Ringo’s Beat Can’t Be Beat

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Ringo Rates His Own Place in the Hall of Fame by His Drumming Alone… Plus All Else He’s Done
Ringo swinging on the kit/Photo by Scott Ritchie

Ringo swinging on the kit/Photo by Scott Ritchie

Kvetch all you want to about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – hey, it’s a national rock sport and I can argue all sides of that polygon – but the respect came rolling in for one Richard Starkey on April 18, 2015 in Cleveland. The man we’ve known for all these years as Ringo Starr was finally inducted into the Hall as a solo artist, the last of the Beatles to be so honored.

The guy who inducted him was the same fella who pushed hard for his nomination, Paul McCartney. Starr went to the podium, began with a deadpan “My name is Ringo and I play drums,” and went on to weave his starting-out story, finally getting to, “It’s been an incredible journey for me with these three guys who wrote these songs.”

He sang “Boys” with Green Day and “It Don’t Come Easy” with Joe Walsh (also a member of one incarnation of Ringo’s revolving All-Starr Band cast). Walsh, Green Day, Miley Cyrus, Macca, Dave Grohl, Tom Morello and Joan Jett joined the party (aptly) for “A Little Help From My Friends,” and Stevie Wonder, Beck and John Legend added to the chorus during “I Wanna Be Your Man.”

It would seem that Starr finally now gets his due respect. After all, his solo success as a singles artist far outpaced that of Lennon and Harrison. And there remains the stubborn contention that he was the luckiest guy in the world to have joined The Beatles – an average drummer who happened to have joined up with three genius musical talents. But there are many who know better.

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Ringo turned 76 last July 7. He’s fit, trim and healthy. He’s been married to Barbara Bach since 1981 and lives, we have to suspect, a life of ease. His net worth is estimated at $300 million, so when he works, it’s his choice, a labor of love.

He lived the high life many decades ago, thank you, and drank all the booze and snorted all the cocaine he was going to with Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, John Lennon and various friends back in the ‘70s. He also sold a lot of records back then – and, beating the odds, out of the box he was the most commercially successful of the ex-Beatles. He’s released 18 – count ‘em – solo albums.

When I talked with Ringo seven years ago, around the release of Y Not, I asked him, “You launched your solo career after the Beatles breakup, and I know many people thought, ‘Oh sure, John, Paul and maybe George will make it solo – but Ringo?’”

“I made the Ringo album and I was like the biggest selling Beatle! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” Starr said, before downshifting a bit. “We didn’t get too involved in what everybody talked about. We just kept doing what we did.”

Of course, his three ex-bandmates did play on that 1973 record. It gave the world the idea that whatever drove John and Paul apart, Ringo was still the glue that could bring them together (in a manner of speaking.) Lennon wrote the kickoff track, “I’m the Greatest,” and played on it alongside George Harrison.

Ringo & Paul (crop)

Paul joins Ringo at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction/Photo by Carol Kaye

Ringo had started his good-natured assault on the Top 40 two years earlier with “It Don’t Come Easy” (#4 hit) and “Back Off Boogaloo (#9). Ringo spawned two #1s, “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen,” a #5 in “Oh My My.” In 1975 he hit #3 with “No No Song.”

Music biz commentator Bob Lefsetz’s theory – one he hammers at again and again – is that boomer fans don’t want to hear new songs from their favorite boomer acts; they just want the catalog hits regurgitated in concert.

I agree, that’s often the case. Nostalgia happens. And rarely in rock ‘n’ roll does someone’s best material come along post-age-50, say. But I think it’s important for musicians to continue to make new music, even if the market isn’t what it was, and for us to keep paying attention just in case.

Which leads me to Ringo’s new Postcards from Paradise, a pretty likable album. It’s unabashedly nostalgic from the get-go. The opener, “Rory and the Hurricanes,” was co-written with ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart and features female doo-wop backing vocals. It’s a jolly but wistful salute to Ringo’s pre-fame/pre-Beatles days with that band: “Next time we went to London town/We didn’t do much hanging around/I was with you-know-who/I played the drums like I always do.”

The loping, bluesy title song – written by Todd Rundgren and Starr – is amusing, if also a bit cutesy, with Ringo patching together a story-song out of Beatles (and his own solo) song titles: “You’ve got to hide your love away/But if your heart is bad to me/It’s only love, I’ll let it be … I know that we can work it out/There is no need to twist and shout.”

The Five Minute Interview?

When we did that interview seven years ago, it was locked in for five minutes. Which is an absurdly short time in which to do even the most cursory of interviews.

