Ringo Starr might have just turned 80, but he can’t be accused of taking it easy. The Beatle drummer kept busy making music this year, even though it was the first time in years he couldn’t hit the road with his long-running All-Starr Band. His new single, “Here’s to the Nights,” is a quintessential Ringo ode to peace and love, just in time to sing out the end of a 2020 where everybody had a hard year. He got a little help from his friends for “Here’s to the Nights.” The song has long-distance vocals from pals like Dave Grohl, Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, Chris Stapleton, Ben Harper, Ringo’s brother-in-law Joe Walsh, and many more — including a promising British bass player named Paul McCartney.
Ringo worked in his home studio on a five-track EP set for March, with the timely title Zoom In. For one of rock & roll’s most beloved figures — and one of its most gregarious legends — it was a challenge to adapt to making music in the age of social distancing. But as he always warned us, it don’t come easy. “Here’s to the Nights” is a wry sing-along with lyrics from Diane Warren. As Ringo says, “New Year’s Eve, they’ll all sing along with us, we hope.”
Sir Ringo celebrated his 80th birthday this summer with a TV special full of long-distance jams with friends all aboard from around the world, including “Helter Skelter” with McCartney. He’s also got two new books in the works. Ringo Rocks: 30 Years of the All-Starrs is a retrospective of his ever-changing live supergroup, available via Julien’s Auction, with a foreword by Walsh. He’s also got a second collection of his paintings, with the superb title Painting Is My Other Madness. The world can always use some of that Ringo spirit. But these days, we need him more than ever.
Ringo spoke via Zoom about “Here’s to the Nights,” his Beatle days, drumming, painting, how he kept sane in quarantine, the cassette revival, the new McCartney album, and the wisdom learned from playing with Levon Helm.
Congratulations on the new song. How did that happen?
Diane Warren wrote it: “Here’s to the nights we won’t remember, with the friends we won’t forget.” So it has a beautiful sentiment. It’s about us all coming together, so it seems appropriate for today. Everybody I know, we’ve all had quite a few nights we don’t remember. And we’ve all had them with friends we won’t forget.
All these people joined in and helped me out. We got Paul McCartney, he’s on board. Joe Walsh, Sheryl Crow, Jenny Lewis, Chris Stapleton, Benmont Tench. Dave Grohl, and Ben Harper were the first ones up. Lenny Kravitz came on at the last minute. We got Finneas, Yola, Black Pumas. Corinne Bailey Rae sings her heart out. Everybody has a little shout-out.
Until the pandemic, you’d been on tour non-stop all these years.
I love it, that’s why. I would still be out there, but I’m afraid nobody’s out there. Everybody’s moaning like me, “We want to go out. I want to go out on the road.” The first tour was May, but we didn’t cancel until March. Who knew what this pandemic meant? We have got it on for next year, but we’ll have to wait and see.
I was disappointed that the pandemic got in the way of my two tours this year. And it gave me a couple of miserable days, because I want to play. So what happened, I made a EP. That helped — I made a record and did some painting.
Amazing. You have more energy than any 10 people put together.
Nine. [Imitates John Lennon’s voice] “Number nine, number nine… ”
The record is called Zoom In, because we’re on Zoom. Everything I do is on Zoom. I just thought it was so relevant to the days we’re living in right now. New Year’s Eve, they’ll all sing along with us, we hope. It’s a five-track EP, and I know what EPs are. I had a huge collection of EPs.
Everything comes back, I guess.
I heard this incredible story that the kids are back into cassettes. I only heard it, so you must know more than me because you work for the music paper. It’s incredible. Only like 18 months ago did I finally take the cassette player out of the system! But now the cassette is back — it’s next to the vinyl player.
It all comes back — music just travels through time.
It does. It’s incredible, and I’m lucky that the band I was in keep coming back on a daily basis, because the kids, every generation, still discover the Beatles. It blows me away, in all honesty. Every generation has a listen to us, you know? Now with the streaming, we’re streaming a lot. How great is that? Soon, I do believe they’ll be planting a little chip in our heads. It’d be set to music and it would just download direct.
Are you surprised by how kids keep discovering the Beatles?
Well, I was always being liked by the kids. But I love all the Beatle remasters because now you can hear the drums. When we started, if anything had to get lost, at first it was the bass drum. It got lower, lower, lower, lower, lower. It was like I was just playing snare for some of the tracks. Then with Giles [Martin] and the remastering, people can hear the drums and they’re like, “Is that you?” “Yeah, that’s me.” So far out. Giles did a great job about that. I love him.
