Paul McCartney’s guileless, but oft-criticized Ram was a handmade gem

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An overlooked precursor to the current handmade-pop phenomenon, Paul McCartney’s Ram was initially criticized for everything that makes it sound unexpectedly bold, fascinatingly unedited and utterly misjudged today.

The album, released on May 17, 1971, moves with a guileless joy from the country-blues parody of “3 Legs” to the plucky reverie of “Ram On,” from the burping rockabilly riffs of “Smile Away” to the comfy domesticity of “Heart of the Country.” Imperfect but so very interesting, Paul McCartney’s Ram is just as apt to indulge in the convoluted escapism of “Long Haired Lady,” as it is in the jokey doom’s-day howl of “Monkberry Moon Delight,” as it is in the Buddy Holly-inspired sexual innuendo of “Eat at Home.”

That said, for all of Paul McCartney’s furious creativity, the loss of longtime writing partner John Lennon — not to mention Beatles producer George Martin — can be keenly felt at times. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” for instance, always seemed to miniaturize everything McCartney once strove for with Abbey Road, feeling more calculatedly twee than truly inspired, despite its episodic construction. Ultimately, no matter how many copies it sold as a single, this is Ram’s most obvious indulgence. The principal weakness that Paul McCartney has always had, the one that the Beatles at their best seemed to so deftly obscure, is fully exposed: He’s so well aware of his own charm.

Worse still: How Ram is hampered, even now, by the long-forgotten sniping then engulfing McCartney and Lennon — from the haughty sermonizing of the opening track “Too Many People” to the rather silly conceit that his photographer wife was somehow stepping in for John Lennon as collaborator, from the unselfconscious contempt of “Dear Boy” (which Lennon felt was about him) to the utterly unsubtle cover image of two beetles copulating.

At the time, for some reason, both of these former bandmates were making a habit of fighting their battles through the medium of music, and the albums were poorer for it. (As delicious as John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” might have seemed at the time, for instance, it really didn’t jibe with the title-track sentiment of Lennon’s concurrent Imagine, you know?) Paul McCartney and John Lennon did their art, and their fans, a deep disservice by occasionally turning their songs into lines of fluttering dirty laundry, as if they didn’t understand that the records might actually transcend their era.

But Paul McCartney’s Ram, like Imagine, survives even these missteps by sheer force of musical will. McCartney is, at this point, still bursting with post-Beatles ideas — and it gives this album a dizzying momentum. Even his stand-alone non-album efforts from the period, collected on subsequent reissues, end up as interesting asides. “Another Day” is like a lesser “Penny Lane.” “Oh Woman, Oh Why” has always been blessedly, truly weird, with Paul McCartney staring down the barrel of a pissed-off lady’s gun.

For me, this album’s most intriguing moment remains “The Back Seat of My Car,” the soaringly constructed, yet desperately sad closing track on Ram.

In keeping with the rest of the project, the song is a little unfocused — too overstuffed with ideas, too reliant on multi-tracked McCartneys, not as rustic as his solo debut and somehow tossed-off sounding anyway, simply too long — but yet still perfectly encapsulates everything that makes Ram such a wildly inventive gem: It’s gutsy and unprecious at one point and then a testament to Paul McCartney’s enduring pop sensibilities at others. As McCartney bolts from 1950s-era rock to cocktail-lounge crooning to swooning violins, and back again — all inside of this one final track, mind you — there is a sense of limitless possibility.

Paul McCartney’s Ram, foreshadowing the quirky allure of today’s homespun singer-songwriter projects, certainly would have benefited from having someone else to bounce ideas off of, but its essential pop magnetism — its compulsively listenability — simply can’t be denied.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Brent Waltz

    The RAM Project by Dave Depper is a great album-length experiment into what makes McCartney’s Ram tick.

  • Keith McTaggart

    If speaking simply is part of the agenda Nick, then simply said, Ram is a work of musical genius. As any great album ought to be, it is a snapshot of the time it was made and of the artist in his time. I believe that the fact he had no one to reign him in, is exactly what makes listening to it a wonderful experience. It’s a very special musical landscape and one I always enjoy travelling. Nicely dissected, but unfortunate slant.

