Graded on a Curve:
Ringo Starr, Ringo

Celebrating Sir Richard Starkey MBE who turns 81 tomorrow, July 7.Ed.

News flash! Critic declares Ringo Starr greatest ex-Beatle! Rioting breaks out in hipster enclaves! Brooklyn in flames! Incensed Lennonites carry signs: “Michael Little = Dingbat!” Hairy Harrisonoids counsel karmic calm: “This too shall pass!” McCartney maniacs attempt to sooth selves with “Silly Love Songs”! NME headline reads: “Panned on the run!”

In my dreams. But it’s what I really believe. I really believe that Ringo Starr, who never got no respect and was the comic foil and clown of the legendary Fab Four has—over the almost four-and-a-half decades since the Beatles went the way of the Ono, er make that Dodo—produced far more genuinely likeable pop songs than any of his “genius” fellow Mop Toppers.

But first, a sordid confession. I’ve never cared much for Ringo’s old band. I can count on one hand the number of Beatles songs I really love (“Helter Skelter,” “She Said She Said,” “Hey Jude,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Let It Be”). As for most of the rest of their oeuvre, it could vanish into the void and I would never miss it. And there are plenty of songs (the dreadful “Long and Winding Road,” the hideous “Something,” and the unpalatable “Got to Get You Into My Life”) whose disappearance would make me very happy. As for the post-Beatles work of John, Paul, and George, I can think of maybe one or two (at most) songs I love by each of them. Shit, Ringo matched them with ONE single, 1971’s “It Don’t Come Easy” backed by “Early 1970,” a very funny series of good-natured jibes about his former band mates.

I always liked Ringo best because he wasn’t touted as a genius (although he’s a great drummer) by anyone. I’m an underdog guy, and Ringo was the ultimate underdog. Nobody expected much of him after the Beatles imploded, sucked into the black holes of John and Paul’s grossly oversized egos. And it isn’t as if Ringo has come through with a slew of artistic masterpieces. But since 1970 he’s put out a bunch of really cool pop songs, low brow it’s true, but I don’t give a shit where a song’s brow is (it can be a Neanderthal for all I care) if it has a good melody and I find myself singing along.

Since 1971 Starr has released 17 studio LPs and 11 live albums, and I’m familiar with almost none of them. I’d be willing to bet, though, that most of them are no great shakes. Starr has a weak voice at best, and is not a natural songwriter by any means. But he gets by with a big heart, a sense of humor, and a little help from his friends, and nowhere is that last part more true than on 1973’s platinum-selling Ringo, whose players included his three ex- Beatle band mates, along with Marc Bolan, Billy Preston, four members of The Band (Richard Manuel was MIA), David Bromberg, Harry Nilsson, Linda McCartney, Tom Scott, and the legendary Jack Nitzsche, musical arranger extraordinaire.

The resulting Ringo is one very cool lightweight pop LP. Robert Christgau wrote it off as a “likeable curiosity,” and perhaps that’s what it is. But I’ll take likeable curiosity over high seriousness any day, especially if the songs are as good as they are on this LP. Ringo is perky, upbeat (for the most part), and best of all, fun. Opener “I’m the Greatest” is certainly a curiosity—a funny song written by John Lennon. The title is self-explanatory, and the lyrics are a long litany of all the people who think Ringo is great. I particularly dig the great chorus: “I was in the greatest show on Earth/For what it was worth/Now I’m only 32/And all I wanna do… is boogaloo.”

Starr tosses in a Billy Shears reference, a crowd cheers, and he cries “I’m the greatest/And you’d better believe it, baby!” while George Harrison delivers up a kickass guitar solo, Billy Preston plays fantastic organ, and Lennon plays piano and provides backing vocals. One very cool song, signed, sealed, and delivered. It’s followed by Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby?” The tune opens with a bit of whistling before Marc Bolan’s signature guitar and James Booker’s boogie-woogie piano enter via stage left. Tom Scott plays funky sax, while Ringo does a great job on vocals, capturing Newman’s sense of droll sense of humor in this ironically upbeat song about a guy and his incorrigibly unfaithful girlfriend (“Said, ‘Please don’t talk to strangers, baby’/But she always do/She say, ‘I’ll talk to strangers if I want to/’Cause I’m a stranger, too’.”) Meanwhile Booker plays a hot piano solo, then Bolan follows with a sizzling solo, and as the song goes on Starr repeats the mantra, “Hold on, hold on, hold on.” And bingo, another great tune.

“Photograph” is the saddest love song ever written. No shit, bar none. I swear it with my hand on my autographed copy of Ian Hunter’s “Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star.” A Harrison-Starr composition, “Photograph” boasts an unbearably lovely melody as well as a set of maudlin lyrics that rarely fail to make me cry. In fact, no shit, I’m crying as I write this, and The Vinyl District will have to wring out the e-mail containing this review. Nitzsche’s orchestral and vocal arrangements are spot on—in fact they give Phil Spector a run for his money—Bobby Keyes plays a tremendous sax solo, and Nicky Hopkins plays the moving piano introduction and lots of luvverly stuff throughout. Meanwhile Starr sings, “Every time I see your face/It reminds me of the places we used to go/But all I’ve got is a photograph/And I realize you’re not coming back any more.” I may be insane, but I consider this the most moving tune ever sung by any Beatle. And Ringo is three for three.

Harrison’s sunny hillbilly hoedown “Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)” hearkens back to Starr’s 1970 C&W LP Beaucoups of Blues, and is great thanks to the presence of the four Band members, David Bromberg, and Harrison. The rock’n’rollicking “Sunshine” opens with a “Yahoo!” and features lots of acoustic instruments including a mandolin, two fiddles, banjo, and accordion. The damned thing really swings, and Harrison’s backing vocals, which follow an instant behind Starr’s lead, are great. It’s a great number, and Starr handles the vocals like an English Willie Nelson, or at least Billy Swan.

