When I tell Ringo Starr that I’d just been chatting with Sex Pistols and PiL frontman John Lydon, who’s rarely had a kind word for Starr’s former band, and that he’d said to send the former Beatle his best, Starr seems genuinely shocked.
“I'm surprised to hear that coming from him,” Starr quipped. “He usually just wants to shit on everybody. Maybe he's been eating all that butter he's been advertising.”
The normally guarded Starr is unusually relaxed when we catch up, promoting his fine new album, Postcards From Paradise, a fall tour with his All-Starr Band, a new book, and will soon be a freshly minted member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, when he’s inducted as a solo artist on April 18 by the bassist in his old band, Paul McCartney.
"Paul apparently said he thought it should happen after (Beatles manager) Brian Epstein was inducted,” Starr says, admitting he knew nothing of the honor until McCartney called. “So then he called and asked if I were inducted as a solo act, would I accept? It's an honor! I told him, ‘Of course I’d say yes!’”
Starr laughs at the memory, and laughs a lot in general. He’s easy to talk to, pulling out jokes from old Beatles press conferences (“we’ve been together now for 40 years”), and seemingly well aware that, whomever his audience is, they probably know as much about his past as he does.
Still, he’s reluctant to talk about his old band, but brightens immediately when I ask how playing live with The Beatles compares to performing these days with his All-Starr Band, who will be back on tour in the U.S. this October.
“There's no difference,” Starr says. “The band members are different. But it was so new then, in 1964. And we were growing and we were just making it and it was getting bigger and bigger. Live it was mad, but it was so exciting. How much did we do 50 years ago? We did everything! But playing, if you look at the Beatles' career, it got a bit rough at the end, but it didn't matter what was going on because once the count-in happened, we all gave everything. We could read each others' minds.”
Starr also seems especially proud of his new album, Postcards From Paradise, which he produced. It includes collaborations with many of his friends—who just happen to be rock stars—including his brother-in-law Joe Walsh, Todd Rundgren, Peter Frampton, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench ,and producer-songwriter Glen Ballard.
“It's part of life’s rich pageant—well, it is for me anyway. You make a record, you have a lot of fun, and then you have a lot of fun promoting it,” says Starr, who has just come off appearances on Ellen and Conan.
Settling in for our chat, he reflects on making Postcards, and where his inspiration for the songs came from.
“I start the songs on the synthesizer,” Starr explains. “I'll get some chords down, the key down, some little pattern. Then I'll drum to it like mad, because I have no song, really. I'll just say to myself ‘okay, that’s the verse’ then ‘there's the chorus,’ which is always a bit up. I sort of write the structure like that. Then I’ll do that 10 or so times until I've got 12 tracks and I invite writers and musicians I know, and I give them the choice of two tracks. I ask them if they’d like to write a song, and which one would they like to work on. I’ll tell them, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ because I've got a title, I've got a verse, I've got a chorus, I've got something, and usually that gives us the impetus to write. We only need the first line. Then we’re off.”
“I’m always being asked to do my autobiography, but I've always said no, so I started doing it in song,” Starr continues, explaining the story behind the lead track on Postcards, “Rory and the Hurricanes”. Like “In Liverpool,” “The Other Side of Liverpool,” and the excellent “Liverpool 8,” songs about his Beatles days on previous albums, it’s about his earliest days as a working musician, but this time with his first professional band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.
“It’s a true story about a trip we took down to London with Rory and the Hurricanes,” Starr explains. “We rented a van, and we went down to London, we all stayed in one room and we were broke and no one—no girls—would talk to us because of our northern accents. We lived on bread and butter and jam. And we ran out of butter!”
Starr laughs again at the memory, and quickly follows up with another story about his Beatles days.
“The book is all for charity, so that's a really good reason to buy it anyway,” he says. “But there are photos in there that you'll have never seen and that I hadn't seen for years and years. I’d forgot I had them until we were archiving everything, which we started because of The Grammy Museum. Suddenly I found a drawer, and then a box full of negatives. There’s an interesting photograph of Paul being, sort of, very French. Because we were in France! And there’s another from when we landed in New York and a car of kids just drove up alongside us, because they were following our car! I'd like to say I worked it all out, but I just got lucky I had my camera, they were looking at me, and I just clicked then. A lot of photography is just that you get lucky. But a lot of what’s in the book is in hotel rooms. It shows you a bit of the life of the Beatles. We were in hotel rooms. That's where we were. That’s usually all we saw!”
I ask Starr if “Not Looking Back,” a piano ballad (unusual for him) and one of the standout tracks on Postcards, is about Barbara Bach, whom Starr has been married to for almost 35 years.
“Well, they’re all sort of love songs to Barbara,” he says, with a chuckle. “But that one was more a song about separation, that Richard Marx and I turned around and made into a love song. Then we got Benmont (Tench from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers) in and I told him I wanted a big, big piano. Like Ferrante & Teicher. That’s all I said to him, and he knew immediately what I meant. It was so great. It made the track. I can never say enough good things about Benmont Tench, I’ll tell you that.”
Starr seems to still genuinely love the buzz he gets from playing with other great musicians. As for his own approach to playing and recording in the modern age, has using digital technology changed his approach to drumming?
“Absolutely not!” Starr insists. “I play to the song. I am the drummer. It’s an organic instrument to me. But I love this modern age. I love to play, and we are organic; we do play our instruments. But then you’ve got it down and you can change it. Even the key. And editing is so great! Because I come from tape, where you had to cut the tape! Now you just press a button. It’s incredible.”