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McCartney’s underrated masterpiece: RAM

When Paul McCartney releases his second solo album in 1971, this time together with his wife Linda, the album was slashed. But that was due more with the circumstances under which the album was released than its actual quality. Because with RAM, McCartney delivered a masterpiece.

Following the moderate receipt of his home-made debut album McCartney, Paul decides to meet the critics: was the debut considered as too experimental, the sequel had to become a professionally, fully-produced album. For the recordings, the McCartney family goes to New York, where they hold a number of auditions for session musicians. McCartney hires the guitarist Dave Spinoza, who also has other commitments, and is therefore replaced by Hugh McCracken over time. The drummer is Denny Seiwell, who will eventually be part of McCartney's band Wings.

This was like free craftsmen at work. Every day there was excitement to coming to work. Paul just break out a guitar or a piano and he’d sing a song we would do that day. And pfff… you know, each song was better than the day before. (…) Every song that we heard and did, you knew it was going to be timeless. It would withstand some serious amount of time that people would listening to it.
Denny Seiwell





The fifth musician involved is Linda McCartney. Not only is she credited as co-author of six of the album tracks, her background vocals are important to the sound of the album. It is a conscious choice by McCartney to involve Linda. First of all, he needs her support during the rowdy days during The Beatles’ break-up.
McCartney is also looking for a new sound, one that differs significantly from that of The Beatles and a female voice is very different indeed. In addition, he sees it as a challenge to work with Linda, because he'd never worked together with a woman before. There was a certain curiousity how they would sound together. But it was not easy at first:
God, I tell you I worked her on the album. Because she hadn't done a lot, so it was a little bit out of tune. I was not too pleasant to live with, I suppose, then. She was all right; she took it. She understood that it had to be good and you couldn't let any shit through. I gave her a hard time, I must say, but we were pleased with the results; it just meant we really forced it.
Paul McCartney

Most songs are written in the summer of 1970, on the farm of the McCartney's in Scotland. You can hear the influence of rural life on it: on acoustic tracks like 3 Legs and Ram On, the non-album track Hey Diddle (but nowadays available as bonus track), and especially on the country song Heart Of The Country.

Video: Heart Of The Country



The album has a powerful start with the rock-pop song Too Many People, which contains a vengeful attack on John Lennon with the lyrics 'Too many people preaching practices'. It is the time when the two former writing partners attack each other in public. Lennon also sees in other album tracks references to him and Yoko, as in 3 Legs, in Dear Boy and in the lyrics of The Back Seat Of My Car: 'we believe that we can’t be wrong '. The image on the albums back cover, two copulating beetles, also speaks volumes. Lennon will eventually strike back with the hard-wearing How Do You Sleep on his Imagine album.

The weirdest, nevertheless enjoyable, song on RAM is Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey, two half-songs made to one track. McCartney’s choice to release it as a single in the US is already remarkable. But the fact that it also became a number one hit single is slapping. I seriously wonder whether that was the case if the song wasn't released by an ex-Beatle.
At least as remarkable is the choice for the standard rock song Eat At Home as single in a large part of the rest of the world. In my opinion, Eat At Home is the least interesting contribution to RAM. There were many others better suitable as a single. The grooving, classic rock-shuffle Smile Away, for example, or otherwise the absurdistic and rocking Monkberry Moon Delight; A track with one of McCartney's best vocals ever. Otherwise, there are the excellent songs Long Haired Lady and The Back Seat Of My Car. The latter, though, did have a release as a single, but only in the UK.

Video: Making of RAM

With RAM, McCartney has produced a sublime album. Only the press didn’t notice that, back in 1971, most reviews were very negative. And that was mainly due to The Beatles’ break-up, for which McCartney was held responsible. For example, Rolling Stone Magazine published an extraordinary hostile review. The author seems to be an example of a journalist who completely loses his professional ethics because of a personal disappointment, in this case the breakdown of his favorite band.
The core of the criticism in general was that the album was going nowhere, too many different styles on one record. In itself that is true, but variety will prove to be typical of almost all McCartney solo albums; In that sense, RAM is a blueprint for his later work. And in the end, it's just that mix of styles that makes the album so unique.

Video: Eat At Home / Smile Away (live, 1972)



The negative response to the album have had a big impact. On his reputation in general but also on McCartney himself personally. It may have been the reason that he hardly played any of the albums’ tracks live. In 1972, Eat At Home and Smile Away are the only two songs added to the setlist to disappear soon afterwards. It takes until the 2005 US-Tour when a third track get its live debut: Too Many People. And in recent years, he has occasionally played the charming ukulele-tune Ram On, but only on request by the audience.

Video: Too Many People (live, 2005)

It will take years for RAM to get the status it deserves: that of a classic album, which is at least as good as or perhaps even better than McCartney's other classic, Band On The Run. It may have taken a while, but eventually RAM did get that recognition. And when the digitally remastered album was re-released in 2012, even Rolling Stone had to admit that RAM is a special and unique album.

Video: Ram On (live, 2012)




André Homan

André Homan is a Dutch writer and journalist.

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