Re-slamming "Ram"

Michael Gerber
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I thought critical opinion had largely come around to appreciating Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram, 41 years after its release, but apparently not. It’s true that gives it five stars, having inched its rating up over the years, but a couple of reviews of the remastered album, due out later this month, are déjà vu all over again.
The latest issue of Qmagazine gives the remastered album 2 stars. For context, the previous issue included a rapturous 5-star review of the reissues of the Human League’s Dare and Fascination albums, and called Lana Del Ray’s Born to Die a “Must Buy” and “one of the essential albums of the last few months.”
In this context one must be grateful for Mojo’s 4-star rating, even if it comes with the most backhanded 4-star review I can recall. In it Danny Eccleston calls the album “Macca’s geegaw,” refers to “DVD gubbins” in the deluxe package, and misquotes “Too Many People” (“You took your chance and you broke it in two” for “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.”)
Now let me clarify that much as I love “Ram,” I’m not a wholesale apologist for McCartney or his works. Some of his public actions and pronouncements make me cringe. I believe a good number of the stories of his being difficult and overbearing to work with. He’s done songs I wholeheartedly detest and would gnaw off an appendage to avoid hearing again (“Ebony and Ivory” and “The Girl is Mine” are leading examples). At least one whole album, “Pipes of Peace,” has, in my opinion, not a single song on it worth salvaging.
But “Ram” deserves better than 2 stars, and deserves better than a 4-star review larded with snark. It’s doubly depressing to see this happening as the same magazines give glowing reviews to albums that are unlikely to be remembered in 40 weeks, let alone 40 years.
Here endeth the rant. Time to cue up “Smile Away” and lighten up.

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  1. Avatar Eric Reynolds wrote:

    If RAM isn’t McCartney’s masterpiece, he hasn’t made one. I say that not even 100% sure he has made one. It’s really close: RAM or bust. But I will forever defend the record as being Paul’s most timeless and listenable solo record, as a whole.

  2. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Sigh. I was seriously distressed to hear about Q’s review. The comparisons you make to the records that ridiculous magazine HAS praised pretty much say it all about how McCartney’s solo music continues to be treated by reviewers. I would also caution, though, that UK music reviewers seem to love to snark about reissues — hence the Mojo snark about Ram’s box set goodies.

    Uncut magazine gave the Ram reissue 4 stars as well.

    Still, it’s just damn depressing to see such an excellent album even get only 4 stars. Ram easily deserves 5 stars. Easily.

    — Drew

  3. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    One other thought: The idea of Ram as a masterpiece is, of course, subjective. I think it is. And many people would say the same about All Things Must Pass or Plastic Ono Band.

    But is All Things Must Pass a masterpiece? It’s got dreadful production, outdated mysticism, thin vocals, a plagiarized song, and an unlistenable third album. About 5 of the songs are really good, and the rest are OK. Other than My Sweet Lord, none of the tracks ever penetrated the popular culture. And many reviewers are as attached to the romantic notion of George as the underdog as they are to the album.

    As for Plastic Ono Band, yes, it’s “important” in that it was the first time an artist of Lennon’s fame was so confessional. It’s also an incredibly self-indulgent and whiny record, and I can’t listen to it without hearing that parody of it, Magical Misery Tour. It’s a millionnaire moaning about his mommy issues. And reviewers seem attached to it because they tend to be cynics who think an artist bitching about something is “honest.” They’re more attached to the Lennon persona than they are to the album, which is the kind of record everyone calls a “masterpiece” but few people actually want to listen to regularly.

    I’ve exaggerated the criticism of both of those albums to make a point: Yes, it’s possible to view both albums and Ram in terms of their weaknesses and ignore entirely what’s great about them. You can easily slant a review that way. But few reviewers ever do that to Harrison or Lennon. They do it ALL THE TIME to McCartney’s work.

    P.S. Nancy, I agree that some of Paul’s actions in the past have made me cringe. But so did some of John’s and George’s.

    — Drew

  4. Avatar Ed Park wrote:

    I’m not sure if this statement will be popular here, but…those are good Human League albums!

