Browse By

Paul McCartney’s “Ram” Reconsidered

>

In early 1971, with The Beatles involved in some bitter legal disputes with each other and with their own management, Paul McCartney recorded Ram with his wife Linda and three hired guns, guitarists David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken, and drummer Denny Seiwell. The album was eviscerated by critics on its release, with Jon Landau and Robert Christgau particularly vicious in their assault on both the album and McCartney’s general reputation relative to John Lennon. Some writers were grudgingly complimentary about McCartney’s sheer mastery of the craft of production, but almost no one could be heard to support the material itself.

There has certainly been a reappraisal, with some glimmering that Ram represents not a failure to live up to The Beatles (or to the expectations of Village Voice writers), but rather a beginning of something new. Perhaps AllMusic editor Stephen Thomas Erlewine is correct that “in retrospect it looks like nothing so much as the first indie pop album, a record that celebrates small pleasures with big melodies.”

I have always loved Ram – it never occurred to me to find it wanting. I listened to it with headphones as a nine year old, and I put the vinyl on in the living room once in a while now.

I don’t know that a successful album by Paul McCartney needs defending, so instead I’ll mostly just appreciate some aspects of the album that continue to delight and engage me after 45 years of listening.

At the level of form, McCartney extends the episodic, tone-shifting techniques of some late Beatles material with a surer, less purely experimental hand, achieving a sense of authoritatively planned effect rather than found-art collage. That is not to say one is better or worse, simply that McCartney didn’t stop learning, and Ram reflects a high degree of technique and confidence in building song stories out of small fragments. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a huge radio hit, is the most overt example on Ram.

Ram is worth listening to for rock musicians simply because of the tonal range and sheer beauty of its electric guitar parts. I have been unable to find definitive information on who played what, but the three guitarists together had a boatload of great ideas, and they are recorded exquisitely. From the massive, aggressive chugging rhythm guitar in “Smile Away,” to the casually brilliant country blues licks of “3 Legs,” to the arching, Abbey Road-esque orchestral guitars of “The Back Seat of My Car,” Ram exploits the range of the electric guitar in a way virtually unmatched by its contemporaries.

That attention to the guitar tones points to the larger beauty of Ram: the whole thing just sounds amazing, with a warmth and clarity rarely heard outside of jazz and classical recordings at that time. There is no mush, no desperate layered glue to cover flaws – everything is heard, and everything counts in these arrangements. The orchestral arrangements are, like those in The Beatles’ best work, integral to the instrumentation, rather than grafted on. “The Back Seat of My Car” is gloriously and goofily grandiose, with one of the biggest sounds I am aware of on record in the period, but it never seems to quite get away from itself.

Paul’s voice is passionate and engaged and fully in character on “The Back Seat of My Car,” keeping up with the film score-level drama without difficulty. This contrasts strikingly with the halting, uptight delivery of “She’s Leaving Home” on Sgt. Pepper, for example. Paul was a thoroughly grown up singer by 1971, and Ram features some of his most fluid, confidently virtuosic vocal performances.

The songs themselves range in quality from slightly banal to truly sublime. But each is cared for very well, each has a distinctive and intimate voice. They are, with one exception, about small topics on a domestic scale. Married sex, broken friendships, lonely old people, casual boasting between friends, teenage romance. “Monkberry Moon Delight” is the outlier here: if you figure out what that song is about, please let me know in the comments.

The songwriting on Ram was a particular focus of scorn in some quarters. It’s fair to say that many high profile cool rock dudes characterized the album in terms such as suburban, trivial, empty, bland, irrelevant. I think they missed the boat. By insisting that McCartney be “relevant,” they ignored the ways in which he was advancing songwriting and recording along with others. Ram is highly relevant to these art forms, it simply didn’t show much interest in political culture as understood by the rock press of the time.

