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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Paul McCartney: Ram


PAUL McCARTNEY: RAM (1971)

1) Too Many People; 2) 3 Legs; 3) Ram On; 4) Dear Boy; 5) Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey; 6) Smile Away; 7) Heart Of The Country; 8) Monkberry Moon Delight; 9) Eat At Home; 10) Long Haired Lady; 11) Ram On; 12) The Back Seat Of My Car.

General verdict: This is your Paul McCartney in Wonderland, provided you're willing to put on the special glasses.

One of the advantages of growing up in the late Soviet Union was that, whenever you could get your hands on an occasional piece of treasure — like Dylan's Self-Portrait or the Stones' Satanic Majesties' Request, taped from some secretively imported vinyl in the possession of an acquain­tance's acquaintance — you got those without all the critical baggage that accompanied them in the West, so that you could listen to the former without knowing that this was allegedly a cruel joke on Bob's fans, and to the latter without knowing that it was a subpar Sgt. Pepper rip-off, as the averaged critical opinion would want to impart to you in the lands of the free. Freedom of the press, you know — what a sad, unimaginative bore.

In the same way, I think I'd spent at least fifteen years of my life blissfully ignorant of the fact that Ram, McCartney's first properly recorded and produced solo album, was supposed to be «monumentally irrelevant» (quoth Bruce Springsteen's future manager) and «a classic form / content mismatch» (quoth The Dean of Deans). Being young and innocent, I dared to believe that if we are allowed to enjoy such Beatles songs as ʽMartha My Dearʼ or ʽYour Mother Should Knowʼ or ʽOb-La-Di Ob-La-Daʼ, we should have no problem with Ram, an album that merely continued and, in certain ways, even further developed that aesthetics — whimsical, perhaps, but very subtly and charmingly so. I loved the album, listened to it a lot, and had not the least care in the world. But as the Iron Curtain disintegrated before my eyes and forced me lose that precious critical virginity, I saw the harsh truth, and the world would never again be the same.

Bravely and stubbornly, though, I persisted in my opinion that Ram was as good (well, okay, almost as good) as any Beatles album if you deleted John and George from them — going as far as to publicly state that opinion on my original review site... and I think that the day when I really burst with pride over my infiltrating and sabotaging abilities was when I received a user comment that went something like «now I, too, can come out of the closet after all these years and publicly confess how much I've always loved the Ram album». That might have, in fact, been the day when I'd first gotten the feeling that writing clumsy, illiterate music reviews in a non-native tongue might actually do a wee bit of public good, rather than simply offer some quick self-gratification. Naturally, I am not even beginning to suggest that that review had something to do with the gradual acceptance of Ram in the public eye — no, that had to do with shifting musical and cultural values, including the spread and critical recognition of twee-pop and other «whim­sical» forms of music — but it did have something to do with gaining a bit of self-confidence and understanding that Relevant Cultural Context can be just as harmful for one's appreciation of art as it can be helpful.

Anyway, Ram. If we accept the official date of the Beatles' break-up as April 1970, then one could make a case for the next year after that — ending in May 1971 — as the happiest year in Beatles' history, one that produced not one, not two, but three fantastic Beatles masterpieces (and one of them a double album at that). Some people, bored and confused, have published their imaginary track lists for the «Beatles album of 1970», collecting their favorite songs from John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, All Things Must Pass, and Ram — I, personally, happen to insist that there is not a single bad song on any of these albums, and, furthermore, that they all feature gusts of unchained creative energy that could not have been imagined on Let It Be, and were only present in embryonic forms on Abbey Road (a magnificent record in its own right, but very different in sound and mood from all the above-mentioned). But while it is easy to argue that way about John, who was only too happy to exorcise his personal demons, and about George, who was finally free to unleash his Cosmic Sadness upon the world, what is it about Ram that could make it so cosmically special? "My dog he got three legs, but he can't run"?..

If your copy of Ram is digital and has bonus tracks, I highly advise you to program it in such a way that the first track would be ʽAnother Dayʼ — after all, it was not only Paul's first non-LP single that actually preceded the release of Ram by a few months, but it was also the very first track that he recorded during the New York sessions for Ram, so it's fully legit. ʽAnother Dayʼ, whose merits were acknowledged even by John in his generally negative peer review of McCartney's output (titled ʽHow Do You Sleep?ʼ), was a classic Paul tale of loneliness and sadness, a proud successor to ʽFor No Oneʼ and ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and one that also showed how he could out-Ray Davies Ray Davies if he really tried — it is a pretty complex, multi-sectional pop song that keeps quietly spinning its everyday drama and drawing you in until the "sometimes she feels so sad" line comes along and plunges you into transcendental despair.

