'Paul likes to think he's the only remaining Beatle': Ringo Starr on why the world's most famous band was lucky to have him
By Cole Moreton
Saturday, May 21, 2011
Sir Paul McCartney won't go on Ringo's new tour either. Is he bothered? If you got to keep a sense of humour, £200 million and a Bond girl, would you be?
Ringo Starr looks at a photograph of his young self and laughs.
‘We didn’t know what was ahead of us. You never do. We didn’t think it would last.’
The black-and-white image shows the Beatles in suits in the early Sixties, waiting to appear on a television show. He’s not sure which one. Paul is whistling, George is distracted, John is wide-eyed and Ringo is staring at the camera, his feet up on a seat. In the picture (below) he looks the most assured, by far.
The Beatles during rehearsals for The Ed Sullivan Show, 1964.
‘Even Paul thought, “Well, I’ll probably end up as a writer.” So did John. George was going to have a garage.’
But Ringo was a drummer before the Beatles and he still is, long after them. Nearly half a century later, at the age of 70, the boy in that picture is preparing to go on the road again, touring Britain and Europe with the latest incarnation of his All Starr Band.
He rarely gives interviews, and gets frustrated when all people want to talk about is the Fab Four, but today says he’s ‘at ease with it’. So here goes. How does it feel to be a Beatle, at his age?
‘It is difficult, because people don’t want you to grow up. A lot of people outside the Beatles want to keep me in that world. They look at that guy from A Hard Day’s Night and think, “That’s still him.” They want you to be that person they related to, in a movie, on record.’
The cheeky chappy? ‘Yeah. Exactly.’
What would he say to that young Ringo, if he could?
‘Who, me? I don’t know. “Hey, how you doing?” Or, “Hey, cool!”’
He gives the peace sign with both hands, and chuckles. Ringo has never pretended to be deep. He was always the natural clown in the band, the friendly face the kids and grannies loved, the yin to the yang of John Lennon’s caustic wit. But he hasn’t given up on the Sixties idealism, even after all this time. ‘Peace and love’ is his catchphrase, and his T-shirt says ‘Give Love’.
He’s still dressing like a rock star – dark suit, dark glasses, three big silver rings in his ear lobe, making it droop – with brushed-forward hair and a closely cut beard, both of which look suspiciously black. Ringo is small, skinny and familiar – that habit of sitting back in the chair, head up like a meerkat, echoes the images of him drumming in the Cavern, at Shea Stadium, on the roof of the Apple building. And we are surrounded by such ghosts, here in the offices of Apple, the company the Beatles set up to run their business affairs.
The Beatles brand is bigger than ever: they passed a billion record sales a long time ago, and they’ve conquered the world again lately, thanks to new technology. More than two million of us own the computer game The Beatles: Rock Band. But the masterstroke was to wait a long time before releasing their 13 albums on iTunes – making sure they were remastered and repackaged, and the clamour was intense.
Yet Ringo has ‘only’ made an estimated £200 million from the Beatles – far less than Sir Paul McCartney, one of the two main songwriters. As the only two members left to face old age, how do they get on?
‘We are as close as we want to be,’ he says, laughing. ‘We’re the only two remaining Beatles, although he likes to think he’s the only one.’
Ringo has a habit of saying audacious things with a poker face, so you can’t tell if he’s being funny or mad. It’s safer to laugh, and in this case right to do so – because he and Macca made glorious fun of that idea of themselves for this year’s Comic Relief.
If you haven’t seen the sketch, look it up online. James Corden and a room full of superstars are arguing about who should be picked to film a special appeal in Africa, until Sir Paul butts in, as pompous as a knight of the realm can be.
‘You all know that the only person round this table who can go is me. I was in the biggest rock ’n’ roll band in the history of music… I am the last remaining Beatle.’
They all fall silent in awed agreement – until a familiar, flat voice pipes up from the corner: ‘What about me?’
It’s funny and self-aware, but how on Earth did Comic Relief persuade Ringo to do it?
‘I thought it was a great sketch; it worked really well. I did my bit in Los Angeles, where I live half the time. I just sat in a hotel with a camera.’
The best jokes are based on truth, so does he feel like the forgotten man sometimes? And is Paul that self-important?
‘There is an element of truth in it,’ Ringo says, before pausing for thought.
‘But I think it’s people on the outside who perceive Paul as thinking he’s the only one left. Actually, it’s me. I am the last remaining Beatle.’
Deadpan is his default setting. Once you realise that, Ringo is a very engaging man. I’m not surprised he’s still mates with Macca.
‘We are good friends. We don’t live in each other’s pockets, but if we’re in the same country, we get together. He’s singing and playing on my latest album and I played on several of his. We’re just pals. We’re the only two who’ve experienced all this who are still here.’
The pair of them work with the widows of John and George, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, on managing the Beatles legacy. But how close is that relationship?
‘I was with Yoko and Olivia in Iceland in October for the celebration to mark what would have been John’s 70th birthday. She and my wife Barbara are really good friends. She got up on stage with me on my birthday. We’re all OK together. What’s your point?’
Only that the rancour which followed the Beatles split, and which lasted for years, seems to have gone now. Yoko performed at Ringo’s 70th birthday bash at Radio City Music Hall in New York last summer, and Sir Paul sang the Beatles song Birthday. Doesn’t it make him wonder if a reunion might have become possible by now, had they all survived?
‘We don’t know,’ says Ringo with a sigh, which may be because the question irritates him, or because it makes him sad.
‘We didn’t do it when we’d just split up. God knows. It would have been a great moment for me if the four of us were just sitting around talking about it. It’s never going to happen with us.’
He’s getting restless, wanting questions about the present day, so I ask him if he’s annoyed that he hasn’t been given a knighthood like Sir Paul.
‘Well. That’s up to them. It doesn’t grate with me. It doesn’t alter my life. People have tried campaigns, but it never goes anywhere. Maybe you should start one. What can I say? That’s why I called my last album Y Not. To all the questions like that, I just say, “Well, why not?” I thought I was cool, just using the letter Y.’
Ringo’s idea of cool is unique. He won’t shake hands, but prefers to bump elbows. British crowds will see it a lot this summer, as he plays stately homes and theatres with the All Starr Band, which has toured every few years since 1989. Why does he still do it?
‘I still love to play. I go down the front and sing Photograph or whatever, then I get to go back to the drums and play with all these other musicians. It’s a win-win situation. I get the chance to be both the entertainer and the musician. Everyone’s a star, but I’m the big star. The band gets to play 12 numbers between them and I do 12 numbers.’
Ringo does Beatles songs, as well as his solo hits from some of the 16 albums he has released since the Beatles broke up. Has he ever invited Sir Paul to join him?
‘Every time I ask him to join the All Starrs he says he’s too busy. I tell him he’ll have his two numbers…’
So Ringo sticks to the songs he sang in the first place.
‘I have to do With A Little Help From My Friends. I have to do Yellow Sub. And for myself, I have to do Boys, because I’ve done that since I was with Rory Storm and The Hurricanes, the band I was in before the Fabs. People love to see me playing and singing from the drums. There is a responsibility to do stuff that people have come to hear.’