Put some headphones on, take a listen to Ram, and forget if you can that this is an album by a former Beatle. I think that just about any musician would be thrilled to have created something so beautiful and compelling. Life is not just the bigger picture, in fact life is mostly the small details, the close in. With Ram, McCartney nudged pop songwriting in the direction of this understanding, and it remains one of his finest works.

Ken Hymes

Photo by Jim Summaria

PS. Beatle fans might enjoy our upcoming film, “Deconstructing Sgt Pepper,” which opens on February 6, in most cases playing for only one night. You can see a list of theatres here. We’re adding theatres every day, so please check often. Here’s the trailer.

PPS. You may also enjoy our other McCartney-related posts In Praise of Paul: What’s Wrong with Silly? and Pure Paul Pleasure. Plus, check out Ken’s thoughts on Joni Mitchell’s album Hejira here.

55 thoughts on “Paul McCartney’s “Ram” Reconsidered”

  1. James R Baskin says:

    In re: Deconstructing “Monkberry…” I always saw it as McCartney once again channeling Doctor Longhair, only this time in the context of a tasty confection, à la “Savoy Truffle.”

    1. James R Baskin says:

      Er, make that *Professor* Longhair….(Coffee hasn’t kicked in yet)…

  2. Mitch K says:

    McCartney’s best album,hands down!!

    1. Scott Reppert says:

      You know of what you speak, sir…

  3. Fred says:

    Thanks for this. Always liked this overlooked and underrated album. Some real gems on it. I’m always amazed to read that it was trashed in contemporary reviews.
    I always considered “Monkberry” to be along the lines of those nonsensical/ half joking throwaways that would crop up on beatle albums from time to time- fun and lighthearted. I always consider the angst and edge to be a venting of frustrations he might have been facing in the early days after the beatles break up. I like the tune. ” keep up, cat’s kittens.” sometimes i say that to my kids when we’re on a walk.

  4. Barry Knoedl says:

    Up until Revolver, John Lennon was the dominant writer in the Beatles. Don’t believe me? Count the number of Lennon originals compared to McCartney’s. On Revolver, McCartney emerged as a strong writer. From Pepper on, McCartney lead the direction of the band, and was Lennon’s equal as a songwriter. The surprises in Mcartney’s music was tonally pleasing, where Lennon’s genius made you listen harder to understand his meaning, or adjust your sense of what is a compelling melody.
    My main point here is that when Ram was released in 1981, I made the comment to a friend that McCartney hadn’t left The Beatles, but The Beatles had left McCartney. I loved Lennon’s and Harrison’s releases, but they had a different character than what I had expected on a Beatles album. Ram, to me, was as suitable a follow up to Abbey Road, as The White Album was to Magical Mystery Tour.

    1. Barry Knoedl says:

      Of course I meant 1971, the year Ram was released.

      1. Ted Rey says:

        It was released in 2001

        1. Ted Rey says:

          It was after his long time Wife, Heather Died. John Lennon was knighted by King Arthur. And Ringo attacked George and Olivia in their home 2001 was a bad year.

    2. Brian Carter says:

      very well put-i always felt the same way. “ram” is a beatles LP with only one beatle on it. but some beatle songs only had one beatle on them. it’s incredible-and “wildlife” is as raw as “ram” is lush. “smile away”-man-what a tremendous song millions of people would love-if they only could hear it ! thanks for a great article.

  5. Bill says:

    I assumed Monkberry Moon Delight was some kind of homemade liquor (moonshine).

  6. Brian Karem says:

    Nice article. Monkberry moon delight with slang for getting with a girl. I have always liked this album. And in fact have played some of the songs live with my band

    1. Brian Carter says:

      i always thought “smile away” would be a killer bar band song ! i hope you played that one.

    2. Lucas O'heyze says:

      Its ice cream flavours.

  7. Bill says:

    Loved this album from the day it was released. Nice to see somebody has caught up and praised it for what McCartney (the Genius) was able to lay down on vinyl. BTW, I always thought Monkberry was a reference to cocaine use.

