The Story and Meaning Behind “(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna,” a Ringo Starr Track that Received a Big Assist from John Lennon

After his hit album Ringo featured all three of his Beatles bandmates, Ringo Starr only received help from John Lennon on the follow-up album Goodnight Vienna. But those contributions from Lennon were key, especially when it came to writing and guest performing on “(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna.”

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What is the song about? How did it relate to what was going on in the lives of Lennon and Starr? And to what does the title phrase refer? Here’s a deep dive into “(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna,” one of Ringo Starr’s most compelling solo songs.

Diary of a Lost Weekend

Ringo Starr waited three years after The Beatles’ breakup before releasing his solo debut album. In the interim, he focused on his movie career, while keeping the appetites of fans whetted with a couple of successful singles. When the Ringo album did arrive in 1973 with appearances by all three Beatles on separate tracks, it was a smash.

A year later, Starr followed that up with Goodnight Vienna. Once again, the album boasted a very impressive guest list. Among the many famous contributors who helped Starr out were Elton John, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Robbie Robertson, and Harry Nilsson.

But the only Beatle who showed up this time around was John Lennon. His contributions were vital, however. For one, he convinced Starr to record The Platters’ oldie “Only You (And You Alone),” and even laid out a demo for him; the song became a big hit. Lennon also wrote “Goodnight Vienna,” which featured a wild tale to which both men could relate.

When John Lennon endured his so-called “Lost Weekend” period in Los Angeles in 1973 and 1974, Ringo Starr was one of his cohorts in chaos. Both men were a bit adrift in their personal lives and living it up on the West Coast, often beyond all reason and good judgment. (Harry Nilsson was also often involved in the hijinks, including the infamous incident where Lennon was booted from a Smothers Brothers show.)

Maybe Lennon was sensing the partying had to soon come to an end. The phrase “Goodnight Vienna” is one used by Liverpudlians like Lennon to indicate it’s time to leave. That seemed to be a tacit admission by Lennon, and endorsed by Starr, that they couldn’t go on like that for much longer.

But if they were going to leave their excessive partying days and nights behind, they at least went out with a bang on this invigorating track. Lennon counts in the band, bashes away at the piano, and yelps exhortations throughout the song. Billy Preston adds some funky flavor on clavinet. The accordion parts of Carl Fortina give the song a bit of Viennese feel, if only for a moment now and then before the manic rhythm kicks in all over again.

What is the Meaning of “(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna”?

“(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna” captures the vibes of a wild night of partying, at times paranoid, at times tumultuous, and at times nonsensical. The paranoia comes right off the bat, as the narrator’s jealousy gets the better of him: I took my baby to a party last night / She was so beautiful that she made me uptight.

To calm himself down, the guy calls on the butcher, aka his drug dealer, with his needles in sight. But that does little to stop his descent into incoherence: Zipped up my mouth ‘cause I was starting to drool. This guy knows that, at the heart of it all, he’s just taking all these extreme measures to mask some inner pain: Don’t call no doctor when you just feel like crying.

There’s a reprise of (“It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna” that closes out the Goodnight Vienna album. It allows for some symmetry, but it’s also a way for Ringo Starr to emphasize the wild times had to end at some point soon. And John Lennon’s song gave him the perfect way to acknowledge all that.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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