Saturday, November 07, 2015

my opening chapter for proposed 33 1/3 on Paul & Linda McCartney's Ram, 2015 (rejected)


‘Piss off.’

How many albums (let alone books) start with those words? How likely would anyone be to imagine, for that matter, that an album – a cheery, funny, lively multiplatinum album – by one of the world’s most beloved pop stars would start with those words? Unframed, unattached to anything else, conceptually adrift, nothing at all to do with the rest of the song that kicks off the album (‘Too Many People’), but undeniably there – undeniably except to those billions of people who heard the words, but chose not to hear them. Because that’s not what someone like Paul McCartney would think, say or sing.

It’s just one little beserk component of Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram. But there are a lot more sides to Ram, few mystical, but many mysterious. It’s a multilayered record.  The duo – he the most commercially successful pop composer of his generation, she a completely untested and indeed hitherto unambitious novice – were experimenting with how to write their lives, how to project as role models, which they were whether they wanted it or not, and how to produce pop that was satisfying to them and also their, or rather his, fans. 

Even more than many albums with a life beyond their original few months of initial release, Ram has had a few lives and iterations. There are also (at least) two whole-album covers compilations from the 21st century, which indicate the resilience of the concept. But it’s a lot more than just a wild card LP with an extensive half-life. It’s a multifaceted document that can give the sensitive listener insight into the world of the Beatles, particularly in their post-breakup public trainwreck but also the world of pop in the early 70s as it consolidated its breakthrough from kids’ trivial entertainment to ‘rock’: social commentary and mirror of the counterculture. The album was produced in the context of the Kent State shootings, Ohio’s state guard response to student protests against the invasion of Cambodia; the trial of Charles Manson, who claimed his killing spree was sanctioned through a Paul McCartney song. During its recording, 14 US Army officers were charged over the Mai Lai massacre; an earthquake killed 50 000 in Peru and the painter Mark Rothko killed himself. Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon in the middle of the Ram recordings: a stark illustration of the establishment taking pop music seriously (fifteen years after Elvis was anything like a threat) but also of the co-option of youth rebellion into the conservative heartland. All recaps of 1970 include another crucial, defining moment: the official breakup of the Beatles.  

Ram first came into my life in 1978. I was thirteen, and assiduously gathering a Beatles record collection largely through the purchase of secondhand albums, grabbing what I could on the assumption that (a) I would eventually have them all, so it didn’t really matter the order I acquired them; (b) although Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s book The Beatles: An Illustrated Record – which introduced me to the idea that popular music writing did not always have to be swooning fandom or respectful chin-stroking nods of approval but could also occasionally call out a dud – was broadly a good guide to value in Beatle releases and also often funny, an adolescent schoolboy in Melbourne, Australia did not need or want the same taste as a couple of late twenties New Musical Express writers who’d seen it all a hundred times over; and (c) while you might want Lennon on your side in an argument, Paul McCartney was more fun. I had a materially adequate middle-class life and I was comfortable, too, with what no-one then would have called my feminine side to not feel in any way threatened by syrupy ballads or heavy sensitivity. I saw that McCartney could wear his heart on his sleeve, and that was gutsy. I liked punk and would come to love what we now call postpunk - that was really the music of my generation – but I recognized a spirit of artistic inquiry when I saw it. I felt then, as I feel now, that McCartney was trying for, and often getting to, that sweet spot where he could be artistically fulfilled and connect with much of the rest of the world, too. That was admirable.

Ram ticked all the boxes, on quite a few levels (Carr and Tyler hated it, but then, they also hated Yoko Ono). It was a pop album and who’s worth knowing who doesn’t love pop? It was so riddled with ideas that no fewer than four tracks morphed into variations or new songs before your very ears. It had the requisite number of weird noises, strange notions and, of course, like many of the ex-Beatles’ records, it was part of the long strange unresolvable mess of largely antipathetic communications amongst themselves which made you feel half like you were privy to juicy scandal and half like you were on the other side of a thin wall.

But what Ram has which could not be in dispute (except for those who could not hear it, like that ‘piss off’) was amazing songwriting. ‘Dear Boy’, sonically a tribute to the Beach Boys but lyrically the most extraordinary tightrope walk between sensitivity and schadenfreude imaginable: addressed to Linda’s first husband, Joseph Melville See (not, as some thought, to John Ono Lennon) it finds Paul commiserating, but perhaps also just slightly berating, See for failing to… sorry but it has to be said… see the value of Linda. In 1963 he’d effectively abandoned Linda and their young daughter Heather to travel and study in Africa for a year, his negligence killing the marriage. The story goes that he never forgave himself – but that he maintained a cordial relationship with the McCartneys ever after.

