Paul McCartney might have taken the bull by the horns for his aggressively homemade solo debut McCartney in 1970, defying practically all expectations, but he literally took the ram by the horns on the cover photo of its 1971 follow-up, Ram. By the time of Ram‘s release, George Harrison had declared that All Things (including Beatles) Must Pass and John Lennon had exorcised many of his demons with the confessional Plastic Ono Band, wife Yoko at his side. With Linda McCartney co-billed as songwriter and vocalist, Paul eschewed the grand statements of John and George’s solo projects, not to mention the genre excursions of Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey (Ringo goes standards) and Beaucoup of Blues (Ringo goes country). Ram instead felt like a natural progression from the homespun, “lo-fi” McCartney, expanding the production but having much of the same freewheeling, not-too-serious feel. Now, Ram is the latest title to receive expanded treatment from MPL and Hear Music as part of The Paul McCartney Archive Collection. Easily the most luxurious reissue series dedicated to any Beatle, the Archive Collection will likely takes its place as one of the grandest programs for any artist of any genre, should it eventually encompass all of McCartney’s albums. Ram is, justifiably, as lavish as its predecessors, and maybe even a bit more so.
The only album jointly credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram was largely composed by the husband and wife at their farm in Scotland. Recording commenced in New York in the fall of 1970 with a cast of musicians including future Wings drummer Denny Seiwell and guitarists David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken. The album made it all the way to No. 1 in the U.K. and No. 2 in the U.S. upon its May 1971 release, and the single “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” became Paul’s first U.S. No. 1 single as well as a Grammy winner. Despite its commercial success, there’s always been an air of mystery about Ram, from its title to its frequently oblique lyrics. Is it a throwaway album from a disgruntled ex-Beatle or the ironic birth of “indie rock” from a superstar? Or is it something in between? Though its Archive Collection releases go a long way in providing context and explanations, the album itself is still a delicious enigma. For those keeping score, the release is available in multiple formats: a4-CD/1-DVD box set edition, a single-CD remaster, a2-CD deluxe edition, 2-LP vinyl edition, 1-LP mono vinyl editionanddigitally. (You can find track listings for all versions here!)
We’ll explore them all after the jump!
Heart of the Country: The Album
There’s always been the tendency to place reductive tags on Paul McCartney, especially as it’s difficult to consider his solo work without the context of his work as a Beatle. (Guilty as charged.) But he has always been a complex and contradictory artist: the disciple of avant-garde musician John Cage who writes “Yesterday,” the rocker (think: “Helter Skelter”) who crafts “When I’m 64,” the perennial nice guy who takes the first swipe at his former bandmate and principal collaborator on Ram. McCartney told David Cavanagh in 2012 that a lyric in “Too Many People” was a “minor poke. That’s all it was,” but John Lennon clearly felt “Too many people preaching practices/Don’t let ’em tell you what you want to be” was more than that. Lennon, of course, retaliated with the darkly humorous, altogether scathing “How Do You Sleep,” and added insult to injury when he brought George and Ringo along for the ride, too. McCartney clarified his lyrics, pointing out the umbrage he took at the unsavory people he felt were influencing his friend Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono: “It was like, don’t let them tell you what to do.” But regardless of the target of “Too Many People,” it’s difficult to listen to Ram and not read into “You took your lucky break and broke it in two” or “When I thought you was my friend/But you let me down/Put my heart around the bend” (the latter lyric from “3 Legs”). Even “Dear Boy,” confirmed by its author to have been aimed at his wife Linda’s ex-husband, felt loaded with double meanings. But there’s more to Ram than pokes at John Lennon, imagined or otherwise. It’s the statement of an artist at a particular moment in time resisting the tendency to be painted into one corner, and so there’s a little bit of something for everybody on an album that’s sprawling in spirit if not in length.
The nominal title track, “Ram On,” most recalls the loose, non-structured spirit of McCartney: a musical hodgepodge with rollicking ukulele, ethereal backing vocals, whistling, and ripples of electric piano. On the other end of the spectrum was “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Much as McCartney offered “Maybe I’m Amazed” as the fully-produced centerpiece, Macca pulled out all the stops on this mini-suite of songs. It’s as perfect a continuation of the Beatles circa Abbey Road sound as could be, and of course, also foreshadows the musical triptych of Band on the Run.
Part of the unique character of Ram comes from the presence of Linda McCartney’s delicate vocals. Paul clearly relished having a female voice in the mix, and she shines with the swirling high harmonies of “Dear Boy” as well as “Smile Away.” The latter’s marries rockabilly licks with pure rock-and-roll swagger (“I was walking down the street the other day/Who did I meet/I met a friend of mine and he did say/Man, I can smell your feet a mile away!”) and though the lyric is repetitive, the groove is the thing. Linda’s backing vocals (“don’t know how to do that” or just wordless chanting?) might have been observed closely by America when the trio created their own variation for “Sister Golden Hair” with former Beatles producer George Martin! Martin actually provided the orchestral scores for three of Ram‘s tracks: “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Long Haired Lady” and “The Back Seat of My Car.” Martin’s work is as subtle on “Long Haired Lady” as it is grand on “Uncle Albert” and “Back Seat.”