  5. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    I actually agree that those are good Human League albums, Ed. It’s giving them 5 stars and “Ram” 3 stars that makes no sense to me.

  6. Avatar Craig wrote:

    “Some of his public actions and pronouncements make me cringe”

    I’m curious, which actions are you speaking of, Nancy? I’m not disagreeing per se, but I’m interested to hear your response. I know there must be some, but I can’t really think of anything that sticks out to me. He’s tough to work with? He’s demanding? Are those really negatives? Aren’t all “geniuses” like that, in some way? Anyways, no matter what actions of his have offended or annoyed you, this man has been in the public eye and scrutinized like no one else for 50 years and has barely, if ever, stepped out of line. “It’s a drag.” yes, that was cringeworthy, but I can look past it: he just couldn’t vocalize his thoughts at that point, is my guess among others.

    Drew – yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of ATMP. A few good songs and the best, most successful song was plagiarized. I know we’ve been over this, but that album is overrated. ‘Wow! George can wrote semi-decent songs too! What a masterpiece! I never thought he could put out a triple album with all his songs!’ – I feel like that’s gotta be a major reason it was so well received at the time. Perhaps over time it will be put in its proper place. But who knows? Maybe I’m the crazy one.

    Thanks for the post – very much looking forward to the reissue.

  7. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    First, let me correct my last comment: Q gave “Ram” 2 stars, not 3. I inadvertently gave the editors too much credit in my response to Ed.

    Craig, you make a good point about McCartney’s having been in the public eye for decades, and that’s why the cringe-inducing moments haven’t put me off him or his best music. My top wince moments include: the press release issued with “McCartney”; the claim, when marijuana was found growing on his Scottish farm, that he didn’t know what it was; the “it’s a drag” reaction to Lennon’s murder (though, like you, I think it was a failure to perform, not to feel); refusing to participate in the Beatles’ Rock n Roll Hall of Fame induction; and the White House joke about Bush never using the library (though I’m no Bush fan; that remark just seemed crass from someone accepting an official honor from the country).

    And Drew, I too can think of cringe-inducing Lennon and Harrison moments: McCartney has no monopoly.

    One reason I have sympathy for McCartney is that I think his vulnerability to public opinion is greater than Lennon’s or Harrison’s was. He really cares about audience reaction. This makes his live shows great, but it can also demagnetize his artistic compass when he focuses too much on giving people what he thinks they want. And because he doesn’t express hurt directly, I think he carries a lot of it around.

    Reviews like Q’s, and to some extent Mojo’s, bug me because I think they’re affected by baggage extraneous to the music. It’s like the anecdote Devin posted about Wenner’s being hellbent to alter the review of “McCartney” so that it would reflect what he saw as “one person breaking up the band.” The press release issued with “McCartney” was juvenile and mean-spirited, but the music is the music, and nothing should run roughshod over that in a review.

  8. Avatar Craig wrote:

    Thanks for replying, Nancy. I wasn’t aware of his response re the weed found at his farm. That’s funny! It makes me think of some (many) politicians responses to various questions they’ve been asked. Ha, I wonder why he said that. I agree, dumb comment.

    I’m less concerned with the McCartney addendum. Put it in it’s context: he was pissed. His passion and his joy and the thing (besides family) he loved most had been taken away from him for really no good reason. And when asked why, the others couldn’t explicitly tell him the reason(s). He felt he had been at the whim of the others emotions and decisions for months now, and he wanted to take back some of the control over the group and his life. Was it slightly petty? Yes. Mean spirited, I think no. I understand it and do not fault him. But that’s me, obviously others can and may feel differently.

    McCartneys criticism is an interesting study. Do people feel that he was too smart, too musically advanced, too driven? Are they angered that, as time has gone by and more info about the group has been gained, that he was the driving force behind Pepper? Do critics still want to cling to the flawed genius of John being the groups main influence? Those are just some things that pop into my head right now. I think there is much jealousy involved as well. Though I certainly could be wrong. Paul is seen as having superior musical ability, a charmed family life and constantly striving for success and pleasing everyone. Some, I guess, view that somewhat negatively? To me, that’s exactly what I want in a musician. Keep moving forward, keep trying, keep experimenting. Anyways, keep rocking Paul!