It seems like your music is always about bringing people together, isn’t it?
That’s the job of musicians. That’s what we do. That’s why I love playing live. I want to feel that love coming at me. You know what I mean? Feel that love and give it back — it’s spiritual. I think that’s why we keep going. I remember when we were opening in England for Helen Shapiro [in 1963]. She had this band and we had three songs at the beginning. I was talking to her band and I’m saying, “How old are you? 40? And you’re still doing it?” Because at that age you think 5 years is a long time. But I’m 80 and I still want to do it.
What’s it like playing music long-distance?
Friendship is a very important thing. Doing it on Zoom is the only way right now we can come together. When we played that original “Come Together,” we were all in the same room. Now it’s like, “Okay, here’s you, here’s me.’ ” But it’s the only way, so it’s great musicians are making so much use of it. If this is the only way, okay, we’ll go with it.
I’ve always loved hanging out with musicians. If you play anything, I’ll play with you all night. I’ve never been able to sit there by myself. I just need you to play something and I’ll play with you.
You played with so many friends this summer for your 80th birthday TV special.
Yeah, we used to have a couple thousand people down in Hollywood. We’d have bands playing for my birthday and we’d have a cake. This year, we couldn’t have any of that. But what we did do, that nobody knows — Barbara and I got in the car and we drove down to Beverly Hills. There’s a “Peace and Love” hand down there. It’s seven-foot tall, a sculpture of my hand. We went there and had our picture taken by it. But don’t tell anyone.
All you’ve got is a photograph.
That’s all we’ve got. Now back off, Boogaloo. But I do get a lot of help from my friends, I’ll tell you that!
Your friend Paul McCartney is in your new video. He has his own record coming out, McCartney III.
He does, yeah — he’s playing everything. This is Phase Three for him, or Series Three, and it only took him 50 years. I got up with him at Dodger Stadium here. We’re good pals. If he’s in town, he comes, and if I’m making a record, I usually keep a track for him. He’s still the most brilliant bass player in my life. There’s a lot of really good players out there, but I don’t know any that are as melodic as him, and he understands it right away. When we were in the band together, we did have to have a few little talks, like the bass player and drummer, so we wouldn’t step on each other. But if we stepped on each other twice, that was a lot.
You also have a new book about the All-Starr Band. How did that happen?
It’s all about the All-Starr Band’s 30 years. I put the band together in 1989 — I thought, “You don’t have a band,” so I opened my phone book and I called people and everyone was saying “yes.” The first All-Starr Band, I’m on drums, but we had Levon Helm because he plays and sings. And then I was so still insecure, I had Jim Keltner on the other side of me. We had three drummers!
We’ve had so many great players in the band. I keep changing the band, but only for the songs. The trick of the All-Starrs was you have to do the hits, and I was tired of begging Todd Rundgren every night to do “Bang the Drum.” He wanted to do anything but “Bang the Drum.” “Todd, you’ve got to do it. They know ‘Bang the Drum.’ ” But everybody does the best they can. That’s all we can ask. I mean, sometimes I’ve missed a break.
It’s hard to imagine you ever missed a break.
I think two in 30 years ain’t bad. But Levon was great, because some nights you play, you’re giving your all, just something’s not working. He’d see me walk off and he’d say, “It’s all right, boss. We’ll get them tomorrow.” So I’ve kept that in mind ever since, really.
I’ve always wanted it to be a band. I can’t go out there on my own doing [sings in crooner voice] “I Did It My Way,” just with drums. It’s not going to work. So I always need to play with someone. I do love to hang out with musicians and play all night. I don’t play on my own. Never found that exciting.
With this new song, “Here’s to the Nights,” I called Dave Grohl and Ben Harper — they were the first. I said, “What are you doing Monday? Well, I’ve got this song and I want you do some vocals on it for me.” “Okay.” The doorbell rings, here they are. So I go into the other room where the drums sound great and we play. That’s what I love.
What about your other new book, of your painting?
It’s called Painting Is My Other Madness because I always say, “Drumming is my madness.” Painting, that’s what’s kept me alive through the pandemic — making that EP and painting.
Two books and a record — you’re making everyone else look lazy!
[Laughs heartily.] Well, get off your ass and do it!