Ram’s Resurgence

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Michael Gerber

Publisher at The American Bystander
is Blogmom of Hey Dullblog. His novels and parodies have sold 1.25 million copies in 25 languages. He lives in Santa Monica, CA, and runs The American Bystander all-star print humor magazine.
Michael Gerber
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ram_mccartney[After the millionth insightful comment by our indefatigable Nancy, we asked her if there was anything Beatley burning a hole in her well-furnished brains. This is what she wrote; give her a warm Hey Dullblog welcome.–MG]

NANCY CARR • When it was released in 1971, Ram was hated—really hated, to the point of practically being crushed and melted—by many rock critics. Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau inveighed against it as “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far,” calling it “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant.” Robert Christgau was kinder, giving it a C+ and sniffing “If you’re going to be eccentric, for goodness’ sake don’t be pretentious about it.” Ram was dismissed—its being credited to “Paul and Linda McCartney” didn’t help—as a bunch of chirpy domestic tunes.

Ram’s Resurgence

Yet over the years Ram’s reputation has risen, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s changing opinion illustrates. In 1997’s All Music Guide to Rock (2nd edition) he gave the disc three stars for being mostly “filler,” adding that “while it’s enjoyable filler, it prevents the record from being much more than a pleasurable diversion.” Sometime since, however, Erlewine got Ram religion: the online All Music Guide awards the album five stars. “[T]hese songs may not be self-styled major statements, but they are endearing and enduring, as is Ram itself, which seems like a more unique, exquisite pleasure with each passing year.”

And to that I say, “amen.” Ram’s distance from the 1971 rock orthodoxy’s serious-statement aesthetic has kept it sounding fresh and undated. Forty years on, Ram’s unabashed delight in melody, harmony, and musical inventiveness sounds timeless, not throwaway.

It’s hard for me to fathom how any rock fan can resist this record. Its songs recall the Beach Boys (“Dear Boy,” “The Back Seat of My Car”), Buddy Holly (“Eat at Home”), and John Lennon (“Ram On,” and yes, I will attempt to justify this claim). On Ram McCartney cuts loose, exploiting his full vocal range (high, sweet singing on “Heart of the Country,” falsetto and precise harmonies on “Dear Boy,” flat–out screaming on “Monkberry Moon Delight”), and the full range of his feelings, from love to anger. Yet even the angriest songs are hooky and bouncy. Maybe that’s why so many critics in 1971 overlooked the often personal lyrics: the songs are so damn catchy they breeze right by.

Ram as Response

With the exception of “Ram On”, Side 1 is all response to adversity and criticism, comprising accusation (of Lennon, in “Too Many People”), mock self-defense (“3 Legs”), mock commiseration (with Linda’s ex-husband, in “Dear Boy”), mock apology (“Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”) and defiance (“Smile Away”). Side 2 is all love, delight, and passionate release. It’s about finding a peaceful place to live (“Heart of the Country,”), having delirious family fun (“Monkberry Moon Delight”), making love (“Eat at Home”), falling in love (“Long-Haired Lady”), and reveling in teenage lust (“The Back Seat of My Car”).

“Ram On”’s importance to McCartney is indicated by the album’s name and by his including two versions of the song, one on each side. It’s the Lennonesque song on the album, a McCartney version of Plastic Ono Band’s “Hold On.” McCartney being McCartney, the lyrics of “Ram On” aren’t “Hold on, Paul” but “Ram on / Give your heart to somebody / Soon, right away.” But like Lennon, McCartney reassures himself that having found love, he can survive. “Ram On” also recalls McCartney’s early stage moniker, “Paul Ramon,” perhaps as a way of reminding himself of his continuing identity as a performer.

The Cover Versions

Ram On LAThe last few years have produced three complete cover versions of Ram. Though totally unrelated, the compilations RAM on L.A. and Tom (after WFMU disc jockey Tom Scharpling, who masterminded it) were released the same week of March 2009. RAM on L.A. is fascinating and maddening by turns. You’ll either love Le Switch’s gypsy-inflected “Monkberry Moon Delight” or run screaming from the room, while Amnion’s psychedelic “Long-Haired Lady” is deeply odd but oddly winning. To my ears, Earliment’s “Too Many People” and the Bodies of Waters’ “Dear Boy” strike the best musical balance.

