Photo Credit: Scott Robert Ritchie
Eight years as a member of the Beatles means it’s safe to say you’ll never have to go work in a car wash. Still, probably not a lot of people were betting on Ringo Starr ever having a successful solo career: his songwriting credits could be counted on one hand, and his monotone singing style was usually trotted out for one lead vocal per album. Even his fundamental role as drummer proved less than concrete after Paul McCartney elected to occasionally take over on the skins in the studio.
None of this ultimately stopped Ringo, possibly rock’s most advantaged underdog, from scoring eight Top 10 solo singles by the mid-‘70s (actually more than John Lennon had at the time). Since 1989, Ringo’s primary visibility has been the All-Starr band tours which feature rotating line-ups of musicians ranging from members of Cream and The Who to the Romantics and Mr. Mister.
Starr continues to enlist a diverse round up of musical collaborators – including former members of both the Eurythmics and the Eagles – on his twentieth solo album What’s My Name. The record opens with just a drum beat (lest anyone, including Ringo, forget his principle function) before giving way to “Got to Get Up to Get Down,” a crack at rock-funk featuring a rap performed by none other than – are you sitting down? – Joe Walsh (who co-wrote the song). The track is a bit of an overreach but successfully conveys the message that we’re here to have fun.
Walsh’s presence is also telling in that a number of tracks extol Americana rock: mid-tempo “Life is Good” is unrelated to Walsh’s signature song “Life’s Been Good,” but borrows a riff from Tom Petty’s “Rebel.” “Magic” doesn’t entirely live up to its title, but the piano-heavy variance on Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” featuring the flawless guitar work of Steve Lukather (who co-wrote the song) is a pleasant enough joyride. “Thank God for Music” both thematically and sound-wise (particularly on the chorus) clearly belongs to the same denomination as “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion-slash-comeback single.
On the subject of reunions, Ringo – plus McCartney on backing vocals – covering the obscure John Lennon song “Grow Old with Me,” and this version of the love ballad is certainly wistful enough. However, the two surviving ex-Beatles have actually had numerous collaborations over the years, and this is frankly not one of their better ones. While from the title alone the bittersweet irony of “Grow Old with Me” – Starr and McCartney both approach octogenarian status, a privilege that Lennon, murdered at forty, did not get a chance to enjoy – is both obvious and relevant, there are other Lennon compositions which might have supported the underlying effort more successfully (“Watching the Wheels,” just to name one, might have been a better choice).
On the other hand, Ringo’s voice seems like such a good fit for R&B standard “Money (That’s What I Want),” you wonder why he didn’t sing it on the Beatles 1963 version. McCartney then returns – sort of – being named-dropped (“From Paul to John // To playing in German bars”) in title track, which also closes the album. Oddly enough this, being the most directly autobiographical song on the record, is one of the two originals on which Ringo does not have a writing credit (it’s penned by ex-Men at Work foreman Colin Hay).
“What’s my name?” he chants throughout the song, to which a chorus responds: “Ringo!,” also echoing the self-awareness or even self-parody which has arguably been present through Ringo’s entire post-Beatles career. “Money” leans a bit on the synths, and the kinetic rocker “Better Days” was written by Sam Hollender, whose other collaborations have included O.A.R. and Panic! At the Disco. But overall, Ringo seems to have little interest in modernizing his sound for the current audience (using Joe Walsh as a rapper was probably a clear indication). He won’t even let go of the two-finger peace sign, which he gives for the millionth time on the album cover. However, a generation earlier, this very same gesture meant “victory.” Small victories are still victories, and What’s My Name certainly qualifies as one.