“I thought it was awful! McCartney was better because at least there were some tunes on it, like ‘Junk’.” – John Lennon
Despite that cutting statement from John Lennon, Paul McCartney’s 1971 classic album Ram has long been regarded as some of the former Beatle’s most inspired work, highlighting that though it may not have been to Lennon’s taste when McCartney let his imagination run wild, there was no telling the heights he could reach. But, listening now some 50 years later, how does Ram stand up?
Trying to realign an album from 50 years ago with the attitudes and sounds of today is pretty difficult. After all, noting the ambience of the album’s inception is difficult enough to gauge at the time of release, let alone five decades later. Luckily, for Ram and Paul McCartney fans, it is easy to see the life the singer was leading at the time and how it bled into one of his most potent works. In 1971 when the LP was released, the album was poorly received, but now it feels more vital than ever.
It followed not only a similarly deflated record in McCartney – a piece which has since been given the ample credit it deserved – but arguably one of the most acrimonious moments in McCartney’s career thus far. A year on from the demise of The Beatles, Macca and the group were in the middle of their embittered legal battles as they tried to carve up the Beatle empire. With a lambasted debut album and the other three members of the Beatles not only facing him in a court fracas but were doing better than he was with their solo work.
George Harrison had flown out the traps with his album All Things Must Pass, which not only took shots at McCartney but proved Harrison had been held back for far too long. Likewise, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band had only worked to further establish Lennon as the vicious voice of his generation, even if it did arrive before the Beatles disbandment. A reprieve of isolation in Scotland had seen McCartney begin his decade-spanning self-titled trilogy with McCartney, but it didn’t get close to matching the output of the others. With that in mind, McCartney set about creating his most expansive record to date; Ram.
The record not only saw Paul invite his wife Linda McCartney onto the record, effectively beginning Wings in the process, but also saw the singer lay down a blueprint that would eventually help build some of the most notable genres around. You can trace everything from Britpop to pure jangle indie back to this record. What started as a piece of pure pop innovation would provide a sure footing for a host of other groups to spring from. What’s more, despite the slight conceptualisation, the album largely reads like a confessional moment in Macca’s life. It was an album where he not only provided some fantastical music hall numbers, the kind that inherently beat in the heart of McCartney, but also provide some scathing reflections of the world around him. In fact, the best moments of the album come in these reflections.
One Ram track acts as the perfect distillation of McCartney’s life in 1971. Having split from his familial band in The Beatles, Macca was now public enemy number one after bearing most of the blame for the disbandment of the most famous band in the world. It wasn’t something McCartney was prepared to take lying down. So as a retort to Lennon’s continued flouting of his talent, McCartney wrote a song aimed directly at John. “That was your first mistake/You took your lucky break and broke it in two,” he snorts in ‘Too Many People’. “He’d been doing a lot of preaching, and it got up my nose a little bit,” McCartney said in 1984. Somehow McCartney manages to take a swipe at his former writing partner through one of his sweeter melodies that perhaps hinted at the vulnerability behind the attack.
In another song about his former partner, McCartney showed his vulnerable status as he escaped London for New York on ‘Three Legs’. There is more than enough content here to suggest that this song is more keenly aimed at the entirety of the band. After all, each member of the group had seemingly fallen out with McCartney at one point or another. But there is also a hefty amount of referencing to John as his “friend” within the lyrics.
The duo had been working together for over a decade and seen all the highs the world had to offer. Now, McCartney was being cast as the outsider, and he wasn’t pleased about it. He let John Lennon and the rest of the band know about it on ‘Three Legs’. There is also more than a suggestion of the same style on ‘Smile Away’; however, it seems a little too general to lay at Lennon’s feet, even if it does bear a few of the similarly disdainful hallmarks. Of course, it wasn’t just about the past; it hinted at a bright future too.
It would be McCartney’s first post-Beatles number one and will go down in history as one of his most beloved tracks — ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’. Much of Ram was lambasted by John Lennon, but even he liked this experimental number. Ironically, it is arguably the closest vision of McCartney’s “granny” music on the record, proving that even Lennon knew there was a place for the pop pomp. The reason for its success in comparison to the rest of the record is perhaps because it sounded very much like the Fab Four. An orchestral arrangement provided by George Martin and the New York Philharmonic helped to elaborate the track written about Macca’s real-life uncle.
It showed that not only did Paul McCartney know what his output would be like following the break-up of the Beatles, with the songwriter now free to indulge himself in whatever facet of musicianship he wished, but it is also regarded as the first indie-pop album of all time.
Depending on your disposition, that may or may not please you. But, either way, there is no denying that Paul McCartney’s Ram is a seminal moment in musical history.
So, is McCartney’s Ram as loved today as it was in 1971? No. It is respected, revered and, ultimately, adored far more.