Review: RAM (Paul McCartney Archive Collection)

DEVIN McKINNEY  •  Can anyone think of another pop record whose qualities have been so vindicated, and whose reputation has been so rehabilitated, by time? Though I’ve fought bravely on this site against massed resistance (well, one or two people) to call it something just less than a masterpiece—can’t get past a certain emotional vacuity at the core of things—RAM is so bountifully queer and cleanly, gracefully executed, the beautiful song crowded by the gargoyle-ugly, that finally masterpiece doesn’t matter. I’ve loved RAM since I first heard it. It is Paul’s best solo record by a distance, and one of my favorites by anyone.

If you say yeah to that, the new RAM reissue (number four in the “Paul McCartney Archive Collection”) is a treat you must allow yourself. In breakdown, it contains a new stereo remaster of the album; a disc of unreleased bonus tracks; the album’s unreleased mono mix, made for US radio; a remaster of the Thrillington album, Paul’s joke-jazz remake of RAM’s entire contents; a DVD’s worth of relevant video; a big book of photos and text; and an array of other toys and oddments. The production is elaborate, imaginative, fun. It gives you the album from all angles in a sturdy, roughhewn package you will enjoy opening, feeling, disassembling, and reshelving for many years. Money-wise, it is more than worth it: add up the cost of each component purchased separately, and the box saves you a nice little pile.

First, the book. A swell assemblage, though its inauspicious beginning is an “Introduction” by one Simon Taylor that lays out the offering like an after-dinner speech, complete with bad pun on the album title: “although its tale (or should that be ‘tail?’”)—no, Simon, it should not be “tail.” Turn the page, the trend continues: Next to a shot of Paul shearing sheep, “The uncut story of RAM starts here.  It’s an impressive yarn …” Reminds me of the insipid notes for Wings Wild Life: “Inside this wrapper is the music they made. Can you dig it?” (Which notes, though credited to “Clint Harrigan,” were actually written by Macca himself.) As someone who values the survival of both language and humor, I really wish Paul didn’t have a weakness for this sort of thing.

But things improve as you turn the thick, hemp-like pages—stitched together as if by hand, real homey—and read Paul’s transcribed memories, alongside those of drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarist David Spinozza. (Curiously and regrettably absent from the interviews, though not from the photographs, is guitarist Hugh McCracken, who contributed the majority of the guitar work.) Paul’s comments are not revelatory (how many times has that been said about him?), but they do contain nuggets. He confirms long-held suspicions that “Too Many People” was aimed at John (“it was about our relationship at the time, and me feeling that I didn’t need to be preached at”), while “Dear Boy” was about Linda’s ex, “a very nice guy called Mel.” The all but indecipherable “Uncle Albert” is Paul’s apology to the older generation, and comes out of what he intriguingly terms “Irish drinking theory”; while “Ram On” was a play on “Paul Ramon,” his Silver Beetles stage name. Little things like that.

The photos are fantastic. I had not seen a single one before. All come from the Linda McCartney Archives, though a number seem to have been taken by Paul, or by some third party. They begin on the couple’s Scottish farm and continue through recording sessions at the CBS and A&R Studios in New York, to overdubs and mixing at Sound Recorders in LA. Paul undergoes great sartorial and tonsorial changes in the sequence, from a proto-punk brush-cut in late ’69 to the flowing locks of the Wings years, from great bushy beard to junkie stubble to clean elder-heartthrob jawline. There are amazing images of Paul conducting an orchestra, howling at the mike, recording gunshots for “Oh Woman Oh Why.”

The book ends, save for some salutary and well-detailed song credits, with Paul’s charming story of the Queen of Norman. I won’t reveal what that means. It’s too good. (Though it sounds a wee bit apocryphal to me.)

Move on to the music. Disc 1, the Stereo Remaster. RAM has certainly never sounded better, though it never sounded bad: The 1999 reissue was perfectly lucid, and the LP I’ve been listening to since the early ‘80s remains meaty and vigorous. But the clarity on this latest iteration, brewed in the boards at Abbey Road herself, is complete, the audioscape broad and roomy, every detail integrating with the ease of a cloud, a tree, a field of grass on a sunny day. (Though I’ve always felt a pervading wetness in the album, a feeling of not-quite-rain that is part of its grandeur: “Ram On” and “Uncle Albert” in particular.)

