heart of the country

Master Class: Paul & Linda McCartney: Ram (1971)

heart of the country

Discussions of The Beatles’ solo careers have a tendency to get heated quickly, at least if I’m ever involved. I have a hard time respecting the notion of there being some sort of canon of Beatles solo releases that everyone has to like. Instead, I prefer to have my own point of view, rather than one handed to me by the rockist critics of ages past who are still running things in ages present. Don’t get me wrong, historical context can be a factor in music appreciation, but it doesn’t need to be.

I understand how much of a thrill it had to be in late 1970 when George Harrison, the so-called “quiet one” who was never given more than a handful of songs per Beatles album, dropped the mammoth triple album All Things Must Pass on an unsuspecting public. Removing George from the shadow of the Lennon/McCartney songwriting team meant, at least for those who never appreciated his Beatle-era tunes for the masterpieces they are, that he could shine wholly on his own merits, not as a Beatle, but as George Harrison.

Here’s where the conversation gets awkward: it’s overrated. That third disc consists entirely of George and his band jamming through some extended instrumentals. Granted, he had Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Klaus Voorman, Apple Records band Badfinger, future “Dream Weaver” singer Gary Wright, and Cream drummer Ginger Baker in tow in his all-star backing band, but it’s a self-indulgent case of a recording that was more fun to create than it is now to listen to. If you ever, ever stumble upon a copy of All Things Must Pass in the record store, look at the physical discs. No matter how worn-out the first two discs are, I guarantee you disc three will be in pristine condition, unless of course it was used as a coaster, ashtray, or dinner plate.

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Take away the third disc. Let’s just pretend All Things Must Pass was simply a double album – I do. While still a feat, it is too long. I find many double-albums to be fatiguing listens, most fall into the same traps of sensory overload or of simply becoming too one-note. George also commits the crime of front-loading the first side of the first album with his most powerful songs: “I’d Have You Anytime,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah-Wah,” “Isn’t It A Pity,” and “What Is Life.” After five beautiful, personal songs like those in a row, there’s nowhere to go but down. Still, if I were to distill the whole monster down to a single disc’s worth of music, it would be one Hell of a package. Some people don’t go for George’s “God-rock” songs, but I find them very uplifting. Other songs like “Wah-Wah” (video above) and “Isn’t A Pity” were inspired by his personal feud with Paul McCartney, revealing a very personal side to George, while also revealing an ornate sense of melody that few had previously noticed.

In its time, All Things Must Pass was hailed as an instant classic. Its remastered reissue, released just a year before Harrison passed away, solidified the album’s legacy, where it is still endlessly touted as the be-all, end-all of solo Beatles records. Almost the exact opposite can be said for Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 release, Ram, which came six months after George’s debut and five months after John’s painfully confessional Plastic Ono Band. In its time, Ram was hated. Rolling Stone called it “inconsequential,” while Lennon said it was “awful.”

With all that said, Ram is my favorite solo Beatle effort. Amidst the personal turmoil that caused the schism between Paul and the other three Beatles, it was all McCartney could do but to retreat into his private life. In this period, Paul settled down with his new wife Linda and her daughter Heather on his Scotland farm, welcoming the birth of their daughter Mary in August 1969. By the time Ram was completed in March 1971, Linda was expecting again; Stella McCartney would be born that September. (Their third child together, James, would be born in 1977.) While John was confronting his personal demons and screaming about it on Plastic Ono Band, Paul was counting his blessings and singing about them on Ram.

It isn’t all sunshine and love songs, though. The album starts with “Too Many People,” which has McCartney offering a critique of John and Yoko. He sings, “Too many people preaching practices / Don’t let them tell you want you wanna be,” putting down John’s public persona. While the verses on “Too Many People” are bold and grounded, Paul’s falsetto chorus, where he sings directly to John, “You took your lucky break and broke it in two,” reveals a man who is deeply hurt by what had happened to their friendship. Anyone who has had a major rift with a close friend can sympathize with these feelings of up and down, where one moment Paul is calling John preachy, the next he is in mourning over just what went wrong.

Beyond the lyrics, it’s a great song. Along with Frank Zappa and Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney is the master of writing elegant melodies. In the latter portion of the song, Paul plays his bass through a fuzz pedal, giving it a twangy punch – he had used this effect before to play the lead part on George’s “Think For Yourself” on 1965′s Rubber Soul. The song is remarkably catchy, its repeated phrase of “too many people” a very effective hook. Paul’s lyrics are clever enough that his lament could apply to anyone guilty of his accusations. It wasn’t until years later that he admitted the true inspiration for the song.

