|Note: This piece is a rewritten version of what was initially intended as the intro chapter to my proposed book on Paul McCartney’s Ram album for the 33 ⅓ series. However my submission last spring didn’t find a home, so with a little help from my friendly editor Emilio “Boogie” Goodwin Esq., I feel ready to share it with you. It’s never too late to revisit old essays! - JD
Between 2008 and 2012 there was something of a Ram renaissance happening in the US. Three song-for-song tribute albums were released and then, of course, McCartney, as part of his ongoing series of deluxe “Paul McCartney Archive Collection” reissues, recently re-released Ram with a 112-page book, photo prints, handwritten lyrics and notes, four CDs, and a bonus film DVD. Why the sudden interest in an album that, upon its original release, was critically dismissed by Robert Christgau as, “so lightweight they [the songs] float away even as Paulie layers them down with caprices”?
It turns out McCartney made a true “indie pop” album and no one knew it until recently. The songs on Ram soundtrack an element of “indie” culture that is too smart for its own good. It knowingly winks with twee cleverness in movies, TV, and fashion. People like Zooey Deschanel, for example, in her sitcom The New Girl and Wes Anderson radiate the same funky and fun vibe of songs like “Ram On” with its jaunty uke and personality quirks. Then there’s the Thrillington album (the McCartney-produced instrumental jazz adaptation of Ram), which could be the score to any Anderson movie (seriously, mute The Royal Tenenbaums and play Thrillington, tell me it doesn’t work like The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz). Even Portlandia/Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen, as a guest DJ on KCRW February 8, 2012, singled out the album saying, “It has all the sensibility of an experimental art indie album.”
I’ve been living with Ram for a long time it seems when an open call for submissions went out from the editor of the 33 ⅓ series on January 26, 2012. Immediately my mind went racing with albums to propose. I tried not to overthink it, but I did. My wife casually and calmly suggested Ram after I quickly threw out Townes Van Zandt and the Meat Puppets. Of course it would be Ram...The record is a 70s classic that sounds like it could’ve been created in the last five years. My process was tedious and involved gathering information about an album I thought I knew fairly in depth. I began reaching out to indie musicians (Ted Leo, Ben Gibbard, etc) and people I’d read were connected to the album in any tenuous way via email, even though they were total strangers to me. People like Thrillington graphic artist Jeff Cummins, Thrillington arranger Richard Hewson, and engineer Dixon Van Winkle all agreed to be interviewed for my working draft as well. At one point I chatted with my musician brother about the music that was consuming my waking minutes and the whirlwind of frustration I was having trying to craft an eye catching book proposal.
When he asked me why the album feels to me like a modern “indie pop” album, I told him, “It’s the homespun charm captured in a recording studio, the odd characters, eccentric choices regarding instrument arrangements - guitars and uke combined with vocal harmonies! The sound effects! The artwork is great too...crappy and thrown together.”
“Much of this can go into the writing! You are certainly not at a loss for anything. How about instead of dry chapters then, it's a section of interview/conversation -- instead of a text on recording technique, the work would be a text on music appreciation?”
“Oh, yes...that is ultimately what I want to do. Let’s hope for the best sonny boy. When’s happy hour?”
In 2009, thirty-eight years after its release, Ram was the catalyst for not one but TWO tribute projects. The first tribute came in the spring from the golden coast of California, Los Angeles and appeared on aquariumdrunkard.com. Ram on L.A., as it was cleverly titled, featured young musicians from the area like Bodies of Water, The Parson Redheads, and Frankel, and was organized by Justin Gage, founder of the music blog Aquarium Drunkard, Autumn Tone Records and the host/program director of weekly The Aquarium Drunkard Show on SIRIUS XM satellite radio. During his search to find a “running theme” in which to present a cohesive collection of L.A. musicians, Gage said, “Ram had begun to see a resurgence of sorts…coming up in conversations and on the turntables of various house parties. The theme was found.”
The album, as posted, is a (mostly) faithful reproduction of the charms and curveballs present on the original set. Bodies of Water’s cover of “Dear Boy” features the gorgeous vocals of Meredith Metcalf, which has the added twist of allowing for a female point of view in the lyric. Los Baby Fools version of “Heart of the Country” replaces Paul’s folksy lilt with melancholic damaged vocals and fuzz bass in place of acoustic guitar leads. It’s a great new arrangement that adds a new spin on the track. While the Radar Bros.’s recording of the classic “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” doesn’t match McCartney’s studio wizardry, it does make use of lo-fi tricks like whistling to cover the familiar trumpet line that are in-line with the spirit of the original work.
A scant four months later, in July 2009, the second unexpected Ram homage of the year came from the wild outer realms of New Jersey. It was produced by DJ/comedian/writer and host of The Best Show on WFMU Tom Scharpling. Simply titled Tom, this too was a song-for-song recreation featuring well-known names like Ted Leo, Aimee Mann, and Death Cab for Cutie, amongst others, covering the eccentric pop of Sir Paul.
