Are Paul McCartney’s solo and Wings albums worth buying? Was Wings really “the band the Beatles could have been”?
This is the third in a series of McCartney articles, but you can read each one independently should you prefer. The first part is here
I have a friend, Steve, who has never heard any of Paul McCartney’s solo and Wings LPs, except for, as he put it, the Frog Chorus, the one about no man’s land at Christmas, and Ebony and Ivory.
My job is therefore to share with him some of McCartney’s best songs and listen to Steve’s reaction.
Today Steve will be hearing songs from Ram.
But first let’s hear the story of Paul and Linda McCartney’s Ram
What Was Paul’s State Of Mind?
Glad you asked – it was “Getting A Little Bit Annoyed”
Let’s skip to the last day of 1970.
McCartney sued the other Beatles to allow him to legally leave the group, and three days later took an ocean liner to New York.
Criticism of the first LP was that it was too home-made and sketchy. Even Lennon got in on the act, giving an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, published in early 1971, saying “I was surprised it was so poor”. In the meantime George Harrison had released his first solo LP, the triple album “All Things Must Pass” to wide acclaim. Maybe George was the talented Beatle after all?
So Paul decided to up his game and find the best musicians in New York for the next record.
In the first week of January, top session drummer Denny Seiwell turned up at a dilapidated building to audition for an unknown band.
“I went down into the basement thinking I was going to get mugged at any moment” he said later. In the damp basement he found Paul and Linda McCartney. He and session guitarist David Spinozza became Paul and Linda’s backing band for the Ram album.
In between recording the album, Paul also had to go back to London to attend court regarding the small matter of dissolving the Beatles partnership, returning only once all the arguments had been made in evidence.
On 12 March 1971, the day Paul won his suit to dissolve The Beatles in court, the three other former Beatles drove to Paul’s house in St John’s Wood in Lennon’s Rolls Royce, at which point Lennon got out and threw two bricks through McCartney’s windows.
So we can safely say relations between the Paul and John were roughly similar to that of two neighbours with a boundary dispute arguing over a planning application.
Paul released his first solo single, “Another Day” while the case was in court, but left it off the album.“Another Day” is a classic piece of McCartney story-telling in the vein of Eleanor Rigby, and only slightly less tragic, about a woman working in a office “where the papers grow” and where “sometimes she feels so sad” until “the man of her dreams comes to break the spell” and then “leaves the next day”, the git.
Ram, which was released in May 1971, went to number one in the U.K. and number two in America.
The album starts with “Too Many People”, the song which overtly has a pop at John, as McCartney admitted in a Mojo interview in 2001:
“Piss off, cake. Like, a piece of cake becomes piss off cake, And it’s nothing, it’s so harmless really, just little digs. But the first line is about “too many people preaching practices.” I felt John and Yoko were telling everyone what to do. And I felt we didn’t need to be told what to do. The whole tenor of the Beatles thing had been, like, each to his own. Freedom. Suddenly it was “You should do this.” It was just a bit the wagging finger, and I was pissed off with it. So that one got to be a thing about them.”
It also contains the line “You took your lucky break and broke it in two”, another dig at John. In reply, John’s Imagine album contained the song “How Do You Sleep” with the couplet “The only thing you done was Yesterday / And since you’ve gone you’re just Another Day”
Ooh, get her.
Ram has so many great songs, such as “The Back Seat of My Car” which out-surfs The Beach Boys, the glam rock of “Monkberry Moon Delight”, the pastoral “Ram On” and the curious “Uncle Albert” which is as close to an Abbey-Road-side-two-style suite as a Beatles solo record was going to get at that point. This song wasn’t released as a single in the U.K., but reached number one on the US Billboard chart, selling a million copies and winning a Grammy in the process.
What the Critics thought then:
The critics hated it. Robert Christgau said it was “A major annoyance.” John Landau in Rolling Stone called it “Inconsequential” and, because critics get paid by the word, “the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far”, suggesting this was proof it was only Lennon who prevented “McCartney’s cutesy-pie, florid attempts at pure rock Muzak”.
I think Landau wasn’t a fan of this album in the same way Queen Grimhilde wasn’t a fan of Snow White. He and my friend Steve might have got along very well.
