This post is the first of a four-part series choosing the top ten songs of each Beatles’ solo career. Individually, of course, The Beatles failed to capture the loving rivalry that made their band so great. Able to put whatever they wanted on their own records, each of their worst characteristics could often their work: McCartney’s saccharine balladeering, Lennon’s obsession with himself, Harrison’s ponderous spirituality, and Ringo’s…well, Ringo’s a pretty lucky guy to have been in The Beatles. Yet, all four have had worthwhile solo careers, and each has produced excellent tracks that can stand beside The Beatles’ output.
Ringo is up first for this series. Relegated to cameos throughout the Beatles’ career (“Octopus’s Garden”, “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “Boys,” etc.,) could Starr sustain an entire lp record? The answer is a tentative “no” except for the very best of his studio albums. Indeed, his mid-to-late 1970s output is nothing short of unlistenable. But Ringo’s sweet personality and his role as the everyman who ended up in the world’s biggest band shines through on most of his material. And there are, to be sure, a few real gems to be found in Ringo’s catalog. While not a strong singer or songwriter, Ringo’s work has usually relied on sturdy production from the likes of Jeff Lynne, Don Was, Mark Hudson, and others. He has also enjoyed some helping hands from the best musicians in the industry. Over the years, he’s had a little help from The Band, Buck Owens, Billy Preston, Alanis Morissette, Tom Petty, Steven Tyler, Joe Walsh, Harry Nillson, and those three guys from that other band he was in. No egos are at stake when a Ringo song is on the plate, after all. So, here are the ten best tracks in the 40-odd years of Ringo’s solo work.
10. “Puppet” (from Vertical Man): Mark Hudson’s heavy production on this song underscores its psychological tension. As Ringo once explained, the song is about putting his public persona of Ringo Starr to rest after a lengthy tour, in order to appreciate family and friends as Richard Starkey.
9. “Early 1970” (B-side single, 1971): Throughout the first half of the 1970s, the ex-Beatles communicated with each other through song, ranging from the doleful (Harrison’s “Sue Me, Sue You Blues”), the vicious (Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”) and the philosophical (McCartney’s “Too Many People”). This song is the cheeriest of the lot, with brief verses sketching out the whereabouts of each of The Beatles, and played in the style of its subject. (McCartney’s is low-key and acoustic, in the spirit of his debut album, Lennon’s is raucous, Harrison’s has some nice steel guitar). There’s some pretty funny moments (Ringo impersonating the Cookie Monster, and playing the only three chords he knows on rhythm guitar) to provide some levity at a tense time in the ex-Beatles’ lives.
8. “Missouri Loves Company” (from Ringo Rama): In the hands of any other artist, this song would have been unbearably corny, but in Ringo’s hands, its a sweet and sincere travelogue.
7. “You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful, and You’re Mine” (from Ringo): Ringo had two #1 hits, “Photograph” and this ditty, a revival of an old Johnny Burnette song from the early 1960s. To the song’s credit, its only mildly creepy to hear a then-33-year-old man singing it. While Burnette performed the song with Paul Anka earnestness, Ringo plays it for laughs; its playful and not at all serious (McCartney even plays kazoo during the instrumental break). The song was written by the Sherman brothers team, partially rectifying the evil they committed when unleashing “It’s A Small World” on an unsuspecting public.
6. “Walk With You” (from Y Not?): This sweet, lightly-orchestrated track from Ringo’s most recent studio album shows that even a 70-year-old Ringo can still make enjoyable and introspective music. Here, he receives help from Van Dyke Parks (best known for his mid-60s work with Brian Wilson), and Paul McCartney. Although not written as such (McCartney was not originally scheduled to contribute to the track), it is nevertheless a fitting tribute to two friends, the only surviving Beatles, walking side by side into the winter of their lives.
5. “No No Song” (from Goodnight Vienna): Written by Hoyt Axton, the “No No Song” is a novelty number about a man refusing pot, cocaine and alcohol in succession. Both Ringo and the audience know full well that he doesn’t mean a word of it. The song became heavily ironic during Ringo’s struggle with alcoholism throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but Starr sang it with raw conviction during his post-sobriety tours with his All-Starr Band, beginning in 1989.
4. “Don’t Go Where the Road Don’t Go” (from Time Takes Time): Ringo encapsulates many of his hard-earned life-lessons into this four-minute song: favors unreturned, fairweather friends, and poor decision-making. This song incidentally, was the first song played at the first rock concert I attended, a Ringo Starr and the All Starr Band show in July of 1995.
3. “What in the…World?” (from Vertical Man): The single best element of this song is Paul McCartney’s guest spot on vocals and bass. Producer Mark Hudson also sings in a perfect Lennon facsimile, and when put together, the sound eerily recreates what The Beatles sounded like circa 1965.
2. “Snookeroo” (from Goodnight Vienna): Elton John and Bernie Taupin chipped in with this song about a ne’er-do-well from the North of England. With rich baritone saxes, and prominent female backing vocals, this song is a small tour-de-force that’s given care and attention Ringo’s material doesn’t always receive. It’s also a great Taupin character piece in the vein of “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches”.
1. “It Don’t Come Easy” (1971 single): It has one of my favorite opening lines: “Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues.” The first ex-Beatle to have a #1 hit in the UK was, believe it or not, Ringo, and he achieved this feat with this singular track. As always, Ringo receives plenty of all-starr help. Stephen Stills plays piano on this track, and the song itself was written by George Harrison. (Indeed, George’s demo has some audible “Hare Krishna” background vocals that would have sounded very out of place in a Ringo track.) But the elements which make it such a memorable track are all Ringo’s: his odd-man-out personality infuses the song’s hardscrabble-to-hopeful trajectory.