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Paul McCartney’s ‘Ram’ reissue a horn of plenty

Published: Thursday, May 31, 2012

Updated: Thursday, May 31, 2012 15:05


CHICAGO — Paul McCartney’s “Ram,” reissued last week in five different packages, sure didn’t receive this kind of love upon its 1971 release.

“‘Ram’ represents the nadir in the decomposition of ‘60s rock thus far,” Jon Landau, who would go on to proclaim Bruce Springsteen “rock ‘n’ roll’s future” and become the Boss’ manager/producer, wrote in his Rolling Stone review. Calling the ex-Beatle’s second album “incredibly inconsequential” and “monumentally irrelevant,” Landau had seen McCartney’s future without John Lennon and didn’t like it.

“(I)t is by now apparent that Lennon held the reins in on McCartney’s cutsie-pie, florid attempts at pure rock muzak,” Landau wrote. “He was there to keep McCartney from going off the deep end that leads to an album as emotionally vacuous as ‘Ram.’”

Easygoing Beatles drummer Ringo Starr lamented to Britain’s Melody Maker that the album lacked one decent tune before concluding: “He seems to be going strange.” But the harshest critique came from Lennon, who, feeling the sting of McCartney’s lawsuit against him and the other two Beatles and what he perceived as shots at him and wife Yoko Ono in “Ram,” fired back on his album “Imagine” a few months later.

A postcard insert depicted Lennon clutching a pig in mimicry of McCartney’s “Ram” cover pose with his title animal. More devastating was the song “How Do You Sleep?” with George Harrison acting as accomplice on slide guitar as Lennon tore apart his former songwriting partner, concluding (in echo of Landau): “The sound you make is Muzak to my ears. You must have learned something in all those years.”

McCartney, who threw a wide array of production tricks at “Ram” after his homespun debut, “McCartney,” seemed to take the criticisms to heart. From his mid-’70s arena tours through the present day, the only “Ram” song I can find that he has performed is “Too Many People.” He has never played the album’s sole hit single, the wackily scene-shifting “Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey.”

So how did this album, officially credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, become worthy of multiple re-releases that include a $94 (on Amazon.com) box set with four CDs, one DVD, a 112-page book, handwritten lyric sheet facsimiles, a folder of 8x10 photos and a flip book of photos of McCartney and sheep called, yes, “A Small Book of Sheep”?

For one, it’s a strong sign that in this age of digital music, there remains a yearning for physical representations of the music. Aside from the book, “Ram” is available as a single CD (just the remastered album), a double CD plus DVD (the album, a bonus-tracks disc and a DVD featuring a short documentary about the making of the album and a few home-movie song videos) and two vinyl versions (stereo and limited-edition mono). You also can buy a lithograph and T-shirts on McCartney’s website.

McCartney’s “Band on the Run” (with Wings), “McCartney” and “McCartney II” have received this archival treatment, as have classic albums by Pink Floyd (the “Immersion” packages for “The Wall,” “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” will set you back more than $100 apiece) and U2 (last year’s “Achtung Baby” Super Deluxe Edition includes six CDs, four DVDs, a book and art prints, and it sells for more than $140). Sales figures for these lavish packages are hard to come by because, a Nielsen SoundScan representative said, the labels tend to report all of the configurations under a single title, so you can’t break out how each version did.

The “Achtung Baby” set, which didn’t come out concurrent with other packages, has sold close to 10,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which also reports that the combined “Band on the Run” reissues have sold 103,000 copies, “McCartney” 37,000 and “McCartney II” 23,000.

With “Ram” it helps that, 41 years after its release, it has risen in reputation so that a sizable number of folks now consider it the best solo Beatles album. Two “Ram” tribute albums came out in 2009.

Chicago rocker Phil Angotti has led several live performances of the album (and said he may attempt another one at his June 30 concert at Evanston’s SPACE with Steve Dawson).

“Growing up as a Beatles fan, I actually became more of a John fan, but by far ‘Ram’ is my favorite solo Beatles album,” said Angotti, 50. “It’s all over the place stylistically.”

Context makes a big difference. When “Ram” was released, people were awaiting the first big musical statement from the guy who had recently given them “Let It Be” and that breathtaking closing “Abbey Road” medley. What they got was a quirky hodgepodge of songs, only one of which was topical (and that one, “Too Many People,” ripped on Lennon for political posturing), and many of which were downright silly, from the “butter pie” and jaunty changes of “Uncle Albert/ Admiral Halsey” to the smelly feet and teeth of “Smile Away” to his maniacal screeching of “Monkberry Moon Delight.”

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