Go ahead. Say it. We all know you’re thinking it anyways: Ringo is your least favorite Beatle.
Oh sure, he was the #1 dream fantasy during their Ed Sullivan-storming days, but, c’mon — he’s Ringo. He’s pretty hard to take seriously: he’s just that nice guy who made some nice post-Fab Four radio fluff. Evaluating his career means that — by default — you have to compare his output to that of John, Paul, and George; which, in turn, means that you have to compare his Vegas-styled pop balladeering to All Things Must Pass, Imagine, Ram, Plastic Ono Band, and (to a lesser extent) Cloud Nine, Double Fantasy, McCartney, and a slew of immortal classics too plentiful to name. As McCartney wrote “Silly Love Songs”, Ringo was actually writing silly love songs.
And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
Now let’s put things in perspective here: when 1970’s Let It Be came out, McCartney’s self-titled solo effort hit at the exact same time, leading many to claim that it was Sir Paul who first “broke up” the greatest band of all time (not Yoko, as time would later dictate). Though it wasn’t McCartney’s defining solo statement, it still had some gems (especially “Maybe I’m Amazed”), and set a good bar for the rest of the group to shoot for. Later in that year, however, Lennon released Plastic Ono Band, and Harrison stunned with his magnum opus All Things Must Pass (aka Songs That John & Paul Didn’t Like). Ringo also followed suit, with his incredible … collection of swing-era standards? Yes indeed: Sentimental Journey was a bewildering LP filled with songbook classics from the 30s and 40s. This was then followed by … Ringo’s country album, Beaucoup of Blues. This is exactly why it was hard to take the All-Starr’s solo career all that seriously: he wasn’t taking it very seriously either. The albums still had chart success for his never-forgotten Beatles association, but Ringo’s solo career floundered where his bandmates flourished.
Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr is a non-chronological collection of Ringo’s singles, painting the portrait of a man who never once was searching for the “important” music status that his Liverpool mates were looking for. While Harrison blossomed as a songwriter during the Beatles’ wild career, Ringo didn’t land his first solo song credit until The White Album‘s “Don’t Pass Me By”. So when his solo muse came a-callin’, he indulged — nay, reveled — in the beauty and joy of the pure pop song. Nowhere did this become more apparent than Ringo’s greatest standalone achievement: 1973’s Ringo! McCartney threw in a song, John threw in a song, and Harrison even stuck around to co-write a couple of the tracks with his still-friend. Jumping straight into the lounge-singer persona that he was born to inhabit, Ringo! is an album chock-full of hits that you’d still recognize even today: “Photograph”, “You’re Sixteen (You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine)”, “I’m the Greatest” (which Lennon wrote and played keys on), and “Oh My My”. There wasn’t anything deep or moving about these songs, but they never pretended to be anything that they weren’t. Ringo loved pop music, and he just wanted to have a good time. Yet, with that in mind, why is Photograph such an exhaustive listen?
First thing first: some of these songs haven’t aged all that well. “Photograph” is still one of Ringo’s finest songwriting moments, but the chorus gets repeated a few more times than is really necessary. John may have helped with the Billy Shears’ tale “I’m the Greatest”, but it’s honestly not as great as you remember it (thanks to a lumbering pre-chorus that sucks out all the momentum the song has going for it). Many of Ringo’s latter-day singles suffer from a mid-tempo kind of blandness that no producer could ever save, like the total pop anonymity that’s achieved with the forgettable 2003 tune “Never Without You”. His last Top 40 single, 1981’s “Wrack My Brain”, does exactly that to the listener (and not in the good, catchy sense).
With all that being said, however, there are still some truly fantastic pop tunes contained within. The Elton John/Bernie Taupin track “Snookeroo” is a great empowerment story that rides an up-tempo piano bounce, and Starr’s own “It Don’t Come Easy” is nothing short of pop perfection. “Back off Boogaloo” throws a choir of a military drum line to expose the sunny side of Lennon’s own protest-rock. Yet, the biggest surprise of the whole set is the inclusion of “Fading In and Fading Out” from 2005’s Choose Love. For an album that didn’t even set foot on the album charts upon its release, “Fading In” is one of the strongest songs that Starr ever penned, and unlike a majority of his post-70s career — where he tried to blatantly recreate the Beatles sound — “Fading In” is could easily be ranked as one of the finest tracks of not only Ringo’s solo career, but any of the Beatles’. Yes, it’s that good — and it serves as a perfect closing number for Photograph: a sign of even better things to come.
Though Photograph wisely excludes many of Ringo’s inessential albums (there are too many to name), this greatest-hits set includes one of the single most bizarre DVDs to ever be included in a major-label release. Not lasting longer than 30 minutes, the DVD features promotional clips from various TV specials in Ringo’s career, and it just couldn’t get weirder. If you sit all the way through it, you will see the following items (which I didn’t make up, as much as I would like to take credit for them): Ringo performing a lounge song in front of a live audience while wearing the biggest pink bowtie in mankind’s history (“Sentimental Journey”), home footage of Ringo playing a drum kit with ping pong paddles in front of a gathering of metallic penguins (“It Don’t Come Easy”), the mini-movie of Starr’s bizarre friendship (courtship?) of none other than Frankenstein’s monster (“Back Off Boogaloo”), a Monty Python-styled animation video in which Starr is jitterbugging with Carrie Fisher (“You’re Sixteen”), a sweet ballad that Ringo performs while dressed as a spaceman atop the Capitol Records building (“Only You”), his country-rock music video (“Act Naturally”, with the inimitable Buck Owens), and a bizarre promo film for the Goodnight Vienna album where Ringo is showing off his best salesman routine with voiceover pal John Lennon. It’s highly doubted that this DVD will reach “essential” status, but it remains a bizarre trip into the heart of the 1970s industry of record promotion.
So, is Photograph essential listening? Unfortunately, no. If you’re in dire need of a one-stop Ringo fix, then Ringo! is a great pick-up. Yet Photograph will stand as a great catalog item for a long time to come; Ringo’s career wasn’t disposable — it was just misunderstood. Ringo doesn’t want to make an “important” album, and he’s better off because of it. He just wanted to write some good pop songs, and with Photograph, that’s exactly what you get.