A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing
A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing Mojo
The reinvention of Paul McCartney - the most instinctively baroque of the Beatle composer/arrangers - into an avatar of lo-fi, DIY music production seems instant and baffling. Consider the decision of the rest of the Beatles - hotly contested by McCartney at the time and resented for years afterwards - to hand over the tapes of Let It Be to Phil Spector and it begins to make more sense.
The controversial Wall Of Sound producer had his familiarly maximalist way with the grab-bag of skeletal cast-offs, and McCartney would wait until 2003, and the release of the reverse-engineered Let It Be... Naked, for his humbler "vision" for the record to see the light of day. At the back end of 1969, moving into early 1970, it was as if the mortal offence was driving McCartney as far away from the accepted gold-standard of contemporary record production (as the Beatles themselves had helped define) as possible.
As, following the relatively harmonious recording of Abbey Road, Beatle relations resumed their bitter decline, McCartney's response was to hunker down in his Cavendish Avenue flat and make music with whatever fell to hand. There are evocative pictures - printed in the latest MOJO magazine - of the unkempt, hermit-like Beatle recording a drum draped in a curtain or tablecloth, as if determined not to disturb the neighbours, and it's these kinds of unrefined, non-bombastic, locally-sourced sounds that grace his eccentric 1970 debut, McCartney.
However, McCartney is not lo-fi in the way we tend to use the term today. Rather than merely earthy or unpolished, it is demonstrably unfinished. Irrespective of the beauty of Junk and the regularly revived Every Night, if you were tipped the wink that McCartney was deliberately rushed out by its author as a spoiler for Let It Be (eventually, McCartney beat the final Beatle album out by two weeks) you would not be shocked. Maybe I'm Amazed aside, which, apart from its rudimentary rhythm guitar guides and muffled drums, is almost as perfect as could be imagined, it is a record of fragments, demos and doodles, good as far as they suggest to the imaginative listener the great places they may have gone next.
Ram is different. Side one, especially, has much of the intimacy of McCartney, the impression of one man gluing something together before your very eyes. Sometimes - it's there in opener Too Many People's haunting, weird distance and tangled jangling outro - it makes you think of Beck, or more recent American bedroom psych.
There's an interest, taken further than the Beatles, in non-naturalistic textures and environments, typified by the close-mic'ed vocals of 3 Legs, or extreme-left-channel percussive oddness of Dear Boy. Underlining the continuing relevance of many of these techniques, Ram On's primitively reverbed ukulele and ghostly chorus of disembodied Maccas could easily have been recorded sometime last year. Probably in Portland, Oregon.
Ultimately, Ram is the sound of a man who's left a band, perhaps the whole idea of a band, behind. Thrown onto his own resources, he is not so much capturing a performance than showing the stages in the construction of a piece. The first po-mo rock record? Perhaps.
Even when the results are slicker or more instrumentally ambitious - as in the exquisite soft-rock fantasia of the string'n'horns-laden Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey - the spirit of play is paramount. To the extent, perhaps, that Macca sometimes fails to take himself seriously enough, and that "I can smell your feet a mile away" line in Smile Away is surely too brutal a deconstruction of Beatle music's already myth-shrouded exaltation. There's nothing wrong with giving yourself time to realise that "yesterday" is a better lyric than "scrambled eggs..."
Admittedly, by the end of Ram, McCartney is already emerging from his cave. Monkberry Moon Delight is Macca waxing more muscular, with a gruff geezer vocal that predicts Tom Waits at his most ursine. Suddenly we can hear the move from Mull Of Kintyre (where these songs were written and demoed) to New York's A&R Studios, the scene of much of the recording. At the very end we have The Back Seat Of My Car - perhaps our most prescient glimpse of the super-polished Wings-to-be of Band On The Run.
For a bossy, pan-instrumental auteur like McCartney, whose instinct is to do everything himself or tell others exactly what to play (a trait that so charmed George Harrison, and Henry McCullough, among others) the one-man-band model will always have attractions, and it is one to which he has returned, on and off, ever since.
McCartney always saw the freedom inherent in the tape recorder, even when making spliffed-up sound collages upstairs at the Ashers' house on Wimpole Street in late 1965, and he has bequeathed this vision to rock and pop for all time. Ram helps remind us that we owe him more than we sometimes care to think.
By Danny Eccleston