Why Macca’s first collaboration with his wife Linda still resonates a half-century later despite once being called the worst thing he’s ever done
Paul McCartney couldn’t catch a break. His solo debut, McCartney, sold fairly well on its release in 1970; three weeks at number one, eventual sales of double platinum in the United States.
But it received a mixed reception critically, people wondering why an artist who’d helped create such dazzling works as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road had released an album that seemed little more than a collection of demos (and half-finished demos at that). Next, when he filed suit against his fellow Beatles at the end of the year, he was seen as the bad guy responsible for the group’s breakup.
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Now his second album, Ram, was coming under fire. It featured far more elaborate production and arrangements, but the reviews were even worse than for McCartney. Rolling Stone damned it as “monumentally irrelevant”; London’s New Musical Express actually proclaimed it “the worst thing Paul McCartney has ever done.”
Fifty years on, that view’s been dramatically revised. Ram is now seen as one of McCartney’s most imaginative efforts; “a quirky triumph,” in the words of The Rough Guide to The Beatles. Even Rolling Stone eventually capitulated, ranking it at 450 in their “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, now calling it “a modest, goofy, loose-limbed outing about domestic pleasures, full of eccentric, pastorale tunes.” But while there tends to be a focus on the album’s light-hearted character (along with “quirky,” the other word used most often in describing Ram is “whimsy”), what ends up being overlooked is the underlying anger and irritation that pops up throughout the album.
John Lennon picked up on that right away. He saw Ram as an album full of coded messages directed at him and his wife Yoko Ono (and not only in the songs; the back cover features a picture of two beetles apparently copulating). In some cases he was right. As McCartney himself later admitted, the opening track, “Too Many People,” was a pushback against JohnAndYoko’s woke proselytizing: “Too many people preaching practices/Don’t let them tell you what you want to be” (he also appears to be singing “piss off” at the start of the song, later claiming it was simply his distorted pronunciation of the line “piece of cake”). But in other instances, Lennon was wide of the mark. He thought the taunting “Dear Boy” was aimed at him (“I guess you never knew, dear boy, what you had found…”). In reality, it was a riposte to Linda McCartney’s first husband, Mel, with an unkind twist, as Paul chortles that even if the hapless man does fall in love again it won’t be as good as the love McCartney now shares with Mel’s ex.
There’s very much a sense of you-and-me-against-the-world to Ram, as Paul faces the brickbats with his loyal wife Linda at his side (not so different from John and Yoko after all). It’s the first album where Linda becomes Paul’s musical partner; the record’s credited to the two of them, and she’s listed as a co-songwriter for half the songs. She sings too of course, and despite the brickbats she received over the years for her vocals, her harmonies actually add a lot to the unique character of this album. She’s there backing up the aggrieved Paul in the bluesy “3 Legs,” jousting with him on “Long Haired Lady,” the focal point of his lust in “Eat at Home,” his ever-game travelling companion on the midnight ramble that is “The Back Seat of My Car,” the two of them affirming their bond in the closing lyric, “We believe that we can’t be wrong” (another line that irked Lennon).
Most memorably, of course, she’s there in the mini-suite that is “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” the album’s big U.S. hit (the U.K. opted for “Back Seat of My Car,” which barely cracked the Top 40). The song is trademark McCartney; a monster hook in the chorus (“Haaaaands across the water…”) and so irresistibly catchy you overlook the fact that the lyrics are pretty nonsensical. There’s a similar approach to “Monkberry Moon Delight,” where Paul pairs his unhinged vocal to stream-of-consciousness lyrics (and speaking of unhinged, check out Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ cover of the song). The same can be said of the raunchy “Smile Away.” McCartney was never overly fussy about his lyrics. If it isn’t a love song to Linda or a paean to nature (e.g. the acoustic charmer “Heart of the Country”), Paul tends to play it fast and loose as a wordsmith.
One could say, as Lennon probably would, that there’s an air of smug self-satisfaction to the album, which is likely what so annoyed the critics who derided its supposed “cozy domesticity.” But listen again; it’s really the sound of McCartney flexing his creative muscles as a solo artist and having great fun with it, the critics be damned.
It’s a snapshot of life on the farm with his family, of the pleasure of making music because you want to, of being brave enough to get a little bit silly if the mood calls for that. It’s a well-crafted album with an impressive attention to detail (just listen to the latest vinyl reissue on headphones).
It’s McCartney mixing and matching musical styles and arrangements to his heart’s delight, and hoping you get a kick out of it too. And 50 years on, people still do.