In October 1970, drummer Denny Seiwell was a sought-after New York City session musician who split his time between studios and jazz clubs. Like a lot of local session men, he used an answering service to set up his gigs. One day, the service called to give him good news and bad news: A session he was supposed to attend had been canceled, but Barry Kornfeld, a friend and folky guitarist, wanted him to do a demo. Normally, Seiwell was too busy to do demos, but because of the cancelation, he had an open slot, and he hadn’t seen Kornfeld in a while. He agreed to go.
“They gave me the address, and I said, ‘Jeez, is there a studio there?’” Seiwell says. “It didn’t sound right. I went to the address, and it was a brownstone, way over on the West side, on 43rd Street or something. And it didn’t look like it had electricity. Like they were going to renovate the building or something. I walk up the steps to the lobby there, and there’s a guy. I said, ‘Is there a studio here?’ And he pointed to the basement. And here it is, this dingy, dirt-floor basement, a ratty set of drums sitting in the middle of it, and Paul and Linda sitting on a folding chair over in the corner. That was it. It was very bizarre.”
“Paul and Linda” were, of course, the McCartneys, among the most recognizable couples in the Western world. The demo Seiwell was expecting had turned out to be an audition for an ex-Beatle and his bride. “Musically, we hit it off,” Seiwell says. “We had fun together. I was relaxed, and he was relaxed, and we just had a groove. And I walked out of there saying, ‘Damn, I just met a Beatle. That’s amazing.’ And I thought, ‘I’ll never get to do it.’”
But he did. Seiwell passed the audition, and a few days later, McCartney called him and told him he wanted to book him for a series of recording sessions that would be starting soon. The exultant drummer pretended to check his schedule, silently celebrated, and said yes. Seiwell would go on to be a founding member of Wings, McCartney’s post-Beatles band, and would play on the first two Wings albums, Wild Life and Red Rose Speedway, as well as on Bond-theme-song single “Live and Let Die.” But the highlight of his collaborations with McCartney—and one of the highlights of McCartney’s career—was the record they laid down together in late 1970, along with Linda and guitarists David Spinozza and Hugh McCracken: Ram.
Ram, which was shared with the world on May 17, 1971, will turn 50 on Monday. This week, Seiwell saluted it with the release of Ram On, a track-by-track tribute album that the original drummer—joined by Spinozza and a host of Ram admirers from the music world—played on and coproduced. The impulse to piece together a Ram remake during a pandemic is a manifestation of the special place in the McCartney catalog carved out by his second post-Beatles LP, the only album ever credited to “Paul and Linda McCartney.” A year after recording Abbey Road, McCartney drew on his undiminished melodicism, musicianship, and versatile voice to set the barbed hooks that result in unskippable songs. But Ram holds a soft spot in many Macca fans’ hearts because it’s more than a dozen disconnected compositions by a master tunesmith. Listening to Ram is like retracing Seiwell’s footsteps on the day he met McCartney. It’s a trip to an unassuming, unpretentious place that doesn’t sound or look like what anyone expected, where we can share a room with Paul and Linda during a day in the life of two country dreamers who had set their troubles aside. And like its drummer’s audition, it’s a little bit bizarre.
When Seiwell met McCartney, Let It Be had been out for five months, and McCartney was six months removed from releasing his self-titled first solo album and sending a promotional press release that was widely interpreted as an announcement of the Beatles’ breakup. McCartney was estranged from his former bandmates, and although Lennon had quietly left the band first, McCartney bore the brunt of the blame in the press for precipitating the split. “I was in the middle of this horrendous Beatles breakup, and it was like being in quicksand,” McCartney recalled in Ramming, a mini-documentary that accompanied the 2012 release of a Ram deluxe edition. “And the lightbulb went off one day when we realized that we could just run away.”
He and Linda decamped to Campbeltown on Scotland’s Kintyre peninsula, where McCartney had purchased High Park Farm in 1966. As the Beatles’ bonds broke down, McCartney had dealt with depression exacerbated by drinking, but he’d pulled himself out of his funk by working on his solo songs in Scotland. Although the Beatles wouldn’t legally dissolve for a few more years, the four splintered parts were recording separately and figuring out what it meant to no longer belong to the world’s biggest band. The first two attempts to answer that question were inconclusive: Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey was a covers collection of standards, and McCartney—the first installment in what would eventually turn into a trilogy of eponymous DIY releases—was a slapdash, if endearing, mixture of lightweight leftovers, unfinished-sounding instrumentals, and a couple of classics, “Every Night” and “Maybe I’m Amazed.” “I thought Paul’s was rubbish,” Lennon pronounced. “I think he’ll make a better one, when he’s frightened into it.”
