Nobody’s Favorite Record Reviews, #5:
Ringo Starr’s Ringo the 4th (1977)
Ringo the 4th is, I think it’s safe to say, nobody’s favorite Ringo album.
In the middle of the 70’s, no solo Fab was hotter on the charts than Richie, not even Sir Paul. 1971’s hit singles “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back Off Boogaloo” set the table for the triumph that was 1973’s Ringo, a true all-star affair that had not only performances and songs by the other Lads (even 3 at once on “I’m the Greatest”, sparking reunion rumors anew), but guest perfs by Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, and members of the Band as well as production by Richard Perry at the peak of his creativity. He had three top 40 hits with the great “Photograph”, “Oh My My”, and “You’re Sixteen”. ‘74’s Goodnight Vienna with much of Ringo’s cast returning, including Perry once again at the helm, was almost as good and spawned two more hits, “Only You” and “No No Song”. Then, his Apple contract expired as the whole Apple Records thing evaporated, and he was signed by Arif Mardin for Atlantic Records, with Mardin producing his first effort for that label, Ringo’s Rotogravure…but that was a spectacular flop. The magic of '71-'74 had disappeared and the more R&B-flavored album produced no hits, despite (somewhat lackluster) contributions from John, George, Paul, and Eric Clapton. At least it had nice packaging- the gatefold sleeve of that one is more fun than the music.
Undaunted, Ringo went back into the studio the next year, Mardin once more at the helm, and recorded an even more overt R&B-flavored set of songs, with a strong Disco flavor, the Disco movement being in its full flower. No guest star cameos this time, no songs from his mates. Many of the songs were covers, but the six originals were co-writes credited to Starr and his bud Vini Poncia (who had co-written “Oh My My”). Be that as it may, it didn’t sell either- Robert Christgau, one of the few critics who even chose to devote some time to reviewing it, dismissed it as only the Dean can: Less than three months after its release, the Ringo fan in me dutifully played this for a third and last time. Whereupon the journalist began to wonder how many people were buying such dreary music just because it was by a Beatle. And was both saddened and pleased to learn that the answer, for all practical purposes, was no one–it never got higher than 199 in Record World, which I’ll bet was some statistician paying his respects. D
Yep, another Ringo flop album, and he soon was dismissed from his Atlantic contract. In all fairness, this didn’t seem to bother our boy very much- this was at the height of his L.A. party animal phase, and he was always seen out and about and drinking copiously and generally loving life. But a funny thing happened, at least to this still rather ardent Beatle fan…while I took my time picking it up (I really hated Rotogravure) not getting it till sometime late in 1978, when I did get around to giving it a spin, I didn’t hate it, at all. In fact, I found myself kinda liking it.
So, what say we sit back and let me hold forth about this ugliest of ducklings, often cited as the album that killed Ringo’s career? Thanks.
Drowning in the Sea of Love. A Gamble/Huff hit song for Joe Simon in 1971. Given a surging, string-heavy, aggressive arrangement with tasteful guitar licks and Disco Dolly (Bette Midler and Melissa Manchester were among the vocalists) backing vocals, and Richie seems to be hanging on for dear life, barking out his vocals drunkenly (height of his drinking period, remember…but he sounds positively sober here compared to some of the other songs, more on that later) as the ladies coo “One time…two times…”. This probably should have been the lead single in the US, but it wasn’t; it was released to radio well after the record’s poor word of mouth had sunk it.
Tango All Night. Written by Steve Hague and Tom Seufert, whoever they are, it’s pleasant and lighthearted but awfully bland; set at a disco shuffle tempo with a hint of salsa somewhere in the mix. Guess what Richie wants to do in this one.
Wings. The first of six Poncia/Starr originals, and the inexplicable first single release, it’s a plodding mid-tempo track with some chicken scratch guitar by Yoko’s ex and ace session guitarist David Spinozza. Not about one of his former bandmates’ groups. It barely troubled the charts, but it’s not hard to sit through.
Gave It All Up. This one is actually a keeper- a slow-tempo reminisce about love won and lost, punctuated by Don Brooks’ folksy harmonica. Ringo’s vocal is warm and likeable, and I’d rank this with his best solo songs, if I was making a very long list.
Out on the Streets. This one’s a full-on disco boogie tune, with horns and more Disco Dolly BVs, in which Ringo tries to sound streetwise or something. It’s fast paced but ultimately boring, plodding along until it expires. A rather generic track.
Can She Do It Like She Dances?. The album picks up considerably with this one, in my opinion one of the best on the album. It’s definitely set at a hi-hat heavy disco tempo, but the arrangement reminds me a lot of can-can dancing or something, appropriate given the subject matter, in which Ringo drunkenly (and I do mean drunkenly) seems to slobber all over the mike as he wonders if the object of his affection can “do it” like she dances, knowwhatImean nudge nudge wink wink. I love the way Ringo sings “And she moved so tender-ly”, sounding gutteral and horny as hell. Songwriting credit goes to another couple of old pros, Steve Duboff and Gerry Robinson, and no, I have no idea who they are/were either.
Sneaking Sally Through the Alley. The Allen Toussaint perennial gets a nicely funky disco-fied workout. It’s a great song, and Richie does it justice, I think. It’s a perfect song for his limited vocal range.
That’s kinda the peak of the record. The last three songs are all Starr/Vini Poncidearo cowrites, and their most common feature is their utter genericism.
It’s No Secret. Pretty much a love song, punctuated with weird synth & string noises. Not unpleasant, but slick and forgettable, and not unlike a lot of songs that did get airplay at the time.
Gypsies in Flight. This one’s even more laid back and strives for a tropical feel with slide guitar and synthesizer keyboard. The melody is weak and Ringo’s vocal is aimlessly somnambulent. Good track to nod off in a hammock on the beach between two palm trees, I guess, but you can say that about a lot of songs.
Simple Love Song attempts to pick up the tempo and close the album on an upbeat note, but unfortunately it isn’t very strong melodically and just kinda disco boogies along until the needle hits the out groove. Ace guitarists and session guys Lon Van Eaton and Danny Kortchmar play on this, but you’d never know it.
After the failure of this record, Ringo wound up signing to a subsidiary of Columbia Records, Portrait, for the mostly-covers followup Bad Boy but no one was having that one either. Starr continued to record for many years after that, even up to present day, and revived his career at least on stage via his popular and lucrative “All-Starr Band” tours. A few interesting records came and went, most notably 1981’s Stop and Smell the Roses, recorded in the wake of the murder of John Lennon and an underrated record if ever there was one, and 1991’s multi-producer release Time Takes Time, which squandered the talents of the likes of uber-hot producer Jeff (ELO) Lynne and Jellyfish’s Andy Sturmer on some real ordinary songs…but was still worth a listen. Of course, there was also the Threetle reunion and Beatles Anthology project; he also got some attention when his tribute song to George Harrison (and belatedly Harry Nilsson), “Never Without You”, made some headlines in the early 00’s. These days, Starr still tours with the A-SB, bringing along a cast of amazing musicians such as Ian Hunter, Todd Rundgren, and many others, and releases the occasional generic popsong album which a handful of fans dutifully buy. I even own a couple of them, obtained this way and that, but I couldn’t tell you what a single song sounds like on any of them. Ringo is thankfully still with us, and incredibly seems younger than other surviving bandmate McCartney. As he is so fond of saying at every opportunity, Peace and Love to him and to all of you for reading this.
As always, apologies to David Weiss.