  • 3brettb3

    There goes the “McCartney needs an editor” argument again. Why, to make the album more boring and conventional? The unrestrained joy and musical ideas that burst out of him are part of what makes this album special. It’s all over the place, in a good way.

    • Nick DeRiso

      I agree.

  • Ray1950

    Never liked the album. Never will.

    • robert9998

      Always loved the album. Always will.

      • John Manzione

        Agreed, love it, always will

  • Joe

    His best album. A sheer joy. It’s like his own version of The White Album with no restraint.

  • EdSullivan

    Certainly one of McCartney’s best, and still my favorite album. All at once a handmade and professionally polished work of sonic art, every track glows with life, spirit, and substance.

  • planetc

    “How Do You Sleep at Night” “delicious”? “At the time”? Um … surely at the time it sounded brutal and mean-spirited, just as it does today. That song, and remarks John Lennon made in interviews at the time, constitute an attack on McCartney, and one based on nebulous character assassination. The essential charge leveled at Paul by John is that he has a rotten soul. Not convincing at the time, and not convincing now. But very influential. You say that McCartney’s chief weakness is that he is “so well aware of his own charm.” Really? Just what does that mean, anyway? There’s also evidence that he’s an artist as insecure as any artist is, as John Lennon was. How exactly do you defend yourself from a charge of having a rotten soul? Try it. It can’t be done. I think that the critical reaction to McCartney has been soured, skewed, and blurred since “How Do You Sleep”. Critics took Lennon’s word for it that there was something the matter with McCartney, and have carried on the propaganda to this day. It’s really getting old, Mr. DeRiso.

    • Nick DeRiso

      Thankfully, I didn’t make any of the points here which you ascribe to Lennon. In fact, I was critical of “How Do You Sleep?” I don’t pretend to understand people who found any intrigue in all of that public backbiting. It was as childish as it was boring. I would add, though, that McCartney fired the opening salvo and he should have known, better than most, that Lennon could be a bully.

      • planetc

        If McCartney fired the opening salvo, what exactly was it?

        • Nick DeRiso

          ‘Ram,’ of course, arrived before ‘Imagine.’ There were a number of things, actually, that Lennon felt were directed at him found on the album – not least of which was “Too Many People,” which McCartney talked about at length in a subsequent Playboy interview: “He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit. I wrote ‘Too many people preaching practices,’ I think is the line. I mean, that was a little dig at John and Yoko.”

          Lennon later said this about “How Do You Sleep”: “Oh hells, bells … listen to ‘Ram’ folks! The lyrics weren’t printed, just listen to it. I’m answering ‘Ram.’ When I heard ‘Ram,’ I immediately sat down and wrote my song, which is an answer to ‘Ram.’ It’s as simple as that.”

          • planetc

            A number of things besides “too many people preaching practices”? And what were they?

            And has anyone ever considered that Lennon sounds paranoid in his reaction, both in interviews and certainly in the lyrics? McCartney goes on to lament that there are “too many hungry people losing weight.” Is this also an attack on Lennon? And how can you tell, exactly? How can you tell that the “people preaching practices” was an attack on Lennon for that matter?

            But Lennon was convinced that he (and Yoko) were being attacked, so he wrote a song that said “The only thing you done was yesterday.” and “Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise,” and several other muzzy insults, concluding with “The sound you make is muzak to my ears.”

            The response to HDYSAN is reportedly “Dear Friend,” a vocal tour de force from an album rushed into release, the meaning of whose lyrics remains debatable to this day.

            I’m afraid that in this exchange, McCartney remains the classier musician, the classier friend, and the better lyricist.

            • Nick DeRiso

              Again, you seem to be arguing points that are outside the scope of my review. I’m certainly not interested in relitigating this awful period – and that’s made clear in the piece. As for the rest of Lennon’s beef with McCartney, that information is, of course, available to you on the Internet. Thanks for reading.

              • planetc

                The title of your post, particularly the word “guileless”, led me fo hope, fleetingly, that you were going to review the album. Instead, I found the usual review of McCartney, with the 3000th iteration of the dictum that McCartney needed Lennon to restrain his “indulgence”. And an analysis of McCartney’s “principal weakness” and a note about “How Ram is hampered, even now, by the long-forgotten sniping then engulfing McCartney and Lennon…”. I think it was you who raised the zombie specter of the ancient John/Paul feud, Mr. DeRiso. If the sniping is long forgotten, why was it dragged into your review? I suggest that it hasn’t been allowed to die, because there’s a small but vocal group who keep dragging it out to remind everybody of how right John was.