The McCartneys spent the summer of 1970 in Scotland, where they worked on songs for a more polished—but not too polished—second album, when they weren’t busy riding horses, shearing sheep, and playing with their young children. “I have some really great memories of just sitting around in the summer, in the garden, and the kids would be playing around, the sun would be shining, I’d have my guitar,” McCartney said in Ramming. “So it was kind of a great time for me, full of golden memories now, looking back at it.” In a different 2012 interview, McCartney remembered that “with some songs, I would go out into the fields if it was a nice day with my guitar.”
As Paul also said, “I think the songs—some of them, anyway—reflected our lifestyle at the time.” It’s a record that evokes a time, place, and mood, like Exile on Main Street with a Scottish farm subbing in for a French villa and hugs instead of hard drugs. That connection comes through not just in the pastoral stylings of “Heart of the Country” and “3 Legs” or the loved-up domestic bliss of “Ram On,” “Eat at Home,” and “Long Haired Lady,” but also in the sound. Paul asked Linda to contribute to the album and be in the band he was planning to form, despite her lack of training. She received songwriting credits on six of Ram’s 12 songs, and her homespun harmonies made the album a family affair that sounded different from the Beatles. A more practiced vocalist might have sung certain “Long Haired Lady” lines more smoothly and sweetly than Linda did, but a more typical intonation also might have made it less fun to sing along.
Recording with his wife was one way to ensure that his new bandmates wouldn’t all turn on him the way the old ones did. It was also in keeping with McCartney’s lo-fi approach to his first album (as well as Wild Life, his first one with Wings). McCartney could have assembled a supergroup to record Ram, like Lennon’s “Dirty Mac” lineup at the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, but as he said in 2001, “I was looking for a new band rather than the Blind Faith thing.” After a decade of Beatlemania and internal tension, secret auditions and no-name sidemen seemed like low-pressure, lasting solutions to the problems that had plagued the Fab Four.
When Seiwell and Wings founding guitarist Denny Laine (who completed the Wild Life lineup) visited the McCartneys in Scotland in 1971, after Ram was released, Seiwell says, “We wrecked a few rental cars on the way up there. It wasn’t an actual road, it was a lane with hidden boulders here and there.” After they arrived, he recalls, “We would just hang out and laugh and talk about his farm and the animals and the horses.” When it was time to jam, the quartet would enter “Rude Studio,” a modest recording space set up inside a barn. “It was all very casual, very loose,” Seiwell says. So was the Wings University Tour in 1972, a back-to-basics road trip in which the group showed up unannounced at various venues and offered to play impromptu, low-priced performances for small student crowds.
Lennon and Harrison had complained about McCartney’s controlling behavior in the studio in the Beatles’ later years. As the lone legend in the room during the recording of Ram, it would have been easy for Paul to pull rank, but Seiwell didn’t witness any ego trips. “There was none of that,” he says. “We were all on the same level. … He hired us for what we do. And I think he had enough trust and faith in us that he would get the best performances out of us if he just let us use our musical abilities.” Only once did McCartney request that Seiwell do something differently, asking whether he could use a less standard, rhythmic beat to complement the vocal at the beginning of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey.” Even in that case, Seiwell says, “He didn’t … show me what to play. He allowed me to come up with a part that worked for the song.”
Although Seiwell and the other new recruits weren’t headliners, they had some serious chops, which they needed to master some of the album’s demanding musical moments. “Ram was not that easy of a record to really pull off,” Seiwell says, adding, “A lot of the material on Ram was really complicated. To do a song like ‘Uncle Albert’ in one day, in one pass—we did not do ‘Uncle Albert,’ and then stop the machine, and start it for ‘Admiral Halsey.’ That was one song, and that’s the way it was recorded.” Other passages presented similar challenges, particularly the layered vocals of “Dear Boy” and the creative arrangements of multi-part teen ballad “The Back Seat of My Car,” a song McCartney had demoed during the sessions for Let It Be. (“Oh my God, talk about complicated songs,” Seiwell says about “Back Seat.”) “And there wasn’t a lot of editing, if any,” he continues, adding, “That record was not done to a click track. It was pure. It was really an organic recording.” Most tracks required only three to five attempts to get an album-quality take.
Throughout the recording process, the studio was a sanctuary from post-Beatles turmoil. “It was never brought into the studio, and it wasn’t even brought into Wings, when it got really serious in the beginnings of Wings,” Seiwell says. “We knew about it without knowing about it, but he never brought it up. And I was glad we were all sheltered from that, and that wasn’t our purpose. We were there to grow into a band, and Paul wanted to give the world a brand-new look, an honest look at a new band, and start from scratch one more time.”
The significance of recording with McCartney during a pivotal period wasn’t lost on Seiwell in 1970 and early ’71. “When you think of it, I was the first guy that he actually made music with after leaving the Beatles,” Seiwell says. “That was such a trip, man, that I was right there. After Ringo was gone, I stepped into some big shoes.” Seiwell and anyone with him in the studio were likely the first people not named McCartney to hear the music that would one day be beloved by millions. “Every time he would play us the song we were going to do that day, I’d say, ‘Oh my God. This is not your ordinary New York session. People are going to be listening to this stuff 50 years from now.’” And now they are.
