The following interview appeared in the May 30, 2003 issue of Goldmine. This interview was conducted by Ken Sharp.
The Beatles' former drummer still keeping the beat
The man who sang "drumming is my madness," Ringo Starr, is back and better than ever with Ringo Rama, his first new studio album in four years. Coproduced by Starr and Mark Hudson, his able associate on Vertical Man, VH-1 Storytellers and I Wanna Be Santa Claus, Ringo Rama is an impressive tour de force, mining a variety of styles including thundering hard rock ("Instant Amnesia," "I Think Therefore I Rock 'N' Roll," "Eye To Eye"), finger-snappin' country & western ("Missouri Loves Company," "Memphis In Your Mind," "Write One For Me"), hazy psycheldelia ("Elizabeth Reigns"), jaunty music hall ("English Garden") and elegiac ballads ("Imagine Me There"). There's even a track that features Starr playing all the instruments ("I Really Love Her").
Working primarily with his group The Roundheads (Hudson, guitarists Gary Barr and Steve Dudas, lyricist Dean Grakal, keyboardist Jim Cox, and songwriting collaborators Gary Nicholson and Paul Santo), Ringo Rama resounds with the infectious joy of a man having the time of his life-and on his own terms. Despite the appearance of special guests Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, Van Dyke Parks, and Shawn Colvin, this record is truly a showcase of the Roundheads' collaborative talents. A cornerstone of the record is undeniably "Never Without You," Starr's touching tribute to the late George Harrison, which showcases an appropriately fiery solo by Clapton.
Goldmine sat down with the ever affable and charming man with many rings in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the all-encompassing look at the making of Ringo Rama. Take is away, Ringo...
Goldmine: Let's start out by citing a lyric from "Eye To Eye," the opening cut on Ringo Rama..
Ringo Starr: Yeah, which part?
"Remmber when I said..."
[Ringo finishes the lyrics couplet]... "It don't come easy, it was a long time ago."
With the imminent war in Iraq [at the time of the interview] and unrest around the world, the "peace and love" theme you espouse seems even more apt today.
Well, it does because in the forefront of everybody's mind of course is the madness that's going on. I didn't really write it as an opposition to that. I just wrote it 'cause that's how I feel. I wasn't trying to make a statement about this war, I was trying to make a statement about all war, all violence.
With the success of the single, "It Don't Come Easy" followed by the smash albums, Ringo and Goodnight Vienna, you were on a roll. In fact, you were the first Beatle who had a #1 hit as a solo artist.
Yeah, that's right.
But then that roll dramatically went south on albums such as Ringo The Fourth, Rotogravure and Bad Boy. But starting in the 90s with 1992's Time Takes Time album, then Vertical Man and now Ringo Rama, you're back on track.
I think if you listen to the records... I mean, I came out of The Beatles, then there was a dip with Sentimental Journey and country albums. Then we got to the Ringo album, which was huge. Goodnight Vienna did well too. Then we started to dip down again for several years.
Why the dip?
I was taking enough interest in my own life. I was taking enough interest in my own career. Not that people around me weren't doing their best. I think it's how much I put into it, and now the results are better. And so we got to the end of that downward phase and we started again with Time Takes Time, which was great. It was a little confusing because I had all those different producers on it. They're all fabulous. But anyway is was my "getting back into the water" sort of thing and trying again. There was a little insercurity, trying things out with this producer, that producer, this producer. I wasn't writing so much either. I was doing other people's songs, which is all well and good. They said close to what I wanted to say, that's why I recorded them. And then when we go to the Vertical Man album, we found this incredible team with Mark [Hudson] and I and The Roundheads. That was our "getting to know each other" record. Then we did the Christmas album [I Wanna Be Santa Clau] and got to know each other a little more. And then we got to Ringo Rama, and I just think you can see the songs are better, the playing's better. I'm more active. I'm a cowriter on each song.
Vertical Man stands as your best solo LP since the Ringo album, and Ringo Rama is right there too. You were dabbling with songwriting throughout the '60s.
Sure, sure. Since "Octopus's Garden." [laughs]
"Don't Pass Me By."
And don't forget, "What Goes On."
Yeah, that's right.