  9. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I thought Paul’s weed comment was hilarious. Obviously he was lying. And he KNEW that we knew he was lying. That’s why he said it. Because the whole thing was a farce. He viewed weed as a harmless plant, and he viewed the arrest as nonsense. So he responded to nonsense with nonsense — like the Beatles always did. People took his remark at face value when it was obviously tongue in cheek. Like when he was asked, after a different drug arrest, if he would ever smoke pot again, and he replied, with a wink, “Nope. Never again.”

    And I agree with Craig about the press release attached to McCartney. It’s blunt and peevish but it’s not mean or insulting. And he had a right to express his anger and feelings of betrayal. So did John. And not long after, Lennon was praised as “honest” for being mean and insulting in expressing his anger at Paul. Apparently John was allowed to be angry but the cute one wasn’t.

    But Nancy: I totally agree with you on the Hall of Fame thing and the Bush remark. The first was calculated and petty, the second was him trying too hard to be funny/edgy. Both were stupid moves that backfired.

    The main thing about Paul that made me cringe was his marriage to She Who Must Not Be Named. Disastrous from start to finish and showed what a mess he was in that period — although, strangely, he produced some of his best solo music in those years.

    Finally, while both Lennon and McCartney have some bad solo work, it continues to interest me how, when stories are written about Lennon’s music, you rarely see critics writing things like “Lennon, who produced the embarrassing agitprop of Sometime in New York and whose solo career proved largely disappointing …” but every single review I’ve ever read of anything new that McCartney creates takes shots at him for Silly Love Songs and/or Ebony and Ivory and/or The Frog Chorus.

    Every single review of a new McCartney work bashes him for his weakest work in the past. That rarely if ever happens nowadays in reviews of Lennon or George Harrison reissues.

    — Drew

  10. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    I still have my copy of Ram. I bought it the week it came out. I remember a radio interview with Elton John, praising Paul for his “head full of melody” but then Elton said “I buy everything he makes and listen to it again and again before I decide it isn’t very good.” But I loved Ram.

    You have to understand, by 1970, lyrics were everything. It started with Dylan. Every record review by every “rock journalist” (a loose-fitting and ugly term) focused primarily on the lyrics. It was as if they were reviewing a novel. Each song would be analyzed for the lyrical content. The music was secondary. As a matter of fact, if the music was too melodic or accessible, it was a bad thing. The critics were all about the message. Was the song protesting our plastic, artificial, straight society? Was it pointing the finger at some injustice? Was it reaching deep into the singer’s soul to reveal universal truths that somehow the older generation hadn’t dared to examine in their granny songs? Paul’s whimsy didn’t stand a chance.

    I remember listening to some of Ram with a friend of mine who’s tastes were “heavier” than Paul music. He was offended at the simple celebration of love in the lyrics. He said it was “straight” music. Of course he believed Lennon’s primal scream/political protest was superior.

    By the time Paul came out with “Give Ireland Back To The Irish” it was too late. If it had been his first solo single, the critics might have been appeased.

    – Hologram Sam

  11. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    I think the question of why McCartney’s gotten little critical respect overall is complicated, Craig. Part of it is comparing him to Lennon, which often involves excusing Lennon’s faults and overlooking McCartney’s virtues (see Philip Norman, Robert Christgau, and Jann Wenner). Part of it is impatience with the playful and “granny” aspects of his work. But to be fair, some of it is the fault of nobody but McCartney himself.

    He’s not his own best editor, that’s for sure. He releases too many songs that are not good enough, and doesn’t release some songs that are better. When someone does push him on this, he doesn’t always listen (see Elvis Costello). And his public persona can get too faux-upbeat and twee (see those videos with Michael Jackson). So I get why some people are put off by him, react negatively to some of the solo songs that get the most airplay, and decide to write him off.

    I’ve only given him a serious listen in the past few years myself. (But then, I came to the Beatles later in my life; in my teens and twenties, I was more of a New Wave fan, with my major interest in classic rock being the Who). I got interested in digging into his solo stuff when an acquaintance gave me “Venus and Mars” and asked me to listen to it. The only song I knew from that album was “Listen to What the Man Said,” and that’s far from my favorite on that disc.