  8. Kevin Malone says:

    I love Paul’s first two solo albums. They are brilliant and have stood the test of time for me as I can still listen to them and enjoy every second of them.

  9. Mark Wheeless says:

    I wore out at least three 8 track tapes of Ram. Monkberry moon delight is about a tryst with a large woman, and washing it down with some homemade “anesthetic”.

  10. Gaetano Augustus Vicini says:

    Ken, “Monkberry” is a cluster of lyrical rants about the break up. Here’s a little insight…The intro lyric is a parody on Lennon’s drug use and banal piano meanderings (dreadful cantata) on the Plastic Ono band, and how it was received by the public and possibly his own confession on his critics harshness.. He even goes further to mock Lennon’s ‘well well well’ this time offering to clean it up and add a much more melodic approach than Lennon’s attempt on his own intro to ‘Long haired lady.’ further offering the suggestion to John to “eat at home” opposing Lennon’s more unsubtle reference to ‘deciding to eat her’ in public. More Lennon attacks on ‘Too many people.’ The sinews, nerves and veins are the 3 Beatles. The two youngsters in a barrel sucking or smoking Monkberry are Paul reflecting on his youth with John. “don’t get left behind” message is a reoccurring theme as well as several others on the album “you took your lucky break and broke it in two” “we believed that we can’t be wrong” “your last mistake’ “how much you’ve missed” many of these messages were taken by John as personal messages to him. McCartney sings about his life of domestication and his lack of drive in his career and old age metaphorically and Billy Budapest (Beatle Bill was a nickname for Ringo who was doing rather well in the charts at the time) and “the gist of your letter” is in response to an scathing open letter written by John. 3 legs by the way is also about the remaining 3 Beatles and how they teamed against Paul in a law suit following the break up. A fly flies in is a subtle reference to Yoko by using the title of a film made by John and Yoko. Smile way is basically what it is, smiling away at the rest “learning how to do that’ is the sung in the chorus. Speaking of Yoko…Admiral Halsey was a notorious Japanese hater. true. Sound far fetched? Look at the album cover. A Beatle screwing another Beatle (4 Beatles are shown) and A photo of Paul and Linda in what appears to be a sheet (mocking the Lennon bed ins)in Masks that look rather Asian. McCartney was bitter at this time and had plans to form a band (we’ll go winging’ from the song “I am your singer” on the wild life album )but he was still entertaining the fact of possibly getting back to working with John or the Beatles, hence the multitude of sublime catch phrases on Ram.. The intro to ‘uncle albert’ is an admission to that, an apology. from the upcoming book, “Beatle wars”

    1. Frank Annunziata says:

      RAM, in my opinion, is the most Beatlesque “post Beatle” offering of them ALL. It takes chances in the pop medium while maintaining a steadfast focus on melody, guitar edge and energy. Paul is coming of age here as an individual artist most certainly…and in this effort we do, get a true gauge on just how “McCartneyesque” The Beatles REALLY WERE! One gets the true sense that RAM is the first “McCartney BEING McCartney” offering. It’s clear that Paul has no resistance from others and an unstoppable and passionate desire to EXPLORE STRUCTURE AND SOUND. Be it right or wrong…this IS McCartney and I find RAM to be 100% SPOT ON McCartney! Vocally Paul SOARS on this album. Demonstrating his unique vocal versatility, amazing dexterity and pure interpretative GENIUS! As composer Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey, Dear Boy, Too Many People, Heart Of The Country, Monkberry Moon Delight and Backseat Of My Car stand tall in the lineup of McCartney’s unprecedented repertoire. RAM is a special work from one of the most important artists in music history! VIVA SIR PAUL McCARTNEY!!!

      1. Feldon says:

        and when we’re finished driving…we could say we were late in arriving….

  11. Bill Smith says:

    Re Monkberry Moon Delight I have always assumed it refers to a home brew, or possibly an edible, shared among friends. Really more about the comrades hip of an evening with good friends than about the named potable.