Tom Sharpling's RAMLoaded with big-name talent, Tom is impressive throughout. Aimee Mann does “Too Many People,” Death Cab for Cutie takes up “Dear Boy,” and The Morning Benders cover “Ram On.” Every track works, but Ted Leo’s “The Back Seat of My Car” is brilliant. The beginning drags a bit, but the last 2½ minutes are amazing. Leo’s “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. . . . WOOOOO!” before he screams “We believe that we can’t be wrong” over and over, more desperately each time—well, you just have to hear it.

The Ram ProjectDave Depper released his cover of Ram this year, playing all the instruments (a female friend supplied Linda’s harmonies). Depper decided to cover the album when he was at a creative low ebb, unable to write original songs, and set out to reproduce McCartney’s originals as faithfully as possible. He comes pretty close, an impressive feat that also limits the album’s artistic value. Because it doesn’t reimagine anything, The Ram Project is fun but not very illuminating.

I’ll give Depper the last word. In an interview he explained his decision to cover Ram this way: “I felt like I just discovered this big secret—that Paul McCartney actually did a bunch of badass stuff, and I had spent my whole life trash–talking him. So it felt like a debt of honor to this guy to bring this to light.”

Nancy Carr is a writer and editor based in Chicago.

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35 Comments

  1. Avatar Kip W wrote:

    And let’s not forget the early cover version of this album by the sophisticated Percy Thrillington!

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Absolutely spot on. This really was a crime, a mob attack, perpetrated on McCartney’s reputation by a bunch of music critics (Christgau, Jann Wenner) who were in league with Lennon and thought they were somehow doing his dirty work by tearing apart McCartney’s work.

    It’s bizarre that it took 40 years for people to finally come around to this album. Just last week, in a review of Eddie Vedder’s new album, Pitchfork mentioned McCartney’s Ram and called it a “proto-indie masterpiece.”

    The kind of intense criticism McCartney received has got to have affected him as an artist. I wonder how different his career might have been, in what other directions he might have gone, had he received any critical plaudits for this record. At some level, it’s got to shake your confidence even if you’re the type (like McCartney) who likes to pretend it didn’t and you just soldiered on.

    Anyway, better late than never. I really really hope that when he reissues Ram he does it up BIG, with generous bonus material, with both the mono and stereo versions, and maybe even throw in the Percy Thrillington version.

    Lou.

  3. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Yeah, Lou, the part of this story that really bothers me is what you said: “doing Lennon’s dirty work by tearing apart McCartney’s work.”

    The way John and Yoko (and now Yoko) used the press to reward friends and punish enemies is very ugly to me. Courtier culture is anti-creative and anti-human.

  4. Avatar Bart Rankin wrote:

    Christgau criticizing someone for being pretentious–ha ha ha ha ha.

  5. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Lou, do you think “Ram” was bashed mainly by people on behalf of Lennon? That wasn’t my impression: I think “Ram” was just not at all what most critics at the time expected McCartney to do. For the time, it was too happy and not critical enough.

    For example, this is from another review of “Ram,” this one from the 1975 “The Beatles: An Illustrated Record” by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler: “‘. . . it was neither good pop (being too contrived) nor good rock (being too saccharine). It was sta-prest ready-to-wear music, to be listened to in a lounge with plaster ducks on the wall, and it positively reeked of cosy domestica — the kind of environment that stifles all creativity.”

    Sure sounds like McCartney’s crime was at least in part being happily domestic, and not in a countercultural way a la Lennon and Ono.

  6. Avatar owlglass wrote:

    I’ve always been a McCartney nay-sayer because I’m a bit pretentious. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to like McCartney & Ram. Thx for the entertaining Ram plug!

