Paul & Linda McCartney – Ram (Classic Music Review)

This will be my twenty-first and last review covering The Beatles and their solo careers.

I am so done with The Beatles.

More accurately, I am done with a hardy group of Baby Boomer males who have hounded me for years because I had the chutzpah to express my heartfelt opinion that both The White Album and Abbey Road suck.

Blasphemy! Burn the heretic! She wasn’t even there—what does she know? You can’t possibly understand what The Beatles meant unless you were there!

That perspective is so fucking stupid you’d think Trump invented it. Members of the generation who experienced the history are the least qualified people to evaluate that history. Every generation thinks their generation was the greatest gift to humanity, and the Baby Boomers are exceptionally prone to mythologizing. While there is no doubt that the rock music of the 60’s and early 70’s contained some of the finest and most lasting contributions to music history, that music was made by human beings, not gods, and all human beings are subject to hot and cold streaks. The Beatles were a great band for five or six years, then went into a noticeable decline during which their godlike status, not their music, sustained their popularity. They still bathed in the glow of mythology and its revenue-generating power during their solo careers, none of which produced much of lasting value.

Which brings us to Ram, a good-news/bad-news album if there ever was one.

Let’s start with the good news: Paul McCartney has rarely sounded more exuberant than he does on Ram. With Linda’s emotional support, he found his way through the darkness occasioned by the collapse of The Beatles and shed all traces of depression and disorientation that marked his first solo effort. On Ram, he sounds positively thrilled to embark on a new, independent musical adventure, as is evident in the unbridled energy he displays throughout the record and the blessed return of his sense of humor. His melodic gifts remain intact, he sings as well as he ever did and he’s still one hell of a bass player.

The bad news: exuberance often occasions a lack of discipline and judgment. We have all experienced this phenomenon in our personal lives when we get too drunk or too horny and wind up doing dumb things we regret. The thing about Ram is that Paul did a lot of dumb things that he should have regretted but instead wound up using the dumb things to create the template for his solo career. That’s the really bad news: Ram turned out to be the incubator for later crap like “Silly Love Songs” and “My Love.” Add to that the generally weak and sometimes nonsensical lyrics and there’s a lot about Ram not to like.

Note that I did not include the presence of Linda McCartney in either the good news or bad news. She’s not much of a vocalist, but at least she hits the notes. Having said that, there is always a temptation to compare the relative contributions of Beatle wives, but the last thing I want to get into here is the whole John-Paul public brouhaha that in many ways was more classless than the tiresome spats involving the Gallagher brothers.

Unfortunately, the song that John uses as evidence for his “I didn’t start it–he started it!” argument opens the album. Sigh.

If you leave the nonsense out of the discussion, “Too Many People” is a pretty strong opening cut. McCartney’s vocal is outstanding, spanning the range from full-throated, growling oomph to sweet soprano. His bass part is thumpingly energetic, adding significantly to the strong forward movement. Hugh McCracken’s lead guitar solo is very impressive, and Linda’s supporting vocals are her strongest on the album. What’s not to like?

All the nanny-nanny poo-poo shit, of course.

The confirmed attacks on John and Yoko (the ones McCartney owned up to) involved the lines, “Too many people preaching practices,” and “You took your lucky break and broke it in two.” Other somewhat credible suspects include:

  • The “cake lines.” These include the opening, “Piss off, cake” and “Too many reaching for a piece of cake.” Both are references to the well-publicized act described in “The Balllad of John and Yoko” where the two honeymooning lovebirds found themselves in Vienna, “eating chocolate cake in a bag.”
  • “Too many people going underground,” is allegedly based on John and Yoko’s shared perception of themselves as leaders of an amorphous worldwide underground movement that was going to achieve world peace through billboards and bed-ins.

John also thought “Dear Boy” and “Back Seat of My Car” were about him (ridiculous), and some sources say that John and Yoko saw the whole album as an attack on them, which has about as much credibility as John’s assertion that Yoko was one of the greatest artists to ever grace the planet. The silliness didn’t end with John, unfortunately. George and Ringo thought “3 Legs” (coming up next) was an attack on them and Mr. Lennon, a splash of lingering spite left over from the argument concerning the selection of  The Beatles’ business manager.

