporaries in the rock press at the time demanded “statements” from pop musicians. 1971 was the year of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” They wanted songs about what was going on. John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band and Imagine and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass were not just groundbreaking in the patented Beatles’ tradition but also honest and daring in the way that was then valued by the rock community. By contrast, McCartney was thought to be “inauthentic”, to use a word that critics used to damn the McCartney-dominated Beatle album Abbey Road. He was not about raw emotion or deep spiritual exploration. According to the narrative, he was about “product”. That he had pulled his wife LInda, a musical amateur, into the creative process, and even put his adopted daughter Heather on one of the numbers, only increased his resemblence to The Carpenters or The Osmonds in their eyes. (His 1972 release of the single “Mary Had a Little Lamb” may have been the nadir of his reputation in the precincts of cool as far as that went). So, as far as the critics were concerned, McCartney’s huge chart success meant little — these records were being bought by high school kids and the patently bourgeois.

And it’s true that, lyrically, Ram is not McCartney’s most profound album. That distinction may belong to Band on the Run, or some of his more recent acclaimed records. However, musically, it is a joy. And music is timeless. So it took most critics many decades to catch up with this album. My own path to appreciation for it came through my obsession with Brian Wilson. After years of obsessive listening to Wilson’s music, I went back to Ram and realized how heavily it was influenced by him (Much as McCartney’s work on Revolver had been). And a light switch was tripped — this record is brilliant in the same way Wilson’s music is, and honestly, the lyrics (even Van Dyke Parks’ wacky ones) aren’t the draw on Beach Boys songs, but that’s nearly irrelevant when you’re weighing the creativity in the music. If you love Smile, not to love Ram on the basis of its lyrics is hypocrisy. (That’s the logic of my own journey; I’m not suggesting that your path be the same as mine).

Instead of being about world peace or the immortality of the soul or being abandoned as a child, Ram is more like a collection of snapshots or diary entries or bits of playful doggerel in a young person’s notebook. That the album is an unpretentious personal statement is indicated by the refrain of the title song: “Ram On”, which is a play on McCartney’s occasional stage name from the early Silver Beatles days, Paul Ramon. The content consists mainly of articulations of grievance against the gang he has just broken up with (the Beatles) and expressions of appreciation for what remains and is now at the center of his life: his wife, and his home. To critics, if Dylan or Lennon sing about such things it’s cool somehow. When McCartney does it, it’s the crooning of a sappy square.

With repeated exposure, Ram is not as light lyrically as it seems however. I find expressions of hurt and anger in more songs than are usually cited in this connection. The opening salvo “Too Many People” is an obvious rejection not just of his bandmates’ values but on some level, of the entire counterculture. This is followed by “3 Legs”, a seeming reference to the lameness of his former band now that he’s gone (a sentiment reinforced by certain moments in the tune where he seems to be parodying the Lennon/Plastic Ono Band sound). Then the title track, followed by “Dear Boy”, which many have assumed to be directed at Lennon as well (McCartney has said it isn’t, but it may be partially and subconsciously thus, ‘cuz it sure sounds like it). That’s 3 of the first 4 songs on the album. And they are the songs usually cited as being directly about the break-up. But a couple of the other tunes sustain this theme, I feel. “Smile Away”, perhaps the biggest throwaway on the record, is literally a song from the perspective of a guy whose friends keep telling him that he “smells”, and whose response is just to “Smile Away”. Sounds autobiographical enough to me, even if it’s intended as humor. And “Monkberry Moon Delight” is about a guy taking refuge from a “crack from an enemy’s hose” in an attic with a piano, and who needs to “catch up” and not “be left behind”. And even “The Back Seat of My Car”, while mostly written during the Get Back sessions, paints this picture of a couple hiding out from a scolding “daddy”, with a hero who defiantly believes that they “can’t be wrong”. And that’s the note the album ends on. It might have been a stronger statement if McCartney had stuck with such imagery, but it is adulterated somewhat by a weaker counter-theme, carried over from the McCartney album, songs of simple happiness in the here and now with his wife on his Scottish farm, “Heart of the Country”, “Eat at Home”, “Long Haired Lady”, and to a lesser extent, the ukulele driven title track and its reprise. Yet, musically, those are among the most enjoyable songs, so it’s not as though they should be excised. They are part of the portrait. It’s just that, as compared with his former musical partner, he’s not a guy to let anger consume him.

And as we asserted, as is the general case with McCartney the solo artist, the musical muscle is strongest. At the time, stung by critics, he averred that he released this album with them in mind, meaning a more polished, ambitous record than his equally excoriated previous effort McCartney, which was barebones and sketchy on every level, composition, arrangement and production. For Ram, as indicated on the cover art (however awkwardly), McCartney would grab the ram by the horns. Accordingly, he hired a top notch session band, supplemented them with orchestral musicians, and even recorded an entire second muzak version called Thrillington, which was released pseudonymously in 1977. (I really think he should have included this as part of Ram and released it as a double album. It would have been a stronger statement, and a kind of delicious “fuck you” to critics in the fashion of his later “Silly Love Songs” but bolder and more self-assured. It was in fact included with the 2012 re-release).

I’ve read several contemporary critics refer to Ram‘s music as simple and unambitious and frankly that seems cracked to me. Maybe the tunes are made of simple chords and fairly facile (if catchy) melodies, but the way they are ASSEMBLED and arranged is relentlessly creative and inventive, even hyperactively so. If his inspirations are often such supposedly unsophisticated sources as Elvis, Buddy Holly, and the Beach Boys (all pretty unfashionable in 1971), the way he fleshes it out is an endless treat. It is less like the Get Back/Let it Be sessions and much more like Abbey Road, the White Album, Sgt. Pepper and Revolver, with playful portmanteau songs constructed of strung together fragments, sound effects, exotic instrumentation, layered harmonies, and his own showmanship as a performer. Unlike most of his later albums, there is no song one wants to skip the needle over. Even songs that I hate parts of, such as the Linda-dominated opening verses of “Long Haired Lady”, have stuff I love too much to dismiss (in this case, the “Love is Long” mantra that’s endlessly repeated as a fadeout in the fashion of “Hey Jude”). If anything, McCartney is making a great effort to please an audience on Ram. It is a great showcase for his musical gifts, one that has aged well — in ways that some other things have not. Like wine and cheese, Ram is a farm product that takes time for one to learn how to properly appreciate.