But the point I want to make is with Vertical Man and Ringo Rama you've really come to the fore for the first time as a songwriter. It seems that you're much more comfortable with the craft and the team you're working with, The Roundheads.
Yeah, the team is great. But remember, even on those early records, "Photograph" and "It Don't Come Easy," I was only good at two verses and a chorus really, and then I would give it to George [Harrison] in those days. We'd always finish the third verse together, and he'd do the production. With my limited guitar [ability], I could only play three chords, and George would put in the passing chord and make me sound like a genius. So with The Roundheads, who are really good players, we're all part of the team. Even if you just think of the chords, you're part of the writing team. That's as important as the words to me. Everybody's ego is all the same. We wrote it together. It doesn't matter if I wrote a hundred words or 10 words, we're the team.
The joy of creating exudes throughout the record.
Yeah, that was a lot of joy making it. We laughed a lot. Even writing the sad songs, we laughed. It was great. But it is my record. So while I'm in the room, not that I write every word, but we direct it to the place I wanted to end up at. I love hanging out with artists. Musicians and writeers, it's the best for me. I love it. And when we can all be relaxed behind it, it's even more fun.
What's the song that came together the quickest on Ringo Rama?
Umm...maybe "Missouri [Loves Company]." That just started with the one line. Dean [Grakal] was saying, "Missouri love company," and of course we sort of edged it-there's an old saying, "misery loves company." And then I wanted to go around America in the song. That's always romantic for me. Kansas and Niagra Falls. We just did a travelogue about this couple. So that probably came the quickest, because as soo as you picked the state you had to write a verse.
When you were growing up as a teenager you were planning to move to Texas?
Yeah. I was trying to immigrate to Houston, Texas, because Lightnin' Hopkins, the blues player, lived there. I'm still into blues, and Lightnin' is still my hero. I was working in a factory at the time and so was my friend, and we were looking for factory jobs. We had no real qualifications for anything else. But we just wanted to be around Lightnin'.
We went to the actual consulate and they gave us a lot of forms to fill in, which was the wrong thing to give any teenager, and we filled in the first set of forms. It was very difficult then to get into America. In the '50s, this was. We were young boys, and we just got fed up in the end and carried on living in Liverpool. [laughs] But it would have been interesting if that ever happened. You know when you look back, it's like that movie, Sliding Doors-a minute later something else could have happened.
You would have gone down a completely different path in life.
Yeah, and we'd have been in Houston. What would have happened?
You would have been wearing a big cowboy hat now.
[hearty laugh] Yeah, I'd have been playing the blues. [laughs]
Since working with Hudson, you've been less reluctant to embrace your Beatles past.
I did back away from it for a long time, but I am part of that past. I mean the biggest battle we have with my past is Mark's more into it than I am. [laughs] So we always have this heated discussion about the harmonies, because he can be any one of those boys [John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Harrison]. I said, "No, no, we can't have John on this record! [laughs] So we'd have to take his harmony off.
So he's the one who pushes that bit?
We work at it and we have a lot of fun, but he just loves those boys so much.
You recorded Ringo Rama as two studios, Rocca Bella, you studio in England, and Hudson's cramped Santa Monica studio, "whatinthewhatthe." It seems being comfortable in you own environment helps open the creative floodgates.
Yeah it does. I wlll not record in a regular studio anymore, especially because the drummer is always put either in a soundproof room or behind huge glass barriers, and I don't feel comfortable in that situation anymore because you're ostracized. And how we record now because of modern technology it's easy. We're in a very small room, [Ringo motions toward me] and you are this close to me. We're talking like five or six feet here, and that's how I like it. We're just in that room playing like a band. The drums are always live. It's so great because we're looking at each other when we're playing.
Like a band should.
And we're sweating together and we're wondering, "Is it a good verse next?" [laughs] "Or a chorus?" [laughs] And sometimes we all go to the wrong place but that's OK.
Your drumming and self-proclaimed "funny fills" on Ringo Rama stand amoung your best and most acomplished in some time, particularly you work on "Instant Amnesia."
Well, the story with "Instant Amnesia" was, the day we were recording the track, I just went into one of those funks where I drummed and I sort of played my last fill. Do you know what I mean? It was just one of those days, and I was miserable. It was just like a normal day in the life-you get miserable some days. The next day we went in and we just started jamming. That's how "Instant Amnesia" came about. I was jamming hard to get the frustration out of feeling like that, and it turned into a great track. So we got the groove before we got the track.