It has the spectacular ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’, psychedelia’s last gasp and Paul McCartney’s first number one hit, in a post-Beatles incarnation; almost an album’s worth of musical ideas in itself this track, clashing concepts and references, some of them harsh and troublesome, some of them high camp, all inventive and effective; it’s a patchwork of melodies and silliness that works because of its own crash or crash through exuberance. That line about the butter not melting, so the singer put it in a pie still raises the hairs on the back of my neck, largely because I find it so silly – indeed, I might almost say ‘stupid’. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work, and that Herb Alpert-esque trumpet line cures anything.

Those were Paul and Linda compositions. Of Paul’s own, there’s ‘Back Seat of My Car’ – a paean to teenage sex and driving, a theme he would return to a few years later on one of the more raucous Wings singles, ‘Helen Wheels.’ Here, Paul and his date – you can’t help but imagine it as him and Linda half their lives ago, even though they’d only known each other three years – are triumphant against the grim forebodings of a conservative, fearful world who tell them in voices that sound like someone’s put their finger on the record to drag it down slower and more stentorian – ‘making love is wrong.’ As if!

Those are three of today’s favourites. But there is, in fact, not a dud track anywhere on Ram. Perhaps, in a way, it’s self-indulgent, but it’s self-indulgence by people who not only accept their fame and celebrity – unavoidable – but also the good fortune they have, to be welcomed into a million homes as entertainers and, in some strange way, role models. If the whole world really only wanted the Beatles to reform, well, that wasn’t going to happen in a hurry (forty-five years later, we know it was never going to happen at all) and in the meantime, the McCartneys welcomed the world – ‘piss off’ or no ‘piss off’ – into (a version of) their partnership. There was some arrogance to this album, and its stance, but then – if you know something’s great, how arrogant are you really being by acknowledging that mere fact?

When I began working on this study of Ram and the way it fits into the story of the western world’s political, social and cultural 1970s, I suddenly found myself surrounded by messages from my own universe that confirmed that the McCartneys and their story continue to be relevant. I had to wonder whether these were ubiquitous but I was just suddenly spotting them now, because I was thinking about Ram.  One night on facebook two friends – people I don’t know terribly well, from different spheres of my life, and who certainly don’t know each other – spontaneously posted on Paul McCartney within an hour of each other. One simply posted Paul’s 2013 song with the surviving members of Nirvana, ‘Cut Me Some Slack’, and suggested that anyone who thought McCartney was irrelevant in the 21st century had to listen to this (I agree). Another was apparently moved by the spirit of the times to proclaim:

Excuse me, but why do so many "hate" Paul McCartney??? I don't get it. WHY??? It is the same as people who hate Yoko ... WHY??? I love them both.. and they are supposedly responsible for breaking the Beatles up.. even though it is NOT true.. . That only meant the Beatles all brought out great solo records..!!!
So WHY the hatred to Paul ... and YOKO??
But that energy into something more constructive..
PS George is my favourite Beatle.
just saying.

Facebook is, of course, a dynamic thing that panders to any hints you give it. So, unmysteriously, these posts (and my benign responses to them) dislodged a piece of detritus I’d forgotten about from a few months earlier when my friend Barry had posted an image of the cover of the Ram album with my face over Paul’s and one of my beagles’ – also Barry, no relation – over the ram in question. This also suddenly appeared in my timeline again. The universe, it seems, was coming together to celebrate a venerable septuagenarian whose past still resonated for many, and whose current work still struck a chord for new fans; and the labour of love he created with a genuine soul mate whose worth he never underestimated or took for granted (and, from all reports, vice-versa).

1971 was a good year for diversity and adventure in popular music: the beginnings of decades often are, particularly once the grip of the old recedes, hyperbole drops away and society looks forward to how to encapsulate or typify the spirit of the new. But the 70s themselves were also an extraordinary and wonderful (in the sense of: full of wonder) decade; the era seemed, to many at the time, to be a shallow echo of the revolutionary 60s, two steps forward, six steps back – to purloin from the Gang of 4’s own caustic song from the other end of the 70s, ‘At Home He’s a Tourist’. History is not, however, about how people were wrong or where they ended up. It’s also about what they thought, felt, believed, did and how they responded. Ram is an early seventies album, British-written, New York-recorded; like the McCartneys themselves, it’s a blend of two cultures (each culture itself a hybrid, multifaceted culture). The album can reveal volumes about the time it was made in, and its own creation to that time can be tracked in numerous ways.