This is followed with “3 Legs,” describing a three-legged dog before going into a verse where Paul revisits being betrayed. He sings, “I thought you was my friend, but you let me down / Put my heart ’round the bend.” As a medium-tempo shuffle, an aura of tension lies beneath the entire song, with its stops and starts, Paul and Linda’s compressed vocals, and some backwards guitars in the final verse. Following a stretched-out variation of 12-bar blues, McCartney responds to this hurt by point out that although he could be knocked out by a feather, “You know that’s not allowed.” The song shifts into a plodding rock beat before coming to an end, a memorable and slightly unsettling reminder that Paul was (and is) more than just a purveyor of silly love songs.

Beginning “Ram On” is a beautiful piano flourish, completely unrelated to the rest of the track. Around the eleven second mark, there is an obvious tape splice, a voice says, “Take one,” and Paul responds, “Okay.” Paul then has a false start. These are all elements that would never be found on a Beatles record, but they suit this song perfectly. To call it mere filler is unfair, although the actual lyric is brief. Paul and Linda sing really well together, her high harmonies a perfect complement to Paul’s voice. The instrumentation is a bit unique as well: Paul leads the band of session men on a ukelele, with an electric piano providing accompaniment. The percussion is little more than hand claps. It is deceptively simple, the slight lyrics a diversion from the harmonic beauty of the background vocals.

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One thing I will admit about McCartney is that he can be cagey about certain things. With the song “Dear Boy,” (video above) he claims he meant the song to be autobiographical about his new found love with Linda. On the bridges, it certainly is. He celebrates his happiness and how his romance lifted him out of sadness, but on the verses he very vindictively points to the “dear boy” of the title, saying he’s missing out on knowing true love, that he’s clueless, and that once he does find love, “It won’t be half as good as this.” Ouch. It’s a gorgeously orchestrated songs, with the layers of echoing vocals seeming like a choir. Paul’s lead vocal is run through a filtering effect, giving an extra bite to his lyrics.

Breaking the serious mood set by “Dear Boy” is “Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey,” a two song medley that is as playful as it is goofy. Paul sings about an oncoming rain storm, and suddenly rain is heard. He offers to make a phone call to Uncle Albert, and a dial tone comes on. The next verse is sung in a quirky spoken style, made to sound like a voice on the other end of a telephone. With a simple transition, the song shifts to its second half about a demanding man of the United States Navy. Sounding more like something from the pen of Ray Davies, this ditty was released as a single in the United States, where it went to number one. The song also won a Grammy for its arrangement.

Rounding out the first side of the album is “Smile Away,” a simple blues rock number – again, McCartney’s chops as a rock and roller should never be called into question – that has him in each verse encountering a friend who says he can smell him a mile away, from his feet to his teeth to his breath. Paul was capable of having a laugh while also making great music, and this is a fine example. He even shows off his skills as a lead guitarist, soloing after each chorus.

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Side B starts with “Heart Of The Country,” a song plainly stating Paul’s home life during this period (video above). At the same time, John had put together The Plastic Ono Band for live and television appearances, while George and Eric Clapton sat in with folk rock duo Delaney & Bonnie on a tour. Paul, meanwhile, avoided the public eye. This added fuel to that crazy theory that he was actually dead, when in fact he was laying low in Scotland with his wife and kids. It’s hard to dislike this song, especially when Paul sings that he wants a horse, a sheep, and to “get me a good night’s sleep.” Where John was putting out songs like “Cold Turkey” (detailing his gut-wrenching heroin withdrawal), Paul was wanting nothing more than a simpler life. I think “Cold Turkey” is a great song, but it’s certainly not something I can identify with, or would want to. Wanting to retreat to a farm with animals and my lady? Sign me up!

The next song is a true enigma, the bizarre “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Besides featuring one of Paul’s harshest vocals, the lyrics make very little sense. Searching online for answers gives me results saying the song is about cocaine, that it’s about John (of course), and that Monkberry Moon Delight is a type of moonshine, guaranteed to cause an upset stomach. Whatever it’s really about – it’s not about coke, as McCartney has long admonished hard drugs – it is one of my favorite McCartney songs for its sheer weirdness. Love it or hate it, it’s pretty unforgettable.

“Eat At Home” is a straightforward love song, with McCartney channeling the spirit of his idol, Buddy Holly, starting the song with its chorus, its lyrical melody, and his hiccuped vocals. A couple of critics have called it out for its sexual references in the line “Lady, let’s eat in bed.” Where some writers envision that as a call for oral sex, I simply picture them eating their dinner in bed. It’s in the ear of the beholder. It’s a lively rocker, predicting the sounds to come with McCartney’s future band Wings. Surprisingly, this song was released as a single in Europe, but not in the US or the UK, where it easily could have been a hit.

