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.
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.