No song by McCartney captures the loneliness and anger of the Beatles’ feud as intensely as “Too Many People,” in which all his vitriol spewed out like an infected zit. The lyrics read as the anti-Beatles version of Starr’s “Early 1970.” McCartney is getting pushed around by Lennon going underground and letting himself be a mouthpiece for the Communist party radicals. One of them, Yippie A. J. Weberman, even took a break from harassing Dylan to stage a protest in front of Linda’s father’s Park Avenue residence on Christmas Eve 1970.11 McCartney also slams Lennon for sinking into heroin with Ono, losing weight, and just eating cake, as junkies have a notorious sweet tooth. Not only was Lennon preachy politically, Harrison was religiously preachy to the max as well. And all of them were trying to grab McCartney’s cake: under the groups’ contract, all the profits of each ex-Beatles’ albums go to the company and then the total is divided among them. (Although, truth be told, Harrison was the biggest seller at the moment, so the set up benefited McCartney in 1971.)
McCartney vows that he’s not going to hold back his feelings anymore, though he did temper the opening line. Originally it was “Yoko took your lucky break and broke it in two,” but he changed “Yoko” to “you.”
The performance opens with a malevolent groan that could either be an effects-treated guitar, a harmonium, or far-off horns. The sense of physical space in the recording conjures the dread of walking into a deserted mausoleum in a horror film, underscoring the “lucky break” taunt. No doubt it is meant to instill the unease in Lennon and Co. that they will never be able to measure up in the future without McCartney. It perfectly captures the eerie foreboding when partners are divorcing, with one wondering privately if he is making a mistake even while trying to scare the other that he will regret it. When Lennon heard it, did he have an inkling that he would only have one more number one record in his lifetime?
McCartney whips himself into a war dance, dancing around Hugh McCracken’s guitar pyrotechnics with falsetto shrieks and whoops, banging the floor tom drum.
Lennon would counter on his next album with “How Do You Sleep,” which would also be magnificently played and produced. But it is so overtly about McCartney that its subject can’t be separated from the performance, making it difficult to enjoy beyond the context of Lennon’s character assassination. By being lyrically just vague enough and played within an arresting sound scape, “Too Many People” transcends the backdrop that inspired it.
Ram’s back cover included the subtle snapshot of one beetle screwing another. The front featured McCartney holding a ram by horns, so for Imagine Lennon inserted a postcard in which he holds a pig by the ears, grinning. Lennon also continued to be a loose cannon in the press. He sent an open letter to McCartney via the music mag Melody Maker in which he wrote that McCartney had said to him, “‘Ringo and George are going to break you John’ . . . Who’s the guy threatening to ‘finish’ Ringo and Maureen, who was warning me on the phone two weeks ago? Who said he’d ‘get us’ whatever the cost? As I’ve said before—have you ever thought that you might possibly be wrong about something?” He then slagged off McCartney’s father-in-law.
Obviously, fighting with the vicious Lennon in public was like dancing around gasoline with a match. And while Lennon forgot the fact whenever convenient, to McCartney they had been best friends, which was why he had overreacted and botched the whole “dealing with Yoko” thing in the first place.
McCartney began working on the song that would become “Dear Friend” during the Ram sessions. For many critics it was the sole redemption of the Wild Life album. It was the record’s last song, showing the continued primacy of the feud in his life, as “Too Many People” had been the first song on Ram.
The disconsolate piano brings to mind a man walking through a dark cavern, as McCartney faced the precarious decision of whether to up the arms race of mutually assured destruction. His voice strains at the high end of his register, like a guy who has been bullied but knows he must speak up though he’s also afraid. He can’t believe they’ve come so close to the edge, and he’s shocked it all means so much to Lennon. Perhaps he’s referring to the money and how they were forcing McCartney to stay in the company to avoid paying higher taxes. Perhaps he’s referring to Lennon’s need to yell his side of the story through the press at everyone else’s expense.
The song is famously known as a conciliatory make-up song. With surprising honesty, McCartney sings that he’s in love with his friend and wishes him the best with his marriage. But McCartney also asks Lennon if he’s a fool and if he’s afraid, which sounds like a bit of a provocation, even as his voice is timid in the gloom, a passive-aggressive Gemini as always. Probably it was hard for McCartney to be the guy stepping back saying, “I don’t want to fight,” even though he had been the one who started it.
McCartney plays the same ruminating piano chords for almost six minutes, mirroring the emotional obsession he couldn’t shake. But he uses what he learned on the Thrillington instrumental album to sustain interest through a subtle build in accompaniment with forlorn strings and foreboding horns until everything recedes except the quiet, lonely piano, and then it finally stops as well. Wild Life was released in the United Kingdom in November 1971 and in the United States in early December. At some point, McCartney called Lennon, and shortly afterward Lennon sent McCartney a Christmas gift, a bootleg of the group’s audition for Decca Records. A little after Christmas, the McCartneys dropped by Lennon and Ono’s Greenwich Village home, and the former bandmates stopped attacking each other in public. Eventually, the postcard in Imagine was changed to one of Lennon playing the panpipes.
A very good analysis although there’s something that needs to be cleared up. It wasn’t McCracken’s pyrotechnics being danced around here because McCartney played the distorted guitar solos, although McCracken did play on the track.
Thanks, I will correct that in the paperback edition. I appreciate it!