Saturday, January 30, 2010
"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, heroin now occupied a place amongst other substances. 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 disappeared. 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. Tough for me to be completely objective about this one, as it is one of my first concrete musical memories. I was all of three years old when this hit big on radio and though I have forgotten much over time, I still remember driving around in my Dad's Galaxie 500 with this song as part of the soundtrack. Everything just seemed vibrant, painted in lurid shades of awesome from a toddler's viewpoint.
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.
Rumour has it that a mono copy of RAM, with markedly different mixes is floating around. Initially released only to radio stations, it would be worth a listen.
Saturday, January 23, 2010
“McCartney was very funky, down home, just me.”
Curiously, when irreconcilable differences finally splintered one of the greatest song writing partnerships of the 20th century, Paul McCartney chose to release an LP that came pretty close to demo quality. Going one better, despite having one of rock music’s greatest voices, he subversively filled half of the album with instrumentals. Rough hewn best describes the result, though Paul did take a couple of submissions that didn’t make the grade on recent Beatle LPs (“Junk”, “Teddy Boy” and “Every Night”) a few fragments and one truly powerful new song (“Maybe I’m Amazed”) to complete the program.
Going solo in the most literal sense, he played every note on the disc, with wife Linda occasionally joining in on harmonies, that is when there were vocal tracks present.
Listening to it forty years after the fact, Paul’s own evaluation of the record is pretty much on the money. On first airing, it certainly must have amounted to a “Holy Fuck!” moment for those who had become accustomed to the elaborate productions that his former group had been turning out over the past few years.
What happened to the guy who had been the key driver of the impeccable song suite that comprised the second side of Abbey Road ?
Crisis of confidence.
With his band on the rocks, longtime friends not speaking to him, earnings tied up in a company that would soon be at the center of a litigious shit-storm and a host of other miserable developments, it’s not surprising that his output would be anything other than low key. Reflective of his personal state at that time, the music on McCartney was portrayed as being a summation of “home, family and love” on the PR message track when it was issued. Cloistered in his makeshift studio at his farm in Scotland , he diligently tracked his parts at times opting to book the odd session in London . During these blocks of time, he would have an engineer assist with getting things to tape, though he would ask that no mention be made of what they were up to.
Production-wise, there is every indication that these sketches were homemade, with no effort to trim extraneous noises from the final mix. Close listening reveals a handful of minor incidences where you hear domestic background patter or a door shutting. Certainly, this is just the by-product of knocking out a few tunes at home, with no concentrated effort on McCartney’s part to emphasize these random sounds.
Interesting in these times to ponder that Paul prefigured the lo-fi movement by decades when he made his one-man show available for public consumption in early 1970. Being a McCartney vehicle, the songs that manage to amount to more than just musical jotting have killer melodies. Lyrically, there’s nothing substantive going on and he doesn’t trouble himself to include any tunes that lash out at his former band mates. Self-pity is also left out of the equation. Reverting to type, he provides no indication that anything is wrong on record, no doubt a product of the stiff upper lip he was taught to keep in place as part of a male-dominated, Northern Liverpudlian upbringing.
His one act of defiance came in crafting a mock interview that appeared as an insert with the original UK issue of McCartney. Bizarre, though the content made its way into the homes of thousands of unsuspecting Britons.
Allen Klein deleted this from the US version of McCartney, no doubt because of the denigrating commentary aimed at himself and the other Beatles.
Paul was right on one count.
I really like this album for many different reasons. Namely:
1) He ends it by playing tribal drum parts and shooting off an arrow in the studio in tribute to a forest Indian tribe living in the Amazon basin of Brazil (Kreen-Akrore)
2) See reason number one.
Seriously, it's a pretty ballsy move for the guy that wrote "Yesterday" to end his first official solo album with this type of experiment.
The best song on the disc? You guessed it.
Life is a spilled bowl of cherries.