For the first half of the ’70s, the prolific former Beatles—even Ringo—pumped out records that, if culled and combined, would have measured up to their best Beatles material. Shortly after the 1970 sessions for Ram wrapped up and the McCartneys returned to Scotland for the holidays, George Harrison released All Things Must Pass, which was followed weeks later by John Lennon’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. All Things Must Pass was a triple album, an outpouring of pent-up creativity by the Beatle whose songs had been blocked by the prolific Lennon-McCartney combo. Plastic Ono Band was raw and reflective, a document of despair and primal screams. Unlike his former bandmates’ early solo statements, McCartney’s sophomore release wasn’t produced by Phil Spector, and it wasn’t intended to be a grand artistic statement. The goal, McCartney said in Ramming, was “to just see what forms out of the bare elements instead of thinking, ‘Oh, after the Beatles, it’s gotta be important, it’s gotta be super musicians.’ This is more like, ‘No, let’s just find ourselves.’”
What McCartney found was an effortless-sounding synthesis of his influences and strengths. Ram boasted the Beach Boys–style symphonies and harmonies of “Dear Boy” and “Back Seat”; the Buddy Holly bop of “Eat at Home”; the Lennon-esque absurdity and doggerel of “Monkberry Moon Delight.” Yet it’s less an homage to anyone else than a sampler of McCartney’s musical selves, from the anti-political preaching against preaching in album opener “Too Many People”—a potshot aimed at the outspoken Lennon, who would soon return fire—to the whimsical song suite of “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” the winking raunchiness of “Eat at Home,” the rustic scatting of “Heart of the Country,” and the “Eleanor Rigby”–esque, depressed protagonist of non-album single “Another Day,” a hit from the same sessions.
Ram is mostly a mellow record that doesn’t take itself too seriously, consistent with the placid setting that inspired it. But it has its harder-rocking moments, among them the blistering solo on “Too Many People” and the rollicking “Smile Away.” “Oh Woman, Oh Why,” the B-side to “Another Day” and another track often appended to Ram rereleases, is a vocal-cord-shredder that features the sound of McCartney firing a starter pistol. That’s one example of the Ram sessions’ instrumental inventiveness, along with the ukulele on “Ram On,” the orchestra on “Back Seat,” and the telephone impression and flugelhorn solo on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” (the latter of which was performed by Marvin Stamm, who reprises his performance on Seiwell’s Ram On).
Happy RAM-iversary! To celebrate 50 years since the release of Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 fan-favourite album, 'RAM' will be reissued on 14th May 2021 as a limited edition half-speed mastered vinyl pressing— Paul McCartney (@PaulMcCartney) March 31, 2021
Photo by Linda McCartney pic.twitter.com/9sXM7oeyzR
Seiwell—admittedly, far from an unbiased source—was floored the first time he heard Ram (to borrow a phrase from Song Exploder) in its entirety. “I put it on the turntable, and I went, ‘Oh my God,’” he says. Until a stack of fresh-pressed vinyl was delivered to his door, he hadn’t heard McCartney’s bass parts, which were dubbed in after the drummer was done. But critics and McCartney’s former buddies in the Beatles were scathing in their dismissals. The most memorable putdowns came from Starr and Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau. See how they snide: McCartney’s old drummer said, “I don’t think there’s one tune on the last one, Ram” and added “I just feel he’s wasted his time” and “He seems to be going strange.” Landau led with the sentence, “Ram represents the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far”; called the album “very bad,” “incredibly inconsequential,” “monumentally irrelevant,” and “emotionally vacuous”; and observed that Lennon had “held the reins in on McCartney’s cutsie-pie, florid attempts at pure rock muzak.” Other than that, Mr. Landau, how did you like the play?
“They weren’t listening with their hearts or their ears,” Seiwell says. “There was a vengeance going on there, and it was sad.” Whether the ex-comrades and critics were settling scores about McCartney supposedly breaking up the Beatles or just faulting the album for not having the heft and depth of the Harrison or Lennon LPs that preceded it, the template for pooh-poohing silly love songs was set. “Whatever they said didn’t seem to mean anything to the record-buying public, because they loved the record,” Seiwell says. Ram topped the U.K. album charts and peaked at second in the U.S. “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” went to no. 1 in the U.S., becoming the first of many non-Beatles gold records for McCartney, and “Another Day” was a top-five hit on both sides of the Atlantic. “As time went on, people started hearing, ‘Oh my God, this is a masterpiece,’” Seiwell continues. “And there was no denying it after a while. … It’s amazing that so many people you bump into will say, ‘Oh man, you played on Ram. That was my favorite record.’ Not just ‘my favorite McCartney solo product.’ They say, ‘That was my favorite record.’”
