Happy 80th Birthday, Ringo Starr

A horrific milestone in the lives of Baby Boomers today — Ringo Starr of the Beatles is turning 80. As such, Ringo (Richard Starkey, MBE, b. 1940) is certainly among the oldest of his generation of ’60s rockers. He was the first born of the Beatles (John Lennon would have been reaching this benchmark in October). At any rate, we thought it an appropriate moment for a more extensive treatment of the bejeweled drummer to supplement our earlier post on his best solo album, which we wrote ten years ago.

We want to begin by asserting that only dilettantes think Ringo is a “bad drummer”. For years, a huge part of his public identity has been formed as the butt of jokes about his drumming and singing and that he’s not too bright and “the least of the Beatles”. Part of this is due to his own self-deprecating nature, and part due to the fact that he was in a group with three giants. But honestly, being the fourth talented Beatle is like being the most obscure face on Mount Rushmore. You’re still pretty goddamn big.

I was such a dweeb in high school that I acquired and wore this piece of memorabilia in 1980, 16 years after it was fashionable

When Beatlemania broke in the U.S. in 1964, among many fans (and detractors), Ringo was the best known, due to his flashy stage name (copped from Hollywood westerns) and his easily identifiable hound dog visage, which caused him to stand out from his more conventionally handsome bandmates. Girls considered him “ugly but cute”, someone they wanted to take care of, paving the way in a fashion for the Rolling Stones, who were initially considered by many a sort of homelier, scruffier, less civilized version of the Beatles. Ringo was already a local Liverpool star as a member of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes when the Beatles drafted him to replace the good-looking Pete Best, himself the favorite Beatle among many female fans. Ringo’s pre-existing popularity gave him a confidence in public; he more than held his own with the other three (by contrast, consider the Stones’ Charlie Watts, well known, but placidly, contentedly, in the background). With his melancholy air (he seems sad even when he’s laughing), Ringo made the biggest impression of the four on film, and was the only Beatle to continue to be a movie star after the mid ’60s. And as for his drumming, it is widely admired in the music business, including by (perhaps especially by) fellow drummers. He is quirky and eccentric, a left handed drummer who plays a right handed kit and doesn’t hold his sticks in the approved concert drummer fashion. As a musician he had the misfortune of quickly being eclipsed by guys of great technical virtuosity (Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, John Bonham). He couldn’t match their technique, but his limitations caused (and cause) him to be endlessly creative. Most drummers are downright anonymous. They’re there just to provide a rhythm. Ringo is known for his crazy beats and the expressiveness of his fills, which made him ideal for the experimentalism of the Beatles. I am particularly fond of his tricky, strange playing on things like “Ticket to Ride”, “Rain”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”, and his bit on the turnaround in “Drive My Car”. (Try and play along with him on it. I’ve been trying for 40 years and still can’t do it).

That Ringo was the weakest singer and songwriter of the Beatles is certainly a legitimate observation, yet one he compensated for with charisma. He took a lead vocal on 11 songs in the recorded Beatles canon, roughly one to an album, and these moments are always welcome. These tunes are  “Boys”, “I Wanna Be Your Man”, “Honey Don’t”, “Matchbox”, “Act Naturally”, “What Goes On”, “Yellow Submarine”, “With a Little Help from My Friends”, “Good Night”, “Don’t Pass Me By”, and “Octopus’s Garden”.  The last two were his own compositions. Even in this small body of work, particular themes emerge: country music and children’s entertainment, both of which he would return to in his solo career.

Significantly, his solo debut simultaneously underlined Ringo’s weakness as a singer and his power in the music industry. Sentimental Journey (1970) was an entire album of Tin Pan Alley standards, crooned by Starr and produced by George Martin, with the contributing talents of the likes of Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein, Count Basie, Maurice Gibb, and Richard Perry (who’d produced Tiny Tim’s debut album, and classic albums by Nilsson, Streisand, and the legendary Ringo album 3 years later). The project was begun during the ominous limbo period after John Lennon had privately announced his departure from the Beatles, and before Paul McCartney had publicly announced his. In fact, the existence of the album appears to have hastened the latter development, as McCartney was outraged that it was interfering with the release of his own solo debut album. In its way Sentimental Journey is prescient, looking ahead to things like A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night and the entire ’70s nostalgia phenomenon we wrote about here. Henceforth, nostalgia would be a key part of Ringo’s act. Sentimental Journey is also an oddly personal album. It was a tribute to the tastes of his family. To listen to it (and to watch the strange, David Lynch-like promotional films made to support it) is to get an insight the real Richard Starkey. It’s straight up British show biz in the television age, a little Blackpool, a little Vegas. On the strength of Ringo’s popularity as a Beatle, it went to #22 on the U.S. charts.