Putting all the pettiness aside, the most important lines in the song are the closing lines to the third verse:

Too many people holding back
This is crazy, and baby, it’s not like me

That is Paul McCartney’s statement of liberation from the chains of depression. He’s telling us he’s not going to hold back anymore; he’s going to be himself and doesn’t give a rat’s ass if anyone thinks he’s a bourgeois bore. I think he’s right in one respect—holding back is crazy from a personal perspective. You have to be yourself regardless of consequences; otherwise, what’s the fucking point of living? However, the creation of art involves creating some kind of aesthetic distance from the subject matter, for without that shift in perspective, the personal remains personal instead of universal. What happens too often on Ram is McCartney follows his undisciplined impulses, and without a Lennon or George Martin around to whack him upside the head, what we get sometimes is pure self-indulgence.

“3 Legs” is a good example. The answer to the question, “What the fuck was he thinking on ‘3 Legs’?” is pretty obvious: he wasn’t. The lyrics are terrible, the music is an insult to every credible blues performer who ever lived and the attempt to spice up the dullness with vocal patches and tempo changes fails to achieve the desired effect. It’s followed by the equally awful sort-of-title-track, “Ram On,” another piece of total nonsense with only one redeeming quality—it allowed Paul to get acquainted with the ukulele, a skill he would apply some thirty-odd years later with grace and class when performing “Something” in a touching tribute to George Harrison.

“Dear Boy” is a definite upgrade, with McCartney displaying his still impressive talent for melody and harmony. I have to say that I strongly prefer the mono mix of this song, as the stereo version leaves Paul’s lead vocal and the Linda-Paul background vocals competing for attention. A YouTube comment by a gentleman by the name of Gene Stewart described the song as a “Wonderful, elegant Fuck You song,” and I have to agree. The lyrics express his appreciation for Linda’s presence in his life through a message to her ex, a pretty odd way to express appreciation, but not uncommon with competitive males. While the lyrics don’t exactly knock me out, they do form a coherent story, which is more than we can say about the two preceding tracks and the one to follow.

That next track demanded a conversation with my father:

ME: Dad! “Uncle Albert!” What the fuck?

DAD: I assume you mean “How did ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ make it to the top of the charts?”

ME: Yeah! The Grammy I get—Grammy voters have always been stupid. But why on earth did people flock to the record shops and pay money for this . . . this . . .

DAD: Wow. My daughter at a loss for words. Never thought I’d see the day . . .

ME: I’m baffled, befuddled and bewildered. What happened?

DAD: It’s pretty simple. “Uncle Albert” was the one that sounded most like The Beatles at their peak—it had the harmonies, it had the joy, it had the humor. I know you don’t care for the suite on Abbey Road, but for a lot of people, that was their favorite part of the album.

ME: But . . . just think about that one line—“Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” What?

DAD: I know you hate to hear “you weren’t there,” but there is some validity to that statement in one sense. For those of us who grew up with The Beatles, losing them was like a death in the family, and you know the first stage in processing grief is denial. I think we were all in denial about it, but for several years after they broke up, just hearing one of their voices was very, very comforting—the dream was still alive. “Uncle Albert” was the closest thing we’d heard to that magical sound, and I don’t think anyone bothered to pay attention to the lyrics, even when they were singing along.

Similar to the suite on Abbey Road, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is pieced together from unfinished fragments of songs. The “Admiral Halsey” piece is clearly a throwaway, but McCartney had something there with the story of the boring old uncle who inspired everyone in the family to avoid his presence at any cost. The chords to the “Uncle Albert” segment are quite clever, with a nifty half-step resolution to the D major root. Sadly, he never finished it, tacking on an absurd bit about an American admiral, an exhortation to the listening audience to discover their inner gypsies and the faux thrill of “Hand across the water/Heads across the sky.” An author by the name of Andrew Grant Jackson interpreted the song to be a quite coherent tale related to The Beatles’ breakup, but on closer examination his explanation makes about as much sense as the “Paul is dead” conspiracy theory.

