Saturday, January 30, 2010
FROM MCCARTNEY TO EWE
"I thought McCartney was quite good, but then it didn't quite do it in every way. After it got knocked I thought... do just the opposite next time. So Ram was with the top people in the top studio. I thought, this is what they want. But again, it was critically panned."
Knives had indeed been sharpened and prepared for deployment in advance of the release of McCartney's second solo outing. Many of these evaluations were quite unfair, though the passage of time has led to a revision of such assessments.
Ram was markedly different from the DIY feel of the first disc. Gone was the "one man band" approach, eschewed in favor of having some of New York's finest session players back him up. Relocating to his wife's home turf to record, Paul held some auditions with Denny Seiwell winning the drum seat. Guitarists David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken also got the nod to for this gig.
Billed as a Paul and Linda McCartney production, Ram represented another 180 degree turn in direction. Strong melodies abound in a set that features a handful of his most ingenious creations. There is definitely quite a bit to take in as production values are of high quality. Substance in lyrical content is lacking, the exception being in those instances where pointed messages are addressed to John Lennon.
Let's backtrack for a moment.
McCartney bore the brunt of public backlash in the wake of the Beatles' split, which drove him toward excessive drinking and harder drugs. While he was no stranger to daily blazing, this path was not a positive one. He has since freely admitted that Linda stepped in, knocked some sense into him and he quickly refocused his energies on making music.
Some profound changes had taken place that would prove to be detrimental in their overall effect. His interest in putting some effort into the lyrics seemed to have waned. Without an editor to help prune his output, it seemed that a lot of fluff was making it past quality control. He also seemed eager to involve Linda in the recording process. She was no John Lennon.
Then there was the cover art depicting Paul, proudly gum-booted, grappling with livestock in the mud.
Paul: "This wasn’t posed. Me and Linda decided to catalogue all our sheep, so there’s a photograph of me holding every bloody sheep in the flock that year. Over 100 of them. I was supposed to be cropped out."
On the plus side, he continued to branch out in terms of how his compositions were structured. There are an array of stylistic elements to be found as jazzy seventh chords crop up frequently along with a few elaborate orchestral arrangements. New directions tend to alienate some fans, bring new ones on board and leave others scratching their heads. For those that didn't return the album to the retailer for a refund upon first listen, there are definitely some rewards.
Opening strong with "Too Many People", this guitar oriented slab of meat comes complete with McCartney in full cry, belting out a very direct lyric. This is where we return to our conversational marker concerning John Lennon.
What exactly was "Macca" saying over the intro?
Paul: "Yeah. Piss off, cake. Like, a piece of cake becomes piss off cake, And it’s nothing, it’s so harmless really, just little digs.Too Many People was a bit of a dig at John, because he was digging at me. We were digging at each other in the press. Not harsh, but pissed off with each other, basically. But the first line is about 'too many people preaching practices.' I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do. And I felt we didn’t need to be told what to do. "
My one issue here lies with those shrieking backing vocals in the verses, placed far too high in the mix. Otherwise, it stands up pretty well.
"Ram On" is where the Beach Boys meet the ukulele in a phenomenally melodic hybrid, with excellent vocals. Creative and memorable, this is the direction that he would have been well advised to follow. "Dear Boy" falls into a similar category with those unmistakably layered backing harmonies and jaunty piano. Sure, it's lightweight pop, though it redeems itself by virtue of clever arrangement.
Ram's centerpiece is the multi-part stunner, "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey"
Running on the strength of several hook lines and an exhilarating chorus ("Hands across the water, Heads across the sky") it's no surprise that this went to the top of the US charts in late summer 1971. This one also happens to be one of my first concrete musical memories. Vivid flashes come back of driving around in my father's Galaxie 500 with this song as part of the soundtrack, as it hit big on the radio shortly after my third birthday. Everything seems larger and more vibrant when you are new to the world.
Had the sense of adventure and ambition that was packed into this gem been sustained for the entire album, Ram would have ranked as Paul's finest hour. By and large, the remaining content definitely has merit. There is the breezy "Heart of the Country" which verges on the cusp of jazz and even has McCartney tipping his hat to Mel Torme with some scatting after the choruses. Finer still is his dead-on Buddy Holly tribute, "Eat At Home", complete with tight guitar fills, slap back echo and well-timed, Holly-esque vocal mannerisms.
Hard on the heels of the aforementioned "Uncle Albert" in the nominations for for best track is the lavish production that brings the LP to a close. "The Back Seat of My Car" goes after the grandiosity that was achieved as the song suite from the "back nine" of Abbey Road raced toward the finish line. The theme is fairly straightforward, involving the suspension of disbelief that comes with young love.
“We believe that we can’t be wrong.”
Teenage arrogance is usually tempered by the disapproving parental voice not far in the background. All in the pursuit of the freedom to drive off somewhere with your girl and have no commitments to hold you back.
Brian Wilson waking up with wood?
Hovering between Cm7 and F major with B flat thrown in for good measure, languid piano with brilliant guitar coloring set the tone as McCartney enters with his characteristic smooth delivery. Building on the basic bed track, brass and strings are employed in to bring this excellent vehicle to full speed. In the end, Paul is at the top of his range with the proceedings going out on a high note. Genius level work.
Again, it is a pity that he did not take a far more critical second listen to the overall product. Though RAM is enjoyable on many levels, there are three glaring clunkers that should have been left in the vaults. Replacing "3 Legs", "Smile Away" and "Long Haired Lady" with "Another Day", "Oh Woman, Oh Why" and "Dear Friend" (cooked up during the sessions for Ram) would have made for a much better listen.
"Monkberry Moon Delight" should have been stripped of those abysmal call and response vocal parts that featured Linda, given some better lyrics and presto! New and improved for the whole family to enjoy.
McCartney alone was calling the shots now.
Regardless of how far he would stray into overt treacle in the seventies, from here on in, there would be no balancing presence to steer him back from the outer limits of sugary sentimentality. This is precisely where the Lennon-McCartney team had worked so well. When the two embarked on their solo ventures, Lennon's output lacked McCartney's arranging skills and knack for bridge creation. Conversely. McCartney missed Lennon's acidic bite with words and his nudges toward more basic, stripped down sounds.
Paul would later confess that this was somewhat of a fallow period for him writing-wise, though things really weren't that bad. Melody is found in abundance on RAM, along with exceptional playing and that aforementioned US number one single.