OK, this is the one I’ve been dreading. Most folks who lead normal lives are blissfully unaware that the former drummer for the Beatles has released sixteen solo albums. That is not a typo. But the experience of listening to all of them actually turned out not to be excruciating. Read on…
Starr may have been the Beatle who least matched his public persona, a persona created out of thin air by the early-’60s media (especially the American media, who initially had trouble telling them apart) and reinforced by his “Ringo” character in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and especially the ridiculous Beatles Saturday morning cartoon. He was the mascot, the goofy dimwit, condescended to and put upon by the others, but always childlike and cheery. Out of the spotlight, however, the real-life Richard Starkey could be just as cutting and sarcastic as Lennon, as moody as Harrison, and as savvy as McCartney.
He was the oldest Beatle, and the others have all reminisced about how much more cool and sophisticated Starr seemed before he signed on with them. In fact, “Richy” (his spelling) was considered something of a tough customer, rising up from the lowest of the Liverpool slums (a place called “The Dingle”) to become the powerhouse drummer for the hardest-rocking band on the local “beat” scene, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. He drove a sporty car while his future bandmates still scrounged for bus fare, wore flashy jewelry (hence the stage name, which close friends never referred to him by), and cultivated a cool bohemian beard as early as 1960.
The fact that the proto-Fab Three had coveted him and his drums for years should certainly say something about how his skills were regarded at that time, and the fact that the great Ringo Starr ditched his sweet gig with the Hurricanes and deigned to join these upstarts should say something about Starr’s own musical judgment. [ADDENDUM: I’ve recently (Nov. 2013) read the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive three-volume Beatles biography, and it shed a lot of light on this era. Evidently, the Hurricanes were stagnating — Ringo had already quit them once — and the Beatles, far from being “upstarts,” had been top of the heap in Liverpool for some time, and were clearly poised for bigger things.]
Maybe his role as the “runt” stemmed from the fact that he joined the band at the last moment before they skyrocketed in late ’62. Maybe it was the fact that he was three inches shorter than the others, or wasn’t quite as handsome (that nose, y’know.) What seems clear is that the dismissiveness people sometimes projected onto Ringo as a personality began to spill over to his skill as a drummer, and that’s just plain unfair.
The whole “Ringo-wasn’t-very-good” myth stems from the post-Beatles era of the early 1970s, when instrumental overkill was all the rage and the flashiness of guys like John Bonham and Neil Peart was revered. They flailed away behind huge kits with double bass drums, a thousand cymbals, and a fucking gong, and set a new standard in what people wanted out of rock drumming. Ringo’s simpler style on a comparatively tiny kit seemed outdated. (The myth was believed by a certain breed of music journalists and fans, but never by other drummers.)
True skill is making something complex seem simple. Starr’s drumming for the Beatles is as full of personality as any element of their sound. He hits the snare with a peculiar, flat thwack unique to him (one music writer compared it to a mason slapping down bricks), and utilized a lot of echoed, rolling tom-tom fills, moving around the kit intuitively rather than studiedly. He employed just as many complex patterns and tricky time signatures as the later prog-rock “technician” drummers, who got the plaudits for doing so, but Starr did it without calling attention to his own playing. If you listen to his almost-melodic work on things like “A Day In The Life” or his subtly challenging intro on “Here Comes The Sun,” you realize you’re hearing a percussionist of formidable talent.
As the excessive sounds of the ’70s and ’80s grew outdated and unfashionable themselves, respect for Starr began to re-emerge. Oddly enough, it was a video game the firmly put Starr back in the pantheon of greats. Even the dumbed-down versions of his drum patterns on The Beatles Rock Band were complicated enough to open a lot of ears to how crucial his contributions were to the Beatles’ collective genius.
Now the bad news. Fueled by positive remarks on his performances in the two Beatles films, Starr decided to try his hand at film acting as a second career. Unfortunately, every single film he chose to be in from his 1968 solo acting debut (Candy) to his 1981 cinematic swan song (Caveman, admittedly an HBO favorite of mine when I was seven) was total shit. (Seriously, check his filmography. He stuck mostly with low-budget U.K./European productions, which are a dicey proposition to begin with, and had an unerring ability to choose the worst film of that type going before the cameras at any given point. Some good things were said about That’ll Be The Day, but good luck finding anyone outside of mid-’70s U.K. who saw it.)
