Album: Ram Jam
Artist: Ram Jam
Place: Habitat Home Store, Oak Ridge, $2
Over the long haul, virtually all rock ’n’ roll bands have to worry about failing to meet expectations or attracting taunts for “coasting.” Some unlucky ensembles have to contend with unforetold personnel changes. (Consider, for instance, the bind the Doors were in after Jim Morrison died.) Others have to deal with an evolving musical zeitgeist. (Think the Beach Boys in 1968.) And still others have to suffer longstanding critical disgust. (The legendary Grand Funk Railroad, for example, never could get a fair shake from critics.)
One way to avoid the pitfalls of enduring rock stardom is to not endure. The ephemeral Ram Jam—comprising a group of guys who were thrown together by record executives and thus hardly merit the moniker “band”—preserved its place in rock history by exploding like a volcano and then going away. Most people don’t know it, but Ram Jam’s contribution to the American rock ’n’ roll canon is colossal: They gave us the bluesy, kick-ass Southern-rock classic “Black Betty.” “Black Betty” appears on Ram Jam’s 1977 album, Ram Jam. New Deal musical archaeologists John and Alan Lomax wrote about an early version of “Black Betty” in their locus classicus, American Folk Songs and Ballads, and the Ram Jam song, like so many others from the rock ’n’ roll era, has its roots in African-American folk music. That’s probably one of the reasons the song is so good; generations of people sang it, played it, and perfected it before handing it over to our unlikely heroes, Ram Jam.
I’ve probably seen the album Ram Jam 50 times over the past 10 years. I’ve seen it everywhere—in upscale High Fidelity-like record stores where posing hipsters pontificate about the warmth of vinyl, in flea markets with old Berber carpet that reeks of cat urine, and, of course, in thrift stores. I finally bought one last month.
I use the word “unassailable” too much when I write about music, but “Black Betty” truly is unassailable. It is perhaps the ultimate rock ’n’ roll song—loud, vulgar, catchy, pointless, and timeless. The rest of Ram Jam is, well, eminently assailable. Ram Jam came along when punk and new wave and disco challenged hard-rock hegemony, and rockers had to step up their games to cut through the musical clutter. Relative newcomers Aerosmith and Boston wrote great rock songs and sold lots of records in the late 1970s, while veterans—including the Rolling Stones (Some Girls marked a stunning return) and the Who (with Who Are You)—kicked it up a notch and thus revivified their faltering careers. But Ram Jam didn’t have the songwriting chops to survive or thrive in this altered environment. After “Black Betty,” Ram Jam is derivative and uninspired. “404” (despite a nice cow bell intro) is a second rate “Vehicle” by Ides of March; “All for the Love of Rock ’n’ Roll” is half-baked pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers; “High Steppin’” is a less catchy and skillful “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band; and “Hey Boogie Woman” is every song ever played by a bluesy bar band phoning it in for a few bucks at some hole-in-the-wall bar.
But really, what does a record need after “Black Betty”? The answer is nothing, and that’s why one old copy of Ram Jam has a new home.