Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Ram - Paul and Linda McCartney

"Too many people preaching practices / don't let them tell you what you wanna be / too many people holding back / this is crazy and maybe it's not like me..."

Those lines from "Too Many People", the first song on Ram, seem to set the precedent for the rest of the record. McCartney may have had something to prove with Ram, but he used it to push forward with what may be his greatest solo record. I'll be honest, this is a new revelation for me. Up until a few months ago, the only song I was really familiar with on this record was "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey".  I can clearly remember the first time I heard that song on the radio as a kid over the PA at a Thift Store.  I'm not old enough for it to have been a current single, but it still reeled me in.  This was probably because it was more like a Beatles song and I was and am still obsessed the music of The Beatles. I had bought into the ridiculous notion that Ram was a less than stellar McCartney offering, and I had never even listened to the record! That was my first mistake...

My dad would always talk about how great it was, and try to get me to listen to it, but I never cared enough. I'm not sure why I eventually sat down and listened to Ram, but when I did, I was blown away! It is definitely a record best experienced straight through. "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" isn't even the best song on the album! There are so many subtleties that the listener might not even pick up on after the first few listens. For instance the backwards acoustic guitar on the third verse of "3 Legs" before it breaks into an captivating half time groove. Or the sound of a tape machine spinning up at the start of "Ram On" Or the fact that the vocals on "Dear Boy" sound like they were recorded through a Leslie speaker. Or the way that he over enunciates the word "horse" in second verse on "Heart Of The Country". I'm in love with the tone of the guitar on "Eat At Home". Speaking of guitars, the tone of the solo on "Too Many People" is insane! It sounds so similar to the tone used on his guitar solo on the Abbey Road track "The End".

Possibly the best moment for me on the record is the epic "Long Haired Lady". It's a winding journey of a song with all these twists and turns of guitars, horns, strings, delayed and layered vocals and an outro that calls back to an earlier McCartney masterpiece "Hey Jude". At the same time though, I find myself willingly haunted by the deceivingly simple title track "Ram On". The contrast of the ukulele and sparse percussion and a well placed Wuhrlitzer electric piano, perfectly complement the lush vocals complete with whistling. Genius.

The artwork on Ram, designed by Paul himself with photos by Linda, is also incredibly engaging. It includes candid photos much like his previous solo record McCartney, but they are merged together with colorful sketches and art.  It reminds me a bit of Klaus Voormann's cover design for The Beatles Revolver. There are a two (that I know of) easter eggs hidden in the art as well.  One, a not so subtle jab at his former band in the depiction of two beetles copulating - commentary on his feelings about a recent past.  The second appears on the front cover.  On the right side of the jacket face in between the multi-colored zigzags are the acronyms L.I.L.Y, short for "Linda I Love You".

The recording sessions gave birth to what eventually became Wings.  McCartney recorded it in New York with hired session musicians.  One of those dudes was Denny Seiwell who ended up being the first drummer for Wings up until Red Rose Speedway.  Recorded, but not released on the album, were two songs worth listening to as well.  The first is the single "Another Day" and the b-side "Oh Woman Oh Why" with the latter having a vocal take closest to songs like "I Gotta Feeling" and "Helter Skelter".  Speaking of crazy McCartney vocal takes, the man has no fear.  Just listen to "Monkberry Moon Delight" on the second side and you'll see what I mean. And, like my dad, I choose to believe he's saying "Catch up Super Fury, don't get left behind!"

It is also fitting to note the response Ram garnered from the press and former writing partner John Lennon.  Firstly, it was torn apart by the notorious Rolling Stone magazine, who according to Jeff Bebe "is the magazine that trashed 'Layla', broke up Cream, (and) ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made". Rolling Stone writer Jon Landau, called it "the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far," "incredibly inconsequential," and "monumentally irrelevant." Man, was he wrong. I'm sure it had more to do with how The Beatles break-up went down and the fact that Linda sang on the record and got a writing credit. Compared to what Yoko Ono brought to the table, Linda sounds like a dream. Ever listened to Double Fantasy all the way through? Secondly, John Lennon felt some stabs directed by the songs like "Too Many People" and "Dear Boy". Both of which McCartney admits to he did target him in some sections. John famously responded with "How Do You Sleep" on his Imagine album. Also, there is an audio snippet from an interview with John's commentary on Ram, that's included in the bootleg The Alternate Ram.  You can find that here. That bootleg also includes rarities such as the radio promo mono mixes of the record which vary slightly from the official release and outtakes from the recording sessions.

In the context of rarities, McCartney was so inspired and excited about what he had created, that he commissioned an alternate version of the record himself. It was an instrumental orchestral version of the entire album later released under the pseudonym Percy "Thrills" Thrillington and titled simply Thrillington.  Though recorded at the same time in 1971, the label didn't release it until 1977. Adding to the mystery, McCartney's involvement wasn't mentioned at all in the liner notes except that he was listed as a friend of Percy. It would be twelve years later, in 1989, that McCartney would finally reveal that he had created the project. The LP is pretty rare, so if anyone has one that they want to donate to the Vinyl Odyssey fund lemme know!

Ram has officially become one of my 10 desert island records. I've listened to it countless times in the last few months. Actually, finding a copy on vinyl was what pushed me a bit to start collecting again. I thought it would be easy to find, but I couldn't get one anywhere in St. Louis for a couple months. I finally bought a copy off eBay along with Band On The Run.  Then, of course, literally the day after I got my copy in the mail, I found three of them locally! I guess that how it goes.

Thanks for reading and keep checking to see what I'm listening to...