Do you agree that your drummeing on that track is spot-on?
Oh yeah, I play great. But I like "Eye To Eye" too. It's just one of those things. Because I'm touring a lot more now and making records not as often as I tour, but I'm playing more so that's what it's about. And we decided beforehand, it was an actual conscious thought, that we were gonna keep the drums up on this record so they'll drive the record.
This record is pure solo Ringo on drums, no other guest drummers.
But you see, that's just the sort of thing I loved. We started that in 1970 at [The Concert For] Bangladesh. It wsa just really a groove to play with another drummer [Jim Keltner].
I don't know, it's just more down-solid power and I really enjoyed it. I always enjoyed playing with Jim. And then it carried on to my albums, the Ringo album and even Goodnight Vienna. And then even Ringo The Fourth in New York with Steve Gadd. That was then, this is now. Things change.
What makes up a great drum part? Before cutting a track, do you predetermine what fills to employ?
No, I don't think. I know how to play regular stuff. Do you play?
A little bit, but I'm more of a guitarist.
OK. [imitates drum patern] Whatever that pattern is I can do that. The fill is the art of the drummer. That happens in the moment. That's always been the way with me. I can't think about it. I don't play drum parts. I have no idea how it's gonna turn out. I don't say, "Oh, 16 bars in I'll do that." I have no idea at all what I'm going to do it, it just happens.
Some good surprises happen that way?
Yeah, well it's always a surprise to me!
Why drums over guitar or bass? I know you also played piano early on.
We always had a piano in the family, no actually in our house, but in our family. It was of no interest to me. And my grandparents' banjo and mandolin was of no interest to me-and they gave me those instruments. I might have just thrown them into the fire. For some reason, from [age] 13 I only wanted to be a drummer. It was one of those things, and guess what? It happened.
"Never Without You" is a very poignant song you wrote about George Harrison. You also tried to include mentions of you other fallen friends who are no longer here, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.
Oh, that was when we first started writing it.
Do you set out to write a song about Harrison?
Initially it was the song of [recites lyrics] "We were young, it was fun and we couldn't lose," and I just went directly to 1962. George was heavily on our minds at that period in time, so the first line was put in was "I Dig Love." And then we tried to put in a Harry Nilsson situation and then we tried to put in John Lennon. We tried to put them in all together. It was gonna be like this huge thank you to those people in my life. In the end, it got too messy so I just canceled all of that. And I thought, "No, this was just gonna be for George," and that's how it ended up. That gave us the opportunity to even use some of his lyrics in the song in our way.
Things like "Within You, Without You" and "Here Comes The Sun."
And getting Clapton to play the solo?
That was an obvious choice because on every record of mine George has played a solo on one of the tracks. I wanted someone who I loved and George loved to play the solo, and there's no one finer. And Eric lives down the road. So we gave him a call and he said "Sure."
Clapton's guitar work on "Imagine Me There" is fabulous. That's a tender ballad, akin to "Good Night." You're never been afraid of tackling a song like that.
I know. "Imagine Me There" is a beautiful song. There's not a lot I can say about it. It's a love song. It can be taken on many levels. You could be singing it to a child or you could be singing it to the person you love. And then we had to reverse the end one. [recites lyrics] "There are moments of fear I can imagine you there." So that's it. I don't ever really get into the deep meaningful art of writing the record-it's the emotion of the record that's more important. And sometimes we get blessed and the words are incredibly good and very simple.
Elvis Presley is name-checked in "Memphis In Your Mind."
"Heartbreak Hotel, taking reservations." [laughed] Elvis, "Peggy Sue," the growl from Roy [Orbison]. You're sitting in a room with old rockers-those names come to the fore.
Did the Memphis scene have an indeliable impact on your growing up?
Yes. Not the Memphis scene so much but records that were coming out of Memphis at the time, Jerry Lee [Lewis]. They're all coming out of Sun Studios, that type of rock 'n' roll record. Memphis is part of rock 'n' roll history. We were trying to capture some of that spirit. We were just writing our rock 'n' roll songs. You see, that's what so great. Everyone knows what you're doing as soon as you use those song titles. They do. [laughs] It's universal.
