Like so much of Paul McCartney’s solo catalogue, it’s taken those outside of his devoted fanbase quite some time to appreciate the eccentric brilliance of his 1971 sophomore effort, Ram. Actually credited to both Paul & Linda (making it unique in the McCartney oeuvre), Ram is Macca firing on all creative cylinders; in fact, the album contains so many ideas it at times threatens to collapse under their weight. Each song bursts with memorable hooks, killer riffs and audacious vocal arrangements.
Recorded in New York City from January to March 1971, the album was a marked departure from McCartney’s eponymous solo debut, released a year earlier. McCartney had been a self-played, deliberately lo-fi, largely homespun affair, its author seeking domestic refuge from the escalating tensions between himself and his then bandmates. By the time the sessions for Ram rolled around, however, The Fabs were no more and, though still embroiled in litigation with Beatles manager Allen Klein and his former colleagues, McCartney was in buoyant mood and bursting with ideas far too expansive for a primitive Studer 4-track. Recording at CBS and Phil Ramone’s A&R Studios in midtown Manhattan, McCartney had, via a series of top secret auditions, assembled a muscular backing band of crack session musicians to help bring the music to life, the core of which comprised drummer Denny Seiwell (later to join Wings) and first-call guitarists Hugh McCracken and David Spinozza. No less than the New York Philharmonic would supply orchestral overdubs for ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ and ‘The Back Seat of My Car’.
The material is, for the most part, a typical Macca mix of guitar-fuelled rockers (‘Eat at Home’, ‘Smile Away’, ‘Too Many People’), folky acoustic ditties (‘Heart of the Country’), music-hall whimsy (‘Dear Boy’, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey) and lush balladry (the closing ‘The Back Seat of My Car’) all dispatched with typical breezy aplomb, a testament to McCartney’s musical versatility.
Then there are the album’s truly uncategorisable cuts. A real oddity in the Macca canon (and arguably the album’s zenith), ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ is possibly the barmiest thing McCartney’s ever committed to record. Built around a seesawing guitar riff, pounding piano, and a series of nonsense verses redolent of Edward Lear, it’s rollicking good fun, McCartney barking out his vocal with gleeful abandon over the band’s lolloping groove; his demented ad libs during the fade out in particular are the epitome of inspired lunacy:
Another highlight on a record chock full of them is the atmospheric, ukulele-based ‘Ram On’, McCartney softly beseeching the listener to ‘give your heart to somebody soon, right away’ over a simple but effective three-chord vamp, a dash of ambient electric piano, haunting backing vocals, and a simple rhythm track made up of kick drum, handclaps and the sound of his own foot stamping on the wooden studio floor. It’s truly original stuff, and further evidence of just how adventurous and inspired McCartney was feeling during this period. According to its author, the song’s point of origin was the back seat of a New York cab during one of his many journeys to and from the studio; the ukulele’s portability meant he could take one wherever he went in case inspiration struck:
The wonderful ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ deftly fuses a number of song fragments into something approaching a mini suite. Though lyrically slight, it’s superbly arranged and performed, and as good a showcase of its author’s bounteous melodic gifts as any in his songbook, boasting more hooks in its 4 minutes and 55 seconds than most artists can manage in an entire album. McCartney’s ‘character songs’ and whimsical inclinations have often been used as a stick for his critics to beat him with, and admittedly he has occasionally lapsed into tweeness with such material, but here the balance is perfect and, again, the track is performed with such gusto it would take the hardest of hearts not to warm to it. Check out this article, which offers a welcome and all-too-rare glimpse behind the scenes at the Ram recording sessions with particular focus on ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’.
In promoting the album, McCartney was at pains to point out his wife’s involvement in its creation, and with good reason. How much of the songwriting she actually did might be questionable, but Linda’s vocal harmonies are inarguably a vital component in Ram’s overall sonic canvas. By her own admission not the most natural singer, she nevertheless manages to negotiate some hugely complex vocal arrangements with admirable skill. Listening to these arrangements, and Linda’s key role in their execution, one can’t help but wonder why her husband never again used her voice to quite the same extent on any of his subseqent albums. She’s unmistakeably present on those records, of course, just not employed quite as effectively. Check out her work on ‘Dear Boy’ and note the striking vocal blend she creates with Paul:
Though the three tracks highlighted thus far make for quirkier fare, Ram is not found wanting in the pure, balls-out rock department either. McCracken and Spinozza’s electric guitar work is exceptional throughout, and if my ear isn’t deceiving me, McCartney’s own distinctive licks are discernible on a number of cuts. Each turns out coruscating riffs and solos (check the outro to ‘Too Many People’) when required, but there’s also a considerable lightness of touch shown in their acoustic work on the likes of ‘Uncle Albert…’ and ‘Heart of the Country’, McCartney’s countrified paean to the virtues of rustic living. The latter also features some nifty, Chet Atkins inspired finger-picking.
Ram received a decidedly mixed critical reception upon its release (though unsurprisingly it sold very respectably indeed) and its lyrical content notably drew the ire of one John Ono Lennon, who perceived several songs on the record to contain a number of broadsides aimed at Yoko and himself. Paul denied this for the most part, but did admit to having the Lennons in mind when he penned the line ‘too many people preaching practices, don’t let ’em tell you what you wanna be’ from ‘Too Many People’. His aggrieved former collaborator responded with a number of barbed comments in the music press and, musically, with the infamously vituperative ‘How Do You Sleep?’ on his Imagine album, released the same year, as well as spoofing Ram’s cover photo (Paul holding a Ram by the horns) by including a picture of himself on the sleeve grabbing a pig by the ears. To say the relationship between the two was fractious at this point in time would be a major understatement.
The remainder of the 70s would see McCartney release a further seven long-players and a double live album, most of which contain their share of deathless gems, but none hang together quite so well, or are executed with such verve and panache as Ram. It’s vintage Macca, not to mention the very musical embodiment of arguably the strongest marriage in rock. If you’ve not yet been exposed to its sundry charms, procure a copy by fair means or foul, stick it on, crank it up, and smile away…