Wednesday, July 1, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Ringo: With a Little Help

Ringo. You know exactly who I'm talking about already, don't you? He's one of the most famous drummers in rock history from the most popular band in history, yet despite his fame he's perpetually overshadowed by his three bandmates. He's never written a memoir and when asked, the answer he repeatedly gives is that he never will because people are only interested in "those eight years." I've always thought Ringo sold his fans a bit short by assuming they only care about his life in the Beatles and I lamented the fact that not only has he never written an autobiography, but that no one else had written a detailed book on his life. So when I heard last year that a comprehensive, thoroughly researched book on Ringo was due out this summer, I knew I had to read it. We've already got numerous definitive books about the Beatles, as well as excellent biographies of the individual members, so Michael Seth Starr's new book Ringo: With a Little Help looks to be a welcome addition to the list.

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Right off the bat there are three things the author wants to make perfectly clear in his introduction: that he is not related to Ringo (as he states, he was born with his last name while Ringo adopted it), the book is not a musical critique of Ringo's skills as a drummer, and that while he interviewed many people associated with Ringo, this is an unauthorized biography. Indeed, Starr's attempts to contact Ringo went unanswered apart from a post on Ringo's personal website stating that he (Ringo) has "nothing to do with this book." (Before I go any further, for the purposes of clarity, any use of the surname Starr in this review is in reference to the author of the book and not to Ringo).  With that out of the way, the author gets right to the beginning of the story, starting with Ringo's hardscrabble life in working class Liverpool. Richard Starkey was born on July 7, 1940 during World War II and spent the first five years of his life with his mother (his father abandoned them when Ringo was three) fighting to survive the German blitz of Liverpool. Like his three future bandmates, Ringo spent the post-war years enduring severe rationing and a dreary, rather boring existence. However, his childhood was marred by two very scary and lengthy stays in the hospital, the first as a small boy due to a burst appendix and the second as a teenager due to pleurisy. The result of the two total years he spent recovering was that he fell so far behind in his schooling that he dropped out shortly thereafter. It was, however, during his second stay in the hospital that his lifelong love affair with the drums began. Upon dropping out of school, Ringo was able to piece a drum kit together and teach himself to play. At the same time as he worked as an apprentice joiner, he began playing in a succession of skiffle and rock and roll bands before making the decision to ditch the apprenticeship and go full time as a musician. He eventually joined local band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and rechristened himself Ringo Starr. The band became one of the top attractions in Liverpool as well as on the Hamburg club circuit, where he first met the Beatles in 1960. He became friends with them, especially with George Harrison, and often sat in with the band when their drummer Pete Best failed to show up. It was the camaraderie he developed with them during this time, as well as the noticeable improvement in their sound with his superior drumming, that eventually led to Best's sacking and the band bringing Ringo into the fold in August 1962. The rest, as they say, is history.

In fact, just as I'm not going to go through the Beatles years in this review because it's been done countless times by me and others, Starr also states in the introduction to the book that he doesn't intend to focus solely on Ringo's life and career during the Beatles period of 1962-70. With that being said, a large chunk of the book is taken up discussing his life during those years...of the 400 pages of text, it isn't until around page 230 that we get to the band's split. At first this fact slightly disappointed me; however when I thought about it more it made sense to me as the amount of source material for Ringo's time in the Beatles has to be orders of magnitude more plentiful than for the years after. In any event, the remainder of the book is devoted to Ringo's life and career up to the present, as the book's release date is set to coincide with his upcoming 75th birthday on July 7, 2015. From the moment of the Beatles' split to the mid-1970s, it can be argued that Ringo had, overall, the most consistently successful solo career of any of the former Beatles. By the middle of the decade, he'd released four albums including his greatest work, the self-titled Ringo album, as well as several hit singles ("It Don't Come Easy," "Photograph") and some high profile acting roles (The Magic Christian, That'll Be the Day). However, this period also overlapped with the breakdown of his first marriage to Maureen Cox, his endless carousing with friends John Lennon, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Harry Nilsson, and Marc Bolan, and the eventual decline of his career. Indeed, by the end of the decade Ringo had amassed a considerable string of albums which were both commercial and critical failures, as well as film projects that didn't go anywhere (witness the light, enjoyable, but pretty cheesy "Ringo" TV special from 1978, for example). In his own words, by this point he didn't have a career...he was just partying and dabbling in random, unfocused projects here and there. His personal life was in just as much turmoil, as he had a relationship and engagement to Nancy Andrews while at the same time carrying on and cavorting with other women on the side. Even the deaths of his drinking buddies Bolan, Moon, and Bonham couldn't shock Ringo into taking control of his life. The lone bright spot during this period was his meeting Barbara Bach on the set of Caveman, which led to their marriage in 1981. They are still happily married to this day, but not before several tumultuous years in the 1980s and early 1990s severely tested the limits of their bond.