Five decades after its initial savaging, Ram is a critical favorite, too, an album often identified as an indie-pop pacesetter. Ram owns McCartney’s only five-star critic rating at AllMusic, and its average user score at the same site trails only Band on the Run’s. “I believe that it connected with so many people because he had such angst in him when he was writing this material,” Seiwell says, adding, “I think that angst came through in the record, and a lot of people felt it. … He had to get it out. And the way Paul gets it out is in his music.” That angst didn’t manifest itself the same way Lennon’s did; whatever strain McCartney suffers, his music remains mostly major key. But he harnessed the pain of personal and professional setbacks to kickstart his career and create one of his catchiest, most cohesive, and most authentic albums.
Although he had an idyllic interlude instead of a Lennon-like lost weekend, McCartney seems to have internalized some of the scorn that greeted Ram in 1971. “I assumed that a lot of stuff I did then was no good,” he says in Ramming. “But now, when I go back to it, I think, ‘I remember why I did that. There was a reason for it. It wasn’t just some flippant, off-my-head gesture. I actually was trying to do that.’ So looking at it now, like a lot of things in retrospect, it looks better than it looked to me then.”
That personal reappraisal hasn’t translated to increased exposure at McCartney concerts. According to setlist info from fan site The McCartney Project, McCartney has performed only four of the 12 tracks on Ram live (not counting the snippet of “Back Seat” he sang in Mexico City in 2017). He hasn’t played “Eat at Home” or “Smile Away” since 1972, which leaves “Too Many People” and “Ram On” as the only songs on the album to have cracked his concert rotation in the 21st century. Maybe McCartney doesn’t trot out tracks from Ram on the road because they’re tough to play live (though other acts have covered every cut on stage). Maybe the memories of life with Linda are bittersweet in her absence, which could also explain why he’s stayed away from his farm in recent years. Or maybe Ram’s subdued songs simply aren’t as well suited to the huge venues he plays as the bangers on Band on the Run.
But it could be better this way. McCartney’s concerts are greatest-hits marathons, and Ram, more so than most McCartney albums, is best enjoyed as a complete piece. There’s more than one way to enjoy it. A pseudonymous McCartney himself oversaw an instrumental/orchestral recording of Ram called Thrillington, which was recorded in ’71 and released in ’77. Other artists have since stepped up to keep the covers coming. Two tribute albums came out in 2009. Seiwell, who’s still friendly with his former Wingsman, says McCartney gave his blessing to the latest collection and likes what he’s heard. And this week, McCartney marked the golden anniversary of his golden memories by releasing a half-speed-mastered vinyl version.
Those Ram reimaginings arrive on the heels of McCartney’s latest bid to bridge the generations: a remix of last year’s McCartney III called McCartney III Imagined, for which he drafted far less ancient artists such as St. Vincent, Anderson .Paak, Phoebe Bridgers, and Dominic Fike to put their spins on his songs. Projects of this sort might seem desperate if collaboration hadn’t been a hallmark of most of McCartney’s career, if his outreach efforts didn’t seem motivated by musical curiosity as much as a desire to stay relevant, and if he hadn’t finally allowed his hair to go gray. Although these May-December team-ups can be cringey at times, McCartney is, by most accounts, a lot of fun to work with, and many of today’s artists are no less excited to get a call from Paul than Seiwell was in 1970. That he’s avoided dinosaur status more adeptly than his peers—even the few who still walk the stage and the studio—owes something to his unflagging energy, relentless likeability, and continued capacity for songcraft, as well as the singular fame of his first band. But it’s also attributable to the timelessness and creative credibility of records like Ram and McCartney II, which seem more like progenitors of subsequent trends than the end of evolutionary lines.
In other words, you don’t have to have been there to appreciate Ram. But Seiwell was, and when he tries to sum up the experience of recording Ram, he remembers “Rode All Night,” a spontaneous, nearly nine-minute guitar-and-drums jam from the 1970 sessions that wasn’t officially released until the 2012 deluxe edition.
“He started singing, and he said, ‘I rode all night, I rode all night until I finally hit the daybreak,’” Seiwell says. “Now for me, that meant that he’s finally free from having to make music with one group only, with the Beatles. That he found other people to make music with. And I really took that as about the highest compliment. And I told him about that. He said, ‘No, that’s not what it meant at all.’ I went, ‘I don’t care. I’m sticking with it.’ Because it felt great to me.”
Musically speaking, McCartney has stuck with what’s felt great to him for the past 60 years, sometimes to his detriment but mostly to his credit and his audiences’ delight. And rarely, since the Beatles broke up, have the results sounded as great to others as they do on the songs he was singing in Scotland half a century ago.