Side one ends with a song that I will defend to my death, the seriously exuberant “Smile Away.” Why does this one make the cut while other exuberant songs on the album miss the mark? First, it’s Paul McCartney rocking as hard as he had in years, and when McCartney has the fire on high, he’s fucking awesome. Second, and probably even more important, it’s Paul McCartney poking fun at himself, placing himself in the unlikely role of total loser, the guy who desperately needs a shower, a SonicCare and a fresh bottle of Listerine. In the context of a guy recovering from depression, the ability to laugh at oneself is a huge sign that recovery is moving full steam ahead. I love McCartney’s Elvis/Lady Madonna voice, and when he adds roughness to it during the fade it knocks me out every fucking time. Great guitar, great bass, solid Americanized fifties background vocals from Linda—love it!

Side two brings us to “Heart of the Country.” Jon Landau of Rolling Stone thought it was the low point of the album; Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic gushed over its arrangement and claimed that it ranked among McCartney’s very best songs. I find it dull, duller and dullest, but if there’s one song on Ram that tells you where McCartney will be headed in the future, it’s “Heart of the Country”—inoffensive, not unpleasant, but hardly engaging.

On a spectrum all by itself we have “Monkberry Moon Delight.” There are three major interpretive theories about this piece:

  • The song is an attempt by the authors (Paul and Linda) at surrealistic poetry.
  • The song is the evil twin of “Glass Onion,” poking fun at Beatle freaks who dive deep for meaning and come up gasping for air.
  • Paul and Linda were stoned out of their fucking minds.

I don’t buy the surrealistic argument—this was written years after the brief period surrounding Revolver when McCartney spent his free time hobnobbing with the avant-garde. I also don’t buy the “Glass Onion” connection, an argument that weirdly validates the content of “Glass Onion.” No, I’m going with “stoned out of their fucking minds,” because when I listen to it straight—and by that I mean “not under the influence of cannabis or hashish”—I feel like I’m hearing people laughing at one of those funny things that are only funny when you’re high. As I was unable to score any weed before writing this review, I’m going to give “Monkberry Moon Delight” a pass until I can confirm my theory.

Shit. If I’d monetized the blog, I could have deducted the weed as a business expense. Oh, well.

 

Ringo and George liked the next tune, “Eat at Home,” a Buddy Holly-esque rocker that allows McCartney to reconnect with his teenage self. I think the song would have been a good fit in the back-to-basics operating mode of Let it Be/Get Back, but nothing could have saved that turkey, and given all the bad juju in the studio back then, I don’t think Paul would have given it half the energy he does here. Overall it’s a plus, but nothing that knocks my socks off.

McCartney got one thing right on “Long-Haired Lady”—the first word. Man, this sucker is long. It seems to go on forever. The best part of the song comes early, when Linda gets a little snarky on the line “Or is this the only thing you want me for?” After that, you can lift the needle at any time. You may want to skip the next track, too, a pointless reprise of “Ram On.” I have no idea why McCartney bothered to reprise this piece of nothingness unless he was trying to duplicate the reprise trick made famous on Sgt. Pepper. That reprise was the perfect way to introduce one of the great songs in rock history; this reprise does come before one of the best songs on the album but it does nothing to heighten your sense of anticipation like the Sgt. Pepper piece. In that sense, the reappearance of “Ram On” only provides evidence about how far we have fallen.

Lucky for us, McCartney makes a last-minute save with “The Back Seat of My Car,” a song that owes a deep debt to Brian Wilson. The rising falsetto passages are pure Beach Boys, and there’s nothing wrong with imitation if it is delivered with deep admiration, as McCartney does here. For teenagers of that era (especially American teenagers, who had much easier access to family wheels), the back seat of the car was the place where you could snuggle up with your honey, share the feelings and thoughts you’d never share with mom and dad, and, if magic was in the air, find yourself a candidate for a statutory rape charge. McCartney isn’t so much concerned with the snogging aspect of the back seat as he is with its status as a safe haven from the buffeting winds of the generational divide:

Speed along the highway,
Honey, I want it my way
But listen to her daddy’s song—
“Don’t stay out too long.”
We’re just busy hidin’, sitting the back seat of my car.
The laser lights are pretty
We may end up in Mexico City
But listen to her daddy’s song—
“Making love is wrong.”