Friday, January 15, 2010
Submitted for your approval (or derisive laughter) is a list of some of the earliest and most influential recordings in this much maligned, sometimes ignored but thoroughly interesting hybrid format
By no means is this a definitive or complete run down of every artist/group that kidnapped a pedal steel player and turned down the amps just enough to avoid scurrilous looks from folks in ten gallon hats. You may quibble with my choices and find yourself doubting why certain albums are missing. Keep in mind that these entries feature those brave souls who built this club. Everyone else merely stood in the velvet rope and stanchion lined queue, waiting for their chance to get past the big guy at the door.
There are quite a few precursors to this style, all quite excellent recordings in their own right.. Many of the pioneers involved in the records that defined what came to be known as “rock and roll” had serious country and western influences. In the early to mid sixties, artists who had heretofore been associated with a specific genre, began to branch out and cross over into entirely new territory.
Commercially lucrative, incredibly inventive and a success from every possible angle was the 1962 Ray Charles LP Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. This is a stunning exercise in versatility
Johnny Cash’s Orange Blossom Special disc saw him covering Bob Dylan’s songs and moving, yet again, slightly left of the country format.
Meanwhile, Jerry Lee Lewis and Rick Nelson plunged headlong into the trappings of mellow, countrified bliss with Country Songs For City Folks and Bright Lights and Country Music.
These developments were certainly interesting and I would recommend these releases to anyone who hasn’t heard them. The Beatles and the Stones featured tunes that could be construed as experiments along these lines (“I’ll Cry Instead”, “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”, “It’s All Over Now”, etc.) though the actual balance between the two worlds was not truly achieved until the International Submarine Band successfully integrated the elements with their LP, Safe at Home.
Widely accepted as the first country rock album, it was recorded in 1967, delayed from official release until 1968 and promptly sank without a trace. Gram Parsons was the key member of this group and when he joined the Byrds, his influence was enough to steer McGuinn and Hillman down a stone country path with Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It flopped miserably at the time, though this is not a reflection of the quality as it is an album par excellence. If you enjoy the fine art of dot connection, a handful of names will come up repeatedly when you investigate the players behind these creations:
Gram Parsons, Bob Dylan, Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, Bernie Leadon, Clarence White and Doug Dillard.
All would have a stake in many of the earliest forms of this type of music.
Here's a short list of other recordings to check out:
The Flying Burrito Brothers-The Guilded Palace of Sin
The Holy Grail.
The Byrds-Sweetheart of the Rodeo
This is perfect from start to finish.
The Everly Brothers-Roots
Absolutely the most underrated project that Phil and Don were ever involved with. There are some fantastic songs on this disc, though it was lost in the myriad of late 60's psychedelia, heavy rock and pop. If you see it, buy it.
These LPs are stellar as well.
Dillard and Clark-The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark
Gene Clark-Gene Clark and the Gosdin Brothers
The Byrds-Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Poco-Pickin' Up the Pieces
Feel free to add to the list.
Friday, January 08, 2010
Sunday, January 03, 2010
Absolutely bare-bones, lovely, unfinished, ethereal, ragged, uplifting and heartbreaking all apply to Oar, the lone solo recording by Alexander "Skip" Spence. He was at the epicenter of the San Francisco music scene in the mid-sixties, playing drums on the first Jefferson Airplane disc and co-founding Moby Grape, who made a stunning debut album and then imploded with Spence in the middle of the fray.
It is not the function of this humble forum to make comment on the tribulations of individuals who saw rough times. Mr. Spence did indeed have more than his share of adversity, though it does not detract from his obvious talent. He was a musical "all-rounder' who could play just about anything that he picked up, a great performer and first rate songwriter.
The tale of how Oar was conceived and recorded is well worth your time, as is the album itself. This excellent piece more than covers the bases http://www.crawdaddy.com/index.php/2009/11/24/oar-after-40-years-brilliant-or-just-a-bunch-of-ramblings/
Should you be interested, seek out this disc, keeping in mind that you are in for a challenging but rewarding listen. This is primarily because he followed his instincts and let the songs flow naturally with no attempts to pander to the prevailing trends of that era. These are the sketches of a great artist, who was not given the opportunity to reach a wider audience in his time, as he was a few steps ahead of the curve.
Beck, Wilco and Leslie Feist cover "Little Hands", giving Mr. Spence some much deserved love. He would have likely been quite thrilled to hear this.