  7. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Nancy: Certainly it wasn’t “cool” at the time for a rock star to be happily married, carting his wife and children around with him everywhere. Valuing family and domesticity was something your parents did, right? It certainly wasn’t countercultural. It’s only in hindsight that what Paul did — bucking the convention of the rock establishment — looks pretty damn cool and brave. Rock critics LOVE when stars defy societal conventions but Paul was defying rock music conventions and that was a no-no.

    The funny thing is: That 1975 critic who said domesticity stifled creativity couldn’t have been more wrong in Paul’s case. Ram is so amazing exactly because it’s exploding with musical ideas. The quality of Paul’s solo work would later stumble but I think that’s because he got beaten down so badly by critics he didn’t know how to proceed.

    And yes, I think Jann Wenner and Christgau were predisposed to hate this album because of their preconceived notions about Paul, who didn’t go after his band mates in the press, while “honest” John spilled his guts slamming Paul at every opportunity. Of course as it turned out, John was lying at the time in order to manipulate public opinion — for ex., when Lennon insisted he and Paul had stopped collaborating early on and then John waited 10 years to admit, in another interview, that he’d been lying about that.

    So yes, it was partly the record itself they didn’t understand. Why wasn’t McCartney making a statement about politics or spirituality? Why wasn’t he taking a stand on things? Why — in short — wasn’t doing what John or George did?

    But I also think that John and Yoko were manipulating their tight circle of friends in the media to go after Paul.

    — Lou

  8. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Lou, you bring up a really interesting point: once he’d been slammed by critics, over and over, Paul almost certainly felt more and more uncertain about what to do. McCartney’s creative mechanism is other-focused–“what will they like?” Not to say that he doesn’t express himself, he certainly does, but audience approval is essential for him, and when he felt the lack of that–especially after getting more approval than any other artist in the history of pop music–the confusion, depression, and uncertainty he felt must’ve been considerable.

  9. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Lou, thanks for expanding on your comment. I absolutely agree with you about domesticity in fact feeding McCartney’s creativity at this point, so that “Ram” is overstuffed with musical ideas. And his style of combining his musical and family lives does look plenty cool now, however square it looked in the 70s.

    But didn’t Paul “go after” his bandmates too? I think of that insert in the “McCartney” album where he says he didn’t miss his bandmates while recording it, and of the photo of those beetles on the back of “Ram.” No question that Lennon had the gloves off in the early 70s, but I think McCartney was mixing it up as well.

    To your and Michael’s point about the critical bashing McCartney took for this album: I also wonder how much it affected him musically. “How Do You Sleep?”, in response to “Ram,” must have hurt him very deeply. Impossible to know what he would have done differently if “Ram” had been better received, but fascinating to consider.

  10. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Nancy: oh yeah, McCartney was slinging mud, too, but I think we can agree that he wasn’t in Lennon’s league when it came to vituperation–what did he call it? Something like “going up against the rapier champion of Chatham”? I’m misremembering it.

    There’s an 1984 Playboy interview where McCartney talks about all this stuff: http://www.music.indiana.edu/som/courses/rock/paulint.html

  11. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    I’d forgotten that line of Paul’s, Michael! Here it is (from “Many Years From Now”):

    “When John did ‘How Do You Sleep?’, I didn’t want to get into a slanging match. And I’m so glad now, particularly after his death, that I don’t have that on my conscience. I just let him do it, because he was being fed a lot of those lines by Klein and Yoko, I had the option of going for equal time and doing all the interviews or deciding to not take up the gauntlet, and I remember consciously thinking, No, I realty mustn’t. Part of it was cowardice: John was a great wit, and I didn’t want to go fencing with the rapier champion of East Cheam. That was not a good idea.”

    I can’t say exactly why, but I love “East Cheam” there.

  12. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    IMO: The difference between the comments Paul made and the ones John (and George, to some degree) made is that Paul never once demeaned John’s music or criticized his songwriting abilities.

