Nearly everything written about Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram at the time of its release in 1971 strikes me as utter twaddle. In his crushing review of the post-Beatles release, John Landau – who would later serve as Bruce Springsteen’s manager – described the effort as not only representing the “nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far” but of being “emotionally vacuous”. I would posit that it’s actually far more joyful than anything the Beatles ever released.
For listeners at the time, Ram was coloured by the dramatic fallout of The Beatles. It is perhaps for this reason McCartney chose to open the album with ‘Too Many People’, a scathing critique of former bandmate John Lennon. He clearly wanted to address the bad blood between the pair but also wanted to get it out of the way as quickly as possible. Landau, meanwhile, can’t seem to let it go, leading to an immediate distrust of the musician’s efforts. For the critic, everything McCartney does is self-indulgent or boring or false. It is, in his eyes, the very antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s ‘Muzak’, elevator music for an era degrading the sanctity of popular music.
In retrospect, Landau’s criticism seems like the work of someone unable to accept that (to quote Withnail and I) “the greatest decade in the history of mankind is over” and that times must inevitably change. You’d think someone paid to write about music for a living would be a little more open-minded, but apparently not. With an appropriate amount of distance from us and the 1970s Ram ripples with experimentalism. From the ramshackle lo-fi of ‘Ram On’ to the loop-based minimalism of ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ and beyond, there’s a palpable sense that Paul is intentionally refusing to conform to a single concept, something The Beatles turned into an art form. McCartney seems to have recognised that forcing one’s music to adhere to an overall concept is an innately commercialising act, reminding us that, as much as music lovers like to celebrate innovation, they also want that innovation to hold a recognisable form. Ram, on the other hand, revels in defying categorisation. It wriggles between genres, exploding them into one another in a constant barrage of reinvention.
McCartney’s 1971 offering belies an artist both unconcerned with looking inward and bored by the idea of crafting the perfect pop song. All he seems to have been interested in was crafting the most joyful, rambunctious and uninhibited music he could muster. There’s a notable lack of ego in Ram. At no point do we feel McCartney’s inner editor coughing in the corner. Rather, each of Ram’s 12 songs exists purely on its own term, evoking the warped architecture of some labyrinthine manor house, where spiral staircases lead to nowhere and trap doors appear beneath your feet.
Ram also includes some of McCartney’s most immersive and unnerving lyrics. While ‘Uncle Albert’ and ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’ betray the influence of Lennon’s anarchic surrealism, the likes of ‘Smile Away’ carry the same melancholy that made ‘Elenor Rigby’ so intoxicating. In ‘Smile Away’, McCartney paints a picture of a smiling fool, whose constant affability disguises black teeth and terrible breath, hinting toward the artificiality of life within the music industry and the corrosive power of fame. On the surface, ‘3 Legs’ seems almost quaint until you realise all the animals he’s singing about three-legged dogs and horses that are mutilated and deformed. In both cases, McCartney evokes a rosy surface world underpinned by a grotesque subterranean reality.
Even ‘Monkberry Moon Delight’, the most Pythonesque song on the whole album, betrays McCartney’s fragile mental state following the Beatles’ split. Recalling that period, McCartney said: “I was going through a bad time, what I suspect was almost a nervous breakdown. I remember lying awake at nights shaking, which has not happened to me since. I had so much in me that I couldn’t express, and it was just very nervy times, very difficult.”
When he sings “So I stood with a knot in my stomach/ And I gazed at that terrible sight/ Of two youngsters concealed in a barrel,” one that’s the sense that this is a man using music to haul himself out of a cavernous pit. And it is this intense juxtaposition between high and low – both in emotional and artistic terms – that makes Ram such a rewarding listen. It’s one of those albums that contains three or four versions of Paul, all of whom are engaged in a dialogue with one another. It was what made The Beatles so brilliant, and it lived on with Paul.