The differences are mostly ones of relative prominence in some instrumental detail. In “Too Many People,” always a guitar-dominated piece, Paul’s bass bulges a bit more. “Ram On,” one of my favorite tracks, seems redoubled in the echoing drama of Linda’s backing vocal. Bass is again more apparent on “Dear Boy,” with more specificity to its contrapuntal voices, especially near the end. “Smile Away” has always been the record’s nadir for me, but this mix really jumps, especially in the gear-shifting run-up to the last verse. “Heart of the Country” brings out McCracken’s preternaturally graceful harmony guitar; his razor chords are likewise the renewed focus of “Eat at Home.” The interplay of two trumpeters during the long “Jude”-like chant of “Long Haired Lady” feels like a new presence.

The bonus tracks constitute a predictably mixed bag, starting with the RAM-accompanying single, “Another Day”—a lame song, though not completely legless—backed with “Oh Woman Oh Why,” which is quite simply one of Paul’s best songs ever. Of “Little Woman Love,” the less said, etc. “A Love for You” has a great verse sabotaged by a cutesy chorus, but you stick with it, waiting for that verse to come back around. “Hey Diddle” is a country-dreamer riff that goes on way too long, “Great Cock and Seagull Race” a pointless rock instrumental. Both minimal and meandering, the eight-minute-long “Rode All Night” is a grinding workout with just Paul and Denny, guitar and drum. The last track, “Sunshine Sometimes,” is a breezy, lazy instrumental with a Paul vocal so distant and phantasmal it seems to have been imperfectly erased. (Two other bonus tracks—an energetic live medley of “Eat at Home” and “Smile Away,” recorded in Groningen, the Netherlands, on August 19, 1972; and “Uncle Albert Jam,” a silly sped-up version that resembles a Get Back outtake—are available only as digital downloads from Paul’s website. The necessary code number comes in the box.)

There are no real hidden delights in the mono mix, not even the minimal-but-undeniably-present variations to be found throughout the Beatles’ stereo-to-mono oeuvre. “3 Legs” has, I believe, a slightly longer “mm-hmm” at the very end. “Dear Boy” is likewise just slightly extended. The vocal echo on “Long-Haired Lady” may be slightly stronger. And on “Smile Away,” there is a slight elevation of the fuzz bass on the “smile away quietly now” bit. Clearly the key word to apply to the mono mix is “slight.” Nice to have it in captivity, though.

And then comes Percy “Thrills” Thrillington. Go to the net for the whole story of how Paul cooked up a notion of someone covering RAM in its entirety; then figured Why not me; then hired ex-Apple artist Richard Hewson to write up some jazz arrangements; then split the scene while said arrangements were recorded by a slew of musicians and vocalists; then, when the LP was finally issued in 1977, masterminded a coy publicity campaign twisting on the secret identity of Percy himself; then disavowed connection with the whole shebang until the late ‘80s, when pinned down at a press conference.

I can’t say if Thrillington’s stereo remaster was worth anyone’s ear-strain, because while I bought the CD a number of years ago I couldn’t make it past the first few tracks. The most honest thing to be said of the album as, um, art is that a few songs float to the surface of not-quite-badness, while the whole is a curiously attenuated dream sequence soundtracked by pompous approximations of vaguely familiar pazz ‘n’ jop accents. Contrast works to occasional advantage: The farmer funk of “3 Legs” is wrenched into sleazy stripper jazz, while “Ram On” comes off like late ‘60s Hollywood sunshine pop. “Eat at Home” becomes a modified reggae. The fuffling horn interjections that substitute for a vocal in “Smile Away” sound like the snorts of an ailing seal. The album has its humor, without doubt: I defy anyone to listen to the bisexual scat-group Wah-wah-wheeeeeee! of “Heart of the Country” and not laugh, or at least smile—and not in derision, either, but in the offered spirit of absolute silliness.