There is nothing on Ram that weaves the same desperate mood, but there is not supposed to be anything — Ram is fantasy escapism at its best. ʽAnother Dayʼ is your boring office existence, your Alice not-yet-in-Wonderland sitting on the river bank and wondering about the possible virtues of dull books without pictures. And then, with that wonderful echo on the acoustic guitar and the weirdly disguised opening "piss off!", we are off through the rabbit-hole — into the crazy world of ʽToo Many Peopleʼ, uncle Alberts, Admiral Halseys, monkberry moon delights, smelly feet, dogs with three legs, eating in bed, and long haired ladies. What Ram has always been to me was a surreal trip, much more fully realized than Magical Mystery Tour — typically, it is said to celebrate the joys of quiet country life, as illustrated by songs like ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ and the McCartney's own secluded existence in their Scottish domain, but there's really very little about cozy, quiet country life on the album. It makes more sense to take that cozy, quiet country life as a starting point — a starting point from where, in the back of your mind, you can go just about anywhere and do just about anything.

It is whimsical, yes. Paul McCartney does not like to make bold political or social statements (and when he does make them, you should usually run for cover), nor is he all that religious, nor is he a fearless explorer of man's darker sides. But all of the songs on Ram are chockful of human emotions, even as they scale such peaks of absurdity as the other Beatles would probably have vetoed in the early days. Take one of my all-time favorites, ʽMonkberry Moon Delightʼ. Its lyrics could give ʽI Am The Walrusʼ a good run for its money — Paul milks the "colorless green ideas sleep furiously" principle with verve, intentionally illustrating the principle that structures are sometimes more important than whatever you populate them with. What matters here is, of course, not the words — those words that must have so infuriated Landau and Christgau — but the hysterical, throat-shredding vocal delivery: Paul impersonates a man (a humanoid?) on the edge, someone on the eternal run from some devilish nightmare that he can never escape. "Catch up, catch up, don't get left behind", Linda and Heather McCartney jeer at him from the shadows, as he finds himself helplessly caught up in a spinning wheel. Honestly, it isn't even a funny song: it's a creepy song, every bit as much so as any contemporary Black Sabbath anthem about Satan waiting round the bend. Except that this particular Satan is smoking monkberry moon delight rather than the good old sweet leaf.

Or take the ʽUncle Albert / Admiral Halseyʼ single. Trying to find its meaning by digging up stuff about Paul's own uncle, or about Admiral William Halsey, is only bound to result in frustration. Like the Abbey Road medley, the two parts of this track cannot exist without each other and work mostly by contrast — the smooth, relaxed serenity of the first part giving way to the vaude­villian agitation of the second one. There are even some melodic similarities between the harmonies in ʽUncle Albertʼ and the ones in ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ, all referring to a state of heavenly bliss — in this case, somewhat rudely interrupted by a punchy call-to-arms ("hands across the water, heads across the sky!"). It never makes literal sense, but neither does Alice In Wonderland. It's just that one moment you're lying in the grass, lazily watching them clouds roll over each other (and maybe feeling a little sorry for Uncle Albert), then the next moment you are up on deck, running errands for Admiral Halsey and doing the "live a little be a gypsy, get around" routine. From happy bliss to busy fuss in five minutes.

Even when the songs do make perfect lyrical sense, they are still odd. ʽDear Boyʼ is clearly written about Linda's first husband (not about John, as is sometimes mistakenly assumed, because, I mean, who could Paul McCartney ever call "dear boy" but John?) — it is a sort of ʽYou're Going To Lose That Girlʼ come to real life. But why A minor, the key of ʽHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ and ʽStairway To Heavenʼ? Before I figured out the lyrics, I always perceived it as a tragic song, a lament — is this Paul McCartney taking pity on Melville See Jr.? But then why, after the supposedly uplifting bridge about how "her love came through and brought me 'round, got me up and about" do we have that frantic guitar/piano alarm going off? This is a disturbed and disturbing tune, nowhere near the triumphant sneer of ʽYou're Going To Lose That Girlʼ or whatever other Beatles song celebrated snatching the girl away from her former suitor. It rings with desperation — as if the victor knew he was celebrating some sort of Pyrrhus' victory. If I were in Linda's shoes, I'd definitely get worried over how it all sounded.