The relationship between Paul and Linda was celebrated with the jazzy swing of “Heart of the Country.” Complete with scatting, it sings the praises of the simpler life they had discovered together. Linda also must have been on Paul’s mind for the saucy, Buddy Holly-esque “Eat at Home,” with its playful come-ons (literally): “Come on, little lady, let’s eat at home!” Though the “McCartney doesn’t rock” myth has oddly recurred time and time again, it couldn’t have originated with Ram. Not only does he sing in various voices on Ram, but he frequently draws on rock-and-roll influences on songs like “Smile Away” without resorting to outright pastiche. A spellbinding (and vaguely sinister) rock riff is threaded through “Monkberry Moon Delight” with McCartney shredding some vocal cords on a lyric that’s free-associative and nonsensical on the surface. As to whether there’s anything underneath, I’ll leave that to all of the Macca scholars who have dissected every lyric on the album!
The most unusual track might be the album’s last. The pretty but poignant nostalgia trip “The Back Seat of My Car” veers from a haunting solo piano into sweeping orchestral territory (“We’re just busy hiding/Sitting in the back seat of my car”) as both tempo and emotion shift dramatically. Though the song was a small hit in the United Kingdom, it’s doggedly non-commercial, and epitomizes McCartney’s knack for imbuing sentiments that could be hackneyed with great, universal feeling. It’s hard not to be moved by the declaration of “We believe that we can’t be wrong” in response to “Listen to her daddy’s song, ‘Making love is wrong!'” as Paul’s vocal increases in intensity. By the conclusion, electric guitars are swirling, McCartney is yelping and all is right with the world. There’s a Brian Wilson influence to the track, for sure, but it shows the many sides of Paul McCartney through and through. In fact, the constantly-morphing “The Back Seat of My Car” could be a distillation of the album itself.
Monkberry Moon Delight: The Bonus Material
Both the 2-CD edition and the box set include a second disc of Ram-era outtakes and related material. This disc brings together both sides of the single “Another Day” b/w “Oh Woman, Oh Why,” the B-side “Little Woman Love” (recorded during the Ram sessions on November 13, 1970 but not released until 1972 backing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”), and a brace of previously unreleased outtakes: “A Love For You” (10/26/70), “Hey Diddle” (10/26/70), “Sunshine Sometime” (10/29/70), “Rode All Night” (10/22/70) and “Great Cock and Seagull Race” (2/23/71). Though none of these are revelatory, they reflect the many places McCartney’s restless mind was taking him during the Fall 1970/Spring 1971 sessions primarily held at New York’s A&R Studios and CBS Studios. (“Dear Boy” was recorded in Los Angeles in February 1971.) Two of the songs are instrumentals, the R&B-flavored “Great Cock and Seagull Race” and acoustic “Sunshine Sometime.” The latter’s bucolic melody was later adapted for McCartney’s Rupert the Bear project. “Rode All Night” is a lengthy, near 9-minute jam performed by McCartney and Denny Seiwell. A real screamer, it recalls the sound of The Beatles’ “Birthday” and “Get Back,” and was adapted later in the decade as “Giddy,” recorded by Roger Daltrey. The sing-song “Hey Diddle” is an appealing novelty, and if “A Love for You” is the most fully-formed of these outtakes, it also sounds the least authentic. The October 26, 1970 recording was overdubbed by Geoff Emerick in 1981 and Jon Kelly in 1986; it’s Kelly’s mix which appears here. (The song appeared in a different version on the soundtrack of the 2003 film The In-Laws.)
In addition, two digital-only bonus tracks have been released via McCartney’s own website as well as iTunes. While there were no doubt commercial considerations on the part of Hear Music and MPL, it’s unfortunate that those purchasing an expensive box set can’t have all of the associated tracks in a physical format. That said, “Uncle Albert Jam” is a fun spin on a familiar classic, and the live “Eat at Home/Smile Away” is a rip-roaring treat.
Ram On: ‘Thrillington’ and ‘Ram’ in Mono
The box set edition also includes Thrillington, the orchestral version of Ram. Though not released until 1977 with McCartney denying knowledge of its origins, Thrillington was recorded just one month after the release of Ram; the artist clearly still had these songs on his mind. Though McCartney anonymously produced the Abbey Road sessions, Richard Hewson was the arranger and conductor. Hewson had previously worked with McCartney on Mary Hopkin’s Post Card, arranged James Taylor’s Apple debut and wrote the controversial orchestrations for “The Long and Winding Road” on Beatles’ Let It Be album. (Paul apparently didn’t hold it against him.) The core band included Herbie Flowers on bass and Vic Flick on guitar; The Swingle Sisters were enlisted to provide backing vocals. The ram himself appears to have played the violin, judging by the album cover! Though in the tradition of the “light music” beloved by Paul, the most surprising quality about Thrillington is just how appealing the album is!
