Wednesday, March 23, 2011
Secret Genius: Paul & Linda McCartney- Ram (1971)
Okay, let's just do it. Let's talk about Ram. This record is nothing short of a pop apocalypse to me, the place where the pleasure of the genre reaches a critical mass and just ends it all, eclipsing any other work of a Beatle or the Beatles for sheer enjoyability and playful creativity. I've been listening to this album since I was a youngster, and it's never lost a bit of its luster. Hell, I still have the same tape (not a homemade tape, either, but an official cassette release... that always pleases me, in a strange way) that my father played in his truck when I was a child, that I now play in my truck.
It rips open with the anthemic "Too Many People." This is the song that really stoked John Lennon's paranoia and bile, causing him to drop the vitriolic dis track "How Do You Sleep?"-- a bit of a rabid response, I would say, to such inoffensively reasonable observations such as "Too many people preachin' practices/ Don't let em tell you what you wanna be...", but I digress. It's a good fucking song, a real satisfying slice of 70's rock for driving fast through the countryside, feeling good about who you are in the world. It's also a fairly salient entry in the Lennon-McCartney grudge myth, if you buy into that stuff, as McCartney's vague jabs at his friend seem level-headed and ultimately caring. It's followed by the doofy blues of "3 Legs", a marvellously produced trifle about a three-legged dog and a one-legged fly. It's dumb as hell lyrically but there's bigger fish to fry here, the guitars sounding as crisp and weird as they do, and the various vocal filters being applied as they are... At times, McCartney's approach really reminds me of Eno's on Here Come the Warm Jets, laying out artful but nonsensical pop abstractions, then distorting them by treating each instrument, or section, with an effect or filter or Oblique Strategy, tossing in rewarding frills and textures all over the place.
The next thing is "Ram On", an utterly, devastatingly pretty little ukulele ditty with deceptively cavernous, ramshackle production. Opening with a quick blurble of distorted tape, leading into a cascading piano line, studio chatter, and a demo-quality intro on solo uke, it builds layers from there, adding Linda's always-straightforward backing vocals, reverbed electric piano, hand claps and bongos endowed with enormous echo, more and more backing vocals, and Paul performing mouth bass; imitating then shadowing a french horn; then whistling the whole thing out... a wonderfully complex and perfectly simple 2-and-a-half minutes. A similar effect is achieved in the next track, "Dear Boy", an ecstatic revelation of his love for Linda with that divine electric piano, layers and washes of vocals (which even perform the bass line of the song, to delightful effect), and a sudden, staccato chunk of electric guitar pushing the whole thing straight up into the heavens... quite simply, these have been two of the best and coolest love songs ever made.
What Follows is "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey", such an utterly weird little song suite that I hesitate to even describe it. He actually won a "Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists" Grammy for this tune, and while it seems too odd to have warranted the attention of the idiots at the Grammies, it certainly deserved its praise. Beginning with a warmly evocative childhood theme, complete with melancholy/nostalgia-inducing rainfall sounds, then imitating and sampling insect noises; reprising the first verse in a John Cleese-esque brusque British accent, and lurching into a french horn piece, followed by a giant chorus from Linda: "Heads Across the Water, Heads Across the Sky..."; the french horn coming back to accompany a "Pirates of Penzance"-reminiscent bit of a maritime nonsense ditty, then back to the chorus, then out of nowhere a "weedle-weedle little gypsy getaround" diversion, back to the chorus, and fade out rocking... This is creativity operating with total confidence and utter abandon. It's so charming, you almost lose sight of how fucking all over the place and random it is. Once you've heard it, babies, it's in your life forever.
It fades into the closest thing the record has to a misstep, the ghastly, raunchy blewz of "Smile Away", a song about how smelly his feet, breath, and teeth are. It's not my favorite, but it's still kind of great. The backup vocals in particular are inspired, and you gotta give it points for being so godawful peculiar.
Side two opens on "Heart of the Country" another composition which finds Paul scatting out bass lines and imitating the other instruments. In fact, this track may be one of his all-time great vocal performances, his wistful delivery of the verses achieving a sweet perfection. It's followed by "Monkberry Moon Delight", a monstrously grotesque shanty of Tom Waits-level bone-machine ramshacklery, scary nursery rhyme imagery, and growliness. So unhinged and howlingly strange, Screamin' Jay Hawkins' perhaps-inevitable cover of it sounds positively tame by comparison. In terms of sheer strangeness as a composition, it succeeds in every way that, say, "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" might not. And again I will point out, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production is pure gravy. Beautiful.
The Buddy Holly-inspired "Eat at Home" I've always found pleasant but fairly inconsequential. It's central entendre is wonderfully sexy, though. "Long Haired Lady", on the other hand, is another in a series of masterpieces. Opening with the closest Linda would get to a lead vocal, she demandingly inquires, "Do ya love me like you know you ought to do?" in a flat, mock-teenage voice. That voice always flummoxed me as a child (its seeming so incongruously off-putting), but it's a delivery that I now relish, especially as it contrasts to Paul's especially sweet and heartfelt delivery. It's like a version of "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" where Meat Loaf enthusiastically proposes to Ellen Foley (or was it Karla DeVito?) with the reassuring voice of an angel, pledging his eternal love to the support of heaven's horns as they both ascend to a paradise of mutual passion and devotion. Of course the track fades into a reprise of "Ram On", the album's first song of love, and of course it would have to segue into the sublime ode to teenage amor, "Back Seat of My Car." This song has been often compared to the works of Brian Wilson, both from a production and thematic-content perspective-- and rightly so. The relatively intimate emotions of young love (and all the friction with the girl's father that that usually entails) are here amplified to soaring, heart-exploding heights, the sentiment further heightened by an absence of the kind of goofy playfulness that's been sweetening the album up to this point. Here the record ends, and makes its stand with a gorgeous and heartfelt finale, declaring of their love "Oh, we believe that we can't be wrong."
I strongly suspect that any of you who might be reading this are already familiar with this record. If you're not, then I hope I've managed to pique your interest, and if you are, I hope I've provoked in you a desire to throw it on give it another listen. Seriously, if you don't know this joint in your bones, then get it inside of you, tonight. This is Paul's best solo work by a mile, and one of the best albums of all time.
Again, I won't be posting a download link here for fear of being taken out by an anti-Beatles-pirating death squad, but I'm sure you can find it out there in that big old world, my friends.
Also, my friend from UbuWeb has recently tipped me to the delightful and surprising fact that Paul recorded an instrumental version of this record, under the pseudonym of Percy "Thrills" Thrillington. It's god damn great, and I'll be chatting you and your computers up on that subject in the coming days as well. Search it out, fellows, and dare to dream of greatness. Good night.