Ringo was not available for an interview this time. His recent Rolling Stone cover story wheeze was almost as much about trying to get him to do the interview. And he engaged in some tomfoolery on Ellen. He reportedly does not like to do interviews. Perhaps he rather than George is “The Quiet Beatle.” (And being not just Ringo Starr but also a Beatle, does he even need to talk to the media?)

Back five years ago when we did talk, I’m certain the publicist had a stopwatch, and on the other end of the line I was ever-aware of the clock ticking. This leaves little time for “hey-nice-to-meet-you” chat and creates a need to jump in the deep end.

So, I had to address this: If you’ve seen any image of Ringo over the past few decades – or heard any sound bite – you know he can’t go a minute without flashing a double-finger peace sign or saying “peace and love.” That would seem to be his default state of mind and gesture. I’m not anti-peace and love, mind you, but coming from Ringo it seems like his equivalent of a teenager calling every event in the world “awesome.”

Starr was approaching a birthday when we talked. I asked what he wished for. “At noon,” said Ringo, “I’d love everybody, wherever you are – in your office, on the bus – or whatever you’re doing, to stop for one moment. Put your fingers up in the peace-and-love way and say ‘Peace and love.’”

All he is saying is give peace one moment/Photo by Scott Ritchie

All he is saying is give peace one moment/Photo by Scott Ritchie

I couldn’t help myself: What, exactly, might that accomplish?

“Well,” Ringo said, “it will have an effect on all those people who do it. Because for one moment they’ll be thinking peace and love, and thought is very powerful.”

But I’m in badger mode with so little time and throw this Ringo’s way: The Beatles “message” sometimes gets simplified as “peace and love” when it was a lot more complex and diverse.

“There was more, but that’s how it is,” Ringo responded. “’Stairway to Heaven’ – if you talk about Led Zeppelin, you go right there. Everybody loves to put a tag on everything, but we were the peace and love band. That’s all it was. ‘All You Need is Love’ – we did that track and it was very high on our agenda. We did ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ and a lot of other stuff. But I think it’s not a bad thing if you look at the Beatles and the representation is peace and love.”

I’m thinking about “Run for Your Life,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Revolution No. 9” and “Polythene Pam,” but I shut up. Tick-tock.

Ringo likes to close his All-Starr Band shows with Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” and I have to think if I talked to him today, he’d say the same thing.

He might start chatting to the press in the fall when his book Photograph comes out and he re-cranks the All-Starr Band for its second tour this year. (Best Classic Bands will happily take five. But if we can get 10….) It runs all of October, 22 dates with Todd Rundgren, Steve Lukather, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page, Warren Ham and Gregg Bissonette, all of whom play on his new album, too.

“The whole idea is basically the same,” Ringo told me. “I was invited to put a band together and go on tour in 1989, and I’d never done it before. So in my nervousness, I took out my phone book and flipped through the pages and got Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko. It was like an orchestra. I was insecure and I got this band and it worked so well. I could be down in the front being Ringo, doing ‘With A Little Help from My Friends.’ Then I could be the drummer and play [the others’] songs. I got the best of both worlds. That’s why I love it and that’s why I continue to do it. And I continue to do it with different artists. I still don’t have a basic band.”

Criteria? “They have to have had hits in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s. I certainly had hits in the ‘60s! That’s what we’re about.”

I’ve seen these shows with Edgar Winter, Ian Hunter, John Entwistle, Felix Cavaliere and Randy Bachman aboard and they were pretty fun. (“Boris the Spider,” “People Got to Be Free,” “No Sugar Tonight.”) The obvious headline, every time out: “Ringo Gets By With a Little Help From His Friends.”

Ringo & his latest band of All-Starrs/Photo by Scott Ritchie

Ringo & his 2015 band of All-Starrs/Photo by Scott Ritchie

I’ve seen other shows, though, like with this current entourage, where the “guest stars” – save Todd Rundgren – are B-or-C-list guys. Do I want to hear anything by Mr. Mister (Page) or Toto (Lukather) ever again? I do not. Bisonette and Ham have played in bunches of bands and apparently Bisonette brings his Santana pedigree to the All-Starr tour for a couple of tunes.

Aye, there’s the rub: The guy you really want to see is Ringo. He’s out there singing (and sometimes drumming) Beatles, Beatles-identified or his solo songs for half the set. He drums some of the time, spelled by or in tandem with Bisonette. So you think: I want more Ringo, less others.

Continued on page 2

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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