Monday 14 June 2010

Paul and Linda McCARTNEY: Ram

(#92: 5 June 1971, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Too Many People/3 Legs/Ram On/Dear Boy/Uncle Albert-Admiral Halsey/Smile Away/Heart Of The Country/Monkberry Moon Delight/Eat At Home/Long Haired Lady/Ram On/The Back Seat Of My Car

Well, he looks much more contented than George, doesn’t he? Hard at work on the farm, a long way away from that zebra crossing – although, as much of the record itself will attest, hardly any distance at all – he has a determination, a purpose and above all happiness and contentment. Rather than a company of snickering monochrome gnomes he has an actual family, and much of the sleeve’s design plays like an indie family album; it wouldn’t have been out of place on K Records in the eighties (and here is yet another instance where you really have to refer, as I did, to a weathered LP original; it fits the record’s partial informality). But there are warnings within the bright primary colours; note the air of defiance with which McCartney folds his arms, staring at the camera, sitting on his Kintyre wall surrounded by Linda, young Mary and younger Stella; this, he announces, is my new, fabber four, whether you like it or not. To emphasise the point he surrounds the photograph with pictures of four beetles screwing each other.

The air of downhome amiability isn’t quite sustained by some of the tracks on side one, which represent some of McCartney’s angriest music and singing. This wasn’t his first solo album, of course; McCartney, the entirely self-performed debut whose cover indicated that life might still be a bowl of cherries if kept out of the spotlight, had been released the previous spring in partial competition with Let It Be, although it was eventually kept at number two in our charts by the indomitable Bridge Over Troubled Water. Any record containing “Maybe I’m Amazed” and “Every Night” (not to mention “Teddy Boy” and “Junk”) doesn’t deserve to be passed over, but evidently the Beatle-related pain and rage had built up in McCartney’s mind since its recording, and on Ram, he explodes in a way in which Harrison diplomatically had not (even on “Wah Wah” there is some keeping of countenance). “Too Many People,” with its opening “Dear Prudence” pastiche, sets the initial ravaged tone; Denny Seiwell’s tango drums play against messy guitars as McCartney lets out his own primal screams, against party lines, parking fines (with a quick musical nod to “Lovely Rita”), pieces of cake, and mainly against John (and to a lesser extent – “Too many people preaching practices” – Yoko). Guitarist Hugh McCracken’s solo is tonally unresolved, searching, frantic. As the tempo converts to a rock shuffle and the song plays out, McCartney even resorts to barking. A guitar/sitar pastiche may represent a jibe at George. But the key passage is where, as Lennon had done in “Julia” three years earlier, he transfers his love and commitment from the Beatle past to the Linda present: “I find my love awake and waiting to be/Now what can be done for you?/She’s waiting for me.”

“3 Legs” calms down a little, musically speaking, initially to a mid-tempo semi-acoustic blues/Sun amble before turning electric, but McCartney’s voice is somewhere else; there are four processed, unearthly “When I fly”s (repeated twice) and again he sings in reproachful fashion: “When I thought you was my friend/When I thought I could call you my friend/But you laid me down.” As the song slackens to half-tempo he chants “My dog he got three legs/Your dog, he got none” (having previously asserted that his dog “can’t run”); three against one - you do the math.

Florid Liberace piano leads a misleading way into the first section of “Ram On”; there’s some studio chatter – although the album was recorded in New York rather than the Mull of Kintyre, and with the aid of some crack session players, Paul and Linda were keen to maintain a general lo-fi aural standard; most of the time it sounds as though they are simply messing about at the mixing desk, and having great fun doing so – which leads into a ukulele (which itself may lead towards Labi Siffre’s “It Must Be Love”), briefly joined by electric piano and percussion. McCartney’s waterlogged harmonies drift wonderfully, in and out of tonality; recalling the Beach Boys, certainly, but also setting yet another scene for Radiohead. The closing forlorn whistling, together with the song’s simple refrain – “Give your heart to somebody soon right away, right away” – sets the song up as his own “Isn’t It A Pity?”

“Dear Boy” was widely read by most listeners, including Lennon himself, as another anti-Lennon song; although McCartney has denied that he had Lennon particularly in mind when writing it, it does, despite the staccato piano and phased vocal seem like a sad rather than angry reproach – he seems genuinely sorry for the “boy” to have missed the love which was staring him in the face (the childish things are amplified by the song’s similarity in feel to “Your Mother Should Know”), although the tack hammer piano/fuzz guitar unisons which periodically surface introduce a tone of betrayed aggressiveness. But, as with the broken lucky break mentioned in “Too Many People,” there is no avoiding the viewpoint that the other Beatles missed their chance, even if it’s possible that the other Beatles felt that under McCartney’s last ditch pressure they had no chance.

Finally, on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” – one of the least expected of American number one singles (it was never released as a single in Britain) - the music suddenly comes into colour and focus and the detritus of the recent past drifts into the background, even if the music, the lush strings and the “We’re so sorry” refrains tug irresistibly back towards side two of Abbey Road. Guitars and vibes drift lazily in the trade winds of “Sun King” – although it is now raining. McCartney’s Lord Charles silly arse whinges through a megaphone (“But we HAVEN’T done a BLOODY thing all DAY!”); it’s another rainy day in 1971 England but how are we going to get the sun back? The mournful “yeah, yeah”s recall an older and deeper ghost.