    Paul talked about John “preaching practices” (which was true) and about how John took his lucky break and broke it in two and Paul said he enjoyed being with his family more than his old bandmates. But Paul never once stooped to the depths that John did — publicly attacking Paul’s songs, directly and publicly dismissing Paul’s music and his songwriting, suggesting publicly that he’d been the serious songwriter and Paul the lightweight. And John continued to demean Paul as a songwriter even as recently as 1980 saying The Long and Winding Road had been Paul’s last gasp, which is garbage and deeply ironic seeing as John was the one with a serious case of writer’s block for five years.

    If John had merely called Paul controlling and bossy, or said he was impossible to work with because he had to have his own way all the time, that would have been fair game. And I’m sure John said all those things at one point or another! But it was when John sought to harm Paul’s reputation as a Beatle and as a songwriter — and influenced music critics to go on the attack — that I find pretty inexcusable.

    I’m blathering on here. But my point is that John did a lot of damage to Paul in public in ways that Paul never did to John (for whatever reason). Just think of the nasty comments Paul could have made about John’s failed album, Sometime in New York. But Paul didn’t — thank goodness. And with hindsight, while John’s comments about Paul continue to hurt Paul’s reputation to this day, those comments have also hurt John’s reputation. The lyrics to How Do You Sleep is a jerk move, by any definition. So John did some damage to his own rep in the process.

    I think it was in Peter Doggett’s book that I read him or someone say that you don’t keep “taking the piss” out of someone (like John did repeatedly to Paul) unless you view them as some sort of authority figure. But I’m betting that knowing that wouldn’t make Paul feel better, given how much he seemed to need/crave approval (as Michael pointed out). And yes, I think it did some serious and lasting damage to Paul as a musician and song writer — although I think in the last 10-12 years he’s got his mojo back. I’m in the camp that thinks Chaos and Creation (2005) was a great album, as was 2008’s Electric Arguments.

    Sorry for babbling. Ram on!

    Lou

  13. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    I think your points are well-taken, Lou. I don’t know if this is what you were remembering, but “Many Years From Now” quotes Felix Dennis, who was present at the session where “How Do You Sleep?” was recorded, as saying this:

    ” . . . even if it might have been very hurtful to Paul McCartney, I think that the mood in which it was written should be borne in mind, which was one of schoolboy for the hell of it. It’s quite obvious that Paul must have been some sort of figure of authority in Lennon’s life, because you don’t take the piss out of somebody that isn’t a figure of authority. The mood there wasn’t totally vindictive. As I felt it, they were taking the piss out of the headmaster. A lot of giggling, a lot of laughing.”

    John’s need to keep taking Paul down publicly seems to have been driven at least in part by his own insecurities.

  14. Avatar Mollie wrote:

    I remember hearing John say in an interview — on David Frost, perhaps? — that he later came to realize that his character-assassination songs (“How Do You Sleep?”, “Steel and Glass”) were really all about himself. Sort of a convenient revelation, I guess, but it also sounds true to me. I can see some of the venom in “How Do You Sleep?” coming from a place of personal insecurity — particularly the anxiety about one’s best creative work being in the past. (Also, “Jump when your mama tells you anything” — who is THAT about?)

    Love this post, by the way. I’m the Beatlefan in our relationship, but it was my husband (far more of a pop snob) who decided we ought to own Ram, and brought it along on a recent car trip. He loves it. Score one for Paul! But I can imagine critics’ feeling betrayed by all the nonsense lyrics and “bip bop” vocalizing where they’d come to expect real substance. They must have been annoyed that Paul was not taking himself and his obligation to be Important as seriously as he they felt he ought to.

  15. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Mollie, that’s a good point about Lennon’s recognition that his most venom-filled songs were at least partly about himself. But “Too Many People” and “How Do You Sleep?” feel most like two sides of a coin to me — written by men who, whatever distance they got from each other, couldn’t effectively write off their relationship.

    To your comment about the nonsense lyrics on “Ram”: how different are they, really, from “All Together Now” or “Hey Bulldog,” from the Beatles era? Yet when the Beatles broke up the expectation seemed to be they would all (or all but Ringo) make self-consciously important musical statements. And that’s where “Ram” doesn’t fit in, though it fits well enough into the Beatles ethos, at least to my mind.