The bonus DVD consists of a lengthy snip of Paul and Linda singing “Hey Diddle” on the lawn in sight of two cavorting daughters; promotional videos shot in 1971 for the songs “3 Legs” and “Heart of the Country” (the McCartneys riding horses and bouncing on the beach); and Denny Seiwell’s home-movie footage of Wings’ 1972 European bus tour (does it ever look like fun). Best is the excellent little making-of documentary, Ramming, narrated by Paul (his quotes are the ones you’ve just been reading throughout the book). The doc is completely animated and quite herky-jerky, perhaps too much for some people, and doesn’t resort to a single talking-head shot. I liked it a lot.

As for the toys. A small red flip-book collects Linda’s photographs of the family sheep on their way to shearing—the same “session” that yielded the RAM cover shot. There is a book containing reproductions of score sheets and jotted notes pertaining to such logistics as song sequence, cover art, and publicity. There is an envelope tricked up to look like a photographic-materials container, containing a half-dozen or so glossy shots of Paul, Linda, sheep. There is another envelope, in which are found several folded pages reproducing Paul’s handwritten lyrics. All are interesting and fun, perhaps more so for the care and creativity that went into their packaging than for anything inherent in the materials themselves.

The whole package is rather an undeclared tribute to Linda McCartney. She’s richly represented in the photographs and film clips, and of course she’s deep in the album’s sound-grain: not for nothing, I guess, was the album credited to “Paul and Linda McCartney.” As Paul and the musicians describe her in the notes, you get a sense of what a loving and peace-giving presence she must have been.

Each box is stamped, White Album style, with its own serial number.

Finally, you get two cards, each imprinted with a unique code. One grants you a year’s access to the official Paul McCartney site. The other allows you to download from the site an MP3 version of the complete stereo album and bonus tracks. The tracks sound just as good on your iTunes as they do on your disc player. The download is a bit slow. Big deal.

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17 Comments

  1. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Yes, this box is a delight to anyone who likes “Ram.” I’ve said plenty on this site about how much I love this album, so I won’t here. I am glad that the box set is done with such care and completion, without compromising the wacky, homemade vibe that’s part of the album’s charm.

    I disagree with you about the “emotional vacuity” of “Ram,” and about “Another Day” being “lame” (you’re shocked, Devin, I know). I think “Ram” is McCartney’s most personal album, at least until late in his career, and packs plenty of emotion. It’s just that rather than Lennon’s (or Harrison’s, come to that) lay-it-right-on-the-line style of emotional expression, McCartney applies musical and lyrical filters.

    Jayson Greene gets at the emotional stakes underlying the album’s apparently sunny surface in that Pitchfork review of the reissue: “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.”

    As for “Another Day,” I give McCartney credit for writing a sympathetic song about a despairing young career woman in 1971.

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Nancy: I was going to type pretty much what you wrote about Ram, and about Another Day. But now I don’t have to. So thanks! Well said. (I love that quote from Pitchfork; it’s right on the money.)

    My speculation: Rode All Night is Paul’s Plastic Ono Band in one 8-minute song that he didn’t feel it necessary to release in 1971. It’s absolutely cathartic for Paul. And the lyric is telling if you’re willing to take Paul seriously (as many people just seem unable to). He sing/screams lines like “Well I don’t feel sick, Don’t feel so bad anymore” and “rode all night till I finally hit the daybreak.” He’s basically announcing that he’s past the pain of the Beatles break up, and the pain of his break up with John, and he’s moving on. This is a man who was for a long while stuck in the midst of a serious depression. And this song is all about Paul saying I’m OK now and I’m ready to move on: I’ve seen the daybreak. I like the song, in part for the emotional honesty of it and in part for the great jam. He was/is a hell of a guitar player.

    Over all, though, I agree with Devin, too, that the Ram deluxe reissue is worth every pennyr It’s as lovingly put together as the album was oh so long ago.

    — Drew

  3. Avatar Annie wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Whoops; accidentally posted this under my other google ID. Deleted the comment, and I hope the mod(s) don’t mind reposting it! :/

    Anyway…

    Loved reading this review, Devin.

    I must thirdify the exception to the “emotional vacuity” line, though.

