Ringo Starr Can’t Slow Down
Ringo Starr might be the most beloved figure in the music world — or any other world. But even at 81, he refuses to slow down. The Beatle drum legend is getting ready to drop his second EP of the year, Change the World. Starr is used to spending each year out on the road, touring with his All-Starr Band. But these days, he’s fighting the pandemic blues by making music in his home studio, with a little help from his friends. As he says, with one of his wall-shaking laughs, “We have nothing better to do some days, so we write a song.”
Starr’s heart is always full of music. When his engineer assists him in setting up his Zoom mic, he spontaneously sings the Beatles’ classic “Help!” He had the big moment at this year’s Grammys, giving Billie Eilish her award for Record of the Year. (Eilish’s greeting: “What’s up, Ringo?”) Halfway through this chat, his phone goes off with a call from his son Zak, longtime drummer for the Who. (His ringtone is a weird mix of circus organ and slide whistles — “to remind me, ‘Yes, it’s your phone.’”)
Like Starr himself, the new songs radiate warmth and humor. Change the World has four new tunes, featuring collaborators like Linda Perry, Steve Lukather, Trombone Shorty, and Joe Walsh, who joins for a bang-up version of the Fifties oldie “Rock Around the Clock.” It comes just six months after his last EP, Zoom In. It’s available on September 24th digitally, as well as on CD and (yes) cassette. The 10-inch vinyl drops November 19th. It’s a welcome reminder that the world always needs a touch of that Ringo magic.
Starr spoke to Rolling Stone via Zoom about Change the World, exuding all his famous wisdom and charm. He also spoke about his Beatle days, collaborating long distance, why “Rock Around the Clock” reminds him of childhood memories, the new Get Back documentary, the remastered Let It Be edition, and why he’s a fan of Eilish and Miley Cyrus.
Congratulations on Change the World. You’re putting out so much new music this year — you’re the hardest-working man in show business.
That’s because I’m putting it out in increments. I thought, “I don’t want to make another album.” Ten songs is like a job — a good job, I love to play, but now I’m just going to do fours, because I was a big fan of EPs anyway. So I’m going to make EPs.
The lead single, “Let’s Change the World,” is so great and timely.
I love that — it’s Steve Lukather and Joe Williams. Luke’s playing guitar on it, but it’s also got a bit of brass, so it’s got body. On this EP, I’m working with a lot of people I’ve never worked with before, like Linda Perry, who is so great. “Come Undone” is mainly her and me. We thought, “Let’s put a trombone on it,” so we sent it to New Orleans. And who else are you going talk to besides Trombone Shorty? He’s like a whole brass section. “Just the Way” is a reggae track, with Tony Chen and Fully Fullwood. Bruce Sugar is the engineer here — also known as a producer. We have nothing better to do some days, so we write a song.
That’s a good thing about recording now. It saves my life, saves my ass, because some days I’m in there going, “Oh, I’m fed up with this — I want to be on tour. I wanna, I wanna, I wanna!” Now we can send the files around. How great is that?
Amazing you can do it that way now.
Yeah — I can’t tell you what the song is, but Eddie Vedder was over the other day with his files. [Laughs mischievously.] That’s all I’m saying, Eddie!
I can’t wait to hear that.
Well, the drums are great. We’re in this room here — what is it, lads, 15-by-12? All the equipment is here. All the keyboards, all the mics are here. Then in the bedroom, there’s three amplifiers and two kits of drums. And that’s how we do it. I’ve done it in here for 10 years now. I love it because I can also say hi to the dogs, hi to [his wife] Barbara [Bach], have a cup of tea, whatever, and we’re safe. I haven’t really been out because of the pandemic at all.
The new record has a flashback to your Fifties roots. How did you come to sing “Rock Around the Clock”?
I was thinking — one of those days you’re just sitting around thinking — about when I was 15. The year I’d been in hospital. I’d had my 14th birthday and it was coming up to my 15th, and I just didn’t want to be there for 15. We spoke to the doctors, my mum did a bit of begging, and the doctors let us go. We got out two weeks before my birthday and went to London with my stepdad, to hang out with his family for a week. Then we came back to my grandparents’ in Liverpool — they brought me up with my mother, because my dad left when I was three. They took me to the Isle of Man. Rock Around the Clock was playing in the cinema, so they took me. It was one of those rowdy holiday places, everybody’s having fun, like Florida on a bad day.
And they just ripped the cinema apart! I mean, ripping out the seats and throwing them out and fighting. And it’s like “Wow!” — I’d just come out of hospital — “Wow! Things have changed!” You know what I mean? It was so great. It just was in in my heart for the rest of my life, as you can tell. So I was just thinking about Bill Haley and thought, “Well, I’m going to do ‘Rock Around the Clock.’”