                If indeed we can never get rid of this ancient musical assassination of a friend, could we at least admit that it’s capable of more than one interpretation? Instead of leaping to our feet and saluting John’s righteousness, could we consider the possibility that it wasn’t so much the little lyric darts McCartney threw that upset Lennon so much as the musical exuberance and mastery of the entire album, a McCartney finally free of Lennon’s grim, baleful influence? I agree that the fly flying in and out sounds deliberately impertinent, but surely Lennon’s reaction to that and one other line of lyric was wildly disproportionate to the offense? But if we consider Ram as the first demonstration of what McCartney could do without Lennon, we have a more understandable reason for Lennon’s reaction. Since I adore Lennon’s music too, I won’t speculate on what his motives for “How Do You…” might have been, but I wish most critics didn’t feel so free to analyze the motives of a man they’ve also never met, McCartney.

                • Jimmy Nelson

                  Great, another crying McCartney fan who can’t be satisfied with the positives in any review, and this is not a bad review, because he’s so very upset that anyone might dare see Paul as anything other than the be-all end-all. Three things: You’re the one who has spent every comment here comparing and contrasting Lennon and McCartney, not anyone else. Also, you begin this last very, very long post wondering why people put thoughts into the minds of legends, then do the same with some gobbledy gook about how Lennon was angry because ‘Ram’ was so brilliant – an idea not supported by the included quotes from the principals themselves. Finally, just because an old saw is repeated doesn’t, of course, make the old saw any less true – or reasonable to repeat. They were better together; everybody knows it. Even it they didn’t, that was hardly the point of this review. You’re so far off track, you can’t even find the train smoke over the horizon anymore.

                  • planetc

                    I, of course, read the review itself. Did you?

                    • Jimmy Nelson

                      Then you, of course, noticed where the review says ‘Ram’ was “initially criticized for everything that makes it sound unexpectedly bold, fascinatingly unedited and utterly misjudged today.” And where it says McCartney was “bursting with post-Beatles ideas – and it gives this album a dizzying momentum.” And where it calls ‘Ram’ “a wildly inventive gem.” And where it says ‘Ram’ foreshadows “the quirky allure of today’s homespun singer-songwriter projects.” And where the review praises “its essential pop magnetism,” and “its compulsively listenability.” No, probably not. You were too busy trying to come up with tangential arguments based on a passage that – unlike your many, many comments – gave equal criticism to the Beatles’ really dumb public arguments of that time.

                    • planetc

                      I sure did read those parts. It’s just I read the other parts too.

                    • Jimmy Nelson

                      So, you admit that you selectively chose what to focus on when building a complaint, ignoring the rest since it didn’t bolster you argument. Interesting.

                    • planetc

                      No, actually, I don’t admit that. Perhaps now that you’ve read the review again, you might read my comments? Or perhaps not.

                    • Jimmy Nelson

                      Actually, yes, you did. Have a nice day.

              • Curt Bourque

                i think his bringing it up was because you brought it up. Planetc is correct. Paul threw a few jabs at lennon mixed into lyrics in a way as to be not obtrusive. Too many people was possibly about overpopulation, but could refer to too many people being yoko in the beatles studio every day. Maybe.

                But lennon/s jabs were like musical punches deliberately thrown and meant to hurt. Just look at the title of the “how do you sleep” song!

                On the other hand the critics took everything far more seriously than either Beatle did.
                They got together again in person by 1974 for a ‘toot and a snore’ and later watched saturday night live together.

                MCCartney’s 1st 3 albums were all dismissed by the critics and some fans but are getting excellent reviews now by folks like you and I want to thank you. *(even though I disagreee with you a bit on uncle albert. That would have been suitable for a 1970’s beatle album if one were made! It is on equal standing with ‘Back Seat’ at the least and both are superb in all ways.

