Paul McCartney, when laying down the Ram sessions in the early 1970s, was partially preoccupied with the Beatles breakup. So was George Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass would come out the same year, 1971. Both albums are said to contain material meant for the Beatles, but Paul, as the one suing for the band’s dissolution, was also the one in violation of his Beatles contract by using his material for non-Beatles purposes. That’s why the album is credited to “Paul and Linda McCartney,” and just because no one believed him doesn’t mean he didn’t get away with it.
All Things Must Pass is regarded as the better album, and deservedly so. But give Paul credit: he was busy saving the Beatles from the tax man–or, at least, from what their manager could take before the tax man sliced his cut. Which is kind of the same thing, on the back end. Much earlier in their careers, Paul had saved George from “Taxman,” too. It’s my favorite Paul story, and it’s told not nearly often enough. It comes from Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, who would end up working with Paul again later on with Wings, and who’d been present in the studio when George was struggling to realize the ambitious guitar part he’d written for himself on “Taxman.” After a couple hours with this struggle, producer George Martin approached Harrison and, “as diplomatically as possible,” according to Emerick, “announced that he wanted Paul to have a go at the solo instead.
I could see from the look on Harrison’s face that he didn’t like the idea one bit, but he reluctantly agreed and then proceeded to disappear for a couple of hours. [...] Paul’s solo was stunning in its ferocity–his guitar had a fire and energy that his younger bandmate’s rarely matched–and was accomplished in just a take or two. It was so good, in fact, that George Martin had me fly it in again during the song’s fadeout.
I think about this every time I listen to “Taxman”–every single time. And whenever anyone questions McCartney’s authenticity (which is to say, often), I think of how Paul came from much tougher circumstances than any of the Stones ever did, and that he even got into the avant garde art movement well before any of the other Beatles. His musical virtuosity is amply attested to in the anecdote above, and his knack for soulful whimsy has been unfairly maligned as panglossian optimism. So Ram is not All Things Must Pass–what the hell is? The good news is, there’s time in life to listen to the both of them, and now that Ram has been re-issued, the rationle for not doing so has never been thinner.
The crown jewel of the entire album–in fact, one of the crown jewels of McCartney’s entire career–is “Monkberry Moon Delight.” I put this song right up there with “Mrs. Vanderbilt” (from Band on the Run; 1973) as an absolutely perfect piece of songcraft that can hang out with anything McCartney did with the Beatles. By its title, you’d think it were about a rejected Ben & Jerry’s flavor, except that they didn’t have Ben & Jerry’s back then, so it must mean something else. Just what it could possibly mean is a matter of much speculation. Some say it’s an allegory for what fame did to the McCartney-Lennon partnership. However serious its intent, the song seems to revel in the arrant goofiness of its own lyric. It’s like “Vanderbilt” and “The Fool on the Hill” that way, two other serious songs that refuse to let themselves be suffocated by their seriousness, thereby giving their seriousness full respiration and expression. McCartney not only submits to the strength of the song’s silliness here, but allows the power behind that strength to propel him into a realm of dramatic intensity, growling the refrains like the refrains are God’s own gospel. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, anywhere.
If McCartney isn’t in fact singing about Lennon on “Monkberry Moon Dellight,” then he’s certainly singing about him on “Too Many People.” McCartney himself has always confirmed it. One of his lines from that song–”You took your lucky break and broke it in two”–would be directly addressed by Lennon on “How Do You Sleep,” from Imagine (also 1971), whose inner sleeve came with an image satirizing the very cover of Ram. It’s pretty funny, too, I think you’ll agree:
But the charms of Ram go beyond one great song and an entertaining episode of feuding Beatles. “Dear Boy” is another flawless gem of bittersweet bluesiness, and so is “Another Day.” Lennon thought that first one was in fact about him, and that the second was just another example of what he’d previously derided, upon release of McCartney’s first, eponymous solo album the year before, as “Engelbert Humperdinck music.” The charge is no fairer here than it was when Lennon expressed a similar contempt for “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” back in the Beatles days. Anyway, even the middle tier of songs on Ram have moments of genuine greatness: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” ”Ram On,” “Long Haired Lady,” “3 Legs,” “Oh Woman, Oh Why.”
Even if I can’t sympathize with the prominent comic-musician who recently declared that Ram “will always be my favorite album ever,” it definitely deserves a reputation better than the one it’s received. It’s funny, though, because Fred Armisen evidently has bought all the way into the Paul-and-Linda co-credit ruse, as well as the photos inside meant to show the album was made by a bunch of friends just jamming in their basement, when in fact Ram is the product of pure-professional studio-musicianship. “It almost sounds like he did it mostly at home….,” Armisen enthuses. “He didn’t rely on fancy musicians in the studio. It seems like it was just people who were close to him.”
That sounds about right: all his career, people had been mistaking simplicity for authenticity, and complexity for its opposite–you can’t blame Paul McCartney for trying to fool them according to their own confused terms.Last Updated: 06/03/12 20:44