Released: 21 May 1971 (UK), 17 May 1971 (US)
Paul McCartney: vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, piano, xylophone
Linda McCartney: backing vocals
Hugh McCracken: acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Denny Seiwell: drums
Paul Beaver: synthesizer
David Nadien, Aaron Rosand: violin
Marvin Stamm, Mel Davis, Ray Crisara, Snooky Young: brass
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
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.
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.
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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.
‘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.
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.
Martin’s contribution was not credited on the album, and was unknown by the general public for nearly 30 years. His score sheets for the orchestral arrangement mistakenly bore the title ‘Uncle Arthur’.
McCartney conducted the orchestral musicians; the recording took place in Studio A1 at A&R Studios in New York. According to producer Phil Ramone, “The funny thing is about 20% of the orchestra didn’t know who he was. They were classical players.”
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’.
‘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.