The degree to which rock critics hated 1971’s Ram—the first and only official collaboration between Paul McCartney and his wife Linda—is hard to overstate. In today’s terms, it would be like the guy from Train making a record with Kreayshawn, only the guy from Train would have to be a genius responsible for the greatest music of the previous decade—or any decade, really, in modern music history. And the record they made together would have to be misunderstood as terrible, not have terribleness hard-wired into its genetic code.
Which is where the comparison falls apart: Paul McCartney isn’t the guy from Train, because critics in the early ’70s expected him to be great in a very specific way. And Ram did not achieve the right kind of greatness. This made rock scribes at the time a wee bit resentful. “Ram represents the nadir in the decomposition of ’60s rock thus far,” Jon Landau thundered in Rolling Stone. The album was so bad, in Landau’s estimation, that it actually discredited an entire era of music, along with McCartney’s talent. Robert Christgau shared Landau’s contempt, which curdled into full-blown mockery: “Most of the songs are so lightweight they float away even as Paulie layers them down with caprices.”
The indignity of being called “Paulie” by low-paid strangers eventually rubbed off on McCartney’s shiny superstar façade. “I assumed a lot of stuff I did then was no good,” he admits in a short documentary packaged with Ram’s new reissue, which comes in a variety of formats and multi-disc editions. “Looking at it now, like a lot of things in retrospect, it looks better than it did to me then.”
McCartney isn’t the first (nor will he be the last) to take Ram off the shelf, give it a fresh listen, and realize it’s not only his best solo album, but also among the best of all Beatles solo records. If All Things Must Pass is George Harrison’s zenith, and Plastic Ono Band is John Lennon’s definitive solo document, then Ram similarly encapsulates what McCartney brought to The Beatles and the direction he pursued in that group’s long shadow.
The initial knock on Ram from critics—that it’s “lightweight” or, to quote Landau, “pure rock muzak”—is actually (when heard with sympathetic ears) a big part of what makes it so appealing. For McCartney, the album’s title reflected his desire to “push forward strongly” to a new, low-key life away from The Beatles. The infighting and legal woes that wrecked the utopian equilibrium of his former group made him feel “like being in quicksand,” and he consciously sought a more carefree alternative with his wife and a small group of musicians in less rarefied air.
The result is a record distinguished by loopy humor, funky looseness, the homey chemistry between the two principals, and most of all, melodies stacked upon melodies in likeably eccentric packages. Ram discourages the sort of self-serious examination that greeted The Beatles at every turn. But just because it doesn’t announce its inventiveness à la Sgt. Pepper doesn’t keep Ram from benefitting from McCartney’s compositional restlessness or indestructible pop sense. It’s a “hang-out” record that—like McCartney’s demo-like self-titled 1970 debut—deliberately recalibrated how McCartney’s music was supposed to sound and how it should be perceived.
Unlike Lennon and certainly Harrison, whose All Things Must Pass is on the opposite end of the grandiose scale from Ram, McCartney didn’t appear concerned with making a major statement that could stand next to what The Beatles achieved. (In “Too Many People,” he even took a veiled shot at Lennon for his messianic, post-break-up sloganeering.) As the man most responsible for keeping The Beatles together in their final years, McCartney must’ve sensed how exhausting this would be.
Ram does have “bigger” moments than McCartney, including the No. 1 hit “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” a suite of mini-novelty songs that verges on straight-up children’s music, and the Abbey Road-like “Back Seat Of My Car.” (The extras disc also includes the poppy “Another Day,” McCartney’s first official solo single and an instant Top 5 hit, as well as the hard-hitting B-side “Oh Woman, Oh Why.”) But McCartney almost always opts for playfulness over pretension on Ram.
While McCartney’s critical reputation had seen better days, he was happier than ever in his private life, which is seen most obviously in the songs co-credited to Linda. The folkie “Heart Of The Country” was a charming snapshot of their home life, and “Eat At Home” was—along with ranking among the first great power-pop songs of the early ’70s— McCartney’s raunchiest sex song since “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Ram isn’t completely untouched by Beatles-related bitterness, with “Dear Boy” and “3 Legs” commenting obliquely on his former bandmates. But even those songs are melodic and warmly delivered.
More than anything, Ram is a fun record. Anyone who has the guts to write a song called “Monkberry Moon Delight” (and sing it like he’s on the verge of oinking like a pig) probably isn’t concerned about being taken seriously. It was this willful goofiness that caused critics to recoil so fiercely. But heard 40 years later, Ram sounds like an amalgam of his late-Beatles period and the downsized non-professionalism of McCartney. It’s more of a “real” record than McCartney, but it just as firmly rejects rock-star self-importance. Ram is far from being the “nadir in the decomposition of ’60s rock.” It’s more like an institution trying to live like a human.