But let’s hear from the guy who liked the debut, the NME’s Alan Smith. Surely he must like it? Er, no.
“In the past few days I’ve played Ram over and over again in a desperate bid to find its redeeming features.
But they were right, you know. It’s awful!”
“RAM is an excursion into almost unrelieved tedium. The melodies are weak, the ideas are stale, the arrangements are messy.”
Oh. This is awkward. Tell us what you really think, Alan.
What the critics think now:
Pitchfork now gives the album 9.2/10, because decimal points are essential when reviewing art, and they say “Paul McCartney’s Ram …finds … a rock icon inventing an approach to pop music that would eventually become someone else’s indie pop.”
So a year after he lays down a blueprint for R. Stevie Moore, Beck and the lo-fi movement with his solo debut album McCartney, his next record, Ram, lays down a blueprint for the indie pop of Belle and Sebastian.
Two thumbs aloft there.
It sounds amazing. Where can I find this album?
Glad you asked. Happily, as with many McCartney albums from this decade, you shouldn’t need to pay more than £10 for an original copy in a used record shop. For people who dabble in life’s rich pageant of record collecting, there was a mono-only copy released for Record Store Day 2012 but the #vinylrevival has pushed the price of that one up to £50-ish. If you want to know what it’s like, play your stereo copy through a single speaker, or imagine it’s a bit like the stereo version, only mono. There was also a half speed remaster in 2021, priced accordingly, which sounds a lot like an original copy. Originals are cheap and plentiful enough to not worry about such things. (And yet, dear reader, I did).
Never mind the Critics and Record Collectors, what does your mate Steve think about the songs?
Despite all the sales and awards, the real prize is surely persuading my friend Steve that these McCartney songs are up there with, in his words, “the one about no man’s land”.
I played Steve tracks from Ram, starting with “Too Many People”:
Steve sighed. “I think my biggest problem is McCartney just thinks he can write a song about anything, and everyone says they love it.
“He looks at something and goes “Oh, that’s a glass” explained Steve, spying a glass from the corner of his eye. “Right, now how many words can I think of that rhyme with glass, and then for no reason, in no order, making no story as the song goes along, he puts all the words in the song.”
My friend Gary added “That’s what George Ezra does as well isn’t it?”
Steve looked delighted at the comparison. “A hundred per cent!”
I felt I had to intervene.
“Steve, are you saying George Ezra is the new Paul McCartney?”
Steve looked mischievous and smiled. “Well, no” he clarified, making a quick sideways glance, “Gary is saying that”.
This seemed very unfair, especially for this song. I pushed the case forward, “But ‘Too Many People’ is a song written to and about John Lennon. Telling him to wind his neck in a bit. It’s not just fluff”
Steve conceded some ground “I like that there is a story.”
“If only there was a book that told the story of records…” he said, slightly sarcastically.
We moved on to “Another Day”.
“I like it but it is a bit commercial”
I sighed. “What about ‘The Back Seat of My Car’?”
Steve was more positive. “I like this. I mean, it goes a bit messy and uses the la la la thing a bit too much when he has run out of words, but it’s a good song…”
We then moved on to “Uncle Albert”.
Steve smiled at me.
“Now you know all I am thinking is Only Fools and Horses…”
I tried to build a case. “Steve, this is a great McCartney trick, building a song suite, like on the b-side to Abbey Road. Who else would do this? Who else would even think of it? What’s more, this was a US number one hit…”
“That tells you all you need to know about America” scoffed Steve, “What is he talking about?” Steve was listening to the “We’re so sorry Uncle Albert” bit where Paul sounds like a posh man on the radio. “You’d expect this from The Goons!”
“Isn’t that what’s good about it?” I protested, “George Martin was the Goons’ producer. It’s showing Paul’s influences.”
But Steve had decided it wasn’t for him.
“It’s a gimmicky record that Timmy Mallett would produce and perform. And if Timmy Mallett produced it we’d all think it was a load of s—-. Here’s a question for you – why has no-one ever covered it?”
And on that note, we moved on. But he quite liked Ram, I think, even if Uncle Albert was a bridge too far.
Next time: Steve listens to the first two Wings albums.