I’ve always been amazed at the thickness of parents of the era as depicted in movies, music and television—they seemed to believe that parenting had everything to do with “Thou shalt nots” instead of encouraging kids to talk about their feelings and help them think through the upsides and downsides of a desired course of action. Because the parents were engaged in many of the activities they told their kids not to do (smoking, drinking, fucking), the “Thou shalt nots” inevitably led to valid accusations of hypocrisy. “Because I said so” didn’t cut it with a better-educated, skeptical generation of teens. The complete deafness on one side led to both sides taking the posture, “We believe that we can’t be wrong,” hence the Generational Divide.

The arrangement is easily the best on the album, a well-balanced mix of orchestral and rock conventions, diverse tempos and strong vocals (especially the low-octave pairing on “But listen to her daddy’s song”). “Back Seat of My Car” was apparently a late-stage possibility for Let It Be/Get Back, but it would have been wasted on that not-much-of-an effort. Here it allows McCartney to finish strong and give fans some encouragement for the future.

As history shows, though, ever-hopeful McCartney fans were in for some serious disappointment if they bought the first Wings album. My passionate-defender-of-all-things-Beatles father listened to Wild Life once, slipped it back in its sleeve and traded it in for the new Badfinger album, a definite (if ironic) upgrade.

Ram was not received well by critics of its day, but lately it has gone through a reappraisal, resulting in more favorable reviews. The Monkees recently experienced a similar reappraisal, demonstrating only that Baby Boomers can’t let go of the 60’s, and even if they have to scrape the bottom of the barrel, they cling to the belief that any music that came out during their salad days has to be better than Radiohead, even the fucking Monkees. My take is that Ram has a few good songs on it but if this album had been released by a nobody, not too many people would have bothered to listen.

15 responses

  1. White male Boomer here who thinks you are spot on regarding the Beatles.
    I’m not even a big fan of Sgt. Pepper.
    Rubber Soul and Revolver do it for me.

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    1. Hooray! I have noticed a divide among some fans starting with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which definitely qualifies as a re-defining moment. I like the “whole” of Sgt. Pepper but some of the individual songs lose me. I don’t like listening to it unless I have the time to sit down and appreciate it as a “performance.”

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  2. While I truly enjoy “RAM”, I admit being puzzled at the onslaught of critical “reassessment and appreciation” over the last two decades. It’s a fine album but the effusive “forgotten masterpiece” adoration ladled upon it just REEKS of the pendulum overcompensating in the opposite direction. McCartney has better solo LPs. And many, many worse ones.

    There is much to love in McCartney’s solo material. His biggest problem was quality control, releasing voluminous amounts of material, year after year. He recorded maybe 12 albums worth of material in the 70s, released 9, and probably should have pared that down to 5.

    The result is a LOT of cherry-picking on many of his releases… but there are damn tasty cherries to be found.

    And I adore “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”, which partially explains why I didn’t get laid much in high school.

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    1. I spit out my coffee on that last sentence!

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  3. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    I think that Ram is a perfect micro-cosmo of McCartney. It shows his genius and his weaknesses, tough I would argue that the spontaneity, or lack of discipline depending of your pointview, of the album’s overall sound and lyrics is part of its charm, but everyone is entitled to its own. It may be McCartney’s best album, in my opinion.

