Everyone loves The Beatles, incuding radio DJ / comedian / televison writer Tom Scharpling, who has long favored Paul McCartney as his favorite of the Fab Four. Scharpling, who hosts the briilliant weekly WFMU 3 hour live radio program The Best Show on WFMU, considers McCartney's post Beatles, May 1971 release RAM (with wife Linda McCartney) to be one of the artists' finest works.
In fact, Scharpling was so into the album, which is often unfairly dismissed by critics, that he had the wonderful idea of producing a RAM covers tribute compilation, inviting his many musician friends to contribute to the project.The final product would be a special WFMU only release made out of love for McCartney, as well as for WFMU, as it helped raise funds (which it did very well) for the New Jersey radio station's annual fundraising pledge drive marathon earlier this year.
Renamed TOM, and with a cleverly altered cover, the new tribute RAM is a sincere track-by-track reinterpretation of the 38 year old release with such artists as Ted Leo, Death Cab for Cutie, Aimee Mann, Portastatic, Danielson, Dump (Yo La Tengo's James McNew), Spider Bags, Black Hollies, and Stones Throws' James Pants, all pitching in their time and talent to help out the popular radio host and the non-profit independent radio station.
I recently caught up with Tom Scharpling, whose show really is The Best Show on WFMU and one I never miss! It airs every Tuesday 8pm to 11pm EST on WFMU. I talked with him about the concept for the album, the artists' attitudes towards McCartney, and also his reaction to the similarly themed Ram on L.A. album that was released around the same time as his RAM tribute.
Amoeblog: How did you first get the idea to do this RAM themed compilation?
Tom Scharpling: Way back in July of 2008, I was trying to think of what I could do for the 2009 WFMU marathon. I wanted to come up with something that could take advantage of all of the awesome bands and musicians I know who are fans of the program. So many musicians have offered their services to the show and to the station over the years, so I decided to take them all up at once!
I also knew that a project featuring the contributions of those musicians could potentially reach out to new audience members and bring some new people and pledgers into the tent, so to speak. The decision to do RAM came pretty quick -- I've always been a big champion of the album RAM, and since it's an album that alternates between being low fi and lush, it seemed like the kind of album that the artists could cover on the cheap without losing the essence of the original record. I started asking people in July of 2008 and the final product was finished in July of 2009.
Amoeblog: Did you pair the individual artists with the songs or did they chose their tracks to cover?
Tom Scharpling: The first person I asked was Ted Leo because -- in addition to him being a great friend to both the show and myself -- I know that RAM meant a lot to him as a kid. We had both talked about how great "The Back Seat Of My Car" was, so I had a feeling he was going to pick it. And he did. And having Ted on board not only helped make it feel legitimate to me -- I couldn't back out now! -- but it was also something that brought some credibility to the project. Death Cab took "Dear Boy" next, and then Aimee Mann took "Too Many People." I knew that some people were perfect fits for certain songs -- two examples are Dump for "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey," and Hank IV for "Smile Away" -- so I guided them toward those tracks. There was some last minute maneuvering down the stretch and everybody ended up exactly where they belonged.
Amoeblog: I know you are a big McCartney fan, but were the artists also as into Paul's music as you were?
Tom Scharpling: Some of the artists were totally into McCartney and RAM -- I remember Dan McGee from Spider Bags telling me how if he had a chance they would do a totally trippy version of "Long Haired Lady" -- but others either got turned on to the album because of this or went back to listen to it for the first time in ages. Aimee Mann went back through it and was like, "this record is better than I remembered it being!"
Amoeblog: How do you rate RAM in the entire body of Paul's work -- including The Beatles and Wings?
Tom Scharpling: I think RAM is a complete masterpiece and strikes a perfect balance between so many points -- homey/orchestral, angry/joyful, focused/rambling. It is shocking how badly the record was reviewed at the time -- legendary dimwit John Landau calling it "the nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far." Although this is the same boob who ruined the MC5, so what else would you expect?
I would put RAM up at the top of my favorite post-Beatles stuff, but if you think about the first five as a straight shot through, it's pretty impressive. McCartney, RAM, Wild Life (a totally underrated
record!), Red Rose Speedway, and Band On The Run? That's solid work, and it only makes you wonder what the best five tracks from each record would've sounded like as part of a Beatles album. But that didn't happen and Wings did, and I love Wings.
Paul McCartney was my favorite Beatle when I was a kid, and while I have occasionally shifted to George at certain points, ultimately McCartney is the guy for me. The one thing with McCartney is that he is a lifer. He has always put out an album every two or so years and seems to be chasing something, trying to continue to capture the same thing that made him push so hard back in the sixties. And while he has
most definitely put out awful stuff, he has also hit on some surprisingly solid stuff, including The Fireman album from last year.
Amoeblog: I know it is a lot of work to do any sort of compilation, including ones with already recorded tracks, but to put together one that requires getting bands to record new songs and from well established and busy artists and do it without any budget is even more of a challenge. Was it very tough pulling it off and working with a deadline?
Tom Scharpling: This thing was SO hard to put together and was a real challenge in so many ways. The only reason it came together like it did was through the generosity of the artists. Nobody had any kind of recording budget, so everybody stepped up and made their songs happen. Ben Gibbard was originally going to do "Dear Boy" solo but couldn't record it before a Death Cab tour, so he got the band to knock it out at somebody's private studio in Perth, Australia. Aimee Mann got Michael Penn to produce her track. One of the artists flaked and the Black Hollies stepped in and turned their track around within the week. Peanut Butter Wolf couldn't get his together the way he wanted so he brought Mayer Hawthorne and James Pants on board. There were so many examples of people digging deep and making it happen; I will always be touched by it.
Amoeblog: I heard you talking on your radio show recently -- after seeing Paul in concert in NYC -- about how impressive a performer he is, especially in his latter sixties, he rocks the house. Would you say the years have been fairer to him than most rockers his age?
Tom Scharpling: It was shocking to see the guy responsible for this amazing legacy of songs actually standing in front of you singing them. His voice was great, and he plays with only four other people -- lean and mean. It was a special thing to see from anyone at any age, but for a guy in his mid-sixties? That gave me something to strive for in my golden years.
Amoeblog: Can people still buy the album by donating to WFMU or buying it directly from WFMU and is the album being commercially released so the general public can buy it?
Tom Scharpling: The album is not going to be commercially released. The ONLY way you can get it is by contacting me at email@example.com. I will put you in touch with the proper authorities at WFMU so you can belatedly pledge for it.
Amoeblog: Were you surprised when you got wind of that other RAM themed tribute album and have you heard it?
Tom Scharpling: I could not have been more shocked by the other RAM tribute. I nearly drove off the road when I heard that someone else had planned a track-by-track tribute to an album that I had to convince people I liked unironically. AND that it was going to come out the week of my first fundraising marathon show! I called the guys putting it out and they couldn't have been any nicer about it and we were both taken aback by the impossible timing and parallel thinking of the whole thing.
Amoeblog: Due to the amazing response this album got, do you have plans for any future similarly themed projects?
Tom Scharpling: I am figuring out my 2010 marathon premium now. I have set the bar high but I hope to somehow match it. Whether that means a similar thing or something completely different but just as exciting, we'll see!