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.
Originally published October 2012, revised June 2016.
George Martin named Abbey Road his favorite Beatles album.
Well, there’s no accounting for taste.
In fairness to Sir George I do believe that Abbey Road was his greatest achievement as a producer, for the man worked wonders with seriously substandard material submitted by Messrs. Lennon and McCartney. He also had to work around irreparably damaged group dynamics, piecing together work that was often recorded by band members in separate studios to make it sound like The Beatles were having the time of their lives. In the so-called suite on Side 2, George Martin patched together a series of incomplete musical ideas with no lyrical connection whatsoever into something that resembles a coherent musical work.
But once you get past the production, you realize that there really is no there there.
Abbey Road has a terribly sterile, cold feel to it, but in this case the fault lies not with the producer but with the performers. Lennon is absolutely full of himself and of Yoko and comes across as a man with a highly inflated belief in his status as an artiste. McCartney is equally self-absorbed and out of touch, and his work on Abbey Road is consistently substandard. Even Ringo’s contributions flop, and his drum solo on the “suite” is one of his saddest moments as a Beatle.
George Harrison was the only bloke who showed up for work. “Something” is a love song for the ages (though I do cringe his use of the archaic word “woo”), featuring George’s most accomplished lead vocal and some of his sweetest guitar work on record. “Here Comes the Sun” is his most purely joyful contribution to the catalog, a beautifully simple work free of spiritual proselytizing and classic Harrison bite. The only other memorable performances on Abbey Road are Paul’s exceptional bass part on “Something,” the long, heavy fade on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and the harmonies on “Because” (especially when sung a capella on Anthology 3).
Even with his two solid contributions, George could never carry the load by himself. While I’m sure he took some satisfaction in finally out-composing and outperforming the guys who always looked at him as the little kid, we’re only talking about two tracks in a package of seventeen.
That leaves a lot of room for crap.
Lennon’s contributions range from gibberish to more gibberish. “Come Together” is a cascade of nonsense lyrics (partially ripped off from Chuck Berry) building to his Christ-fantasy statement, “Come together, right now, over me.” The aforementioned “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” becomes palatable only when he stops singing and mumbling. The lyrics to “Sun King” sound like they were written by a very happy drunk or a very young child. “Mean Mr. Mustard” is a shadow of Lennon’s early wit, as is its truncated twin, “Polythene Pam.”
McCartney had been in serious decline since Sgt. Pepper, slipping in a few good singles here and there to mask the extent of his creative atrophy. He sinks to the bottom with “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” one of the most pointless and stupid songs in history, a jolly song about a murderer who bashes brains. Lovely! “Oh, Darlin’” couldn’t even survive the horrid Get Back sessions, and at this point McCartney was so far removed from the kid who used to channel Little Richard, he should have . . . let it be. “You Never Give Me Your Money” opens with promise but quickly dissolves into a series of scattered fragments that leads to a “suite” of scattered fragments. As for McCartney’s other contributions, “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” is an inside joke even the insiders didn’t get, and even the 17th century poem he “borrowed” for “Golden Slumbers” is a back catalogue poem.
And while no one likes to pick on poor Ringo, the truth is the man couldn’t write a song to save his life, and “Octopus’ Garden” defines the word “hokey.” When I saw Cirque de Soleil’s Love in Vegas and “Octopus’ Garden” started blasting through the surround sound near the end of the performance, I walked out.
I know the Baby Boomers are in complete denial about this, but The Beatles peaked as album artists with Sgt. Pepper. After that, they put out a few great songs, but their album work was inconsistent at best. The White Album, the Get Back/Let It Be fiasco and Abbey Road are all indications of a band that stayed together way past their prime. I listen to those works with the same sadness people must have felt while watching Willie Mays embarrass himself by hanging on for one year too long.
From Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles had always tried to improve on what they had done before—to make the next album better than the last. Once the group dynamics began to shatter during the making of The White Album and the once-friendly competition between John and Paul turned ugly, the quality of their material declined precipitously. They had lost their drive and were running on fumes. They were able to get away with it because they were The Beatles, with legions of fans ready to pronounce anything they released as yet another triumph in a never-ending success story.
The album may say “Beatles,” but the Beatles were long gone by the time Abbey Road hit the shelves. The guys who had always tried to outdo themselves had become undone.