[30 August 2010]
After the success of the “Another Day” single and the Ram album, it was time for Paul and Linda McCartney to release another single. This time, Paul accepted the American method of releasing album tracks, so “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was issued with fellow album track, “Too Many People”.
Some people are of the opinion that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, because of the line “Hands across the water / Heads across the sky” and because of World War II Admiral William Frederick Halsey, Jr. While McCartney has stated that the song’s Halsey was inspired by the real-life Admiral Halsey, the chorus’ lyrics were actually inspired by WW2’s American aid programs. The “Uncle Albert” parts were actually based on Paul’s own Uncle Albert, a man who had the strange habit of only quoting Bible verses when he was drunk. Instead of trying to make a cohesive meaning of the track, it is better to think of it as a combination of several songs. All of the background vocals were improvised during the recording by Linda, thus giving her both a songwriting and a producing credit.
Recorded at CBS Studios after several other Ram tracks were completed, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was slightly more complicated than the other tracks. For example, the innovative sound effect of the rain and thunder in the background was not some synthesized studio trick. Recording assistant Armin Steiner was said to have stood on the edge of a cliff, recording a thunderstorm as it raged on in order to get the sound. In order to achieve the telephone effect, Paul gurgled (in order to imitate an old-fashioned telephone ringing) and spoke through a “highpass filter”. This song wasn’t just a collaboration amongst the future members of Wings (guitarists Hugh McCracken and David Spinozza, as well as drummer Denny Seiwell worked on it)—bebop trumpeter Marvin Stamm also played a major part by performing the flugelhorn solo, albeit in a separate studio at another time. Former Beatles producer George Martin was also involved, arranging the four French horns heard slightly afterward, but the actual recording varies from his specifications. In fact, the recording was treated like that of a classical music piece, with assistant engineer Dixon Van Winkle later stating that the twelve different sections of the song gave it “the feel of an overture” and that he was “surprised when the record went so big”.
“Big” is almost an understatement. The only single from Ram released in America became Paul’s first solo Billboard number one single, and the second number one from a former Beatle. Though it was only at the top of the charts for one week, it also garnered critical praise, receiving the 1971 Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists Grammy Award. It was later covered by Buddy Rich, Freddie Hubbard, the Radar Bros., and by German artist Gaby B under the title of “Von Calais Nach Dover” (“From the Straits of Dover to Dover”). Appearing on the Thrillington, Wings Greatest, and All The Best albums, it is the only track credited to both Paul and Linda McCartney on the “Hits” portion of the Wingspan: Hits & History compilation.
Like most of Ram, “Too Many People” was recorded in New York’s CBS studios with then-session guitarist Hugh McCracken. Not much has been said about its recording, other than the fact that Paul recorded his vocals in one take.
Several indie rock bands have covered “Too Many People”, including Earlimart, the Finn Brothers, and the Arcangels, but it remains a hidden treasure in the McCartney catalog. However, Paul has shown some love to the song, most notably combining it with “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” on his 2005 U.S. tour, and subsequently the Space Within Us DVD.
Unfortunately, with “Too Many People” comes some controversy, as Paul himself admitted that some of the song’s lyrics were about former bandmate John Lennon. The line “Too many people preaching practices” referred to Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono’s orchestrated anti-war publicity stunts, whereas “You took your lucky break and broke it in two” calls him out as the member of the group who broke up the Beatles. Still, others allege that much more of the song, as well as the Ram album itself, was a calculated slam at Lennon. Lennon himself certainly seemed to think so, mocking McCartney on his track, “How Do You Sleep?” Despite all of this resentment, they remained friends, with the two frequently making plans to record together again.