Ringo Si, Roberta No
The Beatles broke up in 1970 and almost immediately the band’s output was enshrined as the new standards by which other music was measured. The once insurgent music was now the new tradition. For the generations that followed, the Beatles’ songs represented the old and over-praised conventions of the past that needed to be rebelled against. Baby boomers treated the Beatles as God’s gift when they were merely a rock and roll band. They wrote the songs the so-called hip teachers taught you in band or other high school programs that the instructors smugly believed made them so cool. Whatever.
But even those kids who didn’t like the Beatles liked Ringo Starr. He was the one exception. While other members of the band were embarrassingly political, romantic, or spiritual, Ringo had the grace to never take himself too seriously. He was the misfit. The loner. The loser. Back when the Beatles’ American recordings featured a dozen or so songs, he was lucky if he sang one or two of them. Well, Ringo is back with a new album, appropriately called Ringo 2012. At less than 29 minutes in length, it resembles those old records in several ways.
The best songs on Ringo 2012 are nostalgic. He does lively covers such as the old Lonnie Donegan skiffle classic, “Rock Island Line” and Buddy Holly’s shuffle “Think It Over”. Even better, Starr also co-wrote a pair of marvelous songs that successfully evoke the past without getting maudlin or stupid: the romantic “Wonderful” (re: “the worst it ever was, was wonderful”) and the wistful “In Liverpool”. Ringo’s longing for the past should not be a surprise. After all, his first album after the Beatles’ break-up was the World War II era oldie, Sentimental Journey. Now the past Ringo yearns for is his youth.
The other five tracks on Ringo 2012 feature the man’s talents as a solid drummer, but they are somewhat formulaic. The Firesign Theatre used to sing the line “We are marching to Shibboleth” as a way of mocking those in the past (and presumably present) who parade to empty slogans. Ringo’s “Anthem” comes close to self-parody in this regard as Ringo croons “This is an anthem of peace and love” and offers advice such as “we know, we know, we know, we know, we know it’s true / we know, we know, we know what we gotta do.” But then again, no one ever listened to Ringo because he was the smartest Beatle. It was for other reasons. This album has two really good Ringo tracks and two other decent ones—that’s twice as much as one used to get on Beatles’ albums.
There are no Ringo tracks on the latest Roberta Flack record, Let It Be: Roberta Flack Sings the Beatles. That’s a shame because this disc could use some leavening. Flack treats her contributions to the Beatles’ legacy as if she’s stacking glass animals in a menagerie. Her selections include some of the most pretentious music by members of the Fab Four (e.g., “Long and Winding Road”, “Isn’t It a Pity”, “Let It Be”, “Hey Jude”) and even the lighter tunes such as “If I Fell” and “I Should’ve Known Better” are processed beyond recognition. This would be one thing if Flack was trying to show off her tremendous chops or arranged the tunes to convey something new. But that’s not the case.
Instead, she offers mostly sanitized jazzy tracks. Once the beat starts, one could Karaoke the familiar lyrics without strain. No wonder so many kids grew up hating the Beatles. By breaking these songs into mush, Flack shows how easy to deconstruct their melodies into simple ditties and that the pop lyrics can be overly simplistic. For example, Flack sings “bright is the stars that shine / dark is the sky / know that this love of mine / will never die” from “And I Love Her” in such a mechanical way that what is a sweet love song comes off as drivel. And that is not the case.
The best cut is Flack’s rendition of “Here, There, and Everywhere” that has the simplest arrangements and sparsest accompaniment. When she intimately approaches the lyrics, her voice comes off as a beautiful instrument. But too much of the album is overproduced. It can make a Beatles hater out of a baby boomer if one is not careful.
Let It Be: Roberta Flack Sings the Beatles