My personal favorite song on the album, “Long Haired Lady,” follows. Sharing lead vocals with Linda, this is a great spiritual sequel to “Maybe I’m Amazed.” As much as I feel the need to point out that Paul was more than simply a doe-eyed balladeer, when he’s in doe-eyed balladeer mode he writes some of the best love songs ever. It goes a step further than the power ballad structure of “Maybe I’m Amazed,” being a complex exercise in countermelody and changes in rhythm and meter. Frank Zappa did these things, too, but he refused to gloss them over – there are live recordings where Zappa stops to tell the audience what time signatures his band is playing in.

By contrast, Paul and company make it sound effortless. The result is an ornate pop ballad, with each half of this couple plainly stating their love for one another. It cannot be overemphasized how genuine this relationship was, with the pair only spending 11 nights apart after Paul’s notorious 1980 marijuana bust in Japan. Their union was a solid one, and insiders in every McCartney biography have nothing but good to say about their relationship, a far cry from John’s two tormented marriages, and George and Ringo’s various infidelities. Linda’s photography appears in the sleeves of McCartney and Wings albums alike, she played keyboards and sang with Wings, and truly was Paul’s soulmate. Similarly, I greatly enjoy “Long Haired Lady,” (video below) as it is a great song with male and female vocal parts – if you’re in a committed relationship with someone and you both like to sing, this is a much better duet than, say, “I Got You, Babe.”

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This folksy epic is capped with a reprise of “Ram On,” as brief as it is harmless, before getting to the album’s closing track, “The Back Seat Of My Car.” Again, the premise is simple. A guy and gal are in the car, cruising around and engaging in one of the great recreational activities many of us engaged in during our youth: sex in the back seat. The lyrics are a bit repetitive, but dammit, can McCartney orchestrate and build a song! In a song that wouldn’t be out of place on a latter-60′s Beach Boys record, McCartney outdoes his peer and friend Brian Wilson in turning a song about young lust into a miniature symphony. For good measure, there’s even a false ending – take what sexual metaphors you can from that…

For what is an honest, personal record, where McCartney is seen looking at his personal relationships with the ex-Beatles and his new marriage, it was only the songs aimed at Lennon that got the attention. In fact, this lends a lot to the album’s undeserved infamy, giving the rock press more fuel to the anti-Paul fire. After all, he was the one who sued to dissolve The Beatles’ partnership at the end of 1970, even though Lennon had quit over a year before, staying silent about it at the insistence of manager Allen Klein. John saw jabs at him throughout the record, but they were at least slightly coded.

Lennon responded in kind with “How Do You Sleep?,” a song specifically directed at Paul, brutal and relentless. One book on The Beatles’ solo careers notes Ringo telling John to tone it down a bit, citing an even meaner – even x-rated – set of original lyrics. The two duked it out to a degree in the press, although McCartney was always more of a gentleman, never stooping to John’s level of schoolyard insults and foul language. Paul offered reconciliation with “Let Me Roll It,” a Wings number on 1973′s Band On The Run, done in the style of one of Lennon’s rock songs.

It’s a real drag that Ram is somehow known first as the album that ignited the John/Paul feud. There is obviously so much more to it, and if one were to simply read a biography on the band, Paul’s case is one far more sympathetic than what the rock press of the period would have you believe. Still, remove the album from its context, and “Too Many People” sounds like a socially-conscious polemic. “3 Legs” becomes a simple country-rock tune about a three-legged dog. “Dear Boy” is nothing more than a message urging the listener to find love.

The album was decades ahead of its time, predicting the sounds of indie rock by 25 years. It isn’t hard to listen to something like “Long Haired Lady” and imagine it on the radio today. It’s also a fun, at times funny, album. Paul is clearly having a good time and performing some goofy songs with sheer abandon. There is also a real charm to Paul and Linda singing together as husband and wife. The album documented their very real love, standing as a testament to their relationship and to relationships everywhere.

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On a slightly related note, anyone who enjoys Ram and has some extra cash to spare should check out Thrillington, a jazz-rock instrumental version of the tracks from Ram. Originally released in 1977 by Percy “Thrills” Trillington, the album was released with very little fanfare and became a bit of a curiosity until 1989, when a journalist asked Paul if he indeed was Percy Thrillington. With a laugh, he confessed it really was him, and that Thrillington was not a real person. This in turn made the record (and subsequent limited-run CD edition) a very precious collector’s item.

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