He also couldn’t really write songs. His songwriting debut with the Beatles, “Don’t Pass Me By,” took him five years to complete. His follow-up, “Octopus’s Garden,” required more than a little uncredited assistance from George Harrison, assistance that would continue into the early part of his solo career (see below.) And unlike his stick-work, Starr’s voice was never much of an asset for the Beatles…
…but he can sing and, despite his limited range, his vocals fall easily on the ear, which leads to the surprising discovery that Ringo Starr’s solo albums are actually quite pleasant. They are certainly easier to listen to than most of Harrison’s. Driven by the happy-go-lucky “good ol’ Ringo” persona, no one expected a Serious Musical Statement from his material, relieving him of those expectations every time.
Like Lennon and Harrison, Starr began his solo career with a couple of oddities: Sentimental Journey from 1970 was an album of ancient big-band standards, and it was followed a few months later by Beaucoups Of Blues, which consisted of “all-new” country songs contributed by a variety of Nashville songwriters cleaning out their leftovers. Once these were out of the way, Starr began his solo career in earnest. (The fact that everyone considered 1973’s Ringo to be his first “real” solo album is supported by the title of the third album after it: Ringo The 4th.)
Ringo set the album template for what we can call “Phase One” of his solo career: a song written for him by as many of the other Beatles as could be bothered, an oldie cover or two, and a handful of originals laboriously penned by Starr and as many as four other collaborators. Once the material was assembled, it was recorded with a couple of Starr’s superstar pals and a team of the best session players in the business. You cannot fault Starr’s albums on musicianship. At its best, Starr’s Phase One work is no worse than any other breezy, easy-listening pop confection of the era (such as “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” or “Love Will Keep Us Together”). And frankly, they are often as good as anything put out by Paul McCartney’s Wings during the same period.
The pattern continued, to somewhat diminishing returns, for several albums. Starr’s solo recording career depended solely on the goodwill he had generated by being a Beatle, but even that has a sell-by date. By the end of the ’70s, pretty much no one had any interest in sitting through a Ringo Starr solo album. He went off the rails completely with 1981’s self-loathing Stop And Smell The Roses. Adding insult to injury, his lone starring feature, Caveman, bombed badly that same year, killing his film acting career. By the time Old Wave was rejected by every major record label in the English-speaking world (it finally struggled out in Canada), Starr decided to increase his already prodigious drinking and become a Professional Celebrity.
He got sober in 1988, and decided to resuscitate his music career in a way common to former ’60s stars with no songwriting ability — he hit the nostalgia circuit. Pretty regularly since 1989, state fair-goers across the country have been treated to various conglomerations of the “All-Starr Band”, a revue-style show featuring sidemen of varying degrees of washed-upness. (All-Starr Band members have included Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, John Entwistle, and many others. The only permanent member seems to be — of course — Joe Walsh.) Starr rarely parks himself on the drum stool for these outings, preferring to be front and center with a hand mic, Mr. All-Around Showbiz Entertainer. He frequently turns the spotlight over for solo spots by his less-interesting bandmates, to the mild delight of his graying, white wine-sipping, undiscriminating Baby Boomer audience. These tours also spun off a small cottage industry of limited-edition live albums. To date, Starr has ten of these, with titles like Ringo Starr And His Third All-Starr Band Volume 1. Luckily, they fall outside of the parameters of our discussion.
He also re-thought his approach to record-making, leading to Phase Two of his career, now in its third decade: a seemingly never-ending string of low-selling albums on small labels aimed directly at the hardcore Beatle fan market. Beginning with Time Takes Time, every Ringo album would rely on a team of professional songwriters, a huge array of celebrity guests to carry the load, and would be stripped of the anything-goes, coked-up ’70s decadence that made Phase One a little more interesting.
Ringo Starr discography
Goodnight Vienna (1974)
Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976)
Ringo The 4th (1977)
Bad Boy (1978)
Stop And Smell The Roses (1981)
Old Wave (1983); out of print
Time Takes Time (1992)
Vertical Man (1998)
Ringo Rama (2003)
Choose Love (2005)
Liverpool 8 (2008)
Y Not (2010)
Ringo 2012 (2012)
BEST ALBUM: Ringo. Like Harrison, Starr’s first solo statement was his strongest. Everyone he rounded up to participate was full of goodwill for the universally-beloved Ringo’s new beginning, and pitched in with top drawer material and performances. John Lennon leads the way with “I’m The Greatest,” a bit of tongue-in-cheek bombast custom written for his old friend, and McCartney’s “Six O’Clock” could have been a good Wings single. “Photograph,” a perfect single, anchors the set. The overall sound is an amalgam of typical ’70s glam-pop and ’50s pastiches, plus a little touch of old-fashioned vaudeville — very non cutting-edge, totally harmless, and pretty entertaining. (To give you a snapshot, the word “boogie” is used in the lyrics more times than I cared to count.)