                Final note on the review, Paul now points out that a big reason credit was given to his wife was because all his royalties went into the beatle pool and were split with John for several years after the breakup. By listing her they reaped 3/4 of the income. But I am sure she helped him out as well. She did learn to play keyboards for him after all. She sang lead lines on a few of the songs. And her harmonies were always adding to his music. Compare her voice to yoko who famously screamed thru much of her own album.

        • Mike Meoff

          ‘3 Legs’ was a shot at Yoko. Yoko made a film with a fly as the subject.
          ‘The fly flies in/The fly flies out’. (etc.)

          • Curt Bourque

            or maybe paul was composing a song and a fly flew in and then the fly flew out of his window, and he said Bingo!!!

          • Curt B

            to be fair, yoko deserved a shot or two. John may have wanted to be with her 24 hrs a day but did she have to be in the studio by his side in every session. She even tried to tell them how to improve the songs.

            IMAGINE how odd it must have been to have Yoko in their space for every session in the studio. Linda only hung around the studio in the background when she visited and took some pictures, as did some other people, so was far less obtrusive.

            Mike, does that mean mentioning flys was out for all his songs. Paul lived on a farm with horses and there were probably lots of flys flying in and out!

            • Mike Meoff

              Agreed on Yoko. What a drag it must’ve been enduring her sticking her unwanted two cents worth into the Beatles sessions.

  • John Feehan

    Have always loved Ram and consider the finest, most raw & rocking of any of the Beatles solo works. Never understood why it was so poorly received. As for Paul firing g the opening shots at John…Paul threw a couple of spit balls & Lennon responded with cannon fire. Completely an out of proportion response & I too believe it did permanent damage to how some critics & fans consider McCartney.
    If I could offer one correction: Dear Boy was written about Linda’s ex husband. Listen to the lyrics again with that fact in mind it makes more sense.

    • Nick DeRiso

      One can only wonder if Lennon, once he heard a fuller explanation on things like “Dear Boy” – which came, of course, much later from Paul – would have had second thoughts about unloading the way he did. Hard to say, of course. Certainly, at that point in time, John was at a place in his life where the approach was ready-fire-aim. Still, neither of them were well served by this ugly period. For me, those kind of songs made this album, and ‘Imagine,’ weaker efforts than they would have been. It’s really a shame.

  • Mike Meoff

    The homage to Brian Wilson is so obvious with the wonderful vocal layering. Ram is a great album, and it has stood the test of time quite well.

  • Russ

    One other point that Mr. DeRiso neglected to point out about this time period, is the public and critical perception McCartney had, being blamed for the Beatles’ breakup. We all know the story now, but at the time, nobody outside the group’s circle knew there was any trouble until that infamous press release for McCartney’s first solo album. That perception tended to color almost anything he did in a bad light, regardless of how good or bad it was.

    I’m not a big fan of Ram but I do still listen to it periodically and I think it has some good moments. It’s definitely not deserving of the critical lambasting it’s gotten over the years. This wilderness that McCartney was in at the time probably tended to make him try anything and everything, which may have lead some to believe that editing was necessary. I believe his ideas were still great, even during this time; he simply could’ve used a little more focus and finetuning, which was still possible without losing that homespun charm.

  • John Manzione

    RAM has always been my all time favorite Paul McCartney album. I bought it the day it was released, I was 18, and I still listen to it at least once a month. Every song is an eclectic masterpiece.

  • briteness

    To my ears, Ram is easily the best post-Beatles album McCartney ever made. It has a very distinctive air about it, a real gestalt. Interestingly, John’s best solo work (Plastic Ono Band & Imagine), as well as George’s best (All Things Must Pass), were also released right around this time. Even Ringo’s most interesting solo work came right around then. What does this mean? Somehow, it seems that the public drama of the breakup may have actually somehow contributed something powerful to the work of each of the four men.If I had to choose between the work of the three year period 1966-1968 or the period 1969-1971, I would choose the latter.

  • SuperTroll

    Still probably my second favorite McCartney album. No, Band On The Run is not my favorite – the little appreciated Back To The Egg is my favorite. But Ram was awesome including such great rockers as Smile Away and Monkberry Moon Delight. Back in the 70s Paul could always be counted on to come up with a great rocker every year with Hi, Hi, Hi being the greatest.

    • Doutor Estranho

      Back to the egg is a great one!