Graded on a Curve:
Ram Jam, Ram Jam

Hey Hard Rock Kids! Confused by the intricate musical complexities of Bad Company? Not a fan of Foghat because so far as you’re concerned they play math rock? Well have I got the Neanderthals for you!

I’m talking about Ram Jam, who played a brand of hard rock so stripped down it made the Troggs sound like baroque chamber music. NYC’s Ram Jam appeared on the music scene just as punk was exploding in that city, but you won’t find any punk in their DNA, and if you think punk was a primitive rock form, well, compared to the Ramones these guys sound like a bunch of cave men beating on rocks with other rocks.

Ram Jam are best remembered for the 1977 sorta-hit, “Black Betty.” In fact it’s the only thing they’re remembered for, and if you’re lucky you don’t remember it at all. Their pitiless pummeling of a defenseless Leadbelly tune is either stupid and annoying or pure dumb fun, depending on whether your idea of fun is singing “Whoa, Black Betty, bam-ba-lam” over and over again.

Me, I don’t even like it as kitsch, but I’m far less hostile to their debut LP as a whole. There’s something almost endearing about this cave man quartet’s dedication to keeping it simple, and I’ll be damned if a couple of its brainless melodies and atavistic sentiments don’t jump out at you–”Keep Your Hands on the Wheel” sounds like an unholy fusion of Mott the Hoople and Brownsville Station, and how can you go wrong?

Ram Jam doesn’t really have much going for it. Lead singer Myke Scavone adds a frisson of personality, and Bill Bartlett (a former Lemon Piper!) knows just enough about guitar to produce primitive hooks and keep his solos simple. And while I wish I could say immortal bubblegum producers Jeff Katz and Jerry Kasenetz add something to the mix, they seem content to let the boys do what comes naturally by brutalizing everything they touch.

That said, they may have had something to do with the stolen T. Rex riff that fuels “Too Bad on Your Birthday”–a song so cool in its primal way that Joan Jett saw fit to cover it. They certainly didn’t encourage the boys to adopt a lighter touch on their very non-punk cover of Tuff Darts’ “All for the Love of Rock N’ Roll,” which hit the streets before the Tuff Darts’ version did. But there’s something to be said for Ram Jam’s version; it has the hammer-heavy feel of a good Blue Oyster Cult stomper, as does “Let It All Out” for that matter.

And let me say this about Ram Jam; the longer you listen to it, the more you hear. The guitar in “404” is pure Nugent, and the song itself ain’t half bad. Squint your ears and “Overloaded” could be ZZ Top sans IQ with a little Grand Funk thrown in for flavoring. And “Right on the Money” is just that if you’re the kind of person who thinks “Mississippi Queen” is the best song ever written by a human being.

I can make excuses for everything on Ram Jam but “Hey Boogie Woman,” which makes “Black Betty” sound like esoteric space jazz. This song has all the wit and intelligence of a meteor crater, and isn’t half as interesting. As for the instrumental “High-Steppin’” it’s an inexplicable anomaly–Dickie Betts’ Allman Brothers as channeled through, I don’t know, Uriah Heep. Forget everything I said above–this baby is math rock, but math rock for people who flunked math.

I would be lying if I said this album didn’t afford its small pleasures; there will always be a place in this world for not-so-smart rockers who make it a point of honor to keep their rock ‘n’ roll simple. But too many of its songs do nothing but lie there; with the exception of “Keep Your Hands on the Wheel” (which really deserves a listen) and two (or three tops) other lesser but still good tunes, Ram Jam can be described as merely competent.

And what more damning thing can be said about a rock ‘n’ roll album?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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