On this collection, Hank IV’s electric freak-out on “Smile Away” is a gleeful monster that takes the “dumb” rocker elements inherent in the song to a logical and fun extreme, while Death Cab for Cutie’s “Dear Boy” is all about precision and preserving the melodic integrity of the McCartney tune. Ted Leo’s “The Backseat of My Car” retains the big finale arrangement of the original - complete with passionately growled ending vocals. Danielson’s creepy take on McCartney’s seriously fucked-up “Monkberry Moon Delight” is a real treat as is Dump’s good time take on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.”
Amazingly, neither Gage nor Scharpling were aware of the others’ Ram cover project. “I nearly drove off the road when I heard that someone else had planned a track-by-track tribute to an album that I had to convince people I liked un-ironically,” Scharpling said, “and we were both taken aback by the impossible timing and parallel thinking of the whole thing.”
A third tribute, The Ram Project by Dave Depper (of Loch Lomond, Norfolk & Western, Musee Mecanique, Blue Giant, Jolie Holland, Mirah, and more), came out in May 2011 through Jackpot Records. Depper, while battling a creative rut in Portland, Oregon turned to the songs of Paul McCartney and spent thirty days learning and home-recording the entire Ram album part-by-part: “It also seemed like the most technically challenging record I could tackle - songs like "Long Haired Lady" and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" have a million things going on in them, and I wanted to be pushed to the limits of what I could accomplish. On the flipside, songs like "Ram On" and "Heart of the Country" are relatively easy affairs, so I could start with the easy stuff and pick up skills along the way. It just sort of naturally came to me - of course it would be Ram!”
Of course it would be Ram… I found out that Ram meant a great deal to the musicians and organizers of the tributes and the album possessed an intangible quality that wasn’t picked up on by critics of the day. The conceptually homespun, “go local,” DIY mindset – the true indie mindset – that Paul McCartney was living and singing about on “Heart of the Country” was felt by Jon Landau to be “the lowest point on the album [because its] lyrics about the joys of country ring false” in his famously negative Rolling Stone review and yet now Justin Morey of the Black Hollies (who covered “Heart of the Country” on the Tom album) told me something that was echoed throughout my conversations with musicians who got inside these songs, “For people that appreciate good music, Ram is a timeless LP that should be included inside any record collection.”
At the time of Ram’s release, the demise of The Beatles was a wound too deep and too fresh for some listeners and critics to fully appreciate what was happening on the record. With songs like “Monkberry Moon Delight”, “3 Legs”, and “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" full of whimsical characters, off-the-wall lyrics, and innovative sonic trickery (“Uncle Albert” alone has 12 unique sections, special EQ to simulate a telephone, and a difficult horn part courtesy of George Martin), Ram is an album whose unique “indie” quirks made sense with time.
For me the album is a top to bottom gem. It’s a record that has been with me since I was a kid, learning about rock ‘n’ roll history, grooming my music snobbery, and loving The Beatles. Thanks to “classic rock” radio I heard “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” dozens of times and, in my spongy child’s brain, I thought the song just had to be by The Beatles and from the soundtrack of Yellow Submarine. To me the song had the qualities of “Hello Goodbye” and since it had sound effects, I assumed the group famous for studio magic ala Sgt. Pepper had to have recorded the song I told everybody who would listen to me was titled “Hands Across the Water.”
I read about The Beatles and the 60s constantly. I scavenged used records and public libraries for all the music I’d read about. The Stones, Dylan, The Beach Boys, and more filled my head with songs and my hands with dreams of music making. I bought a cassette four-track home-recording device and tried (with the help of my brothers) to record “masterpieces.” We all got caught up in the magic of music.
Towards the end of my teen years I finally bought the LP (I even once filmed myself flipping through records for a music video I was making about me and my brother’s band and Ram was prominently on display in the clip). It has always been one of my “go to” albums. Definitely my favorite post-Beatles Macca album and one of the best pop/rock albums of the 70s. It managed to pack a lot of sound into a small amount of space. Neither John Lennon nor George Harrison recorded anything this fun after the end of The Beatles. McCartney even slipped some heavy (not so “nice”) put-downs (“Too Many People”) and (not so) subtle erotica into the album (“Eat at Home” isn’t about home cooking if ya get my drift) - think of Kevin Barnes’ most recent songs for of Montreal for example.
Ram is one of the great treasures of “indie pop.” It’s an album that makes more sense as the years go by, not less. Aquarium Drunkard’s Justin Gage ended our conversation with this sentiment and I feel like it sums up how uniquely timeless the album sounds today,“Like his debut, Ram felt looser and more off the cuff than the Beatles output. Aside from explicit examples (i.e. Elliot Smith) I think McCartney's curiosity for varied experimentation are his lasting legacy in terms of indie culture or whatever.”