    But I would really like to talk here is that McCartney was always very sensible to negative reviews of his work. Lennon had its personal insecurities, but he kept them bottled, outside of his public image, that was a “fuck what everybody thinks” anthem. Paul, tough, was affected deeply by criticism and was not good in hiding it, no criticism against him intended. It is just that, for example, when Ram was released, it received such a huge backlash, many angry reviews that attacked McCartney, not only the album, that he was really affected and down after the album release. And the critical reaction was undeniably over-the-top, people blamed McCartney because of the ending of The Beatles. When Ram was released, the attack against Macca was something personal and biased, the Beatles separation was still very fresh.

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  4. Matheus Bezerra de Lima | Reply

    I would like for you to write a text reflecting the limits of criticism and how the artist should take it. We are all human beings. We may be too hard in someone or we may be overly affected by a bad criticism. I would really love to see you tackle this topic in an article here.

    Two things have me think about this lately:
    1-The case of one of the greatest movie directors of all time: David Lean. When he made Ryan’s Daughter, in 1970, the movie received by far the worst reviews of his whole career. David Lean invited many of the most famous american movie critics to a discussion in that he wanted to hear all of them talk to him why the movie was so terrible. The whole discussion took 2 hours and left David Lean crushed. He said that during years, he could not stop to think things like :”Why I do movies? Are they really right, my movie was so terrible?”. It took 14 years for him finally release a new movie, because his confidence was really hurt after Ryan’s Daughter. David Lean’s greatest movie is Lawrence Of Arabia.

    2-There is a story about a guy who wrote one great and acclaimed book, but he never wrote anything again. He was too fearful that he could never write anything so good again and that he would hurt public and critics’ opinion about him.

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    1. I think the artist should always remember that many critics have agendas of their own beyond listening to and evaluating the effort. Sometimes critics write a negative review for the shock value, knowing that controversy increases magazine sales or website hits. Robert Christgau’s famous and completely unfair critique of Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor was an example of a critic pissed off that folk and rock artists of the era were enhancing their work with more complex instrumentation, and he took all his frustrations out on poor Phil. I think the one foolproof method for an artist to evaluate the usefulness of a critique is to ask, “Did the critic actually listen carefully and intently to the whole album before writing the review?” and “Did they do their research?” I’ve been shocked at the number of reviews I’ve read where it’s obvious that the critic hadn’t done their homework.

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  5. My favorite part of the Vulture Quincy Jones interview was when he said ” “They [The Beatles] were no-playing motherfuckers. Paul [McCartney] was the worst bass player I ever heard.” – not because I agree with him (I don’t) but because how much I knew it would upset hardcore Beatles fans! I went straight to reddit/beatles and was not disappointed.

    I’ve always thought that McCartney’s solo career was an enormous letdown – much more so than Harrison & Lennon. He has redefined ‘underachieve.’

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    1. That interview was a hoot! I too disagree with those comments but when you’re 85, you can say anything you want because you’re way past the age when you give a shit. I’m referencing that interview in an upcoming review of Thriller, an album that provides conclusive evidence that McCartney had lost his fucking marbles.

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  6. I’m a baby boomer that thinks the White Album is the most over-rated album ever. That’s how I came across this site – searching to see if anyone else shared that opinion. Very glad I found it as I enjoy reading your reviews, even the ones I don’t agree with. I think this a very fair assessment of Ram. I was one who was drawn to the odd appeal of Uncle Albert but I discovered the B side “Too Many People”was much better.

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  7. The more I think about it, the more I think the stakes and expectations were much higher for Paul than any other Beatle. “All Things Must Pass” came as a huge surprise to most and George never really followed it and nobody really cared much either, nobody expected anything great from Ringo as a solo artiste (“It Don’t Come Easy” was a brilliant single in my view) and John, his avant garde leanings and his peace and political antics meant one didn’t quite know what to expect from him, so all eyes turned to Paul to keep on giving the magic… which of course he was incapable of doing. So, I do have sympathy for the position he was in. Plus, let’s not forget the farcical “Paul is dead” nonsense which a lot of people believed so there would had been relief he was very much alive but maybe that also added to the high expectation factor. Unfortunately given the erratic nature of Paul’s post Beatles output one could be forgiven for thinking he had actually died since even his best solo work was never a patch on his Beatles work.