  12. DJ Papendry says:

    I’ve always felt that Monkberry Moon Delight, was sort of a taunt (in gibberish) at John and George, i.e, “Ketchup soup and puree’,” Catch up, don’t get left behind boys. It’s a fickle world and industry and you have to remain creative and release material if you want to remain relevant. With Linda, childishly singing, “Get left behind,” in the background, as she can be heard on Admiral Halsey’s, “Naaa naaa,” which I believe Paul wrote about the breakup of the Beatles.

  13. Michael Nicklus says:

    I always thought that Paul’s vocals on Monkberry Moon Delight were the result of him being drunk while doing that take. His vocals are unhinged, and unlike his vocals on anything else!!!! I love it!!!!

  14. Greg Heyes says:

    I’ve always thought the point of Monkberry was a play on words, with a dose of anger, probably expressing frustration with legal issues post Bealtes break up.

  15. Bronwyn Cassedy says:

    From Beatles Bible: Inspired by his children’s use of wordplay, Monkberry Moon Delight featured lyrics chosen more for their phonetic sound than their meaning. … 9, hence the line in the song, ‘sipping monkberry moon delight’. It was a fantasy milk shake.” Paul McCartney.”

  16. HappyRon Hill says:

    I think it’s almost irrelevant that this album was dissed by critics, it was a hit and all of the radio in the 70s, so I think it’s partially critics catching up to what the public in general thought.

    Hopefully Paul will continue to be re-appraised by everyone, the more i listen to his post beatles work I think there is some great stuff.

  17. Riley says:

    Yes! A piano up my nose, and the wind played a dreadful cantata!

  18. Tom Wheeler says:

    Given he produced a version of Monkberry Moon Delight with Screaming Jay Hawkins, I have thought it was his tribute to songs like Alligator Wine.

  19. terrell harris says:

    Monkberry-obvious drug song

  20. Steve says:

    I so agree with that article. I was 11 y/o when I got. It’s was then and my favorite post Beatles McCartney album that he has done

  21. Devo says:

    “Monkberry Moon Delight” is about catsup (or ketchup).

  22. John Hardin says:

    Ram proved to the world that Paul McCartney didn’t need John Lennon, or the other Beatles, to create great music. To me, it’s the album that actually launched Paul’s solo career.

  23. Michael Dill says:

    Ram is a great album, but I can’t consider it the first ‘indie’ lp. Particularly since Paul had already released McCartney, which bears all the earmarks of an indie record.

  24. Glenn Allen says:

    Monkberry Moon Delight is a drink. Maybe some kind of moonshine “two youngsters concealed in a barrel,
    Sucking monkberry moon delight” or “try some of this honey. What is it? Monkberry Moon Delight” it’s a drink. As for the rest of the lyrics… just nonsense. But Paul wails like nobody else can in rock-n-roll. I love it!

  25. Scott says:

    I was so intrigued by the idea that “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” was both a Number 1 hit and a song that has never been played live that I wanted to do a short documentary about it. I’d like to see some smart person convince Paul to play it live at least once. It’s epic and wonderful.

    1. Ivan says:

      Great idea!

  26. Marty says:

    Monkberry Moon Delight is obviously heroin in reference to Lennon and Ono: “the horrible sight / of Two youngsters concealed in a barrel (Bagism).”

  27. Ted amoruso says:

    One of McCartney ‘s masterpieces!

  28. Ivan says:

    I’m surprised that so many people had different meanings for “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Paul literally did see his kids drinking this stuff from a barrel.

    “When my kids were young they used to call milk ‘monk’ for whatever reason that kids do – I think it’s magical the way that kids can develop better names for things than the real ones. In fact, as a joke, Linda and I still occasionally refer to an object by that child-language name. So, monk was always milk, and monkberry moon delight was a fantasy drink, rather like Love Potion No. 9, hence the line in the song, ‘sipping monkberry moon delight’. It was a fantasy milk shake.” Paul McCartney

    Nothing to do with drugs, and perhaps overanalyzed by most. RAM is about simple pleasures, almost impervious to analysis.