Bill always looked like your dad. That’s why we loved Elvis and Eddie Cochran and Buddy, all those guys that came after Bill, because Bill just looked like your dad. But he did a good job on “Rock Around the Clock.”
It’s incredible how you get out of the hospital, then you’re in a new world where kids are ripping up the cinema.
I know, yeah! After being in bed for a year. [Speaks in falsetto voice] “I’m getting better now!” Thanks to America — they invented streptomycin. I had TB, so they just put me in a greenhouse in Haswell, outside of Liverpool, which had trees and a breeze. It was all windows and streptomycin. I had to lay there for months. One of the big days was when they let me get out of bed so I could sit on a chair: “Ah, wow — I’m sitting on a chair!”
Is that when you decided you were someday going to be as big as Bill Haley?
No. I didn’t even think I’d be as big as Bill Haley. I thought, “I’m going to be like those lads though,” and I turned into a Teddy Boy.
It didn’t take long until they were ripping the seats out for you.
I know, isn’t that far out? I don’t think there was a lot of ripping. There was a lot of screaming, but not ripping.
You stole the show at the Grammy Awards this year, with Billie Eilish.
Yeah, and how strange. I would’ve loved to hang out and say, “Hey, what’s going on?” But I got in the car, I got tested the day before — God, that’s the way of the world now. Got in the car, went right to the venue, got out the car, into a dressing room, onto the stage, then back in the car. There was no real time. But I love her anyway — she is so great. I love her attitude. And I like Miley Cyrus, too. I like the little rebels, you know.
And they love you. When you gave Billie the award, she and her brother bowed down to you. Your music speaks to all different generations.
Well, that’s what music is about. I mean, if you look at the Beatles, someone was showing me two photographs, one from August in ’62 when I joined, and one on the same day in August ’69, the last photos of the four of us and the first photo of the four of us. It was all in that short time, but we’re still relevant and the music is still great. Now, they’re saying that we were sort of heavy metal! [Laughs merrily.] I love what they say.
But the music still holds up. We do a lot of streams. Another package set will be out any minute now, so it still goes on. We’ve come out as vinyl, we’ve come out as CDs, now we’re streaming. As soon as they invent something else, they’ll all be out again! But what I do love is a lot of kids say, “Hey man, I love that music, love that track.” We get every generation excited about the Beatles. If you’re interested in music in any way, you have to listen to them. Because they were great.
I’ve been listening to the new edition of Let It Be. Your drums sound louder and clearer than ever.
It was interesting — the first remaster was Yellow Sub. Paul and I went to Abbey Road to listen and we’re going, “Who put that on? What’s that?” We’re so clear. But the drums — with the remastering, you can hear the drums really clear now. I’ve got so many people saying, “Wow, you played on that? That’s you?” Yeah, that’s me, I’m afraid. And I love it.
In the Sixties, it was mono, so if anything had to be taken away, usually it was the bass drum. Very little bass drum on our early records. But that was how they did it. Now we’re clear — it’s good.
Listening to the new Let It Be, it feels like everybody’s having fun together.
We had a lot of fun. Coming out on Thanksgiving is the remastered Get Back documentary, which is now six hours long. There’s a lot of fun and laughter, where the original [Let It Be] did not have any fun or laughter. It was a shame about that. But we did get on the roof, and we did finish an album in that month, so it wasn’t like we were sitting around all day.
It sounds like your drums are inspiring the singers to tell their story.
That’s how it was in the room. They could always hear the drums because I was there — yes, the other side of the room most times, but we did start creeping in. We did get a lot closer as the years went on, because even George Martin totally believed in [studio] separation. But we weren’t opposed to a bit of override. My favorite track, not on that, but on the White Album, was “Yer Blues,” where we were in a room — let’s say, eight-by-eight. Everyone, the amps and everything, John singing. It was like, “Wow, we’re like back in the clubs,” and it was so great because you could get all that energy from each other. So, yeah, the remastering has been really good to me.
I guess it’s a tribute to friendship and music and how they go together.
I love that band. I mean, it was just a thrill to be with those three guys. We had every facet, with Paul, man of many voices, and great bass player. John, [imitates Lennon’s voice] “Let’s go!” George, working those melodies on guitar. A lot of the stuff George put on the tracks is as important, really, as the track. [Sings a bit of Harrison-like guitar.] Whatever he did, “Oh, it’s that track” — they’d know it from whatever George played. It was great. So I think we did well.