Characterized by a big, jazzy brass section, Thrillington brings those oh-so-effortless melodies to the forefront in a cinematic fashion. One could have expected, accurately, that Hewson would have employed every tool in his arsenal for the whimsical “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” and indeed, he did. Recorder flutes are used inventively, along with a harpischord and prominent trumpets. But other songs go even further as reinventions. “3 Legs” is cleverly rearranged for a Count Basie-style big band with a slinky saxophone before it heads straight into groovy showbiz overdrive. On “Ram On,” an oboe takes the melody into new directions, with vocal decoration from The Swingles and a light, relaxed, almost tropical feel. “Dear Boy” and “Heart of the Country” both prove to be dexterous vocal showcases for the Swingles, while Linda McCartney’s original background vocals on “Smile Away” are given the instrumental treatment. The song even takes on a Henry Mancini-esque caper music style! This isn’t the only song which Hewson has provided an evocative setting. “Monkberry Moon Delight,” oddly, conjures up images of a Hollywood gangland and the underworld with its tense strings and insinuating brass! “Eat at Home” is delivered reggae-style, and “Long Haired Lady” is transformed into a sprawling piece, contrasting vaudeville turns with delicate, ethereal orchestral passages. Only “Back Seat of My Car,” which should have been a natural for orchestral treatment, lacks the stark beauty of the Ram original.
The rare mono edition of Ram is also available in the box set on CD as well as individually on vinyl. Never commercially released, it was prepared for AM radio use and was not a stereo “fold-down” but rather a dedicated mono mix. There are many differences between this mix and the stereo one, but most will be noticeable only to those who know the album inside and out, i.e. slightly longer fade-outs, subtly different edits, a couple of minor vocal and instrumental variations in “Uncle Albert.” The mono mix is bold and punchy, however, and if it’s not essential, it’s a very welcome inclusion as a rare collectible now finally available to a wide audience.
A DVD is also included in the box set only. Its main attraction is a new documentary on the making of the album, Ramming. The 11-minute featurette is narrated by an unseen Paul over photographs and film footage. He describes the significance of the album’s title (Ram is defined as “to push forward strongly,” as he hoped to do in the midst of Beatle acrimony) and openly addresses the jabs in John Lennon’s direction (“We’d been through too much to let business arguments blow up our relationship.”) He frankly admits that the album was an attempt to escape from the “it’s gotta be important” air accorded to most Beatles releases, and that he’s ably to look back proudly on the album even if it appeared somewhat slight at the time of its release. With so many choice sound bites as well as spoken track-by-track commentary on “Too Many People,” “Dear Boy” and “Heart of the Country,” Ramming is an illuminating journey back with the man at the center of it all. The DVD also offers bucolic promotional films made for “Heart of the Country” and “3 Legs” filmed by Roy Benson in Scotland, and “Hey Diddle” as shot by N. Langley. “Eat at Home on Tour” is an enjoyable montage of Wings Over Europe footage with a performance from Groningen, Netherlands, circa 1972. Even the DVD menus are enjoyable, with audio derived from the rare Brung to Ewe By promotional LP created at the time of Ram‘s release.
A listen to Ram on the single-CD remaster or 2-CD configuration (with the original album on Disc 1 and the bonus audio tracks on Disc 2) will reveal it as more multi-layered and maybe even wilder than you might have remembered. But for those who wish to delve deep with the album, it’s hard to imagine a more immersive package than the Archive Collection box set. Unlike the previous three titles in this series, Ram is not housed in a book, but this time in an actual box. Thankfully, the designers have used a similar format for the box so it will sit comfortably alongside Band on the Run, McCartney and McCartney II on your bookshelf. Like those book editions, Ram is linen-bound with the same typesetting style, and also the same dimensions from top to bottom, and side to side. It’s, however, much thicker! Open the box and you’ll discover a 100+-page softcover book that could be sold as a coffee table companion. Like its predecessors, it’s filled with interviews from nearly all of the key players as well as lyrics, memorabilia reproductions and many of Linda McCartney’s striking photographs. The attention to detail in this tome is evident. A smaller second book is exclusively dedicated to her photographic work. A large envelope contains high-quality glossy shots of Paul and Linda in the studio and on the farm, and a small envelope includes reproductions of the hand-written lyrics to the album’s songs, often adorned with doodles and such. “A Small Book of Sheep” is the title of the flip book-size collection of Linda’s photos of the making of the album cover.
The individual CDs and DVDs are housed in their own black sleeves. There is a sturdy tray built into the box with a slot for each item, and there is a protective black card to place over the CD/DVDs’ slot. Finally, the box set also comes with a card for download of the album tracks in high resolution and a one-year “premium membership” to McCartney’s website. The Archive Collection box is unquestionably expansive; not only should it prove a treat for anyone with a serious interest in its music, but it sets a real benchmark for high quality among rock box sets. One does wonder, however, if future titles will revert to the more slim, swag-less hardcover book format. (Although the lyric sheets and photo reproductions qualify as swag, one can be thankful that there are no coasters, scarves, et cetera here!)
Remastered at Abbey Road Studios, the sound across all discs is uniformly stellar, and the core original album marks a definite upgrade from its past standard edition. Clearly Paul McCartney is serious about preserving his past, and the multiple editions of Ram are proof that there’s still ample reason to revisit the past in deluxe physical formats. Ram on.