  29. Randy H Allen says:

    You would think that with a solo album that’s what it would be, all songs by Paul McCartney like Lennon did with “Plastic Ono Band” and “Imagine”. It wasn’t . Every song was different with even the vocals sounding like 4 different blokes. “Ram On’ and “Monkberry Moon Delight” sounded like 2 totally different people. “The Back Seat Of My Car’ could have been on “Abbey Road”. The album was an adventure and that’s what made it so great. Many say “Band On The Run” or “Flowers In The Dirt” were his greatest works. Maybe but “Ram” was his most unique, his most McCartney, and I think it’s a wonderfully enjoyable piece of work. I’ve bought it many times in many different packages and I still listen to it today.

  30. Rick says:

    I’ve been listening to it since the day it came out. Love every note. For more listening pleasure
    check out the monophonic version. It smokes!

  31. Steve says:

    Eat at Home’s guitar riff was very reminiscint of Day Tripper. Awesome.

  32. Dave Wilson (@David_Wilson) says:

    Great review of this classic lp! Thank you!! I too was always in awe of the guitar work on this recording. Some really, really tasty playing that tapped into multiple genres. The title track and it’s reprise are nothing short of haunting. As a kid, I wore this record out and I always felt Paul was on some other level with this one. His vocals on “Back Seat of my Car” are perhaps his best ever. Those big drums and scorching guitars at the end (with his screaming vocals) still give me chills. I’d be remiss in not mentioning Linda’s vocals. This was the harmony sound they crafted that would come to define Wings. It was so unique and worked so well. Love is long!

  33. Kenny Sherman says:

    Ram has always been my favorite Macca solo album and in my opinion, it’s one of the top 25 albums of all time by any artist. It is a vocal tour de force from beginning to end and to my ears, it’s exactly what someone would’ve hoped for in a Beatle solo album. So, I was stunned when I looked back at the disgust and derision contained in so many of the original 1971 reviews. It has always been apparent to me that Paul was REALLY pissed off when he made Ram and even though he may have expressed it in some abstract ways (unlike Lennon, who was widely hailed for his direct lyrics at the time), he did not hide it. From the beetle screwing the other beetle on the back cover, to the scolding of “too many people preaching practices” (John & Yoko anyone?) in the opening track for crapsake, Paul’s bitchiness was right there for all to see. How about the hurt and abandonment expressed in 3 Legs? Is there really any doubt this is all about his issues with the other Fabs? Then there’s the protaganist in “Smile Away”, who is so annoyed by the final verse that he ridiculously claims that “I can smell your teeth a mile way”. And yeah, “Monkberry Moon Delight” might be absurdist, but is there’ any doubt that it’s an abstract version of reality as a bad dream? It’s amazing to me that all of these hip critics could’ve so completely missed the point in 1971. It’s like they collectively decided that McCartney really was the sentimental Beatle who wrote granny music and as a result, totally missed the absract, biting and dark humor within most of the songs- not to mention the inventive melodies, arrangements and production, as well as the stunning vocals thought. Well, maybe I would expect that from someone like Robert Christgau, but you’d think Jon Landau would’ve known better. It might be interesting to find out now if he has revised his opinions. I know his celebrated client, Bruce Springsteen, is certainly a fan as am I. Sheer brilliance.

  34. Ron Eckhouse says:

    Screamin’ Jay Hawkins might be able to explain Monkberry Moon Delight if he were alive!!!!! 😉

  35. Elliott Walker says:

    I agree that this album could easily be considered as indie-pop. The track, Ram On, stands out in particular. This sounds very current and, frankly, could be easily sung by Daniel Rosen of the Department of Eagles or his other group, Grizzly Bear. Lovely track, lovely album.

  36. Chris Horton says:

    “Ram On” was a psudonym for Paul during Beatlemania when he wanted to go to a restaurant incognito.

