Sir Paul McCartney certainly does not need a physical birthday gift from each of his fans.
Instead there are electronic best wishes posting opportunities everywhere, from Facebook to paulmccartney.com.
However, this is an ideal excuse to give yourself a gift. In my case, it was the deluxe reissue of the Ram album.
It is tempting to completely ignore the context of the times surrounding the original 1971 release of Ram and just focus on the music.
Since Paul McCartney himself has offered surprisingly detailed notes on the era as part of the 2012 reissue, historical scene-setting comments are not out of order. Ultimately, they are helpful (but not required) for taking a fresh listen to Ram.
Ram entered the rock and pop culture mainstream at a propitious time in the unfolding tale of “the breakup” and its aftermath. Fans were beginning to venture from assigning blame to asking whose subsequent solo work was really the best. Who really captured the heart and soul and spirit of The Beatles? Who did they want to continue to follow?
George Harrison had become the unexpected front runner, topping the charts with his spiritually infused All Things Must Pass and “My Sweet Lord.” John Lennon had offered the “genius is pain” of the first Plastic Ono Band album, though missed hitting number one with that disc.
More important, John and Yoko Ono had fully embraced public life, raising issues and discussing politics and art at every opportunity. Every opportunity.
John and George represented the Serious Side of Rock Music.
Through the spring and summer they further burnished that image. John released his “Power To The People” single. George staged his star-studded benefit concert for Bangla Desh.
It was Ringo Starr who offered the first pleasant pop break. “It Don’t Come Easy” was a fun, Beatle-esque single. Even its b-side commentary on the group’s split (“Early 1970”) had a light tone to it.
But what would heavy-hitter Paul McCartney do when he seriously reentered the musical fray?
McCartney had started out deliberately low-key the previous year, not even releasing a single from his first solo album. Yet McCartney still hit number one on Billboard’s charts.
Ram was going to be a full-fledged, real studio Paul McCartney disc. The first tease came with the standalone single “Another Day,” which was the distillation of the catchy pop hook side of McCartney. The only unexpected element was its credited co-authors: Mrs. and Mrs. McCartney.
By then the saga of John and Yoko performing everywhere as a couple had added a sometimes distracting element to the ongoing Beatles tale. The pair pushed out to the public and, often enough, the public pushed back.
Was the other half of the world’s most famous song writing team about to take a similar turn?
The official artist identification for Ram confirmed the news that this was being touted as an album from Paul and Linda McCartney.
Casual fans arched an eyebrow. Oh, really?
Then they listened to the album. Linda might have been officially listed there but it was still really Paul’s album. If he considered her his collaborator, even co-author of some songs, but did not foist some separate Linda McCartney solo singing career aspirations on fans just looking for some good Paul McCartney tracks, that was fine.
In fact, the harmony-rich (if abstruse) “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” became an inescapable late summer hit single, reaching number one. There was no escaping Ram as the sound of the summer of 1971.
Some professional critics did not find the Paul and Linda team-up’s efforts quite as easy to accept and shared their unhappiness (most famously, Jon Landau in Rolling Stone).
Was it perhaps Paul McCartney’s new collaborator that explained what was seen by some as the album’s biggest sin? Apart from allusions to the breakup of The Beatles, Ram did not really seem to be about Anything Significant. Certainly not about politics and power to the people. More Ringo than John or George.
Frankly, that light touch may have been one reason it caught on so easily with the general public. In those politically charged times of the early 1970s, listeners may well have agreed with the sentiments of “Too Many People,” feeling exhausted listening to folks always preaching and scolding. If Paul McCartney wanted to string together non-sequiturs for a good sound, there was an audience ready to sit back and enjoy the show.
Still, four decades later, does Ram hold up?
Briefly: as well as it ever did. In fact, it benefits from being pulled from its times. Today listeners certainly do not expect it to be about the latest relevant issues, and it is not burdened by being tied to the issues of its times.
Instead, there are the many delightful moments. Softly sung lyrics in “Long Haired Lady.” Rocking riffs in “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Pure joy in “Heart of the Country.”
The success of weaving together song pieces into “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” would be repeated multiple times in the future, most notably on “Band on the Run.”
Political riffs? Not this time. Those would come the following year as the saga of Wings kicked off, building on the foundations from Ram.
In the meantime, to borrow the Nick Lowe phrase from later in the decade, it was Pure Pop for Now People.
Still a good listen today. A nice gift to myself to mark Sir Paul’s birthday.
© Copyright 2012 by Walter J. Podrazik. An expanded alternative version of this review appears in the latest issue of Beatlefan magazine
Right on Wally….an overlooked classic for many. It has never sounded better than it does now….See you in August Wally! JP