CHICAGO — Paul McCartney’s “Ram,” reissued last week in five different packages, sure didn’t receive this kind of love upon its 1971 release.
“‘Ram’ represents the nadir in the decomposition of ‘60s rock thus far,” Jon Landau, who would go on to proclaim Bruce Springsteen “rock ‘n’ roll’s future” and become the Boss’ manager/producer, wrote in his Rolling Stone review. Calling the ex-Beatle’s second album “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant,” Landau had seen McCartney’s future without John Lennon and didn’t like it.
“(I)t is by now apparent that Lennon held the reins in on McCartney’s cutsie-pie, florid attempts at pure rock muzak,” Landau wrote. “He was there to keep McCartney from going off the deep end that leads to an album as emotionally vacuous as ‘Ram.’”
Easygoing Beatles drummer Ringo Starr lamented to Britain’s Melody Maker that the album lacked one decent tune before concluding: “He seems to be going strange.” But the harshest critique came from Lennon, who, feeling the sting of McCartney’s lawsuit against him and the other two Beatles and what he perceived as shots at him and wife Yoko Ono in “Ram,” fired back on his album “Imagine” a few months later.
A postcard insert depicted Lennon clutching a pig in mimicry of McCartney’s “Ram” cover pose with his title animal. More devastating was the song “How Do You Sleep?” with George Harrison acting as accomplice on slide guitar as Lennon tore apart his former songwriting partner, concluding (in echo of Landau): “The sound you make is Muzak to my ears. You must have learned something in all those years.”
McCartney, who threw a wide array of production tricks at “Ram” after his homespun debut, “McCartney,” seemed to take the criticisms to heart. From his mid-’70s arena tours through the present day, the only “Ram” song I can find that he has performed is “Too Many People.” He has never played the album’s sole hit single, the wackily scene-shifting “Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey.”
So how did this album, officially credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, become worthy of multiple re-releases that include a $94 (on Amazon.com) box set with four CDs, one DVD, a 112-page book, handwritten lyric sheet facsimiles, a folder of 8×10 photos and a flip book of photos of McCartney and sheep called, yes, “A Small Book of Sheep”?
For one, it’s a strong sign that in this age of digital music, there remains a yearning for physical representations of the music. Aside from the book, “Ram” is available as a single CD (just the remastered album), a double CD plus DVD (the album, a bonus-tracks disc and a DVD featuring a short documentary about the making of the album and a few home-movie song videos) and two vinyl versions (stereo and limited-edition mono). You also can buy a lithograph and T-shirts on McCartney’s website.
McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (with Wings), “McCartney” and “McCartney II” have received this archival treatment, as have classic albums by Pink Floyd (the “Immersion” packages for “The Wall,” “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” will set you back more than $100 apiece) and U2 (last year’s “Achtung Baby” Super Deluxe Edition includes six CDs, four DVDs, a book and art prints, and it sells for more than $140). Sales figures for these lavish packages are hard to come by because, a Nielsen SoundScan representative said, the labels tend to report all of the configurations under a single title, so you can’t break out how each version did.
The “Achtung Baby” set, which didn’t come out concurrent with other packages, has sold close to 10,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which also reports that the combined “Band on the Run” reissues have sold 103,000 copies, “McCartney” 37,000 and “McCartney II” 23,000.
With “Ram” it helps that, 41 years after its release, it has risen in reputation so that a sizable number of folks now consider it the best solo Beatles album. Two “Ram” tribute albums came out in 2009.
Context makes a big difference. When “Ram” was released, people were awaiting the first big musical statement from the guy who had recently given them “Let It Be” and that breathtaking closing “Abbey Road” medley. What they got was a quirky hodgepodge of songs, only one of which was topical (and that one, “Too Many People,” ripped on Lennon for political posturing), and many of which were downright silly, from the “butter pie” and jaunty changes of “Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey” to the smelly feet and teeth of “Smile Away” to his maniacal screeching of “Monkberry Moon Delight.”
Instead of offering grand visions for a new decade, McCartney celebrated the simple life of “Heart of the Country” (a charming acoustic number that Landau detested) and crafted a Buddy Holly-esque rocker around the virtues of eating at home, all while his non-pro wife sings alongside him. This was an ex-Beatle having fun in the studio; you can hear him channeling his inner Brian Wilson on the orchestral sprawl of “The Back Seat of My Car” and the gorgeous layered harmonies of “Dear Boy,” a song that McCartney, in the “Ramming” documentary short, says was about Linda McCartney’s ex-husband and not, as was widely believed, Lennon.
And Ringo was wrong; the album is chock full of strong tunes, which make McCartney’s 1977 all-instrumental, Bacharach-tinged version of the album (“Thrillington,” released under the pseudonym Percy “Thrills” Thrillington and included in the box set) surprisingly listenable as well as a hoot. The man is a goof.
It’s too bad the box doesn’t include the album’s loopy “Now hear this …” promos or demos/ alternate takes of “Ram” songs or “Ram”-session recordings that wound up on subsequent albums, such as “Red Rose Speedway” highlights “Get on the Right Thing” and “Little Lamb Dragonfly.” The five non-B-side bonus tracks are even more ragged than what made the final cut (particularly the almost-nine-minute screaming rave-up “Rode All Night”), and the mono mix offers interesting contrasts, such as the echo on the “Monkberry Moon Delight” vocals.
As it turns out, well-crafted, melodic pop, even when executed loosely and having little deep to say, holds up over the years, certainly better than the sloganeering of Lennon’s 1971 single “Power to the People” (though not, of course, “Imagine”). “Band on the Run” would become McCartney’s most accomplished album two years later, but “Ram” boasts an anything-goes creative spirit that evokes that giddy, hazy era of early ’70s pop.
Rolling Stone certainly has reconsidered its position, giving the reissue 4 1/2 out of 5 stars. Landau, on the phone from Berlin before Springsteen’s show Wednesday night, also has mellowed.
“The passage of time allows for not hearing things in the present moment, the present context, the expectations of the moment,” he said. “It makes room for a bigger point of view. I don’t remember what I wrote in the slightest, but I can tell you that Paul McCartney was great then, and he’s great now, and if I happened to say something different back then, well, I know better now.”
As for Yoko Ono, she laughed when asked over the phone last week whether she ever thought “Ram” would enjoy such a lavish re-release. Will she pick up a copy?
“Well, I don’t know,” she laughed. “Let me think about that one.” She laughed some more. “I’ll tell you what: This whole idea that I totally don’t like Paul’s thing or something is wrong. He’s a very, very good songwriter. Obviously everybody knows that, and I wish him well.”
©2012 the Chicago Tribune