    1. Amy Godiva says:

      It actually preceded Beatlemania. Macca called himself Paul Ramon during the Silver Beetles days.

  37. Hal88 says:

    Totally spot on Ken. I loved Ram from the moment I heard it upon release and could never understand all of those negative reviews. Thank you for hitting the mark.

  38. James R. Stout says:

    In some ways every song on “Ram” was like a well-crafted sequel to a previous Beatles song. “Dear Boy” was in the vein of “Your Mother Should Know”. “Too Many People” was the next chapter of “You Never Give Me Your Money”. “3 Legs” was an odder and older “Martha My Dear”. “Eat At Home” was after relaxing a bit upon return from “Back In The USSR”. Although not really much alike in sound, “Ram” and “Ram On” were “Sgt. Peppers” and “Reprise”. The style of guitar on “I Will” was taken out and re-purposed on “Heart Of The Country”. As already mentioned by the article writer, the usage of a mini rock opera on “Abby Road” was reused on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”. The screaming vocals on “Monkberry Moon Delight” are a glance back at “Oh Darling”. “Long Haired Lady” was the earthy more sensual stage of Paul getting to really know “Michelle” and then letting her chime in playfully. I think you get my point by now. The best part was it all sounded fresh and new and still does. I was 16 when the album came out. As a guitar player, I had much to digest with that album. While it isn’t as smooth as “BOTR”, it is my favorite of his.

  39. Rip Rense says:

    With McCartney at his exuberant best, this is a summery album exploding with color and joyfulness. It is indeed as well-produced and pleasing to the ear as the author makes clear in this article. In the end, even with its weak points and drawbacks, the album is uplifting, winning, effervescent. Optimism is built into every tune. This is one example where McCartney’s daffy self-indulgence worked to his advantage, and avoided its too-often insipid results. Footnote: one of the leftover songs from “Ram” that contained just as much joi de vivre and zest as the best tracks on the album (“Too Many People,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”) was “Get on the Right Thing,” which became one of the few saving graces of the contrived, leaden follow-up, “Red Rose Speedway.” I wish it had been added as a bonus track to “Ram,” or better yet, substituted for the lesser “Eat at Home” and plugged right into the running order.

  40. Stephen Trask says:

    Monkberry Moon Delight is a tale of a composer trying desperately to write and held back by the distractions of family life on a farm: the whole body ache of manual labor, the sound of cooking, etc. It takes the form of a dark surrealist cartoon in which pianos end up inside one’s nostril being played be a breeze blowing up one’s nose and an unwieldy garden hose becomes a weapon wielded by an enemy. The song is as domestic as any on the record. It starts off with the composer tucked away in his writing room, the attic, and unable to get the sound. No matter how boldly he plays he can’t quite get that refrain right. The rats in the attic cause him to recoil startle. The writer recoils and in doing so feels every achy bone in his body. One sound in particular is driving him crazy and he gets up to see. “What is that infernal racket?” There is a ghastly cackling coming from inside a barrel and when he lifts the top he sees his children looking up, high on sugar drinking this fantasy milkshake, Monkberry Moon Delight..

    The second verse finds our composer hero essentially written off. He’s too old for this game. He’s past his prime. When he sees himself in the mirror, disheveled and in his jammies, he knows this is the end. He leaves his worldly belongings – the pajamas – to Billy Budapest and rereads a correspondence with a friend with whom he’s having a falling out. He is resigned perhaps to never coming to an understanding before he goes. He will die in this attic, over the hill, decrepit body broken from farmwork, unable to write his masterpiece amid the distractions of his family.

  41. Bobby Foster says:

    Best. Album. Ever.

  42. Rick Hartley says:

    I’ve loved Ram since the day it nursed me through an absolute killer hangover, on repeat for several hours. Now…46 years later, I rate it right up there with Sgt.Pepper and Revolver. It’s a masterpiece. I try to tell people about it, but it has to be heard, not described.

Leave a Reply