Obviously The Beatles met Elvis in 1965, but you met The King later on.
The second time I met Elvis, they took me to Vegas just because of the video for "Sentimental Journey" when I was dressed up with the bow tie and we had the dancing girls. [laughs] They said, "Oh, he can play Vegas now." [laughs] It was just far out. Elvis' show was good, but it was a bit scary for me. It was fine seeing Elvis and that, but the idea of playing that room was scary.
You don't want to end of there.
And I didn't go there. Anyway, they decided to fly me in so I could have a look at it. I thought I might as well see a good show. It was at the MGM Grand. I didn't really hang out with him at all. I saw him, and Elvis had left the building. [laughs] There's a great thing in the new Beatles DVD, The Beatles Anthology, and we're talking about meeting Elvis. It's confusing to all of us. George said he met him a couple of times and he does his story. But I said I felt I just kept bumping into Elvis [laughs].
"I Think Therefore I Rock 'N' Roll" is well-suited for the stage. It's a great rocker.
I didn't actually come up with that title. Dean Grakal came up with that. It was a bit Shakespearean to me. [Actually Descartes.-Ed.] And I thought, "Aw, you gotta be crazy! We're not going down that road." But anyway the good thing about having all these friends around is that they browbeat me sometimes, and they were right.
[Ringo Rama coproducer Mark Hudson enters the room]
Mark Hudson: We actually changed that one up, remember?
RS: [Laughing] I don't remember.
MH: Ringo had said that it was too Shakespearean. "I Think Therefore."...He said, "I don't want be be like the bard." And he said that, and he was right because Dean was writing this very ethereal lyric. And so Ringo said, "I wanna rock. I don't wanna be like Shakespeare." So we thought, "Let's turn it into Shakespeare but say what it really is-'It don't take brains, just heart and soul.'"<
RS: I wrote that. [laughs]
MH: Yes, and then it goes, "I Think Therefore I Rock 'N' Roll." So the idea is it's the lowest common denominator of anything-you don't need brains or a degree, just start banging and bashing.
RS: Just rock.
MH: On the second verse we got more romantic with "I met this woman, she's the world to me, she's my serenity." It's what rock 'n' roll is really all about-women, heart, soul.
RS: I wrote that too.
MH: [laughs] Yes he did.
RS: So that's what I was saying before-we're all in the room and if anyone has an idea, we take the part of that idea and we write the song. Because this is my record it takes the direction in the end I'll feel comfortable with.
How do you know when a song is complete?
RS: You have a cup of tea. [laughs]
MH: It never really is.
RS: You could write-I learned that years and years ago, I mean, we could play one track for the rest of our lives. You could just play the one track forever, improving it, doing this to it, tweakin' it. You've gotta stop. You've gotta learn to put it down in the end and say, "That's it for this year."
MH: It's kind of like Picasso. They asked him what his favorite painting was, and he said, "I've never finished one. I could only walk away." So at one point for us is we go through stuff and we finally we sit back and the incarnation from doing the track after we write it is great. Then all of a sudden Ringo will say, "From the middle-eight we should change the lyric around to that" and we add that. And then because of that it bounces into more and more stuff until we finally have a cup of tea and go, "Done." If you listen to the record, each song has its own story.
RS: But also you may be thinking this song needs trumpets while you're writing it. But by the time you put the track down, it doesn't need them. It's an evolving situation. Making a record is evolving through all our emotions, all our abilities to get to the final product, and then you go, "OK, that's it."
So it's more intuitive?
MH: It was actually Ringo's concept, even through Vertical Man and the Christmas album [I Wanna Be Santa Claus] were done as a band. This time we all grabbed instruments just for the fun of it. Every guy plays bass, this guy does this, this guy does that. Ringo played some guitar on "Imagine Me There." That's what makes the band.
RS: On "Never Without You" I do a piano lick. The piano lick in "Never Without You" was another song I had. I just wanted to put it down. And Mark said, "Aw, put that into the intro in the middle-eight."
MH: [hums a riff]
RS: No, no we're doing [hums a different riff]
That's "What Is Life" by George Harrison.
RS: [laughs] Yeah, "What Is Life." [laughs] Anyway, it was another song that will be written one day from that little riff because I just had it on piano.
Ringo, tell me about "I Really Love Her," a track that features you playing all the instruments.
Well that's a song that Mark and I did write, but I wrote more of it. And it was one of those trips where you're looking at people's albums and there's often a track where they played it all. I thought, "Aw, shit, I wanna play it all too." [laughs] I've never played slide guitar in my life. With direction from Mark, he said, "OK, just make sure you stop there [pointing out an area on the guitar neck]. What he realized is as soon he gave me that freedom to play the slide he needed a big whip because I go over the edge. I go [emulates wacky sounds on a slide guitar]. That might be a little bit too much! [laughs]
MH: I had to unplug his guitar. He was just like a kid. He was doing this slide work like Waylon Starkey, and finally he wouldn't stop. "Ringo, that's enough. [Imitates over-the-top slide playing] OK, Ringo that's enough!" [laughs] I unplugged him like a toddler.
RS: Sometimes I get just too excited.
MH: It was actually Ringo's effort on conceptually thinking of Ringo Rama. We always talked about what the album was gonna be with each other before we embarked on a direction. Once we get involved with it, we're off and going. We'd have discussions of what the record was gonna be. He consciously said, "It's gonna be the same band, The Roundheads as we know it, but this time I want to make it so each guy sort of had his place." Ringo did all the drums and percussion. Gary Burr did most of the acoustic guitars.
RS: Also it was more the band. If you're in the room you're on the record. We didn't want to bring in lots of outsiders. I wanted it to focus more on the band. And that's a battle with Mark. He loves to bring everybody in.
MH: I do. I do.
RS: That's why we had that discussion before we started the record, and that's why we're good friends.
MH: Yeah and it's true. The best part about it is you dare to say, "That's bad," and you're not hurting anyone's feelings.
RS: You stole that from me-I said that in the last interview! [laughs]
MH: But that's how I feel too.
"Elizabeth Reigns" sports very clever lyrics and bears a very cool psychedelic motif.
"Elizabeth Reigns" was a question from Dean Grakal. "What does ER mean," because when we were recording at my place, Rocca Bella, it was Jubilee madness all over England. And the concert was coming on, one of the boys were there. Any anyway on the day off they went into town and saw all these banners about the big Jubilee. Dean got the song going and I said, "I'm not gonna sing about the Queen!" [laughs] And they went into tonw and they found this pub where the hanging tree used to be. I had no idea. I'd never been there. There's artistic license. [Recites lyrics] "A letter encased in cement hung from the hanging tree." It makes no sense even to me, but lyrically it says quite a lot. So they'd found all this British heritage, and I'm the only Englishman there. So they started writing this thing and I joined in. [Recites lyrics] "Six hundred servants use their detergent scrubbing the palace floor." [laughs] They're just like everyone else, the royal family. I wanted to get it in line, "We'll point the finger no more 'cause all of our sins are as big as the Windsors," you know, the divorces, and the madness and the kids. So that's what it was all about, and the track turned out really cool. And in the end I say, "There goes the knighthood." [laughs] So I feel you'll only ever see Sir Paul McCartney. [laughs]
Lastly, tell me about the bonus disc of unreleased footage included in the The Beatles Anthology DVD, especially the moments of you, Paul and George playing together.
We did the playing at George's house. When we're rapping around on the grass by the lake and Paul and George are playing ukuleles-there's more of that. There's more footage of us talking around the round table, and there's more of us playing. There's Joe Pichtor doing a whole piece on the making of the "Free As A Bird" video. He has a great line: "George wanted a guitar, and Ringo wanted an elephant." [laughs] So there's lots of interesting stuff, and that's what you get on the DVD. Besides, you'll get better sound than you get on the VHS. You'll get better picture and you'll get more of it.
You, Paul, and George jammed on some old rock 'n' roll favorites, "Ain't She Sweet," "Blue Moon of Kentucky." What was that like playing together.
Well that's great-that's just three guys who know how to play jamming. But there's an interesting piece where Paul and George wrote a song like in 1902 [laughs] called "Linking."
You mean "Thinking of Linking"?
Yeah, the "Thinking of Linking" song, and so we do that.
Whatever words he can remember, they're singing them. [laughs] It's interesting no only to Beatles fans, I think it's also interesting to anyone who plays.
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