The 1 Line Ringo Refused to Sing on ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’
When The Beatles started recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, they weren’t afraid to take their time. The group kicked off the sessions with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the John Lennon masterpiece that took most of three weeks to finish.
Not to be outdone, Paul McCartney brought “Penny Lane” to the studio as his first track in the Sgt. Pepper sessions. That song took another three weeks to record. Clearly, the new record was going to take a while.
In fact, the Fab Four spent nearly four more months in the studio. When you hear stories of George Harrison or Ringo Starr getting bored making Sgt. Pepper, you understand what they mean. But both ended up with big moments on the record.
For George it was the brilliant “Within You Without You.” As for Ringo, John and Paul brought what became his signature song to the studio: “With a Little Help From My Friends.” But Ringo had a problem with the lyrics.
Ringo wouldn’t sing about tomatoes being thrown at him
When writing for Ringo, Paul and John took a sort of a craftsman approach. They looked for innocent themes (as in “Yellow Submarine”) and aimed for humor as well as something that might prompt a singalong. They managed to get all that into “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
During a productive lyric-writing session, John and Paul struck gold with a couplet that could be interpreted multiple ways. “I remember giggling with John as we wrote the lines ‘What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine,’” Paul said in Many Years From Now.
But Ringo objected to one lyric John and Paul brought to the studio. “They had one line that I wouldn’t sing,” Ringo said in Anthology. “It was ‘What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?’ I said, ‘There’s not a chance in hell am I going to sing this line.'”
While it might seem harmless today, Ringo wasn’t far removed from the days of playing to rowdy crowds in Hamburg and Liverpool. “We still had lots of really deep memories of the kids throwing jelly beans and toys on stage,” he said.
Ringo actually feared being pelted at future Beatles concerts
While The Beatles were adamant that they’d finished touring the year before, Ringo realized that they could easily go back on the road at some point in the future. If they did, he wasn’t going to give ammunition to anyone in the audience.
“I thought that if we ever did get out there again, I was not going to be bombarded with tomatoes,” he said. So instead of “stand up and throw tomatoes,” Ringo ended up asking if his listener would “stand up and walk out on” him.
That also wouldn’t be the best thing for kids to do at a concert, but at least it wouldn’t have put the Beatles’ drummer in danger. Ringo’s input was huge, considering how it became the key song of his solo career.
It also made for a fine moment at Woodstock when Joe Cocker belted out the track. In Cocker’s case, there was so little food available at the festival that no one would have dared do something like throw a tomato.