    That inspired me to explore, and I was helped in this by the reviews on George Starostin’s website “Only Solitaire.” When I listened to “Ram” all the way through I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this album, that it had been written off critically.

    So that’s another reason why reviews like Q’s bother me. I’ve come to appreciate more and more, because they seem to have writers review music of a type they appreciate, so there are fewer blind spots resulting from a critic’s just not liking a particular performer or subgenre.

  12. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    One reason McCartney gets slammed by the critics is that he set such an extremely high standard for himself between 1964-1969. What is a critic supposed to say when the author of “For No One” and “Eleanor Rigby” submits “Bip Bop” or “Getting Closer” for his or her consideration?

    The reviews bother some of you because you are McCartney fans and the critics are not.

  13. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Regarding the (dumb?) marijuana comment: He said he didn’t know what it was, because the seeds had been sent by mail, and he’d just planted them without knowing what is was. I think it’s possible.

  14. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    J.R. Clark: Oh please. The Beatles released PLENTY of silly love songs and odd little ditties and strange tracks with nonsensical lyrics. That was part of their charm and everyone loves them for it and debates the pros and cons of those tracks to this day.

    The reviews of McCartney’s best solo work bother us because they’re WRONG and biased for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual music.

    — Drew

  15. Some shots from the hip re: this thread…

    “”I buy everything he makes and listen to it again and again before I decide it isn’t very good.”
    Funny, that’s just how I feel about Elton John, who has all of McCartney’s flaws with none of his drive or vision. And that’s OK, I’m still delighted to have Elton’s music. But a piano player who writes tunes around some other guy’s poetry should be more generous.

    Here’s what I think when I hear “Bip Bop” from the guy who wrote “Eleanor Rigby”: “‘Salright, dude. You’re one step closer to another Eleanor Rigby.” Critics punish McCartney for not continuing the incredible hot streak he was on from Yesterday to Let It Be, but that’s totally ignorant of how creative work is done. You have to write the Bip Bops to get the Eleanor Rigbys, and when you have Paul’s CV, a critic has GOT to put the Bip Bops into proper context. If all the guy was, was Bip Bop, then go ahead and slag him. But if he’s been fundamental to the development of pop music, acknowledge that the minor work seems extra-minor because of that.

    Critics are unfair to Paul, and it’s because his post-Beatles interest in hit-making was an implicit “fuck you” to them–just as John and Yoko’s endless press availability and supposedly revealing work was meant to court critical acclaim. It’s just two talented artists, each expert at appealing to an audience, aiming at different groups, and each hitting their target.

    For a while. It often seems like Lennon’s was the smarter, more artistically valid move–but this is a distortion brought on by his murder which, from a career standpoint, was the best thing that had happened to him since the Beatles. Had Lennon lived, he may well have drifted into a Harrison-like irrelevancy. One must remember that the initial reaction to Double Fantasy was lukewarm, even with the “first-in-five-years” hype. Paul’s popularity declined after 1980, but he has survived and continued to work. John’s artistic stature was declining at the same time, and my guess is that he, unlike McCartney, wouldn’t have stuck around for the abuse.

  16. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Nancy: I meant to also mention: Word Magazine did a feature in its May 2012 issue about “overrated” and “underrated” records for each year from 1967-2000. And for the year 1975, you’ll be interested to hear that the “underrated” record was Venus & Mars. The album, the magazine says, “proves his talent for rhythm and riff never went away. It just didn’t suit the 70’s” The overrated album for that year was Born to Run.

    It also lists John Lennon’s Imagine as the overrated record of 1971, saying, “Oh how we loved it at the time, and oh how clammy, colourless, and self-obsessed it sounds now.”

    — Drew

  17. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    Here is an interesting article about rock becoming Art (with a capital “A”)… it relates to why Paul didn’t get the respect he deserved for Ram:

    – Hologram Sam

  18. Avatar J.R. Clark wrote:

    The author of “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” was on a hot streak between 1964 and 1969 because he had two collaborators (John Lennon and George Martin) who could and did tell him when his work was substandard.