Next up I'll be doing a series on records with art designed by Hipgnosis and Storm Thorgerson. If you're not familar with those are, you just don't know it yet...

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Red Sails In The Sunset - Midnight Oil

My knowledge of Midnight Oil is mostly limited to the fact that they were an Australian rock band that wrote songs about political and social injustice. When I think of their work, three things immediately come to mind: their single "Bed's Are Burning", the lead singer, Peter Garrett, is now a politician and the cover art for Red Sails In The Sunset. I picked up this LP pretty much because of the artwork. I first heard of this record in the late 90's when a friends dad had a copy. I don't even think I listened to it. I just thought the cover was really striking and amazing.

Japanese artist, Tsunehisa Kimura, created the post-apocalyptic vision of Sydney Harbor - no water only craters from nuclear bombs and a giant fireball near the bridge. It's one of the coolest photomontages I've seen and it stuck with me even more because I have family in Australia. But remember, this record came out in 1984, six years before Photoshop 1.0 would ever hit the streets. In this digital age, it's easy to forget that this type of art was much more painstaking and analog to create. I tried to find some more examples of Kimura's work, but I could only find a couple old links. Check them out here and here.

So, even though I bought the record almost exclusively for the art, I had an inkling I may dig the music too. It's really a great record. After the first listen I felt it needed to sink in so I gave it another spin. The second side is especially engaging. Most of the songs run more or less together and it has a feeling similar to a Pink Floyd record in the sense that it is culminating to a certain apex. On Red Sails In The Sunset, that point is the haunting "Shipyards Of New Zealand". It starts with a creepy synth and breathy backing vocals as the main vocal floats on top until the rest of band comes in to push an ascending melodic chorus. This continues on dynamically until the brilliant ending refrain "I can't get lost / I cannot get confused / Something's misplaced / Maybe for good / And I can't get lost / I can't get confused". I couldn't find a version of the song online, so I guess you'll just need to go buy the record to experience it for yourself...

There were two other songs that stood out on the first listen that I think are worth noting. The first is "Jimmy Sharman's Boxers" a song about the exploitation of the aboriginal people of Australia to fight in a boxing show. Despite it's heavy message, the song builds into a huge moment towards the end with thecry "Why are we fighting for this?" and the music takes over.

Another song that resonated was "Kosciusko". It's a driving rock song with a great hook. It reminds me most of their future aforementioned hit "Bed's Are Burning". What really hooked me was the string section backed breakdown towards the end of the track.

Overall, Red Sails In The Sunsent is a great record and while I'll keep it at the forefront of my collection because of the artwork, I'm sure it will make it to the turntable again at some point. It's apparent an album that absolutely needs repeated listens to understand the quality of the work it contains.

Thanks for reading and keep checking back to see what I listen to next...


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Best Of Procol Harum

I first heard of Procol Harum when I was about nine or ten. My dad told me about them because they were an influence on Keith Green who was an influence on my dad. I think maybe the first song I heard by them was "Conquistador" over the grocery store PA. I'm a sucker for a sweet string section and I can't help wondering if it's because of songs like "Conquistador". Mostly I just thought is was a weird name for a band and I didn't really get into their music until my late teens. That's when I heard "A Salty Dog" for the first time. It's such a strange and beautifully haunting song. When the drums come in mid phrase in the middle of the first chorus, the music just soars off into oblivion only to be tamed again for a short time for the second verse. Then the orchestra and drums push forward while the reverb on the vocals takes over.  There are so many subtleties and dynamics that put the song is a class all it's own.

I heard once that the lyrics were inspired by a journal entry from a tallship log. I can't find any info to confirm this but I did find the following quote on

Says Gary (Brooker): 'A Salty Dog was the first time that we used orchestration. I wanted to have strings on the number and it was my first arrangement. I loved doing it. I'd met a viola player when we were on tour with the Bee Gees in Germany who were using an orchestra.  He was very supportive, almost like a music teacher. He actually put an orchestra together for us and members were all leaders of top London orchestras.  We got a very warm chamber music sound on A Salty Dog.' The song's lyrics were heavy on metaphor and reversed meanings of words, a device that Keith Reid used a lot. A good example is the captain's phrase 'All hands on deck - I think we've run afloat' instead of 'aground'. 'I don't know what it's all about', admits Gary. 'You can put your own interpretation on it. Somebody in America once wrote about the song for her university degree thesis.  She developed no less than 17 different interpretations of the song, which were all a kind of valid. I've always sung it for BJ Wilson since he died a couple of years ago, and it does seem to be about man's journey through life in some way. It's also about the group. It's a glowing piece of writing.'

I recently found a copy of The Best Of Procol Harum on vinyl. Listening to it inspired me to start this blog. I've been tweeting about all the vinyl I've been listening to lately, but I wanted to say more about the music and art of the records. The compilation has most of songs recognized as hallmarks by the band (at least prior to 1972); "A Whiter Shade Of Pale", "Conquistador (Live)", "In The Wee Small Hours Of Sixpence"and "A Salty Dog", among others.

In listening there was one track I was not quite as familiar with.  I'd seen a video of them performing "Simple Sister", but I had never listened to the studio version.  HOLY F*CK is this song amazing!  Right from the start the guitar line gets you.  It's a similar sound and chord progression to George Harrison's tour de force "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and Chicago's blistering "25 or 6 to 4", but it doesn't stay there for long.  This song is a layered masterpiece that deserves headphones turned up loud.  The genius of the song is in the second half after the breakdown.  They continue to add more and more with each cycle but it never feels wrong or over-produced - just epic!


Needless to say, I'm gonna wear out whatever grooves are left on this record! Go getcha some and check back soon to see what I listen to next.