As with the decades-old hit solo album for which it’s named, Ringo Starr’s forthcoming Ringo 2012 includes an array of name guest stars. Unfortunately, unlike 1973’s Ringo, none of those friendly assists come from his fellow ex-Beatles. Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart and Kenny Wayne Shepherd are fine, and all. But the truth is, the combination of Starr and material written by Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison has provided Ringo with many (some might say most) of his career highlights.
Here’s our take on the Top 5 — with five more honorable mentions. We’ve left off, but only reluctantly, songs written by Starr or others that simply featured fellow Beatles — namely, “King of Broken Hearts” with Harrison from 1998’s Vertical Man; 1960s-era Beatles cover songs like “Matchbox” and “Act Naturally,” which hit for Carl Perkins and Buck Owens, respectively; Ringo’s fun 1974 take on the Platters’ “Only You” with Lennon; or the terrific “Walk With You” with McCartney from Y Not in 2010.
No, our list includes only songs that were originally composed by one of the other three Fabs. Wait, with the exception of “Yellow Submarine.” It qualifies, but, c’mon. Really? We’re not going there …
Ringo’s original showcase moment, in the days of shriek-soaked black-and-white Beatles concerts. Joining in on the soaring harmonies even as he fires off shot-gun fire rhythms, Starr gives this song an alluring, very open-hearted innocence. Yet history has forgotten, thanks to the delicious lasciviousness of the Rolling Stones’ version of this tune, just what an ardently conveyed rave-up moment it used to be for the Beatles. Mick Jagger turned Ringo’s meek little Valentine’s Day request into a dark, almost savage entreaty, and the Stones ended up with a No. 12 hit. Figures, right? For a world only just learning the pop-psych personality profiles of the Beatles — the Quiet One, The Cute One, so on — this remains a definitive track, forever framing the idea of Starr as lovelorn also-ran.
Ringo’s voice, honky then lugubrious and often so flatly straight forward, has always been a perfect fit for a country and western-inspired lyric, something that made his second solo recording — 1970’s underrated Beaucoup of Blues — such a delight. This track (featuring a deep undercurrent of maudlin resignation well suited for Starr, along with George Harrison doing his best Carl Perkins rockabilly-cat guitar twangs) is one of the best early examples. “What Goes On” is also the very first co-writing credit for Starr, though the drummer downplayed his contributions during a 1966 press conference, saying he’d written “about five words, and I haven’t done a thing since!”
[WORST-EVER RINGO STARR SONGS: Even with Beatle assists, Ringo never produced a chart-topping solo UK single. Here’s looking back at the low points, presented in no particular order of god-awfulness.]
This former U.S. charttopper suffers some from the age in which it was recorded, as Starr must contend with a Phil Spector-ish storm of strings, and an army of backup singers and sidemen including another drummer, a saxophonist and three (!) guitarists — a sound that Harrison favored at the time. (Oddly, Spector was nowhere to be found, as the orchestral arrangements are by Jack Nitzsche, while Richard Perry produced the album.) “Photograph” actually served as an update of Ringo’s sad-sack Mop Top character sketch into 1973’s shag-carpeted present tense. That’s understandable, really, since this was the first Beatles solo album to invoke the Beatles’ golden era with any measurable success — from its Sgt. Pepper takeoff of a cover, to the appearance of all four former Fabs on separate songs. More on that in a moment.
This track, a No. 4 smash in both the U.S. and Starr’s native England, was originally credited to Starr alone, but bootleg demos have since surfaced that show Harrison performing a guide vocal for Starr. (Further evidence is perhaps provided during 1971’s “Concert for Bangladesh,” when Ringo forgets the words to this song on stage.) Nevertheless, “It Don’t Come Easy” remains one of Starr’s signature moments, and one that would have been right at home on any late-era Beatles project — fitting since it was initially produced by George Martin, and also featured Harrison on electric guitar. That doesn’t make this all that original, of course, but entertaining nevertheless. Members of Badfinger originally sang “Hari Krishna” — OK, now you know it was actually George’s song — over a portion of the instrumental segment on the track.
This song wouldn’t have worked, if its author had sang it. But in Ringo’s hands, “I’m the Greatest” becomes an exuberant parody of cocksuredness, so ironic and perfectly timed throughout that it tops even the bigger hits on this list. Lennon plays piano and sings, while Harrison joins in with a stinging guitar part. Together, they provide this fizzy counterpoint to the Ringo’s customary undercurrent of melancholy. (Does anybody think he really believed it when “my mama told me … I was great”?) This is perhaps the closest the Beatles ever got to reforming, not just in the sense of there being three of them in the room, but also in the way the song turns expectations on their ear. This doesn’t sound like the solo Beatles trying to sound like “the Beatles,” a rare thing.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: “Six O’Clock,” by McCartney (‘Ringo,’ 1973): Maybe a throwaway on a Paul record, but works perfectly here; “With A Little Help From My Friends,” by McCartney, with Lennon (‘Sgt. Pepper,’ 1967): So closely associated with Starr that you just have to mention it, I suppose. Still … ; “Cookin’ (In the Kitchen of Love),” by Lennon (‘Ringo’s Rotogravure,’ 1976): The best song on a disappointing album, as Starr’s solo career took a dive; “Private Property,” by McCartney (‘Stop and Smell the Roses,’ 1981): Finally, a return to form, but too late to recapture much momentum. Could have been a hit single, in a different time; “Good Night,” by Lennon (‘The Beatles,’ 1968): Singing a bedtime lyric only Ringo could pull off, the White Album ends on a profoundly sweet note.