The ‘piss off’, by the way, was Paul saying it was easy as pie, a deliberate non-sequiteur. The joke – such as it was – was, it seems, ‘Piss off, cake.’ He explained, long after the fact, ‘a piece of cake becomes piss off cake, and it's nothing.’[i] But Ram is a lot more than that: memoir, philosophy, diarizing, satire, surrealism, retribution, commentary; all to freewheeling, esoteric music often evoking the past (be it Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys or even the Beatles) but aiming squarely at being a part of 1971 and into the future. It only looked like a piss off cake.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

today was a write off

When you live 18, 415 days as I presently have (since birth), I guess you have to have days that are write-offs and you have to be philofreakin'sophical about them. This morning I set off to take Barry and Ferdie to the Beagle Club of Victoria walk at Gardiner's Creek. We went on Citylink - so, through the tunnel under the Yarra, etc - three mins after getting off the freeway at Warrigal Road, and five minutes before getting to our destination (we were making excellent time, we had twenty minutes to spare) the gauge on the radiator went literally through the roof. I pulled over and waited, then started driving and bingo a minute later it happened again. I pulled into a side street and called RACV. The guy came quite quickly (about 20 mins, after a warning that he might take up to 90). He was great! He quickly deduced it was the water pump, which had packed it in.
Look I am a glass half full person everyone knows it and it accounts for my cheery disposition. I have to be glad (1) the pump didn't pack it in in the tunnel, for instance, or on any part of the freeway. I also have to be glad that (2) when it did pack it in, the head gasket, whatever that is, didn't explode or whatever they do. Etc. 
Anyway basically we had to get the car towed and the picture above is Barry being alpha dog and Ferdie just giving up on ever having fun again, but at least lying down in the shade. Having these two was another issue, because without a car I'd have to get them back to Broady somehow. It was 20 mins walk to Homesglen Station which I was actually willing to do but the RACV man said that I was entitled to a pet taxi (did you know there was such a thing?) and so I said OK, because I like being entitled, and now I suppose that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey are no longer in power, the age of entitlement is back back back. However, I didn't want to get the pet taxi until the tow truck came, and when the tow truck came (took an hour) that guy said he didn't mind the dogs travelling in the tow truck, so...

that is what happened. They were not exactly thrilled about being in another vehicle, but they managed, except Barry drooled a lot. I didn't want to get drool on the tow truck driver's seats so, me and Barry being pretty close, I took the responsibility to capture his drool in my hand and rub it on his head.
I did that.
I'm going to cut a long story short because that wasn't really even half of what happened. But it's all I have pictures of. And I'm not avoiding telling you anything interesting, it was just a really drawn out process. I did enjoy spending time with Ferdie and Barry though and they were, all things considered, pretty well behaved. It's such a shame we missed the BCOV walk though. I had grand plans to video it etc. But in truth, getting out my half-full glass again, if the water pump was going to pack it in, I'm glad it did it before we got to the walk, rather than after, I'd probably still be waiting there now (at 9:20). Phew.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

lost gem

It’s getting a little warmer in the day-to-day but after a rather spruce weekend it’s grey and rainy again. I have a very ambivalent attitude to warm/hot weather not unlike my attitude to drinking and drunks, bands playing music, and awards ceremonies: a little bit is OK but it’s when it becomes relentless that I can’t take it anymore. So, the beginning of spring is fine by me, even though I know there’s going to be something to endure. But I was pretty sick for quite a long time in those very cold winter days, and at that time I did really wish for a break from the frigidity, so I suppose I should try to be philosophical for once.

I have just been eating bagels all day. At work there is a farmers market on Wednesdays and I bought bagels, some freshly picked lettuce and some goats cheese not unlike brie, and that’s all I’ve eaten. I don’t know if that was a good idea or not or even if it was an idea but just something that happened – but I think there are worse things to experience. I have two bagels left: one rye, one everything. I like both types equally but everything seems very decadent.

This morning, I strung together five chords to make another song, so I am actually literally writing songs. It is so weird after fifty years of not doing this, to be doing it, and I’d recommend it to everyone except that I want to hear your friggin’ amateurish stupid songs about as much as you want to hear mine. When I say songs anyway I just mean tunes. And when I say tunes, I suspect they’re tunes in my head but they may not be in yours. So this morning I strung five chords together, but I could not get the change to the B7 right, which meant every time I went into the chorus I messed up and had to start again, and that affected my confidence, and ultimately I abandoned the attempt. Irritatingly after that I had the tune in my head for ages, but it’s gone now. I think it probably wasn’t good, like I had earlier decided, but that it was just the repetition of trying to play it over and over for an hour or so that got it stuck in my head. I have the chords written down but I won’t be able to remember the structure – probably for the best.

However, playing guitar is really fun and I am not going to stop now. You have been warned.

Monday, September 14, 2015

abandoned opener to book chapter on Neighbours...

...all refs to Mad Men now removed...

During a midyear bout of flu I rediscovered a lapsed subscription to Netflix and the opportunity – so rare in the fractured daily life of an academic – to binge-watch Mad Men’s season 6. I consumed it avidly: it’s a great show, with some spectacular twists and super dialogue.