As for the sweet little paean to pedophilia “You’re Sixteen,” what can I say? Its creators Bob and Dick Sherman—the legendary film score composers responsible for Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—couldn’t get away with “I’m Sixteen” in our puritan day and age, but thanks to an unwritten grandfather clause we’re still allowed to love it even if by loving it we’re more or less proving we’re perverts. But that up-tempo melody: Irresistible! And she’s peaches and cream, oh what a dream, lips like strawberry wine: irresistible! Meanwhile McCartney plays a rockin’ kazoo, Ringo throws everything he has into his vocals, and Hopkins plays one sparkling piano. Nilsson and Linda M. do a swell job of singing backup, and I love this song and am surprised Gary Glitter never got around to covering it.

Ringo falls back on the old rock doctor trope in “Oh My My,” which is, although I wouldn’t have thought it possible, even catchier than “You’re Sixteen.” The peppy and perky “Oh My My” literally flies along, with Preston playing a cheerful piano to open the song while Tom Scott joins in on sax. Merry Clayton and Martha Reeves provide wonderful backups, Preston’s work on the old 88s is guaranteed to make you smile, and the tune just gets faster and wilder as it goes on, with Starkey jumping off tables and singing about his “boogie woogie remedy”: “Oh my my/Oh my my/Can you boogie? Can you slide?/Oh my my/Oh my my/You can boogie if you try/Oh my my/Oh my my/It’s guaranteed to keep you alive.” And what’s with the frequent recurrence of the word “boogie,” anyway? Was it a buzz phrase of the early seventies, because I don’t remember it? But it’s all over this LP and “Back Off Boogaloo,” and as we all remember John Lennon’s nom de rock during this period was Dr. Winston O’Boogie. Dr. Winston O’Henpecked would have been more like it.

Next up is Starr’s mid-tempo “Step Lightly,” which is okay but not the strongest song on the album. To the accompaniment of some cool electric piano by Hopkins and basic Cropper guitar Starr sings, “Step lightly/ You’re moving too fast/Take your time, boy/Soon the pain will pass.” Meanwhile Scott contributes on clarinet, Starr offers up a free tap dancing lesson (shades of the legendary “Legs” Larry Smith!), and the female backing vocals are lovely. Not the catchiest song ever written, but nice enough. Meanwhile, Paul and Linda M.’s truly maudlin “Six O’Clock” starts on a down note and is a depressing tune in general, and the LP’s closest thing to a dud. Ringo sings, “I don’t treat you/Like I like to treat you/Every planet in the sky/Is in your eyes/But I don’t treat you/No I don’t treat you like I/No I don’t treat you like I should.” McCartney plays an okay synthesizer and even throws in a solo, and his string and flute arrangement is nice even if I don’t hear the flutes.

“Devil Woman” is a fast-paced hard rocker with lyrics that go from dumb (“Cuz you’re like a devil with horns on your head/The only way to get you is to get you in bed”) to offensive (“I wanna beat you up then I wanna be kind”). But “Devil Woman” moves thanks to Ringo’s ready steady drumming, great horns, lots of fierce guitar (including a fiery guitar solo) by Jimmy Calvert, one rockin’ piano by Tom Hensley, and even a brief kinda drum solo by Ringo. It’s followed by more sizzling guitar by Calvert and impressive piano by Hensley, and the song slowly fades out with some great backing vocals by Voormann and producer Richard Perry.

LP closer “You and Me (Babe)” was written by Starr and Mal Evans, the former Beatles road manager and assistant who was killed by police in 1976 while holding a deadly weapon—an air rifle. Fucking cops. Anyway, the song is mid-tempo and nice enough, but even if it’s not the greatest of tunes I love it for Holland’s marimba, Harrison’s guitar, Scott’s horns, and (most of all) the way it becomes clear that what the title leads you to believe will be a love song is in fact a song about the making of the album (“Now I wanna tell you the pleasure really was mine/Yes, I had a good time, singing and drinking some wine/Though I may not be in your town, you know that I can still be found/Right here on this record, spinning ’round, with the sounds.”)

I especially love its ending, when Starr delivers a monologue that starts, “Goodbye everybody! Come on, lads, play it for me, boys, there we are. Well, it’s the end of the night and I’d just like to say thank you to everyone involved in this piece of plastic we’re making.” And goes on to name the players. It’s a, dare I say it, almost touching moment, and perhaps the best conclusion to an album I’ve ever heard, and it makes me like Ringo even more, as does the fact that he’s wearing bib overalls on the cover, just like I wore in my pot-smoking adolescence, both because I hung with pig farmers and the overalls had hundreds of pockets you could use to hide pot, pipe, Placidyl, bags of coke, bottles of beer, and even use as an ashtray when indoors and no ashtray was in sight.

Ringo isn’t the perfect LP. It weakens a tad bit around the “Six O’Clock” mark, like yours truly around the 3-minute mark in a strenuous bout of lovemaking. But all the songs are good (with the possible exception of “Six O’Clock”) and the songs that are great are really great, and if you were to replace (which you can’t; it’s illegal!) “Six O’Clock” with “It Don’t Come Easy” or “No No Song” or “Early 1970” or “Liverpool 8” or the trippy “Gone Are the Days” or “In Liverpool” or “Back Off Boogaloo” or innumerable other Ringotunes you WOULD have the perfect LP. Ringo may not have been the super-talented Beatle, or the visionary/spiritual Beatle, or the eloquent and controversial but tortured Beatle, but goddamnit Starr was the Beatle with heart, and a tremendously large heart at that, far too big even to fit into one of my old bib overall pockets.


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