In 1971, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were at loggerheads. Was this the low point of their famous friendship? Possibly. That is for another day (no pun intended).
However, if their musical output from this year is anything to go by, they weren’t exactly on great terms.
The year also saw the release of two of their greatest solo achievements on LP, although this does not appear to be a view shared by critics at the time, who seemed to be almost universally hell-bent on savaging anything put out by McCartney, without apparently taking any time to actually listen.
“Paul is quitting The Beatles”, the famous Daily Mirror headline stated in April 1970 and this generality, for many, was enough to close the ears of the music press, if not the record-buying public, for some time to come.
As we now know, the reasons for the break-up of the most important group in the history of recorded sound are far more complicated than any newspaper column (or, indeed, truncated blog entry) could ever explain.
The point is that the dream partnership was over and the two writers were now using their songs as a means of communication between themselves and not in a particularly loving or edifying way.
Bad news for them. Good news for us. Two hugely enjoyable LPs appeared, peppered with their bile perhaps, but nonetheless, masterpieces.
Most casual music fans are familiar with the title track from Lennon’s Imagine album.
It frequently tops lists of the ‘best songs of the 20th century’ or whatever and who can argue?
Imagine, the song is, by anyone’s standards, a masterpiece. Over-played? Maybe. But I don’t buy that as an argument for putting it down.
A great song is a great song, whether you’ve heard it a million times or not.
The accompanying LP is also a classic.
Imagine, the song, as good as it is, might not even be the best cut on the album – there is a strong argument for Jealous Guy at the very least.
Anyway, the point I am about to make may raise an eyebrow among music fans, though possibly not as many as you’d ‘imagine’.
Here’s the thing – if my record collection were in mortal danger, I’d be rescuing Ram first.
There. I said it. Ram is, in my opinion, a better album than Imagine.
I love Ram.
It remains my favourite of all the McCartney solo efforts, whether he choses to call himself McCartney, PM and Wings, Paul and Linda, Wings, The Fireman or whatever.
This is the one for me.
Others come close, but Ram is the one from him I have returned to the most in 35 years of listening.
Melodies to die for? Check.
Uplifting choruses? Check.
Weird moments? Check.
Seemingly endless inventiveness? Check… you get the idea.
It’s the McCartney record that has everything… except, perversely, a monster hit single that everyone knows, but that doesn’t matter.
Then there’s the fact/folklore surrounding the record.
I adore the fact that the opening vocal line “Piece of cake…” has been misheard for “P*** off, yeah” and interpreted as sonic dig no. 1 at Lennon.
I mean, come on people, any album that starts with someone singing “P*** off, yeah” is going to be a hit for me.
Bonkers… but just on the edge of possible?
The song itself, Too Many People, which offended Lennon for its supposed criticism of him and his antics (or whatever you want to call them) is a supremely confident album opener, leaving you in no doubt that this is going to be a fun record.
What follows is an eccentric bundle of tracks, crammed with melody and bursting with unapologetic energy.
There are too many moments of sheer listening joy on this album to recall here, but I have to mention the tune and counter-melody of Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey, which gets me every time.
Despite the detectable pokes at his former writing partner, this record remains fun.
Ultimately, if you can’t enjoy music, what’s the point?
“Catharsis!” I hear you scream.
If you want that – and there’s every justification for wanting it – then I’d advise you to look to Lennon’s previous solo effort, the mighty John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which, shock horror, is also a better album than Imagine.
The Imagine LP also contains its fair share of memorable moments.
The aforementioned Jealous Guy being the most obvious, but let’s not forget the incendiary Gimme Some Truth, the sublime Oh My Love, the gorgeous How? and, perhaps most notoriously, How Do You Sleep?
The latter’s stinging and wafer-thin veiled lyrical attack on McCartney still shocks today.
It’s about as far away from the sentiment “Imagine all the people living life in peace” as one can possibly get.
And it features guitar work from another ex-Beatle.
But… then again, why not?
Who says a work of art has to project a uniform message?
The contradiction is, in fact, entirely representative of its creator.
Just a human.
A victim of the insane.
As he took great pains to tell us, more than once.
Take the lyrics away from How Do You Sleep? and the track still rocks along with style and swagger.
Another trait typical of its creator.
That’s why we love it.
When I listen to it now, I try to overlook the unpleasant words and appreciate it for what it is – a song with great bad attitude.
The kind of song the writer owes a debt to Robert Zimmerman for, though he would have been more subtle about it.
Lennon was not a saint and this song, in particular, reveals a bit of the ugly side.
At any rate, whoever was to blame for this or that in The Beatles… after all this time, does it matter?
Overall though, looking at it as a pound-for-pound comparison, Ram is buoyant all the way through while Imagine does simmer down on occasions and for that reason, I have to give this ‘imaginary contest’ to McCartney.