    Unfortunately, Paul’s rather casual approach to his early solo work, not exercising enough quality control went badly against him and worse, in spite of all the criticisms, he kept on with his frivolous nature. Sure, he may had hit paydirt with Wings but musically… no further comment is required. I do think Lennon’s criticisms as barbed as they were were honest and heartfelt because John knew that Paul was capable of far better and was dismayed he wasn’t coming up with the goods. The public bickering between them spilling onto their albums was doubly unfortunate but inevitable given Lennon and McCartney – by Lennon’s own admission – had enormous egos. As John griped “I expected better!” as did the vast majority of Beatles fans.

    I look at Paul’s early work as a failed attempt to appear less than egotistical, simultaneously trying to play up his versatility factor but also play down the genius factor. There are brief flashes and reminders of the genius he was when he was a Beatle (1965 to 1967 were his hottest years – what killer songs!) but in all served to document the fact he was no longer a Beatle nor possessed that magic touch. The real Beatles magic came when all 4 of them were functioning and getting along. I love the White Album but can’t deny it was the sound of the band falling apart and the 1969 material I can live without. The magic emerged briefly when they did the rooftop performance, but otherwise, the dream was over and all that could follow was disappointment.

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    1. I’m writing a review of another album featuring a McCartney drop-in which could be the low of lows, a cringing experience. I would reply to John “I expected better of you, too,” as I think both suffered from the absence of friendly competition. I completely agree about “It Don’t Come Easy,” especially the life performance at the Concert for Bangladesh—the crowd went wild!

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  8. I always liked this album since it came out… To me its high points (“Too Many People”, “Eat At Home”. “Dear Boy”, “Uncle Albert”, “Smile Away”, “The Back Seat Of My Car”) are high indeed and the low points (“3 Legs”, “Long Haired Lady”, the two “Ram On” tracks) are pleasant. As for the lyrics, I’ve come to think that they never were the Beatles’ – as a group and solos – forte, although there are a few real gems among all that Krishna praising, Yoko praising, Linda praising, boutique leftism and love, love, love, so I mostly listen to the Beatles – as a group and solos, again – for the music (even when the lyrics are truly maladroit, such as in “How Do You Sleep?”).

    And whereas Lennon’s stance usually was I-say-what-I-will-and-damn-the-diplomacy, Macca was diplomacy incarnate most of the time, always eager to please (most of the Beatles’s more successful songs are his). Yes, Macca’s sweetness and Lennon’s acidness were a most perfect combination, each one neutering the other’s excesses, cliché but true. And no one can blame Macca for lack of trying. McCartney, his first solo album, an one-man-show, was panned by many critics. For Ram he went to the other pole, with top session musicians and the New York Philarmonic, and it was panned by many critics too. For his third solo album, Wings Wild Life, he found a third path: to be part of a band again – and many critics didn’t like it too. I find it hard not to think of that Ray Davies song: “it’s very hard to please the people every single time…” I’m glad these albums have been given another chance.

    As for Wings Wild Life, I think Alt Rock Dad should follow daughter’s advice and listen to it three times (although I find Badfinger’s best work is a good proposition for you to review)… I always like this album too, finding it good for hot off-work afternoons, not as personal as McCartney or as laboured as Ram (bar the last track, “Dear Friend” – the album’s “deep track”, to use your expression about Bad Company and their ilk). I know I’m in the minority, but I recommend Wild Life, albeit not as a masterpíece or even close, prefering McCartney and Ram.

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    1. Ain’t gonna happen. An album has to pique my interest in some way before I commit to deep listening, so Wild Life wouldn’t make the first cut. When I’ve got a to-do list that includes Monk, Sinatra, Bo Diddley, Radiohead, Mingus, Bowie, Fugazi, Genesis, Brubeck, Pixies, Sade, The Clash, PJ Harvey, Elmore James, Devo and The Andrews Sisters, why would I bother with a weak album by a guy I’ve already covered in more than twenty reviews? I think I’ve said enough about McCartney’s contributions or lack thereof and it’s definitely time to move on.

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