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.
The Cars remind me of the guy who begins a fuck with lots of promise but then pulls back at exactly the wrong moment, forcing you to resort to your fingers to finish the job.
The pullback may be a move that falls flat, or a dumb-ass technique he read about somewhere guaranteed to make a woman squirt like a high-pressure garden hose. Sometimes it’s because he’s afraid of shooting too early, so he starts to putz around while trying to regain the upper hand over his wayward member. Whatever the cause, it breaks the connection because now he’s thinking about himself and only himself. There’s nothing worse than a self-conscious lover.
I used to be nice about it, coming up with sneaky ways to get my rocks off manually so the guy wouldn’t feel embarrassed. It was easier when I was on top because then I could slide off and distract him by putting a tit in his mouth while I reached down and took care of business. It was harder when I was on my back or taking it doggy-style, but eventually I learned to wait him out patiently and use the few precious seconds between position changes to relieve the tension.
Once my dominant side took over, being nice became the least of my concerns. If a guy took a wrong turn, I’d push him off or pull away, stand up and jack off while he watched. That was a far more effective technique because men love watching women masturbate and it usually gets them focused. Sometimes I could even get a decent fuck out of the effort.
Unfortunately, I can’t do that with The Cars’ first album, since it has been about four decades since they committed the effort to disc. It’s not a bad record; there are some songs I really like and Elliot Easton is an outstanding lead guitarist. The songs are basic rock songs disguised by cheeky but often nonsensical lyrics and heavy use of a decorative synthesizer. I say “decorative” because like so many bands in the late 70’s and 80’s, the synthesizer was used to make songs sound more important and cool than they really were. Unlike Devo, who managed to use a synth in a way that kept the music edgy, the other bands of the era went for the cheap dramatic flourish instead. The reason I chose The Cars’ first album instead of a greatest hits collection is because their synthesizer-dependence only increased over time, and listening to those songs would cause my sensitive ears to recoil in horror.
I don’t know who chose the track order, but opening with the weakest song on the album isn’t the best way to make new friends. “Good Times Roll” is hardly an original title, and the music hardly evokes good times. The chord structure is simple enough but the choice to use a declining pattern tends to make the song a downer, especially in contrast to the promise of the title. I suppose the dour chord pattern could be a statement of New Wave ironic chic (Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True is full of that sort of stuff), but if irony was the goal, one would think there would be some confirmation in the lyrics. But no, they’re just silly:
Let the good times roll
Let them knock you around
Let the good times roll
Let them make you a clown
Let them leave you up in the air
Let them brush your rock and roll hair
Let the good times roll
Ric Ocasek employs his soon-to-be-overused pouty vocal style to the point of irritation, and the harmonies used on the last line of the chorus are a pale imitation of Queen (the producer was a Queen alumnus). The intrusion of synth-produced strings causes even more damage. When you have as natural an opening song as “Just What I Needed” in your possession, failing to place it in the lead spot is tantamount to criminal negligence.
While the opening is so Tommy James, “My Best Friend’s Girl” is at least a more coherent composition. We get to hear Elliot Easton’s lead guitar more clearly, and he gives a pretty impressive all-around performance on the fills and in the solo. Ocasek’s lead vocal isn’t much better, and his occasional Bolan-esque grunts lack sincerity and seem out of context. The harmonies here are stronger, and the rhythm section of Benjamin Orr and David Robinson keeps things moving at a nice pace. The song definitely encourages you to sing along, so overall I think “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a plus.
Then there’s “Just What I Needed,” a song on a much higher plane. The opening passage is fantastic, with its strong forward movement dramatized by single then double power chords that vanish in the seamless transition to the bass-and-drum drive of the first verse. Though I definitely would have whacked the synth and replaced it with more Elliot Easton, this sucker rocks so hard even the synth can’t kill it, and when Elliot gets his shot in the spotlight, he nails it with a perfectly-arranged solo that ends on an exciting upward run. Benjamin Orr’s lead vocal is outstanding, expressing the contradictory emotions of self-loathing and desire with just the right amount of tension:
I don’t mind you comin’ here
And wastin’ all my time
‘Cause when you’re standin’, oh so near
I kinda lose my mind
It’s not the perfume that you wear
It’s not the ribbons in your hair
And I don’t mind you comin’ here
And wastin’ all my time
The way to read the lyrics is as follows: the guy is lying in six of the eight lines. The only directly-spoken truth is “‘Cause when you’re standin’ oh so near/I kinda lose my mind.” All the other lines reflect the exact opposite of what he’s feeling. It is the perfume, it is the ribbons, and fuck yeah, he wants her to be there. The spot harmonies on “ribbons in your hair” are inspired and always give me the chills. As an exposition of male paralysis when overwhelmed by desire, there is no better song than “Just What I Needed,” and the fact that it kicks fucking ass is a super-duper-sized bonus!