It was during several blackout episodes they both had in the early 1990s that led Ringo and Barbara to enter rehab and dry out in order to conquer their alcoholism. Around the same time, Ringo began putting together his All-Starr Band and touring for the first time since the Beatles final tour in 1966. An additional role as the narrator/Mr. Conductor in the popular Thomas the Tank Engine children's TV series in the UK and US was another success. While his albums haven't been huge sellers over the last twenty or so years, they've been respectable and enjoyable and have helped to raise Ringo's career and profile such that he is almost as beloved as his other surviving Beatle, Paul McCartney. His All-Starr Band tours continue to this day and are very popular...I know I enjoyed the hell out of the show I went to last summer! Some strange (his incessant saying of "peace and love" in every conversation) and prickly (his "no more autographs!" video tirade in 2008) behavior have done little to dim the affection most fans have for him, and a whole new generation of drummers and fans have taken to defending and lauding Ringo's drumming skills and influence. Indeed, while Starr states at the beginning of the book that he doesn't intend the book to be a detailed critique of Ringo's talent (and it isn't), he does document many cases of critics and fellow musicians denigrating Ringo's drumming ability over the years, as well as times when many others have praised it. Along these lines, the book ends with an epilogue compiling the thoughts of prominent drummers Phil Collins, John Densmore, Max Weinberg, and Kenny Aronoff from interviews Starr conducted with them. In each case, they describe the influence Ringo has had on them personally, his influence on rock drumming, and what makes his drumming so great. I tend to fall into the camp of fans who believe he was very influential and absolutely integral to the Beatles' sound. I also personally believe that he was very talented and unique and is one of those rare drummers who can be instantly recognized by his sound and feel, so it was nice to read how several other more technically proficient drummers concur.

As far as rock biographies go, Ringo: With a Little Help is a very enjoyable read; the one thing that detracts from it (and which is my biggest gripe with the book) is the amount of typos. This isn't the fault of the author, but rather whoever edited and/or proofread the book. This is easily correctable for future editions and doesn't take away from the book in terms of its's merely a mild annoyance each time a typo or printing error pops up over the course of reading the book. On the plus side, while Starr is clearly fan he is also not afraid to discuss some of Ringo's less savory moments or times when his life and career hit bottom; this is refreshing as far too many biographies tend to eschew any criticism and only portray their subjects in a wholly positive light. The section of the book dealing with Ringo's childhood and life growing up in the Dingle section of Liverpool was nice and quite informative, and it was impressive that Starr managed to track down and interview one of Ringo's childhood friends, Dave Patterson, who shared some charming anecdotes and photographs from their younger days. Conversely, I would have liked more of this kind of detail when the book moved on to the post-Beatles years...while there was a lot of information, it felt just a little bit rushed to me, although perhaps it was a case of there just not being as much relevant or interesting information to mine with regards to Ringo's wilderness years of the 1980s.

As the first and to date only thoroughly researched and comprehensive biography of Ringo Starr, With a Little Help is a welcome addition to the plethora of Beatles books and sits nicely alongside the comprehensive biographies of John, Paul, and George. With the recent publication of the first volume of Mark Lewisohn's epic Beatles biography, which contained detailed and extensively researched biographies of all four Beatles' early lives, one might ask the question whether or not With a Little Help is necessary; my answer would be that yes, it is, as it contains more Ringo-centric information and doesn't get into as much of the minutiae that Lewisohn's book does which, let's face it, is only of real interest to the most obsessive of Beatles fans (like yours truly). For all other serious Beatles fans, Starr's book goes into enough detail that it will satisfy Beatles fans, and there are enough new bits of information (no spoilers here!) that even seasoned Beatlemaniacs will learn something as they read through it.  As for the elephant in the room, Ringo's drumming...while the book probably won't sway your preconceived opinions on his skills as a musician, Starr brings up a great question that will at least make you think long and hard as it made me ponder: other than Paul McCartney, none of the Beatles were great musicians, yet Lennon's and Harrison's skills as guitarists are never questioned or criticized. Only Ringo's drumming seems to be fair game...why is this? It's interesting and provocative things like this, as well as the overall portrait of Ringo's life painted by Starr, that makes With a Little Help an essential read or any Beatles and/or Ringo fan.

