The fifth song on Paul and Linda McCartney’s 1971 album Ram, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ was issued as a single in the United States. It became his first post-Beatles number one single.
I’m pretty sure this song reflects a new nostalgia for family at a time when I had moved away from Liverpool. I wouldn’t see the family anywhere near as regularly. We might go back up for a New Year’s Eve party, but in general, I’d moved away from all that. It had just gone. Of all The Beatles, I was the only one who did go back. The others hardly ever went back.
By this stage, I’m imagining Uncle Albert as a character in a playlet, and then I go into character – a very arrogant posh guy, instead of just a little kid from Liverpool. The shift of accent is enough. ‘Hands across the water/Heads across the sky’ refers to Linda and me being American and British.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
The song was partly inspired by Albert Kendall, who had worked with McCartney’s father Jim at Liverpudlian cotton merchants A Hannay & Co. Kendall was a clerk at the business, and subsequently married Jim’s sister Milly, making him Paul’s uncle Albert.
I had an uncle – Albert Kendall – who was a lot of fun, and when I came to write ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ it was loosely about addressing that older generation, half thinking ‘What would they think of the way my generation does things? ‘That’s why I wrote the line ‘We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert’. There’s an imaginary element in many of my songs – to me, Admiral Halsey is symbolic of authority and therefore not to be taken too seriously. We recorded it in New York and George Martin helped me with the orchestral arrangement. I was surprised when it became a big hit.
Wingspan: Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run
McCartney also suggested that the Admiral Halsey in the lyrics was loosely based on World War II US Naval officer Fleet Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr, commonly known as Bill or Bull Halsey. “As for Admiral Halsey, he’s one of yours, an American admiral,” McCartney said.
Admiral William Halsey Jr. was an historically important person who was appointed commander of the US Third Fleet in 1944. I don’t know exactly why he made his way into the song. I must have been reading about him somewhere.
The Lyrics: 1956 To The Present
‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ was one of the few songs on Ram about which John Lennon spoke favourably. although he was disparaging about its multi-part arrangement.
I thought it [Ram] was awful! McCartney was better because at least there were some tunes on it, like ‘Junk’. I liked the beginning of ‘Ram On’, the beginning of ‘Uncle Albert’ and I liked some of ‘My Dog’s Got Three Legs‘. I liked the little bit about ‘Hands across the water’, but it just tripped off all the time. I didn’t like that a bit!
As suggested by the title, ‘Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey’ was a song in two distinct halves, but contained several more unfinished fragments of tunes that McCartney weaved together. The song comprises 12 separate sections, some of which are repeated during the course of the song.
I like that format. There was an album that came out in the sixties called A Teenage Opera and it had a couple of songs where there were different sections all put together, it wasn’t a usual rock ‘n’ roll record. This was more operatic in its form and I always liked that. You sometimes want to change something, you want to write a ballad, or you’re feeling a rocking thing, or sometimes a folk thing and then you want to put them together. It’s a format that I really enjoy writing, because it allows you to stretch. It’s something that I use quite often, like in ‘Band On The Run’.
‘Uncle Albert’ was a little message to my real Uncle Albert – it was symbolising my family, basically saying ‘I’m so sorry I don’t live up there anymore, and I’ve got a completely different lifestyle to all you guys. I’m sorry, Uncle Albert!’ Like a tongue-in-cheek apology, and then with Admiral Halsey, well, it just all went mad after that when he entered the picture. Again, we come back to the word free – it was very free and that made this record very enjoyable.
The mid-tempo opening two minutes are McCartney at his most melodious, showing doubters that his songwriting skills hadn’t died with The Beatles. It also featured the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, arranged by The Beatles’ producer George Martin.
The song’s second half featured the ‘Admiral Halsey’ motif, three instances of the “Hands across the water/Heads across the sky” refrain, and the “Live a little, be a gypsy, get around” passage. The outro alone is in two distinct parts, the first with country and western guitar licks, moving into a segue that marks the beginning of ‘Smile Away’.
Well, we worked at it. Because that’s what you do when you work on a record, you want it to sound right. Linda told me that she used to be a member of a glee club in America, when she was in college. Like the TV series Glee! I’d never heard of a glee club before, because in Britain we didn’t have that, and she explained that they would sing together and they used to go to a bell tower at the school because it had a good acoustics. She knew certain things about it, so when it came to writing and recording, she would naturally just sing a harmony or I would suggest one and we’d harmonise at home. Then when we would get into the studio, we’d work a little bit harder to try and get it right.
Looking back at the records we made together, I think our harmonies were a really individual sound, and a very special sound. Probably because she wasn’t a professional singer, that gave her an innocence to her tone that comes through on the records. I’d be singing ‘hands across the water’ and she’d echo ‘water, water’ and do this funny little American accent, and we’d put it in! We were having fun.
‘Admiral Halsey’ was notable for its production, which contained various sound effects: rain, a vocal approximation of a telephone tone, sea birds and wind. Paul and Linda also demonstrated their best upper class English accents (“We haven’t done a bloody thing all day”; “Butter pie?”).
If you listen carefully, you’ll hear Paul gurgling right before the telephone voice comes in. That sound was his imitation of a British telephone ring. He was supposed to give the engineer a cue when he wanted the lowpass filter dropped in for the Admiral Halsey character. The engineer made the switch too early and the filter came in on one of the gurgles! Paul didn’t care, though. To him, it was all about the feel of the music.