Meanwhile, Ringo’s drumming was not neglected. He played on the solo albums of Lennon and Harrison during the early years (as well as others like Leon Russell, Nilsson, et al). While working on Harrison’s All Things Must Pass in mid-1970, he met country session musician Pete Drake, who had worked on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (1969). The two hit it off and Starr hired him to produce his second solo LP  Beaucoups of Blues, which was also produced in 1970. An album of country standards, it was recorded in three days in Nashville. Much closer to Starr’s comfort zone and the public’s expectations, this one was much better received by critics, although it only went to #65 on the U.S. pop charts (it went to #33 on the country charts, though).

Then, unexpectedly, during the years 1971 to 1975 Ringo hit his peak as a pop star, releasing the hit songs “It Don’t Come Easy” (1971), “Back Off, Boogaloo” (1972), the Ringo LP (1973, yielding the hits “Photograph”, “Oh My My” and “You’re Sixteen), the Goodnight Vienna LP (1974, with its hit “No No Song”), and the compilation album Blast from Your Past (1975).

As to the latter, perhaps it was a bit early for a retrospective, perhaps it wasn’t. But it sends a bad signal. You are now looking backward. With Ringo and Goodnight Vienna, Starr had been plugged into the going trends of the day. He was at the top of charts. Elton John wrote a tune for him! (“Snookeroo”). But the wave crashed. Unthinkably, Ringo left Apple/Capitol/EMI when his original contract expired. His new labels didn’t seem to support him properly, but neither did his output seem first rate. Ringo’s Rotogravure (1976), loosely followed the formula of his previous two studio LPs, but with a greater emphasis on nostalgia, making it seem like it had one foot in Sentimental Journey — only the new nostalgia music was ’50s rock. It’s understandable. As we wrote here, the ’50s were having a moment in the ’70s. Even John Lennon had released a record of ’50s covers at the time. But that moment too was already cresting. Ringo’s cover of “Hey Baby” is easily as good as his covers of “You’re Sixteen” and “Only You”, but it didn’t chart, nor did “A Dose of Rock and Roll”, though the LP itself went to #28. After this, he overcompensated by plunging into the new for perhaps the last time. Ringo the Fourth (1977) was his obligatory disco album, and it precipitated Ringo’s plunge to the bottom of the charts. In retrospect it has gained period charm as a curiosity. Bad Boy (1978), swung too far back in the other direction, with more than its share of oldies.

But 1978 wasn’t such a bad year for Ringo. He appeared in Mae West’s final film Sextette as one of the elderly vixen’s ex-husbands, along with fellow rock stars Keith Moon and Alice Cooper!

In 1980, a confluence of events contributed to a resurgence of interest in the Beatles: the 10th anniversary of the group’s break-up (April), John Lennon’s re-emergence from retirement (November), an his subsequent assassination (December). The tragedy briefly bolstered Starr’s fortunes in 1981. He played on Harrison’s hit single “All Those Years Ago”, released his own LP “Stop and Smell the Roses” (with its minor hit, the Harrison-penned “Wrack My Brain”) and starred in the comedy film Caveman with his then-partner Barbara Bach, best known for being the Bond Girl in The Spy Who Loved Me (1978). “Stop and Smell the Roses” proved to be a casualty of Lennon’s murder, however. Along with contributions from McCartney, Harrison, Nilsson, and others, as planned it would have had two Lennon songs “Nobody Told Me” and “Life Begins at 40”, which Lennon would also have produced and played on. Instead, when Lennon was killed Starr decided not to do them at all. If he had, it almost certainly would have helped sales of his record, which only rose to #98 on the U.S. album charts. (Lennon’s demo versions of his songs were later released. “Nobody Told Me” went to #5 in the U.S.). Starr’s label, RCA, dropped him. His next record, Old Wave (1983) was only released in Germany.

Through the ’80s, Starr continued to play drums on Harrison and McCartney albums, performed at an all-star tribute to Carl Perkins, and began recording a country album in 1987 that was aborted. In 1988 he went into detox for alcoholism.

1989 was the year Ringo began his come-back, and his reinvention. He played Mr. Conductor on the children’s show Shining Time Station, a move that has been much ridiculed, but one I find perfectly natural for the singer of “Good Night”. He formalized his status as a nostalgia act with his touring All Starr Band, which has included members of Eagles, The Band, the E Street Band, The Guess Who and others. The Beatles Anthology project brought him renewed attention in 1994-1995. And since 1992 he has released a steady stream of studio albums backed by top industry talent. Mark Hudson of the Hudson Brothers produced several and helped him achieve a pseudo-Beatley sound that’s become his style. More recently he has produced his own records.

As amazing and unlikely as his career is, equally unexpected is that he is alive at all, let alone outsurviving two of his Beatle band mates. Starr spent long stretches of his childhood in hospitals for peritonitis. A flare-up in 1978 almost killed him. But the way he’s going, he’s liable to go around flashing peace signs a good long while yet.