Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Review: Vinyl Reissues of 'Ringo' and 'Goodnight Vienna'

The reports of Ringo Starr’s luck are greatly exaggerated. He wasn’t some half-talent along for the Beatlemania ride, as his most heartless and clueless critics insist. His solid backbeat was essential to holding the band together and his quirky way with a drum fill was as essential to The Beatles’ distinctive sound as George’s ringing 12-string or Paul’s leaping bass lines. However, there is no question that Ringo would not have had a career as a solo artist if not for his old band. While Ringo-led tracks such as “Yellow Submarine”, “With a Little Help from My Friends”, and “Octopus’ Garden” are much more than novelty spots for the goofily charming drummer, one probably doesn’t hear even these classics and think, “Gee, this guy needs a whole album to himself.”

Fortunately, Ringo didn’t either, and when he made his first Rock record in 1973 (after testing out the solo waters with platters of standards and C&W tunes), he received more than a little help from his friends. In fact, Ringo is the only post-Beatles album that features all four Beatles, though they never work together. John Lennon supplies the cheeky “I’m the Greatest” and Paul McCartney contributes the dusky, restrained ballad “Six O’Clock”, but it is his fellow second-banana with whom Ringo found his most sympathetic collaborator. While “I’m the Greatest” is lively and tuneful but essentially a comedy number and “Six O’Clock” is fine but not up to the level of the material McCartney was making in ’73, “Photograph” and “Sunshine Life for Me (Sail Away Raymond)” are top shelf George Harrison. They outshine anything George did after All Things Must Pass. “Photograph” is not just a great-for-Ringo track; it’s one of the best tracks of the seventies and it probably made Phil Spector more than a little green.

Nothing else on Ringo quite reaches the heart-tugging heights of “Photograph”, but almost all of it is good. The only misstep is Ringo and new songwriting collaborator Vini Poncia’s attempt to give Ringo some sort of bad boy image with the mindless and misogynistic hard rock tedium of “Devil Woman”. Otherwise, the production earned its grand success.

The Ringo formula was such a commercial and creative success that Ringo and producer Richard Perry attempted to recreate it with Goodnight Vienna. Unfortunately, this is where the limitations of Ringo the Solo Artist become clear. The album’s essential problem is material. Lennon’s title track, Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Snookeroo”, and Allen Toussaint’s “Occapella” are good, but nothing more than that, and Lennon’s uncharacteristic use of ethnic slurs on “Goodnight Vienna” upsets some of the fun. Ringo and Vini Poncia’s originals are OK, but Hoyt Axton’s “No No Song” was the worst hit novelty record by a living legend since “My Ding-a-Ling”. The fact that it still managed to go top five must have more to do with lingering goodwill than the song’s “quality.” By far the best song on the album is “Easy for Me”, a veritable gift from Harry Nilsson, but its recording reveals another problem: Ringo isn’t a great singer. The dense production of Ringo took care of that issue easily, but Goodnight Vienna tracks such as “Easy for Me”, “Husbands and Wives”, and “Call Me” are too naked, leaving Ringo dangling to fend for himself without sufficient friendly support. “Husbands and Wives” is so off key that I wonder how it ever passed inspection for release. The best recording here is a layered cover of The Platters’ “Only You” with an oddly sexy vocal by the show’s starr.

Ringo and Goodnight Vienna are now receiving 180-gram vinyl reissues courtesy of UMe. Both records have a lot of punch, and the packaging is lovingly recreated, especially when it comes to Ringo’s deluxe booklet of lyrics and Klaus Voorman drawings. 
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