    The same thing is true about John Lennon…after the breakup, he became a practitioner of “wimp rock”.

    This is not to say that all of Paul’s solo work is substandard. It’s just that his solo work, taken as a whole, rarely measures up to the legendary work he and lads did down at Studio Two from 1962-1969.

    Of course a McCartney fanatic would never agree with this assessment and would prefer to damn the critics.

    I believe that any worthwhile art should be able to stand up to constructive criticism.

  19. True, JR. But it was much more than constructive criticism. Lennon, Harrison, Starr, and Martin all added concrete musical/lyrical ideas to McCartney’s work. This is the famous “synergy” people talk about. So it’s not just that “Paul needed an editor”–that’s true as far as it goes, but it goes less far IMHO than people thing. It’s that ALL The Beatles lost a major support system and song-improvement machine when the band broke up.

  20. Avatar Craig wrote:

    “Of course a McCartney fanatic would never agree with this assessment and would prefer to damn the critics.”

    Disagree. We all agree that he has released shitty songs and shitty albums. And of course, obviously they don’t measure up to Beatles material. NOTHING EVER WILL! We’re simply saying that it seems as though Paul has had it particularly and unnecessarily rough when it comes to the critics. We are trying to find out the root of why that happened and continues to happen. Now, you may disagree, believing he’s had a fair critical assessment throughout his career. That’s fine. But do not put us (well, at least me) in the typically cliche scenario of a fan who lapps up all that is released and loves it regardless of its worth.

  21. Avatar Anonymous wrote:

    George Martin was the producer of Paul’s weakest solo album: Pipes of Peace. So this idea that Paul’s work suffered because he needed some strong collaborator to resist his worst tendencies and push him is hogwash. George Martin was THERE for Pipes of Peace and the record is terrible. Every artist goes through up and down periods.

    I find this “you’re just a McCartney fan, that’s why you dismiss the critics” thing very irritating and condescending. It’s like me saying, “You’re just a Beatles fanatic who can’t bear to think that they did anything separately as good as the work they did together.” That’s not a fair assessment either. Nancy has made very clear here that she has strong criticisms of Paul’s solo work but also has made clear the records where he was treated badly by critics for reasons other than the music.

    I do not think everything Paul produced post-Beatles is fantastic. Far from it. I’m only asking for a fair hearing of the solo work he created that IS fantastic. Ram did not get a fair hearing on its initial release. And the fact that it was widely panned back then but is now getting 4-star reviews — and even some 5-star reviews — suggests it was the critics who were wrong. And some of them (like Q Magazine) still are.

    — Drew

  22. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    J.R., I think you’re fighting a straw man here. I don’t hear any McCartney fanatics claiming that his solo work as a whole is as great as his music from the Beatles years — I for one think it isn’t, but add that I’d say the same about the solo music of all the other ex-Beatles. As Michael says, the synergy benefited them all. And frankly I think NO ONE ELSE has reached the sustained level of excellence the Beatles did in their recording career.

    What I’m tired of, as Drew also points out, is people continuing to beat McCartney over the head with his weakest material. That’s not constructive criticism, and it misleads people who don’t know the solo work into thinking “well, there must be nothing good here.” And that’s a shame.

    Hologram Sam, that Elton John quote you cite is jaw-dropping. Talk about a lack of self insight!

    Drew, you are making me wish more and more that someone in Chicago would start selling Word magazine! But no, while I can find Mojo and Uncut, I can’t find Word. Plenty of Q around, though, which is rather depressing.

  23. Nancy, first trying asking at your local bookstore if they’d order it for you (they probably will). Then you can try City Newsstand. There was a Barbara’s in Old Town that had it, back when I was in Chi.

    BTW, next time Kate and I are in for a visit, let’s have coffee. A mini-Dullblogfest.

  24. Avatar Nancy Carr wrote:

    Thanks for the tips, Michael — this magazine is clearly worth getting. And I’d love to have coffee the next time you and Kate are in Chicagoland.

  25. Avatar db wrote:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

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