    I’m often puzzled by the general consensus that Paul’s music lacks emotional depth, because I personally find so much of it incredibly poignant. So maybe I’m just in some weird minority of “emotional style” or whatever? Which is funny, because Paul’s songwriting is so often described as being “universal”, and it frequently is. But I wonder if perhaps his deepest, rawest, and most personal modes of expression are something of a “niche market”, and therefore overlooked.

    Grrr, must dash.

  5. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Drew, I like your idea that “Rode All Night” is about getting past the Beatles’ break up. Makes sense to me, especially given the way Paul screams those lines — even rawer than his vocals on “Oh, Darling.” He sure must have felt he “rode all night” in the aftermath of Apple, Allan Klein, etc.

    I think one reason McCartney’s “deepest, rawest, and most personal modes of expression” (to borrow Annie’s great phrase) are often overlooked is because they don’t name-check the way Lennon’s often do. That is, “Rode All Night” doesn’t include “Beatles” in its lyrics, but understanding it as Drew suggests makes perfect sense. “Maybe I’m Amazed” doesn’t mention Linda by name, but it’s clearly about his relationship with her. Etc.

    I hear all of “Ram” as saturated with feelings about the Beatles’ break up (“Too Many People,” “3 Legs,” “Smile Away”), finding a way forward (“Ram On,” “Heart of the Country”), and enjoying romantic/domestic life (“Long Haired Lady,” “Eat at Home”). And just having a great time (“Monkberry Moon Delight,” “Back Seat of My Car,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”)

    Another line from Greene’s excellent Pitchfork review describes McCartney as looking, in the pictures in the “Ram” booklet, as if he’s just been smacked in the face with the pillow of domestic bliss. I looked back at them, and he’s absolutely right.

  6. Avatar Ingrid wrote:

    One question, and a comment. How much is this big box set, and where’s the best place to get a good price? Or maybe there’s an extra promo set floating around Heydullblog HQ and we could have a drawing…

    As for “Another Day,” I absolutely love it. I’m bonkers for it. I remember hearing it in the Harvard Coop (first floor, poster and picture frame section) about ten years ago, having not heard it in quite some time, and being just transfixed. The gentle commentary, the humble empathy, the simplicity. “Sometimes she feels so sad.” Notably, the woman of the song is just “she” and not baby or mama or woman or lady. I wonder whether Linda had more of a hand in it than with the raunchier songs on Ram.

    And okay, one more comment. Ram-era McCartney is absolutely gobsmacked with domestic bliss. He’s left behind the hurt and (most of the) anger of the end of the Beatles. He’s fecund (can men be fecund?) and loved and well fed. But not boring, not bored. Full of fuck, as Nancy points out.

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    “Full of fuck.” What a great description of Ram.

    The domestic bliss was exactly what put some critics off about Ram. People couldn’t believe that in an era of all this political unrest, Paul was writing about the beauty of hearth and home (and of having great sex with your wife). But really, in hindsight, he was making as much of a statement about what was important in life as John was about the importance of being politically engaged or George was about being spiritually engaged.

    Also, I think people — being as superficial and petty as we often are — couldn’t believe Paul had picked HER. What was so special about HER? The most eligible bachelor on the planet, he could have had any woman and he picked HER? There was definitely a deep strain of misogyny throughout the criticism of Paul and Linda during those years.

    I happen to think Linda was a natural beauty. The woman rarely wore a stitch of makeup at the time and she looks beautiful in many of those Ram-era photos. How many famous women these days would routinely allow themselves to be photographed as they are without any makeup or stylists? Today, a famous actress will tweet a picture of herself without any makeup on to show how “real” she is. But Linda was photographed like that all the time. And, yes, the lack of makeup sometimes made for less than flattering photos. But that’s what happens when you’re just yourself in front of a camera.

    Oops, I’m RAMbling again. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.)

    Ingrid: The cheapest price I’ve seen for the deluxe edition of Ram is $85 on Amazon.

    — Drew

  8. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Ingrid, list on the box is $104 on McCartney’s site; last I checked, Amazon has it for a little less than $85. It’s well worth it for anyone who likes (let alone loves) “Ram.”