“I’m in Touch with Your World” is the most quirky song on the album, and I rather like quirky. Interestingly, the guitar duet establishes the beat, while the percussion instruments (drums, cymbals, bells and ratchet) make the whole thing sound like a mechanical fun house. Ric Ocasek’s vocal is shoved into deep background by the heavy reverb, adding to the mystery of the sound. Both the narrator and object of his one-sided conversation are virtual shut-ins who have created alternative realities through either psilocybin, science fiction or both, and so the message “I’m in touch with your world” is an attempt by Party A to encourage Party B to air his weird thoughts in a safe space. The closing lines, “It’s such a lovely way to go” could imply suicide but the music doesn’t communicate darkness—it’s “music for those whose inner compasses are out of calibration” or more conventionally, those whose cranial containers are “a few bricks shy of a load.”
We leave the introverts in their artificial cocoon and return to the equally complex world of sexual interaction with “Don’t Cha Stop.” Given my perpetually horny nature, one might think that I would love a song that opened with these lines:
Right here I’d like to melt inside of you
Right here you kiss is totally new
Right here your hands are soft and creamy
Right here your mouth is wet and dreamy
Wrong! Of all the songs on the album, “Don’t Cha Stop” is by far the most irritating, a song that turns sex into the aural equivalent of a Disney tune. Imagine trying to fuck during the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland—anyone who can pull that off is in serious need of long-term psychotherapy. The sickeningly sweet chorus sounds like it was written for pre-teens who have no idea what those funny feelings in the nether regions are all about and are still dumb enough to think people kiss with their mouths closed. I’m also irritated that the opening guitar pattern and flanged tone sounds eerily similar to the opening passage of The Move’s “The Minister,” and it wouldn’t be the first time that an American band ripped off The Move. Their unique combination of musical excellence and complete obscurity in the American market made them an easy target.
Let’s MOVE on to the emotionally honest twin of “Just What I Needed,” a song that exposes the moments of desperation experienced usually by those held in the thrall of mating season (ages 16-30) and gives them legitimacy as a natural step in the rite of passage. The narrator of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight” is in a real bad way—so horny he has no problem being used, abused and lied to, and he’ll do it anywhere you like—a convenient sidewalk, on a launching pad at Cape Canaveral, the grassy knoll—hell, maybe even Disneyland! Ric Ocasek finally finds some discipline and delivers a performance true to the character, and there’s more than enough excellent work from Elliott Easton throughout the song to make you forget the synthesizer had ever been invented. This album would have been a thousand times better had The Cars realized what a great lead guitar player they had and let him the fuck loose.
“Bye Bye Love” features another unoriginal title, another round of flanged guitar and really annoying synth fills that detract from a comparatively strong vocal from Ocasek. What I notice most in this piece is the outstanding drum work from David Robinson, but underneath all the college-level lyrics, this is really just another song that blames it all on the woman. It’s followed by the darker tones of “Moving in Stereo,” a song about failing to face reality that goes absolutely nowhere. We end our journey with “All Mixed Up,” an odd combination of medieval English folk and off-day Queen.
In the interest of supporting your right to hear both sides of the story, you can head over to AllMusic and read a glowing review of The Cars, where you will see the album described as “a genuine rock masterpiece” and that “all nine tracks are New Wave/rock classics.” What I hear is the sound of a band addicted to the latest toys to the point that they forgot about the real talent they possessed in their quest for trendiness.
Thank fuck for my fingers.
Note: For an extremely well-written alternative view on The Cars, see Greg Cleary’s comment below.