  16. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    But many of the “nonsense” lyrics on Ram are not really “nonsense” at all. As Nancy described so well, there are some deeply personal messages — sometimes angry ones, sometimes apologetic, sometime euphoric — behind the crazy lyrics of songs like 3 Legs, Uncle Albert, and Smile Away. Would the songs on the album be so enduring and sound as fresh as they do if Paul had been more direct? No way.

    Lou

  18. Avatar Unknown wrote:

    Nice threads here!
    Once way back when, in the early to mid ’70s I fell victim to the crap that the Lennon-Ono camp was dishing out, as mentioned above. Years later, with the help of some acquired wisdom I managed to develop a more pragmatic take on John and Paul.
    Interestingly, Paul’s solo stuff (well, ok SOME of it) has aged a lot better than most of John’s. I realized what each of them brought to the Beatles table, and how crucial their collaboration was to maintaining the high quality output that The Beatles will always be known for. Without those checks and balances you can see how separately, John and Paul fell victim to their own foibles. In a number of cases there were great kernels at the core of a number of John’s songs – but buried by lack of compositional editing, dirge-like tempos, mediocre arrangements and performances. Many of Paul’s songs had great hooks, were arranged and performed impeccably, were suitably economical -but frequently they were missing that kernel. Neither of them were there to coax ideas or performances out of each other. Even after John and Paul stopped writing together their influence upon each other was strong.
    Somehow I always manage to separate The Beatles from John and Paul. The Beatles’ corpse twitched on for one or two solo albums, but after that, I’ve always felt that John and Paul – and George’s output became mediocre. None of them alone were the Beatles, despite many of us wanting (and expecting) them to be.

  19. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Unknown, that’s often been a thought of mine–how The Beatles’ creative magic was so strong that it still worked on the individual performers for several years. That’s what makes the breakup such a shame–if you take John, Paul, George and Ringo’s individual output from 1970-74, you’ve got at least an LP a year FULL of smashes. Then add in the working method they used with each other, and…

    For all of their (mostly John’s) pronouncements that “the magic was gone,” it manifestly WASN’T, the “singles” alone prove that. When you factor in their complimentary nature, you wonder, “What would something like ‘My Love’–perfectly satisfying Macca pap–have been if The Beatles had done it?” Yes, stuff like Plastic Ono Band needed to be solo albums, but it didn’t have to be either/or. And that’s the shame of it.

  20. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    …..Maybe no one of the people who comment play music…i’m sure!

  21. Avatar Michael wrote:

    You would be wrong, Anon, but thanks for stopping by!

  22. Avatar Alexander wrote:

    Great post! I’ve long been a fan of not only “Ram,” but also “McCartney,” and even — I say shamelessly — “Wild Life.” McCartney’s artistic voice in these early solo years were of unrestrained playfulness and creativity. On “Ram,” the “we believe that we can’t be wrong” chanting at the end of “Back Seat of My Car” is said to have been a stab and John and Yoko’s proselytizing, but it functions as a celebration of the youthful creative risk-taking that makes McCartney’s early solo albums so interesting and endearing.

  23. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Thanks for your comment, Alexander. I agree with you about McCartney’s early solo albums, and also about “Wild Life,” which has some good-to-great songs (“Tomorrow,” “Dear Friend,” “Some People Never Know,” and the radically reworked cover of Mickey and Sylvia’s “Love is Strange.”).

    It’s true that Lennon thought the “We believe that we can’t be wrong” line was about him and Yoko, but then he also thought “Dear Boy” was directed at him, when it could hardly be more plainly aimed at Linda’s ex-husband. (However, just because John was paranoid doesn’t mean Paul wasn’t out to get him, as “Too Many People” shows.)

    It’s funny that more people didn’t realize how personal these early albums actually were — as self-revelatory, in a McCartneyesque way, as Lennon’s and Harrison’s early solo records, in my opinion.

  24. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    There was one very interesting thread on a music forum which dealt with the Ram album and someone described how even the Monkberry Moon Delight’s lyrics might be personal.