But then the music picks up to a confident vaudeville strut and Marvin Stamm’s flugelhorn segues the track into a renewed “Yellow Submarine” kids’ chant in which what presumably is meant to be William “Buff” Halsey, commander of the US naval forces in and around Japan and the Pacific Ocean during World War II – his catchphrase was: “Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs!” – is put up to ridicule by McCartney’s Stanshall-derived plummy vocal performance (interrupted by some earthy Scouse-isms). Then the music speeds up yet faster as McCartney muses about being a gypsy and getting around; the track has as many tempo and mood changes as “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” but wears its versatility far more lightly. The track segues into the Quo-style rocker “Smile Away,” which has the same sort of propulsion as Lennon’s 45 version of “Revolution,” and McCartney has great fun providing a missing link between John Wesley Harding and Ted Chippington (“I was walking down the street the other day”). The other musicians respond with palpable joy (“Sing along horribly now!” McCartney exclaims at one point near the climax) and via some whooping and Shepherd Sisters “yi-yi” backing vocals the track works up to a satisfyingly semi-demented ending.

Side two begins with McCartney in fine spirits; “Heart Of The Country” is a bucolic acoustic trot in which he meditates (and scat sings) about getting away from it all (“I want to get me a good night’s sleep”) and setting up a little farm in the middle of nowhere. So far it is pertinent to point out that nothing on Ram sounds particularly as though it comes from the seventies; the general aura is almost defiantly still late sixties. He’s not quite ready to let go yet.

Or is he? “Monkberry Moon Delight” is perhaps McCartney’s most ferocious and unhinged rocker since “Helter Skelter”; the reggae-ish tempo predicates “C Moon” to some extent but McCartney’s positively outraged vocal assaults the Milligan-esque surreality of the lyrics with genuine spice (although note the midsong warning “Cats and kittens! Don’t get left behind!”). He growls in a way rarely heard from him; part Dr John, part Beefheart and part (even!) Howlin’ Wolf – at one point he even squeals “Suck it!” And there is Linda, clear as a bell on backing vocals (although she’s also there on the “Hands across the water” chorus of “Admiral Halsey”) and reminding us that Ram was a genuinely collaborative effort (Linda is given writing credits on about half the tracks, and most of those on side two). After a brief irruption of mandolin – where did that come from and where is it going? – McCartney snarls and bites at the song in the extended fade, resorting to Robert Wyatt mouth music and Buckley Starsailor yelps and cackles, as his bass begins to walk towards fadeout. One of his most remarkable performances.

“Eat At Home” is a snappy Buddy Holly-style rocker about…well, I presumably don’t need to spell it out; although about a minute longer than it needs to be, it works well with its central tenet (“Lady, let’s eat at home”), its supple bridges (in which McCartney casually demonstrates why, harmonically, he might be the Mozart to rock ‘n’ roll’s Salieri) and its knowing whoops (there must be more whoops on Ram than any number one album since The Explosive Freddy Cannon!). Its light sense of tasty fun contrasts well with the major setpiece “Long Haired Lady,” musically the album’s most adventurous track; McCartney’s inquisitive quintet of “Well”s (possibly a reference to Lennon’s “Well, Well, Well”) is answered by a sudden, fearsome wall of high-pitched brass followed by an amused riposte from Linda, in her fruity New York accent, demanding to know “Do you love like you know you ought to do?” Whereupon McCartney wanders in and out of coherence, though not forgetting to put in a reference to “Save The Last Dance For Me”; his winsome acoustic guitar middle eight suddenly echoes out and opens the platform to a meander of floating “Strawberry Fields” tropes (does any McCartney album reference Lennon songs quite as obsessively?) . A bended guitar – hello Animal Collective, hello Ariel Pink, form an orderly queue on the right, please – wobbles in the song’s centre, and following an interlude of quietude there are distant choral echoes; the multitracked Pauls and Lindas thicken in counterpoint (and, as “Silly Love Songs” would demonstrate half a decade later, McCartney would never discard his love for the art of the fugue); the “Ah, love is long” mantra (recalling “Love is old, love is new” from “Because”) tenses and relaxes into hypnosis, such that the subsequent addition of “Penny Lane” trumpet and bluesy guitar scarcely comes as a surprise. Eventually McCartney confesses (“Well, I’ve been meaning to talk you about it for sometime – sweet little lassie”) and opens up his heart in a way that is genuinely touching. A Moog drone ushers the song out in pink pools of dub.

“Ram On” returns, near the end (as did “Isn’t It A Pity?”), initially in the form of a nocturnal wander, before a more forceful drive (steered by prepared Fender Rhodes electric piano) builds up unexpectedly but inevitably, like a sunrise; then the ukulele returns, albeit with a stomp. The fragment again drifts out of intelligibility but its message is felt.

Finally there is “The Back Seat Of My Car”; again, strings and French horns recall something of the hurt gravitas of “Golden Slumbers” but the mood of repose alternates with a rock beat. Where are they now? They could be anywhere, driving to Mexico City if they so wished – and who are the “they”? “But listen to her daddy’s song – makin’ love is wrong.” Is this a final scolding nod towards John and Yoko? In truth it really doesn’t matter; we ride with the accelerating thump of the rock before it gives way, via descending “oooooh”s, to the original calm, following which McCartney’s climactic “Wo, wo, woh”s secede to a final scream of release (“WAAAAAAAGH!”). The guitar is yearning, there is a strange barrelhouse piano/heavy metal mongrel of a sequence – and then the car, and its two main occupants (but who’s driving?) are gone, gone to the white van in which Paul and Linda, along with Denny Laine and others, will shortly drive around the country, turning up at clubs and student unions and asking to play, getting back to what they always loved doing. But they are not really gone; there are few number one albums more truly homely than Ram, and if any album of this period deserved to sound as though it were made at home it is this one. The Beatles? Well, the pain still existed but has been partially excised – it’s about Paul and Linda and their kids and their home now; this is what we have grown up to become, and never have we felt more contented, or indeed younger.