Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, was certainly a distinct drummer and a winning personality, but during his time in The Beatles, he always seemed to be adjacent to greatness, rather than the source of greatness himself. Like most everyone else in the world, Ringo lacked the otherworldly songwriting prowess of his former band mates, but after the band’s dissolution in 1970, he still managed to prove himself as a worthy solo artist, churning out remarkably consistent albums even to this very day and playing a mix of solo works and Beatles classics in concert. Ringo might not be most people’s favorite Beatle, but he’s still a Beatle, and he’s still played plenty of great songs. These are eight of his best from his distinguished solo career.
1. ‘It Don’t Come Easy’
It’s interesting to realize that perhaps Ringo’s strongest solo hit was actually penned and originally performed on a demo by his former band mate George Harrison. The words may be Harrison’s, but Ringo’s baritone voice has rarely sounded so good as it does here, belting out uplifting lyrics about “paying your dues if you want to play the blues” and the all-around difficulty of pursuing a dream. The horns and the melody are spectacularly uplifting, so it’s no wonder that this, Ringo’s first single as a solo artist, became the anthem of his entire career for its iconic chorus and blistering brass and guitar parts.
Despite their many collaborations and enduring friendship, “Photograph” stands as the only time Ringo and George Harrison were credited together for a composition. The single from Ringo’s self-titled 1973 LP is a lovely thing, filled with romance courtesy of the weepy orchestral section and uplifting melody. The wall of sound musical approach sometimes threatens to overwhelm the sweet group lyrics led by Ringo’s distinct voice but it hardly matters when the overall effect is one of sublime, simple beauty.
3. ‘Back Off Boogaloo’
The careers of the solo Beatles were riddled with potential controversies and lyrical slights during the early ’70s, and “Back Off Boogaloo,” Starr’s follow-up single to “It Don’t Come Easy,” is often considered a veiled insult directed at the oft-derided early solo albums (which are now commonly regarded as classics) of Paul McCartney. Regardless of that unpleasant context, the roaring group vocals make the song an easy, infectious singalong, and the larger-than-life pianos and guitars nod subtly toward the influential glam rock of the time.
4. ‘No No Song’
Ringo’s cover of folk singer Hoyt Axton’s anti-drug ditty is silly fun with a straightforward message. This kind of song suits the Beatles drummer well, as his plain, familiar, endearing voice brings the gravitas of experience to the lyrics wherein the recovering addict protagonist refuses several kinds of drugs offered to him. There’s not a lot of subtlety in this cover, but there’s plenty of fun to be had with the catchy melody and creative instrumentation that almost makes the “No No Song” sound like a lost throwaway ditty from The White Album, and I mean that in the best possible way.
The B-side of “Back Off Boogaloo” also functioned as the theme song of an oddball spaghetti western Ringo appeared in around the same time. While the movie is now nothing but a little-seen oddity, the song that served as its theme song stands out as one of Ringo’s most interesting deep cuts as a solo artist. The fuzzy psychedelia and unusual noises of the song gives it a droning quality that suits the far out atmosphere of the best spaghetti westerns, making it a fascinating atmospheric piece among Ringo’s songs, even if it is a little lacking vocal melody.
6. ‘You’re Sixteen’
Sometimes Ringo was at his best when lending his voice to someone else’s lyrics, as demonstrated yet again in this cover of the 1960 Johnny Burnette single “You’re Sixteen.” The straightforward love song lyrics coupled with the upbeat poppy atmosphere and goofy, Paul-esque production touches make “You’re Sixteen” an easy standout among Ringo’s solo career. The chorus chugs along and the song builds beautifully to a balance of every kazoo-tinged element before fading out, leaving a lasting impression in less than three minutes.
7. ‘Goodnight Vienna’
George wasn’t the only one to pen a hit for Ringo. John tried his hand at it too, with this title track from Ringo’s 1974 LP, an upbeat composition where John can be heard doing the opening count-off. There isn’t much lyrical complexity on display here, as the title references the slang term for “everything’s over,” but the roaring horns and exuberant vocal performances make for a raucous listening experience that can easily make you smile, even if it doesn’t make you think.
8. ‘Never Without You’
Ringo Starr paid tribute to his friend and former band mate George Harrison with this single from his 2003 album Ringo Rama. The stirring tribute references their lifelong friendship, the early days of the Beatles (“we were headline news”) and several of Harrison’s most famous compositions (“‘Here Comes the Sun’ is about you”) in the course of a five-minute remembrance that proves touching not because of its subtlety, which has never been Starr’s strong suit, but because of the earnest emotion that drives the melody and Ringo’s simple but powerful vocal performance.
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