  25. Avatar Michael wrote:

    Link, anon? I’d love to read that thread.

  26. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    As I listen to Ram, I am struck by how important George Martin was to both John and Paul…forget about him being the “fifth Beatle,” George was the “third Beatle” in the studio. George Martin and John Lennon were the only two people in the world who could tell Paul his songs were substandard.

    With respect to Ram, had George Martin produced it, I think George would have told McCartney to go back to the lyrical and musical drawing board with at least half of the songs on the album.

    I am a big fan of Paul’s, and I bet it must really suck for him to have to face the fact that he cannot summon up a lyric or melody remotely approaching the brilliant work he produced during 1964-1969.

    How can the author of Eleanor Rigby look us in the eye as he submits lyrics like “Say you don’t love me, my salamander” for our approval?

  27. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    J.R., we are clearly not going to agree about the musical and lyrical quality of “Ram.” That’s personal taste.

    I do think you’re giving George Martin too much credit. He was the perfect producer for the Beatles, and his work with them is flawless, in my opinion. But that perfection didn’t carry over into his work with others, including his work with McCartney. “Tug of War,” which Martin produced, is not as good as “Ram.” (As for Martin’s work beyond the Beatles, consider that he produced the soundtrack of the Bee Gees/Peter Framptom fiasco “Sgt. Pepper’s” film.)

    I also concur with Michael’s point that comparing anyone (including solo Beatles) to the Beatles at full flood is folly. The solo work is divisive because each Beatle went off in his own direction and the work shows the strength and weaknesses of their individual personalities much more clearly.

  28. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    Nancy,

    Ahem. Regarding Tug of War: Rolling Stone called it a “masterpiece”.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/tug-of-war-19820527

  29. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  31. Avatar Nancy wrote:

    Sorry about the deleted comments — having trouble posting from my phone.

    Anyway, J.R., I disagree with “Rolling Stone” about “Tug of War.” Case in point: “Ebony and Ivory.” Strongly agree with the anti-racist sentiment, big fan of Stevie Wonder, loathe this song.

    We’ll just have to agree to differ.

    • Nancy Carr Nancy Carr wrote:

      That’s very interesting, Michael — I hadn’t seen this post of Luca’s, but what he says about “Ram” in it matches what he says in his “Recording Sessions” book. I do disagree with him about a couple of things: I don’t think the album overall is “bitter,” though it has its moments of acrimony, and I can’t hear “Dear Boy” as a “sort of j’accuse to John.” Luca himself notes that McCartney stated this song was about Linda’s ex-husband, and I think the lyrics make that very clear. It’s fascinating that people keep hearing it being about Lennon.

      I see “Ram” as the peak of McCartney’s “early period” solo career, more personal and overall stronger than “Band on the Run.” To me, “Ram” : “Plastic Ono Band” and “Band on the Run” : “Imagine.”

      • @Nancy, I agree on that arrangement. I’ll go a little further: BOTR has never really done it for me. I like it, what’s not to like, but I’ve never been the least bit interested in it. Couldn’t tell you why. And that’s exactly how I feel about “Imagine,” too. They are overly machined; each without the other simply doesn’t have that fascinating tension.

        Re: “Dear Boy” — I think this willful misreading is a manifestation of fans’ desire for The Beatles’ story to continue after the breakup, under any circumstances. The Beatles were not just a band that made it really big — more than that they were a story, four people and one thing, that entered your life and you didn’t want them to leave. That’s why there was so much fan grief (and that’s the only word for it). The whole period 1970-80 can be seen as fans dealing with the loss of that narrative, and figuring out ways for that story to continue — begging all four to reunite, gathering at Fests, “discovering” the Beatles hiding as Klaatu, piecing together what they can from scraps of interviews and lyrics and legal actions.

        This hunger can be seen to start in Pepper, and the White period; Devin’s Magic Circles does a great job explaining how The Beatles became primarily mythic. And at a place like The Fest for Beatles Fans, it’s now as much about celebrating these mythic structures and relationships as the actual music or merch.

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