And as for the quiet joys of secluded life in the highlands... well, ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ is anything but the perfect song celebrating such joys. Again, it is a very, very strange composition, far weirder in a way than something like ʽMother Nature's Sonʼ. Part of this has to do with how dreadfully high up in the mix is Paul's bass — maybe by accident, but ultimately it colors the entire tune, and gives it a pretty somber feel, especially when contrasted with the all-pervasive falsetto vocals. But there's also the matter of the bridge, where the bass gets even louder and seems to take us out of the «meadow» and push us down some dark path, into the very ʽheart of the country where the holy people growʼ — what ʽholy peopleʼ? And what's up with all the eerie scatting? I do not see this as a song of lush meadows and open spaces — I see it more as a song of dark mystic woods and spooky spirits. It is true that Paul would write more common songs about domestic country bliss later on, but ʽHeart Of The Countryʼ is anything but common: it is, I believe, still infected with that odd, one-of-a-kind Abbey Road magic that I feel very deeply but have a very hard time trying to explain in words.

Not even Ram's staunchest detractors can seriously deny the power of ʽLong Haired Ladyʼ, one of the most melodically complex and haunting love suites in Paul's catalog — and, again, full of that magical atmosphere, sometimes achieved not by melodic moves but by neat production touches. Let Robert Christgau hate the super-glossy, ultra-meticulous approach to sonic craft for all he wants; I only know that in a lesser mortal's hands, that introduction to the "love is long" part that begins at 2:22 into the song would have sounded like a generic country shuffle. In our case, it is a matter of two quietly pinging guitars, an acoustic in one channel and a bottleneck (I think) in the other, with equally quiet, but slowly rising lady-of-the-lake background vocals drifting in the background, perfectly creating the atmosphere of a mysterious apparition. Without making a single nod to medieval balladry, Paul here has created something positively Arthurian in scope — all that remains is for Linda to come out and hand him his Excalibur.

By the time the album ends with ʽBack Seat Of My Carʼ, a song often seen as Paul's tribute to the Beach Boys (more because of sweet falsetto harmonies and references to teenagers making out in the back seat than because of anything else), the magic has been working so effectively for so long that the conclusion acts as a wake-up to reality — you can almost see the camera panning out from the fantasy universe and focusing on the dream lovers in the back seat, the ones who'd been imagining and role-playing this all along. The way the song ends, with its frantic chanting of the "we believe that we can't be wrong!" refrain, you'd almost see it as a sort of excuse for every­thing that just happened — or, rather, a frenzied self-defense. This is Paul believing that he can't be wrong when he prefers making these seemingly silly vignettes over grand cosmic statements, and while theoretically he can be wrong, over these forty minutes he has quite successfully con­vinced me that Ram, when viewed from a certain angle, can be just as important a piece of art as the far more ambitious statements by his former brothers in arms.

On a technical note, I am also grateful to Paul for not having recorded the album completely on his own. For one thing, Denny Seiwell, who would go on to join Wings for a while, may not be the best drummer of all time, but any professional drummer is preferable to Paul if we are talking about a complete album (some of Paul's bashing may be wildly funny, but I think it is clearly heard that he is not a trained rhythm keeper). For another thing, guitarist Hugh McCracken's work on ʽToo Many Peopleʼ is smoldering (some kick-ass blues-rock soloing that Paul would never have been capable of), and he also makes the otherwise generic slow boogie number ʽSmile Awayʼ much more exciting. There is still nothing here like the full-on band sound of Wings that would not properly blossom until Band On The Run, but that is okay — the «mini-band sound» works perfect for this type of musical fantasy: not too densely clustered or overwhelming, but far more wholesome and complete-looking than the raw demo schtick of McCartney.

In the end, my point is that Ram is just very, very special even in the McCartney catalog. In a few months, Paul would form Wings, get more serious — and more sentimental — and start shaking off the invisible shackles that still somehow bound him to late-period Beatles magic. But Ram is still an album soaked to the bones with that kind of magic, far more akin in spirit to The White Album and Abbey Road than to whatever would follow; it is much more than just a «simplistic pop album» from a crafty popmeister, and it makes me happy that I still feel much the same about it as I did as an unsuspecting 12-year old. It's just one of those records that, as Mick Jagger would put it, "comes in colors everywhere" — and if you refuse to succumb to its charms... well, you probably have a very boring sex life, too.

