Ram, Paul McCartney’s second solo album1 and his only record credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, has always been a polarizing work. When it was released in May 1971, critics pounced on it as a piece of lightweight garbage. With the passage of time, it’s been reassessed by fans and critics and been pronounced a masterpiece, one of Paul’s greatest albums.
To me, Ram is a schizophrenic record. Paul was under a lot of stress with the Beatles’ breakup, especially given that he had been forced to sue the other three band members to dissolve their business partnership, and he later admitted that it was a difficult period for his songwriting, saying he had “a couple of years when I had a sort of illness.” Never is this more apparent than on Ram, which musically is a gorgeous production of catchy melodies, lavish backing harmonies and sweet guitar riffs which laid the groundwork for indie pop (and much of the best Seventies pop), and lyrically is a mess of snide underhanded digs and gushing about the glories of home, family and love.
The very first track, Too Many People, seduces the listener’s ears with an echoing vocal and chiming acoustic guitar before slamming into a midtempo rocker with Paul in full aggressive mode. The verses, condemning people’s actions, alternate with a beautiful middle eight:
That was your first mistake
You took your lucky break and broke it in two
Now what can be done for you? You broke it in two.
By the final verse, which declaims “Too many people preaching practices”, Paul proclaims his own happiness in love, tsk-tsking over the other person’s situation in not sharing this circumstance. John (rightly, as it turned out) took this as a shot at him and Yoko, ever alert to Paul’s tendency to play word games instead of voicing his anger outright. He responded several months later with “How Do You Sleep?” on Imagine, which pulled no punches.
The problem with Too Many People–and all of the songs on Side One of the original vinyl–is that it’s perfect ear candy with a poison pellet inside. Paul singing about his happiness doesn’t convince, because he spends so much of this time carping about how he’s been wronged by others. 3 Legs, a bluesy acoustic guitar number which follows, is about how Paul’s dog has three legs, but “Your dog he got none.” Coupled with verse two, which goes “When I thought you was my friend…But you let me down/Put my heart around the bend,” it’s unsurprising that many listeners thought he was referring to the other three Beatles. Paul’s never confirmed or denied this.
Ram On is a needed break from the stress, a ukulele driven one line ditty with oohs and aahs from Linda, concluding with a bit of whistling. Paul returns to the attack with the piano ballad Dear Boy, however, stating, “Hope you never know how much you missed.” He later admitted that he was sending a kiss-off to Linda’s former husband, but given that John was the first to ask Linda out when they met, it could be a double-edged sword. Again, the arrangement is magnificent, if the backing vocals are perhaps a bit overdone during the instrumental break.
My favorite tune comes next, the hit single Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey. One of Paul’s mini-musical suites, it distills the essence of Ram into its 4:49 running time: sound effects, bits of different tunes stitched together, lavish harmonies from Paul and Linda, guitar riffs which sound as if George Harrison had wandered into the studio from 1966, and playful lyrics. The “Hands across the water” chorus is one of the greatest pieces of music from a Beatle which I’ve ever heard. When I first heard it, at the age of nine or ten, I thought it was the Beatles’ new single, having forgotten that they’d broken up (hey, I wasn’t yet an obsessive). This was bolstered by the fact that the cartoon show was on ABC every Saturday morning. At any rate, it sounds like a sequel to Penny Lane or Fool on the Hill, which is a triumph; but the sarcasm apparent in Paul’s voice when he sings “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert, but we haven’t done a bloody thing all day!” is still jarring. I think Paul had a lot of issues when he was alone on his farm in Scotland.
Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey fades into the guitar rocker Smile Away, one of the most vicious songs Paul has ever recorded. There can be no doubt that he was pissed at all the people in his life who had turned on him, and John, George and Ringo had to be the top three.
I met a friend of mine and he did say
Man, I can smell your feet a mile away
Smile away, smile away, smile away, yeah, smile away….
Linda, meanwhile, is singing “Don’t know how to do that” over and over in the background during the chorus. In the end, it’s “Learning how to do that,” but Paul always knew how to smile to people’s faces and then go in and tear their lace curtains at the bottom, just enough so that they wouldn’t see it right away. (This was something he did when his parents yelled at him in childhood.)
Side Two is an abrupt switch in tone to the “home, family, love” songs, but given the bile on the first side, I’m not buying it. The acoustic fingerpicked Heart of the Country opens things up, making me snicker at the line “Want a horse, got a sheep/Gonna get me a good night’s sleep.” Paul’s scatting in the chorus is attractive, but it does give the impression that he hadn’t really bothered to finish the song; that, coupled with the words “…where the holy people grow”, makes me think that he’s using it as another way of thumbing his nose at his detractors.
Monkberry Moon Delight is a mess–a rocking piano mess, but still one of the weirdest songs McCartney has set down on record. His voice is rough and spirited, and it’s a catchy tune; but lyrically it’s piss-poor Bob Dylan. Lines like “So I sat in the attic, a piano up my nose/And the wind played a dreadful cantata” and “When I leave my pajamas to Billy Budapest/And I don’t get the gist of your letter” are just random nonsense. It’s not even funny, just annoying. It really makes me believe that he was dipping way too heavily into the ganja. Linda’s backing vocals don’t help; in those days, she sang everything through her nose.2
Eat At Home is an improvement, a nice little Buddy Holly tribute with racy lyrics.3 Of all the songs on Side Two, this is perhaps the most convincing evocation of Paul’s content, and serves as a template for songs like the Raspberries’ Go All The Way. Long Haired Lady, the ode to Linda which follows, is gorgeous, but the mood of Paul’s echoed “Well, well, well, well, well” is broken by Linda’s nasal “Do you love me like you know you ought to do?” (shudder) The final “Love is long, love is long” chorus, with orchestral backing, is amazing, though, even if the words are rather insipid.
Long Haired Lady fades into a reprise of Ram On, pleasant enough, and it gives us a teaser of a future record with Paul singing the first line of what later became Big Barn Bed on the fadeout. The record closes with an epic production number a la Brian Wilson, Back Seat of My Car, about the joys of dating and riding in the back seat. Nudge nudge, wink wink. Again, the line “We believe that we can’t be wrong” kind of undercuts all of the good feelings raised by the sweeping vocals and orchestra, but it’s a great way to end the album.
After the low-key, do-it-yourself feel of McCartney, Paul deliberately tried to engage listeners with a more polished sophomore album. If it hadn’t been for the bitterness of the lyrics and the conviction of many critics that he was the “lightweight” Beatle, it might have succeeded. Certainly, he had the cream of New York’s session players; David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken (who replaced Spinozza after the first three songs recorded) both went on to play with John and Yoko, and the drummer, Denny Seiwell, was hired when Wings was formed at the end of the year. It has brilliant music, great melodies, and abysmal lyrics. For all that, overall, I give it three stars. But I do enjoy listening to it.