The jaunty cry sounds like “piss off, yeah,” or possibly “kiss-off, hey!” Either would be appropriate.
That’s Paul McCartney on “Too Many People,” the opening song on his first classic album without the Beatles. It was this period where he was smeared by critics and derided by his famous former songwriting partner. This debut for McCartney included a scattershot collection of quasi-demos. Its release coincided with the breakup of the world’s biggest band, and Paul hadn’t sounded that lonely since “Yesterday.” A year later, he had backup, and that distant opening horn on an album bluntly titled “Ram” sounded like a call to arms.
It still does. “Too many people, goin’ underground / too many reaching for that piece of cake,” McCartney yelps, and it’s hard not to think of the lackluster “mindie” bands now flocking to capitalize on indie rock’s commercial clout. Bands left of the dial owe something to McCartney’s first three albums, which seem to slowly be getting the respect they deserve. McCartney, Ram and the Wings debut Wild Life all amble along with imperfect sprawl but enough cracked gold to remind you this is still the man who wrote “Penny Lane.” If “Ram” was a blow to the Beatles brand, it certainly was good enough for generations of warts-and-all songwriters. It’s hard to imagine a wealth of shambling indie pop – from Beat Happening to Of Montreal to Tune-Yards – existing without “Ram’ as an ancestor (throw Spoon’s “Written In Reverse” in the middle of a Ram playlist, and the beat goes on).
The album is credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, and the liner notes featuring a scruffy Paul enjoying domestic comfort underscore how he took a phrase like “bringing it all back home” literally. But despite co-writing half the album’s songs, Linda’s limelight here is that of a glorified session musician compared to her husband. Her marble-mouth backing vocals chime in whenever the song needs a lift, but make no mistake: this is Paul’s show. Ram is him finally letting his hair down, albeit in favor of playful taunts and barnyard boogie instead of the split-gut diaries of John Lennon’s similarly unmasked “Plastic Ono Band.”
With subsequent listens, what initially seems like a whimsical approach reveals itself as a criminally unappreciated weirdness. “Ram” wasn’t the beginning of Macca’s oddball streak, and it surely wasn’t the end. As someone who was messing with tape loops and going to art shows when the supposedly “edgy” Lennon was getting fat in the suburbs, McCartney has made a number of challenging detours throughout his career (“the Fireman“’s ambient electronica, the Twin Freaks project, “McCartney II”).
But even in the heat of post-Beatles acrimony, he sounds too busy having fun to be bitter about how history was already writing the story of his band. When he’s not throwing a grinning barb Lennon’s way, he’s trying on as many hats as possible – and in no small feat, he actually pulls this shit off. His cavalcade of voices pepper the songs, which veer wildly from innocuous island music (“Ram On,” twice) to prim piano pop (“Dear Boy”) and pounding, feverish blues (the surrealist “Monkberry Moon Delight,” one verse of which starts with “Well, I know my banana is older than the rest…”). When he says “try some of this, honey” near the end of “Monkberry,” you want in. He even gets freaky on the sex romp “Eat at Home.” All you need is love? Not even. For breakfast in bed, all you need is one chorus, one verse and a particularly bad case of Norwegian wood.
For all its ramshackle charm, “Ram” shows a flair for widescreen grandiosity – the swelling strings in the middle of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”’s first section, the slow-motion chorus of “Long Haired Lady” that could easily soundtrack a montage in a Paul Thomas Anderson film. It’s an indication that he would soon reclaim his crown with statements like Band on the Run that sounded like Sgt. Pepper for supper clubs.
Ram is the newest in a series of McCartney reissues of varying necessity. As far as the extras are concerned, it falls in the middle of these newly minted versions, offering eight non-album cuts but little of note other than the non-album single “Another Day / Oh Woman, Oh Why” and the insight that Paul somehow resisted the urge to put a song called “Great Cock and Seagull Race” on the finished product. These handful of jams are worth a listen, but the standard version – the original 12 songs, remastered – is the one you want. Four decades after its release, Ram kicks more than ever.