    Can’t take credit for that quote pointing out Paul’s “Ram”-era “fecundity” (I think that word is perfect in this context): that was Greene, on Pitchfork. One of the most insightful, well-written reviews I’ve read, so let me give the url again here:

    http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/16651-ram/

    I love the way he explains the critical hostility to the album. Now I think I get why Landau et. al. hated it so much.

  9. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    As someone who values the survival of both language and humor, I really wish Paul didn’t have a weakness for this sort of thing.

    Heeeeee.

    The all but indecipherable “Uncle Albert” is Paul’s apology to the older generation, and comes out of what he intriguingly terms “Irish drinking theory”

    “Irish drinking theory” — how wonderful. Does he qualify this concept at all? Are we talking meaningless-blabber-drunkenness, or crying-into-your-whiskey-glass-drunkenness? (I know which one gets my vote.)

    every detail integrating with the ease of a cloud, a tree, a field of grass on a sunny day. (Though I’ve always felt a pervading wetness in the album, a feeling of not-quite-rain that is part of its grandeur: “Ram On” and “Uncle Albert” in particular.)

    Beautifully put. I agree, and this element of damp melancholy is part of what gives me a somewhat darker take on RAM, and gets at the heart of what I was trying to say earlier about Paul’s work not getting enough credit for emotional depth.

    But before jumping into that I wanted to take a moment to appreciate Devin’s fantastic writing. Such a great, great review. 🙂

  10. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I submitted this post earlier but it included a link so it might not have made it through. Anyway ….

    Ingrid wrote: “He’s fecund (can men be fecund?)”

    Well, if any man can be “fecund,” it’s Paul. Just look at how many photos there are of him in the 70s holding his babies inside his shirt or coat. There is of course the famous McCartney album cover in which Mary is peeking out of his jacket. But there are many other similar photos. The one that is perhaps most striking is a picture in which he’s actually holding a newborn Mary under his shirt, with just her head showing out of the neckline of the shirt, and one of his arms wrapped around her along the bottom (like a pregnant woman holds her stomach) and his other hand on his hip. It’s such a gender-twisting photo, and I had never seen it before. It’s in the deluxe edition of McCartney (which is also a small gold mine of Macca family photos). I can’t link to the picture but it’s black and white and he’s wearing a short sleeve shirt.

    Anyway, speaking of fecund! I can’t imagine any other rock star of his era posing like that, and I suppose some men would find it “weird’ or think it makes Paul weird. But I thought it was fabulous.

    — Drew

  11. Nice photo, Drew.

    Thank you, Annie.

  12. Avatar Annie McNeil wrote:

    Ingrid said:

    The gentle commentary, the humble empathy, the simplicity. “Sometimes she feels so sad.” Notably, the woman of the song is just “she” and not baby or mama or woman or lady. I wonder whether Linda had more of a hand in it than with the raunchier songs on Ram.

    Not to minimize Linda’s influence, but Paul has always written empathetic songs about female characters who exist in the narrative simply as people, without falling into one of the usual roles of mother/lover/villain. Other examples: “Eleanor Rigby”, “Lady Madonna”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Blackbird”, “San Ferry Anne”, “Mistress and Maid”, “She’s Given Up Talking”, “Jenny Wren”. Those are just off the top of my head, and without mentioning “Temporary Secretary”, which I think is a brilliant feminist commentary despite being, to use Devin’s fabulous phrase, “gargoyle-ugly”.

  13. Avatar Ingrid wrote:

    And Annie, I would add to the list “Little Willow,” written for Maureen Starkey after her death, and more directly addressed to the subject than the third-person “story” songs. Nancy, did you write the post on Paul’s empathy songs that you mentioned to me once in an email?

    The photo of Paul with shirt baby is AMAZING. I’ve never seen that before!

  14. Avatar Stew wrote:

    The book ends, save for some salutary and well-detailed song credits, with Paul’s charming story of the Queen of Norman. I won’t reveal what that means. It’s too good.

    This, more than any other passage in your excellent review, is going to cause me to spend 85 bucks on this thing.

  15. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Ingrid, I’ll write that post on McCartney’s empathy songs — thanks for the poke.

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