One of the strangest things about the first lockdown was thinking that all the famous people were trapped in their houses, too. Coronavirus was such a leveller: there they were, at home, in LA or Guildford, padding about in expensive jeans and unable to see their friends. Some of us will remember that concert last April, One World: Together at Home, which linked up performances by Paul McCartney, thumping away at “Lady Madonna”, and Elton John (“I’m Still Standing”), and the Rolling Stones. Without their big backing bands you got a sense of what they really sounded like. But they certainly threw themselves into it.
Ringo Starr has also been working hard in the pandemic. Between April and October last year he recorded a 2020-flavoured EP, Zoom In. There are 13 guest stars on the record, singing along with him, including McCartney, Sheryl Crow and Dave Grohl. The press release is keen to point out that Ringo “took precautions” and had them over to his house in small numbers to record, which might explain why it took him seven months to make 18 minutes and 39 seconds of music.
These days, veteran rock stars work with clever people who can write songs in the style they themselves wrote in their heyday: McCartney enlisted the help of the producer Greg Kurstin, a Beatles fan, on a recent album. There is a very definite “Ringo sound” – warm, homely and slightly lumbering, just like “Octopus’s Garden”, one of just two Beatles songs he wrote on his own – and the opening track on the EP, “Here’s to the Nights”, has that feel to it. It was written by the industry songwriter Diane Warren, who was also responsible for Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”.
“Here’s to the nights we won’t remember with the friends we won’t forget…” I gave the EP a spin before knowing the backstory and even then it was abundantly clear that this was a paean to pre-lockdown partying. Its touching chorus also has the feel of that drinking song from Les Misérables, “Drink with Me” – the one they sing the night before they all get killed on the barricade.
On Ringo’s 2010 album Y Not – another pleasant, shuffling record – there was a track called “The Other Side of Liverpool”, in which he sang affectionately of the poverty he’d grown up in (“You just had to laugh/We had to go to Steeple Street just to take a bath”). Starr endured three bouts of pleurisy as a child, a period in a sanitorium with tuberculosis, and 12 months at a children’s hospital after peritonitis put him in a coma. He missed so much of his education that he never caught up and would spend schooldays walking around a local park. He was the only poor Beatle. And he became the often-comic turn in a band that changed the world. He didn’t write “Yellow Submarine” – McCartney and John Lennon just got him to sing it. (“I used to be a rock singer,” he told Rolling Stone, “and they’d always give me those soppy songs. And so they ruined my whole career!”) What depths must lurk in him, what conflicts and complications. They remain unexplored in solo albums that nevertheless keep coming. His cheery songs seem to say: come in and make yourself at home! But the famous, ever-present V-sign says: stay back!
On the five-track EP, “Zoom In, Zoom Out” appears to celebrate the micro/macro magic of the popular video-conferencing platform, and opens it out to questions of philosophy. Distant stars “are reachable/Every moment is teachable/If we could only see through each other’s eyes, imagine what would happen.” There is a rather pure Sixties sentiment to the song, just as there is on “Teach me to Tango”, which invites you to “hitch a ride with your favourite drummer”. It features screaming Hammond organ, bluesy guitar and those loose, rambunctious, tribal tom-toms that generate a mental picture of long-legged go-go dancers, grooving away in Austin Powers’ pad.
The only track Ringo co-wrote is “Waiting for the Tide to Turn”, which namechecks Bob Marley and Burning Spear over a dub beat. “Let’s play some reggae music and it will be a better day,” he says. This is the essence of Ringo, artfully reproduced across the record by those who write for him: that things are tough, and we need more peace and love. The EP closes with “Not Enough Love in the World”, penned by his bandmate Steve Lukather and the songwriter Joseph Williams, and rich in those Lennon and McCartney chord changes that no one has ever come close to passing off as their own. It recalls the Sgt Pepper song “Getting Better”. And if we all love one another, perhaps it will.
Ringo is 80 now, and a great-grandfather. He is sober and credits a regular diet of broccoli and blueberries with keeping him healthy. In 2008 he posted an angry video on his personal website telling fans to stop sending him things – letters, or objects to be signed. After 20 October, he said – an apparently arbitrary date, a few days after the video was made – anything coming to his house through the post “would be tossed”.
Fans are hardy creatures. One really hopes that those who’d followed him for half a century, choosing him over Paul and John and George as their favourite all those years ago, have continued to buy his records.
“Zoom In” is out now on UMC
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold