Icons: Ringo Starr

starr
Ringo Starr performing in Sydney, Australia. Photo by Eva Rinaldi. Reproduced under Creative Commons License.

This article appears in the July/August 2015 “British” issue, available now on newsstands. 

I’m in a hotel room with a Beatle. And admittedly overjoyed to be there. For me there are stars, and then there are great songwriters and legends. And then, above all else, are The Beatles.

“Inspired?” he says with a laugh, when I use that word to describe the songs he wrote for his latest album, Postcards From Paradise. “We need to have you around more often!”

Seems like a great idea. His band The Beatles, as the universe knows, was the greatest ever, and the love they brought the world through their short but miraculous reign continues to radiate every day. He came together with John, Paul and George to churn out miracle songs from 1963 to 1969 almost non-stop, forever changing the art of songwriting as we know it.

It was Ringo who often came up with their titles and phrases (“A Hard Day’s Night,” he confirms, was his, though “Eight Days A Week,” often attributed to him, he says, was not) and also conceived distinctive drum parts. A songwriter’s dream drummer, he always crafted soulful parts that served the very essence of each song. Even his fills are legend: soulful grace and visceral power without ever overwhelming the song.

But in addition to all that – the man is a great songwriter. Besides “Octopus’s Garden,” written for The Beatles, he wrote “Photograph” and “It Don’t Come Easy” soon after the big break. He’s since written many albums of great songs. Sure, he had some seriously great teachers. In the movie Let It Be, we see him writing “Octopus’s Garden” on the piano, in C major, trying to discern where its verse would end. Fortunately for him, George Harrison was there, and suggested the return to the tonic, back to the I, C major.

Sparked during a vacation in Sardinia away from The Beatles, the song was born on Peter Sellers’ boat when Ringo received a lunch of fried octopus and chips, leading to a discussion of octopus habitat.

“They build gardens,” he says. “They pick up shiny objects from the sea bed, and put them in front of the cave they’re hiding in. I thought, how great is that?” He picked up his guitar (he only plays guitar in the key of E), and wrote the entire tune. Later he brought it to piano in his one piano key, C major.

Now, well versed in the knowledge that collaboration with gifted friends leads to greatness, he’s made a brand new album of inspired songwriting, Postcards From Paradise, all new co-written originals, including the magical, Beatles-detailed title song written with Todd Rundgren; the New Orleans gumbo of “Bamboula,” written with Van Dyke Parks; and the opening song, “Rory and The Hurricanes,” about his famous pre-Beatles band and life, written with fellow Northerner Dave Stewart.

Lest one assume that this artist took unwarranted songwriting credit, both Stewart and Parks confirmed that Ringo led the collaboration, coming in with substantial musical and lyrical ideas. For “Bamboula,” Ringo had a whole drum track, inspired by the Afro rhythms of 1820 New Orleans. Van Dyke, a scholar of musical history, delved into that time and spirit to inform the lyrics. “The collaboration was swift and projectile,” saysVan Dyke, “as was the recording. And it seemed like another great way to confirm Ringo’s adaptability to his adopted home. He is, after all, as all-American as he is Royal loyal.”

Decades past when Paul and John wrote about their early years in “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane,” Ringo now shares this early chapter in “Rory And The Hurricanes.” “I called Dave [Stewart],” Ringo says, “because we’re both from the North, and he understands where I was coming from. Back when we rented a van and went to London. Had never been to London, had no money, all stayed in one room. Slept on the floor. We lived on bread, butter and jam, but the butter ran out, so we just had bread and jam.” It’s all in the song.

That he’s still making music at this stage of his life is testament to his lifelong passion for music. “Ringo’s vitality,” says Van Dyke Parks, “his interest in others and athletic approach to making this a better world (with peace and love his signature), is totally uncommon. He needn’t prove anything; he already has. This makes him a role model. When most guys as seasoned as he are resting on their laurels, he’s creating new works, with emphasis on mutual empowerment.”

About his stream of recent collaborations, this famous friend says, “It’s a perfect excuse to hang out with writers and musicians. I haven’t written a solo song in a long time. If we start writing together, and it’s going somewhere, I’ll turn it into where I want it to be, because it’s my record, that’s what I do.”

About the Beatles’ universal appeal a half century since their debut: “Musically, it’s still cool. It’s emotional, it’s laughter. It’s tears. It’s love. I think those emotions still play today.”