21 comments:

  1. Reposting what I said on your Facebook page...

    Man, what a brilliant review, George. Even by your standards. Trying to pin down the emotions on this album is a hell of a task (and, honestly, is probably the thing that stopped from grasping just how brilliant Ram was when I first heard it) and you did about as good a job of it as anyone could hope to. I don't actually know if I agree with you in some places but that only speaks further about just how mercurial the album is in so many ways. You're right, even if he would make a number of other great albums, Ram maintains a very special spot in Macca's discography. Hell, I would say it maintains a very special spot in the history of recorded pop music. One of the form's premier melodists free to play in a way that he never had before and wouldn't again? You're damn right it's special.

    This is right up there with your equally exceptional review of Sgt Pepper - another album by the same dude (with a little help from, well, you know) whose brilliance is sometimes missed by people exactly because of the same sort of musical playfulness and, dare we say, magical elusiveness.

    Interesting, incidentally, that you bring up Abbey Road a number of times in the review - an album with serious emotional kick but whose emotional power strikes me as being fairly self-evident from the very first listen - and not Sgt Pepper, which in your own review you describe in the same "trip-like" terms that you do here.

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  2. Excellent review as always. Though I am weirdly sad that the old one has been replaced. I kept searching this review for "trumpet cookie" and "Queen of May". Like you can't discuss Ram without invoking that language. Oh well, onward and upward.

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    1. The old review is still available on http://starling.rinet.ru/music/paul.htm

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  3. Though I can appreciate the honorific capitalization of Relevant Cultural Context at the tail end of the third paragraph, you could make the exact same (non)point about Irrelevant Acultural Eccentricity. Once we are all done "gaining a bit of self-confidence and understanding" of these two organizations, I think we can all agree that both the RCC and the IAE are equally capable of hurting as much as they help.

    And by the way, I still think Ram is merely an okay album, which may explain why my sex life is also merely okay. Thanks for the diagnosis. On second thought, Ram is one of my wife's favorites albums of all time, so she's either having fantastic sex with or without me, or her other favorite album, Paul Simon's Graceland, is somehow compensating. Hmm...

    As usual, George, you've given me plenty to think about.

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    1. Honestly? I think most Ram devotees don't get much sex, period.

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  4. Oh Woman Oh Why, the B-side to Another Day, is also a fun, slightly weird bluesy rocker. Was glad to discover it a few years back.

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  5. I still think this is an awful album. It tries to be cute, but is corny. It tries to be rootsy but is contrived. It tries to be personal, but most of it is nonsense. It is full of ugly backing vocals and homely sounding production. Thank God David Spinozza was around, or the thing would waft away on a zephyr.

    I have witnessed this albums "rediscovery" and find it bewildering. I chalk it up to people wanting to believe the Beatles magic continued on. But there is nothing magical about this. All of the McCartneys' worst tendencies, nicely encapsulated for the ages. It is a stunning preview of the first two Wings albums. Lennon was right to snort at this.

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    1. "I chalk it up to people wanting to believe the Beatles magic continued on": this explanation would work for the opposite scenario - if the album had been embraced in 1971 and rejected with the passing of time. As far as I'm concerned, it merely had to do with people of later periods being more willing to accept cute, cozy, and homely than they were in the bold, big, and ambitious era of 1971. Fortunately, I'm cool with both as long as they are well realized.

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  6. "if you refuse to succumb to its charms... well, you probably have a very boring sex life, too."
    Now this is the kind of remark that puts you in the same category as those serious reviewers that called Ram "a subpar Sgt. Pepper rip-off". The kind of reviewer that called Led Zep I overbloated bluesrock that would go down like a lead zeppelin, because pop/rock had become a form of art, so only rootsrock, pure bluesrock and singer songwriters were acceptable. The kind of serious reviewer that's so full of his (sometimes her) own seriousness that he tends to elevate his personal preferences to a global standard - and thus at the finish line ruins a fine review.

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    1. Oops, looks like I hit a nerve here. But don't worry, I said "probably". There are always exceptions!

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    2. Hell hath no sqeauling like an incel owned.

