Counterbalance: Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’

This week's Counterbalance takes on the 1,377th most acclaimed album of all time, Paul and Linda McCartney's 1971 joint effort. Have another look, have a cup of tea and a butter pie. (The butter wouldn't melt so we put it in a pie.)
Paul & Linda McCartney

Klinger: As someone who came into Beatle fandom right about the time that the 1970s were turning into the ’80s, I came to understand a couple of pieces of received wisdom. The first was, of course, that the Beatles were completely unassailable in every way, and the second was that there were only a couple solo Beatle albums worth listening to. John Lennon had two, both of which we covered during our Great List years, while Paul McCartney had only one, his 1973 effort Band on the Run, the album that almost singlehandedly, albeit temporarily, saved his critical reputation.

Everything else McCartney recorded, we were told, was basically terrible. In fact, there was some debate as to which album was actually his worst. Most people opted for his first Wings album, Wild Life, and others picked Red Rose Speedway. There were even those who had it in for the album we’re discussing this week, 1971’s Ram. What’s interesting to me is that Ram has now come to be heralded as a masterpiece, with younger generations recognizing its loose performances and off-handed charm as its own form of brilliance.

And it is a pretty nfity album, filled with memorable tracks and a certain subversiveness that makes you think there was quite a bit more going on underneath Macca’s cheery demeanor. How familiar were you with Ram prior to this week, Mendelsohn, and do you think all the critical rehabilitation is warranted?

Mendelsohn: As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve made it a personal goal to ignore as much of the ex-Beatles’ post-Beatle output as possible, and that includes all of the terrible music McCartney recorded. So I have no idea how terrible any of it actually is. I’m just going to take your word for it. In listening to Ram, I don’t understand what the big deal is all about. This record is distinctively McCartney and it is full of the some of the best flourishes that he contributed to the Beatles’ sound, but it definitely could have benefited from a little bit of Lennon. It’s too bad Paul and John were otherwise distracted with taking pot shots at each other through the press.

Before we get too far into this, I have one question. Do you think the initial negative reviews are a result of the music itself or more of an attack on McCartney as an artist? The Beatles’ break-up was a big deal, it seems only natural that the critics would choose sides. I’ve read the reviews, they are not kind, and it seems to me the critics chose Lennon (as did Ringo and George).

Klinger: Obviously the critics acted a good bit more butt-hurt about the Beatles’ break-up than maybe they should have, and there was a tendency to blame McCartney for that, since he was the one who actually made the big announcement to the press. He probably didn’t help his case by labeling Ram a Paul & Linda McCartney joint and giving his wife a ton of songwriting co-credits, since everybody wanted to blame the wives for breaking up the band. It probably also didn’t help that all throughout Ram, McCartney comes across as a guy who is very much done with his old bandmates and is having a lot of fun goofing around and writing songs about having sexy funtime with his wife (“Long Haired Lady”, “Eat at Home”, and probably “Monkberry Moon Delight”, which just sounds filthy.)

So yeah, the critics chose up sides, and Lennon was granting unprecedented access to Jann Wenner over at Rolling Stone, so McCartney became the whipping boy. The former Beatles all started hearing more coded messages in his songs than Charlie Manson ever did. (“‘My dog he got 3 legs’? That has to be about us! What else could it mean?”) Lennon thought “Dear Boy” was about him, when it’s all about how dumb Linda’s ex-husband was for letting her go, because now Paul is very happy having sexy funtime with her. This was clearly a crazy time for both critics and ex-Beatles, because the guy they hated most in the world was having what appears to be a pretty good time. (And really, that picture of one beetle screwing another beetle on the cover is pretty funny.) For later generations, for whom the Beatles’ break-up was settled business, none of this mattered nearly as much.

Mendelsohn: Put into historical context, the poor reviews make sense — as does the increasing appreciation for this record as more time passes and the butt-hurt fades from memory (except for Robert Christgau — apparently he has butt-hurt memory like an elephant). Despite my claims to the contrary, I did have a passing familiarity with Ram as well as Band on the Run — you don’t spend your teen years completely immersed in the Beatles without at least exploring some of their solo material. I never had a problem with McCartney’s music. He has a talent for turning whimsy into serious rock and making serious rock sound whimsical. That is not an easy thing to accomplish without coming off completely pretentious or inane. On top of that, McCartney always seemed to be the Beatle who had the best pop chops. But as I’ve noted with Lennon’s solo material, no matter how much I like it, there is always that nagging feeling that something was missing.

Klinger: That might only be because you know there’s something missing. Because the old Lennon/McCartney partnership — where even if they weren’t writing together in the same room, they still gave a crap what the other one thought — hadn’t really been a thing since the “White Album”. And I’m not entirely sure if the songs on Ram would necessarily have translated into the Beatles’ vernacular. What would they have done with a Brian Wilsonian blast like “Back Seat of My Car” or a woozy daftness of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”? Not saying I wouldn’t be interested in knowing, but to my way of thinking it’s OK that it’s a moot point.

Elvis Costello once made a point about McCartney (right around the time that the two of them were collaborating), giving him some credit for being the only solo Beatle who never really wrote in the Beatles’ style once the group broke up. He compared his change of approach to the difference between Rodgers and Hart vs. Rodgers and Hammerstein, which I’m going to have to take his word for. I know that doesn’t make McCartney’s post-Beatles works better, but it does point out his general ability to process the sounds that are going on around him and make them his own. Which was always one of the Beatles’ main strengths as well.

Mendelsohn: That’s an excellent point, Klinger, and may ultimately be why the critics took such offense to McCartney’s solo work — especially Ram. Instead of picking up where the Beatles left off and recording the continuation of that sound as a solo artist, McCartney took a left turn. And if I may speculate even further, I would suggest that the album was too far ahead of its own time for anyone to really appreciate. McCartney’s “muzak” — as Lennon would tag it in “How Do You Sleep?” — was the predecessor to the lighter side of indie rock that eschews the jangly guitars for the more twee sounds of orchestration. And that’s fun because McCartney was able to work in a myriad of elements from the music he was hearing at the time; be it the oohs and ahhs of the Beach Boys, sharp guitar licks, or ukelele, even a horn section and group choruses. Now that time has passed and the influence of Ram can be laid out over several decades, it is easy to see why this record’s critical standing continues to rise.

This record may be slight and goofy in places, but it is incredibly likable, full of the joy of expression unique to rock music.

Klinger: And it’s also coming into its own now that the pressure is off. Critics used to look at new albums as pronouncements on high from our Olympian rock stars, which explains why they reacted so badly whenever their gods disappointed them (see Dylan, Bob). For an actual freakin’ Beatle to let them down was quite simply more than they could bear. Now that Paul McCartney makes Paul McCartney albums for the fans of Paul McCartney, no one’s whipping themselves into a lather when those albums turn out to be only pretty good. But for a long time Ram was a victim of its own timing (it’s also possible than releasing the defiantly silly “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” as a single was a tactical error on his part). I actually avoided picking up Ram for years because critics had told me it wasn’t worth the effort — not to mention the $6.98. Now I’m wondering what else critics might have misled me about. Whatever. I’m just going to crank up this “Back Seat of My Car”, snicker a bit at our Paulie’s sneaky jabs at his former bandmates, step on the gas, and wipe that tear away.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.