Yet, I have to say that this program, in which I have invested around 60 hours of passive viewing time since 2007 is, at its core, a soap. Yes, it’s a commentary on past and present, gender roles and media, and its ambience is alluring. But however fine Bob Benson looks in his very impressive suits, or however cunningly aligned this penultimate season is with the shootings of Bobby Kennedy and MLK (as all seasons are mapped across significant events in US history) we are still at least as engaged with Don Draper’s sneaking into his downstairs neighbour’s bed, or for that matter into his former wife Betty’s at a summer camp. The sets look great however much they change – and the Mad Men cast members are rarely seen outdoors – but over prolonged viewing, the show becomes a cavalcade of sexual advances rebuffed or welcomed, of subterfuge and intrigue, and hedging and elision. Mad Men is a ‘quality soap’, but it’s still a soap.

What, then, sets it apart from a more run-of-the-mill, far more workaday series like Neighbours, now in its thirtieth year? No doubt, it is the putative realism of Mad Men, the abovementioned historical accuracy and the social commentary through which the program shows us (or at least, Americans) where they are now, by revealing where they have come from. Neighbours is not historical drama, except in the sense that it has mapped, year after year, changing mores – and then ‘mapped’ in the most lagging, conservative sense, waiting until all other chips have fallen before it dares make an innovative move.

To compare Neighbours and Mad Men (or other longform episodic series, traditionally produced to fill hour-long slots in batches of 12 to 13 a year) is of course to compare forms only superficially similar. Neighbours has no overall arc as Mad Men was always assumed to; there is no end in sight for Neighbours, and for that matter no central character to have endured the program. Stefan Dennis’ Paul Robinson appeared in the first show – in a nappy, no less – but Dennis, and Paul, were absent from the series from 1992 to 2004; Ian Smith’s Harold Bishop and Tom Oliver’s Lou Carpenter both began in the show a few years after its debut – in 1987 and 1988 respectively - but are now only infrequently seen, if at all.  Karl and Susan Kennedy, played by Alan Fletcher and Jackie Woodburne, are ostensibly the long-running ‘parents’ of the show (since 199*), a role consolidated by the 2015 opening credits which see the two standing, arm in arm, in the sac of Ramsay Street before the viewer’s eye is hoist into the sky for a view of the street layout, its radiant houses assembled around the central asphalt. 

...Have to get this finished in a few weeks but Mad Men just got in the way. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015


I can't remember if I mentioned this but I have been taking guitar lessons for the last year or so. I am learning on an electric guitar, an Epiphone, and what can I say, like a number of new skills I have developed over the last few decades I find it has a very agreeable effect on me, when I hit the 'sweet spot'. 
My guitar teacher, Neil, is patient and good-humoured most of the time - a lot more than I would be in his place, I'm sure, although I imagine more likely in this kind of game, where the only real danger is that the student will just quit, it's the first couple of weeks or months when people walk away, but once you've got them for perhaps six or 12 months, they're committed. Which is probably a good thing because then the only way for them to go is forward, although really I have absolutely no idea whether I am capable, only that I am better than I was. Also, that (performance anxiety?) I am far less able to do things under his gaze than I am on my own. But I guess there are a few reasons for that - one is that when I'm alone I can convince myself I'm doing the right things, also that I only really do what interests me when I'm practicing, and also that yes, I find it unnerving to be scrutinised particularly in matters of hand-eye-mind co-ordination. It's amazing when you do things like type all day, and can for instance pick up an apple or pat a dog, that your fingers are actually much less able to place themselves in the right places than you thought they would be. Last Friday I was trying to get my little finger to obey me on the 5th string, and wow, it really wasn't going there. As I said to Neil, perhaps insensitively considering I don't know what his experience is of stroke victims and it was a bit offhanded, I felt like a stroke victim i.e. I was concentrating on simply getting a few random little muscles to do something that it never would have occurred to me would be problematic. 
But, then you get better at these things (never as good as you want to be, but better than you were a few months ago) and you feel great about it. 
I recall how I felt about learning to drive. Before I could drive, I assumed you just turned the car on, made it go and steered. I now appreciate that that is just one thing that's happening while you do all the other things. Well, playing the guitar I suppose apart from anything else makes me appreciate the great skill and ability of all the people around me who I intellectually knew had to have skill to play the guitar and not just play it but get good things out of playing it. I intellectually knew it. But I couldn't really see how it could be so hard and why it wasn't that easy. Now I do. I also know how little I know. 

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

'grabs dick'

So about 25 years ago, when I was about 25, I played drums with Crabstick, which was genuinely an amazingly great band, with more ideas a minute than almost any group you've heard of. i had one or two of the ideas but not many of them. Mainly it was James, Danny and Michael (yes, it was a boy band). Anyway there was a four-song tribute compilation done recently and I was asked to contribute the cover art (and also to give permission for the originals of the songs to be included on the tribute, which it was not within my capacity to do) and I painted this picture and suggested the title 'grabs dick'. IDK.

I have a few copies if you want one.