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  7. Err, hmm, as is typically required of all Internet posts that get more than 10 views, I find myself reluctantly obliged to remind all readers past that mark that the last phrase of the review is a friendly joke. There have, in fact, been no statistical confirmations so far of any interdependency between one's feelings towards Ram and the intenseness of one's sexual life.

    (But it IS a highly promising subject for a Nature or PNAS study, if you happen to be an undergraduate in computational sciences.)

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    1. Well I took it as a joke, much as I have taken all such comments on your reviews -- and not just because I happen to love this album.

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  8. Hmm. While I consider him a great music writer, I believe it's sentences like the last one that George can lack on occasion. As it is, much appreciated, and I've never even loved this album beyond the brilliant, brilliant "Back Seat of my Car".

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  9. "There are even some melodic similarities between the harmonies in ʽUncle Albertʼ and the ones in ʽYou Never Give Me Your Moneyʼ, all referring to a state of heavenly bliss"

    Seriously, this is one of those obviously-right-so-why-did-it-never-occur-to-me observations that only a really good critic can come up with.

    Of course, as soon as George points it out, it's clear - this album is more a successor to Abbey Road than a movement away from that album - even in what, if you want to be mean, you could maybe choose to see as their weaknesses (maybe the "Ram On" reprise before the last track is just copying Sgt. Pepper, but then, maybe so was the "You Never Give Me Your Money" reprise).

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  10. An excellent review of a great album. I also highly recommend Jayson Greene's review of the "Ram" reissue on the Pitchfork site. He's particularly smart about why appreciation of the album has grown over the years.

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  11. I've mixed feelings on this one. About half is absolute brilliance, 1/4 very good, and then 1/4 cringe-inducing (no way would something boring as three legs ever make it on a Beatles album and Linda's part on Long haired lady grates).

    I'm also baffled by George's claim to find "darkness" in this album and heart of the country particularly. To me the homespun tone of this album is no different than that channeled by Ray Davies or Tolkien's Shire, typical English country nostalgia. But I'm similarly puzzled by George's claim to find darkness and seriousness in Abbey Road. Ah well, to each his own I suppose.

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  12. Not much to add or contest: I love the album too, and agree it's at or very close to Beatles quality. 100% agreement on "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" echoing "YNGMYM"; like the latter, it's almost like the entire side-2 medley compressed into one song.

    "Oh Woman Oh Why" is indeed a fine B-side, and I want to add another shout-out for a couple of previously-unreleased, digital-edition bonus tracks. There's "Rode All Night", a cathartic jam (just drums, rhythm guitar and vocal) that sounds like a single take; it's obviously about the Beatles breakup, and an early-career analog to "Rinse The Raindrops" from the super-underrated Driving Rain (reviewed/de-underrated here FWIW). And there's "A Love For You", one of Paul's very best "lost" tracks from any era, suffused with an extra measure of the pure joy that permeates the whole album. "A Love For You" exists in several versions: the officially-unreleased Cold Cuts version (which at five-and-a-half minutes should seem overlong, but doesn't); the In-Laws version which is an edit of the preceding with a slightly different guitar sound; and the Jon Kelly mix, which foregrounds a delightful, rollicking piano part that's buried in the other two mixes. The latter would be definitive if it hadn't omitted the two-note lead guitar figure that adds something crucial to the other versions: maybe one could call it a tentative resolution to the giddily desperate lyrics (more of that strange Ram darkness -- great observation there -- reminds me also of Paul's desperate howl of devotion in "Maybe I'm Amazed").

    Oh, and I always thought the phrase opening "Too Many People" was "piece of cake" ("ca-a-a-a, a-a-ake"), which seems to fit Paul's confidence and buoyant mood. It also sounds also like him reassuring Linda, who (cf. "Smile Away") was busy "learning how to do that" (i.e. make music).

    What a playful, satisfying album, obviously made by the same guy who was the dominant force in rock's greatest band during its later and best years. Still at the peak of his powers here, as well.

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  13. Imagine genuinely being offended by the last line.

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  14. Ram is a masterpiece. Great review, but you are wrong about something. You wrote "For another thing, guitarist Hugh McCracken's work on ʽToo Many Peopleʼ is smoldering (some kick-ass blues-rock soloing that Paul would never have been capable of". Well, according to McCracken, it was Paul who played the long final electric solo, which is the most complicated guitar part of the song. And not only that, according to McCracken, McCartney did it one take. George, You are right about Paul's drumming abilities, but McCartney is an amazing guitarist.

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