BEST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: Choose Love. Knock me over with a feather, but I found myself enjoying almost every track on this latter-day Starr statement. The celebrity cameos are toned down (only Chrissy Hynde shows up on the amusing duet “Don’t Hang Up”), giving the muscular studio band (dubbed “The Roundheads”) a chance to shine. The production is simpler and warmer than previous Phase Two albums, and the title track is just waiting for its re-discovery as a classic. We also get a great pub singalong, “Free Drinks,” as a final cut. And this is as good a place as any to reiterate how great a drummer Starr is, even if his All-Starr concerts don’t feature much of it. He’s behind the kit on every track he’s recorded since 1992, and does an especially fine job on this album.
BEST HIT SINGLE: “It Don’t Come Easy.” Recorded during the Sentimental Journey sessions and released in 1971, this non-album single has always generated mild controversy. The composition is credited to Starr alone, but it has been said that George Harrison had a major role in its writing, and may in fact be the sole author. Whoever penned it, the song is a bona-fide classic, and is known as Starr’s signature number. (Highest Chart Position: #4.)
BEST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Photograph” — Ringo. Harrison did get official co-writing credit for Starr’s other classic single. (In between “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Photograph” was another pretty good non-album single, “Back Off Boogaloo,” a near-classic credited — and acknowledged — to Starr alone.) “Photograph” is a genuinely poignant look back at a lost love, and its interpretation isn’t necessarily restricted to romantic love. When Starr performed this at the memorial concert for Harrison, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. (Highest Chart Position: #1.)
BEST NON-HIT SONG: “Never Without You” — Ringo Rama. And speaking of Harrison, this touching tribute to him is the highlight of Ringo Rama. Starr had a special bond with Harrison, who existed with Starr in the shadow of Lennon-McCartney, and gave him so much assistance throughout his solo career. Harrison was scheduled to play on Ringo Rama, but passed away before the album went into production. Working the titles of several Harrison songs into the lyrics, Starr and his co-writers concoct a well-crafted homage to a departed friend. Eric Clapton plays the guitar solo in a suitably Beatle-esque style, just as he did on the Harrison classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
BEST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “Oo-Wee” — Goodnight Vienna. The follow-up album to the blockbuster Ringo was almost as good, and has the funky taste of New Orleans, thanks to songs like Alan Toussaint’s “Occapella,” Hoyt Axton’s “No No Song” (more on that later), and this song. “Oo-Wee” is pure groove, with a pounding bass line and drum part (naturally), a meaty horn section, and some jazzy piano fills by Dr. John.
WORST ALBUM: Stop And Smell The Roses. A crisis can often lead to great art, especially in the music world. Works like Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night or Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks were created in the midst of horrible downturns in their creator’s personal lives. Since no one associates “personal darkness” with Ringo, his own dark night of the soul had to be channeled into a typical upbeat “Ringo album,” and the results ranged from uncomfortable to appalling. Starr, preoccupied with his floundering film career and stalled recording career, crawled into a whiskey bottle and, almost as an act of penance, accepted the worst dregs that his songwriting collaborators offered. McCartney coughed up the inane “Private Property” (“Don’t run off with her”) and “Attention” (“Give it all you’ve got/Get into the power of the plot”) and Harrison reached into his incredibly vast Bitter, Self-Pitying Song vault and handed over “Wrack My Brain.” But the worst offender was the one person involved in the project who was more pickled than Starr — Harry Nilsson. For all the greatness he sometimes conjured up between benders, there was no lazier songwriter in the history of popular music. His second-tier stuff was literally throwaways, and he threw several songs in the direction of someone who was in no condition to turn them down. First, there is “Drumming Is My Madness,” which is dumb enough as it stands, but Starr doesn’t even bother to play drums on it. Then there is the equally dumb novelty title track, which has to be heard to be believed. The kicker comes in the fade-out. Starr has long had a habit of vocal ad-libbing and scatting during instrumental breaks, and here we get the inside scoop. In an increasingly hysterical and broken voice, he rants “I’m going crazy with this record business! I want to stop! You want me to stop…” The album concludes with a pointless re-recording of “Back Off Booglaoo.” (Sad note: the album might have been a little better had Lennon lived to deliver his planned contribution, the quite good and Ringo-ish “Nobody Told Me,” the demo of which was released as a posthumous Lennon single — and was a hit.)