MY RATING: 8.5/10


  1. On an excellent site,The Evolution of Rock Bass Playing McCartney Style by Dennnis Alstrand,Stanley Clarke,Sting,Will Lee,Billy Sheehan,George Martin and John Lennon are quoted saying what a great,melodic and influential bass player Paul has always been.

    And Wilco's John Stirratt was asked in Bass Player which bass players have had the most impact on his playing and the first thing he said was, Paul McCartney is one of the greatest bass players of all time,if you listen to what he was tracking live in the studio it's unbelievable." "With his tone and musicality he was a huge influence,he covered all of his harmonic responsibilities really well but his baselines were absolutely melodic and inventive."

    In this 2010 interview the blogger says that John Stirratt has an affinity for good melodies so it's not surprising that Paul McCartney is one of his musical icons and then he quotes him saying that he's always absolutely in awe of his playing,including Paul's Beatles years.

    But besides Paul being recognized as a great musician, in an online 1977 Eric Clapton interview,Eric Clapton In His Own Words he says that there was always this game between John and George,and he said partly because John was a pretty good guitar player himself .He played live with John as a member of John's 1969 Plastic Ono Band.

    And there is a great online article by musician and song writer Peter Cross,The Beatles Are The Most Creative Band Of All Time and he says that many musicians besides him recognize Paul as one of the best bass guitar players ever.He too says that John and Paul are the greatest song composers and that to say that John and Paul are among 2 of the greatest singers in rock and roll is to state the obvious,and that John,Paul and George were all excellent guitarists and that George is underrated by people not educated about music but that Eric Clapton knew better,he also says that both John and Paul played great leads as well as innovative rhythm tracks.

  2. Good review, I saw where this came out the other day. I thought it funny that Ringo thought people only wanted to know about those "eight" years--wow, hard to believe they were just together such a short time in retrospect. But yet, the title of the book is: With A Little Help, taken from a Beatles song, however, it make sense after I read that it's an unofficial biography.

    I wondered if it mentioned where Harrison took up with one of Ringo's girlfriends, and how that injured their relationship for many years? I heard that from somewhere, but eventually knew he'd need Harrison's help, I assume in making albums. That said though, I imagine their relationships were pretty diffused starting out for many years.

    I think a lot of people dismiss drummers is because that are in the background to begin with. Granted they can certainly ground the sound of the band, but often you don't think much about their contributions because the other instruments make the melody (which sticks in your head) along with the vocal harmonies, hooks, and lyrics. Although that said, I assume a bad drummer could really hamper a band playing well together.

    I often find it odd how the Beatles are viewed, some like everything by them, some dismiss their earlier pop songs stuff and don't give them credit until around Sgt. Peppers, and some don't like them at all (I guess different strokes for different folks). But then, I can't figure out humanity in general, ha.
    I would argue with the statement that none of the Beatles weren't great musicians (in what way?) as history has proven that statement wrong. I always thought Harrison was excellent on guitar, and we all know about Lennon's vocals and song writing ability, plus he had to have some prowess on the instruments he used--at least far beyond most people. Perhaps that statement is only singling out their musical ability, but a musician, a good musician is far more than the sum of the parts.

  3. It's worse than what you've alluded to...George actually had an affair with Ringo's first wife, Maureen, in the early 1970s! How their friendship remained strong for the rest of George's life I'll never understand but it did. Crazy stuff.

    I think part of why Ringo gets mocked so much is because he joined the band right before they got huge. But they'd known him for years before, he'd played with them, and they only brought Pete Best in because he owned a drum kit, they had no drummer, and they were leaving for Hamburg in two days (this was in 1960). He never fit in as a drummer or personality...they were desperate and he was convenient. I'm sure had Ringo been available then, they'd have taken him then. Things just worked out for the best but took a couple more years.

    As George said in the Anthology documentary: "Ringo was always the right guy for the band...he just didn't walk into the film until that scene in 1962."