WORST ALBUM RUNNER-UP: Ringo 2012. This may very well prove to be the death knell for Phase Two. Starr is so creatively exhausted, he relies on two oldies covers, and re-records two songs from his ’70s period (“Wings,” from Ringo The 4th, is pretty good, but there’s no reason to re-visit it here.) And the album is still only nine tracks long! (He even re-uses the cover photo from his last album, Y Not.) The originals also show the formula wearing thin. Starr has always traded on shameless nostalgia, but his well-meaning (if annoying) flower-power philosophy has become so generic that it can be expressed in the lead-off track simply titled “Anthem” (“This is an anthem/For peace and love/We gotta keep trying/We can’t give up.”) There’s also the third “wasn’t-Liverpool-great?” treatise in as many albums, and Joe Walsh, always a sign of desperation, turns up like a bad penny to weaken the final track. I don’t know if this is going to usher in Phase Three or retirement, but we can’t continue this way.
WORST HIT SINGLE: “No No Song” — Goodnight Vienna. Over a grating, faux-Caribbean rhythm, our narrator is offered (through three interminable verses) marijuana, cocaine, and whiskey. He turns them all down, claiming they make him sneeze. Whatever, Ringo. (Highest Chart Position: #3.)
WORST HIT SINGLE RUNNER-UP: “Wrack My Brain” — Stop And Smell The Roses. Lyrically limp and musically stuck in second gear, this was chosen as the best of a bad lot to represent Ringo on the singles chart in ’81. Penned by Harrison, its irritable, pessimistic lyrics would sound more at home coming from his vocal cords than Starr’s. (Highest Chart Position: #38.)
WORST NON-HIT SONG: “Elizabeth Reigns” — Ringo Rama. It took Paul McCartney seventeen seconds to pay tribute to the queen with “Her Majesty” at the end of Abbey Road. If only Ringo’s homage could be so succinct. In many ways, Ringo Rama is a good example of a typical Phase Two album: comfortable, mid-tempo, rocking in a vaguely retro Jeff Lynne-ish way (producer Mark Hudson stood in through several Starr albums as a poor man’s Jeff Lynne). Then one song from the end, all hell breaks loose: A song so lyrically inept one wonders if it was composed in washable marker on construction paper. Sample genius rhymes: “Elizabeth reigns/Over and under/Elizabeth reigns/Lightning and thunder/The Queen Mum is dead/But she lives in my head…” If a song could be beheaded by royal decree and stuck on a pike at Traitors’ Gate, Her Majesty could do worse than condemning this one to just such a fate.
WORST NON-HIT SONG RUNNER-UP: “As Far As We Can Go” — Old Wave. From a pure performance standpoint, Starr rarely misses the mark. The only times he’s stumbled in this area is when he attempted a torch ballad, which he occasionally did early on. The good times on party records like Goodnight Vienna and Ringo’s Rotogravure were brought to a screeching halt by Starr’s fondness for the mawkish, and the downbeat mood throws the weakness of his voice into stark relief. The trend culminates on the bastard orphan of an album Old Wave, which concludes with this assault of awkward lyrical couplets and cheesy synthesizer strings. He wisely abandoned this predilection during Phase Two.
And we’ll politely pretend his Christmas album doesn’t exist at all.
RECOMMENDED STARR SONGS FOR YOUR SOLO BEATLES PLAYLIST: “It Don’t Come Easy,” “Early 1970,” “Back Off Boogaloo,” “Photograph,” “I’m The Greatest,” “Oh My My,” “Six O’Clock,” “You’re Sixteen,” “Goodnight Vienna,” “Oo-Wee,” “Snookeroo,” “A Dose Of Rock & Roll,” “Drowning In The Sea Of Love,” “Wings,” “Who Needs A Heart,” “Don’t Go Where The Road Don’t Go,” “Weight Of The World,” “La De Da,” “King Of Broken Hearts,” “Never Without You,” “Don’t Hang Up,” “Choose Love,” “Give Me Back The Beat,” “Liverpool 8,” “Walk With You.”