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Ultimately what's most impressive about Ringo Starr isn't what he's been, but rather who he is. And with his wonderfully infectious and intimate new album, Ringo Rama, Starr and his close-knit team of collaborators have created a characteristically charming reflection of who Ringo Starr is in the present tense.
The man's great heart and soul, his wit and wisdom all come through loud and clear throughout Ringo Rama.
"There is a lot of me in these songs," Starr says. "As time goes on, my personality is coming out more and more in the music. That's just what happens. On this album my drumming is more dynamic, I'm more to the front, I think I'm singing better and I believe we're writing better songs. All the touring helps because then you're keeping your chops up. I suppose I had a long time off and now I've had a long time on."
A grown-up thrill ride, Ringo Rama lovingly and at times movingly celebrates yesterday and today. This is a song cycle that appropriately acknowledges the former Beatle's illustrious past but at the same time powerfully insists on the paramount importance of living and loving here and now.
Ringo Rama would be a fine album without any of its back story. Yet coming from Starr, it feels in a sense like the album of a lifetime. Ever since cleaning up his own act at the end of the Eighties, Starr started touring with his assorted All-Starr bands and recording a series of impressive albums that at long last made good on the tremendous promise of his early post-Beatles efforts.
"I had a great cycle with Ringo  and Goodnight Vienna  and then it all went downhill," Starr admits. "And then from the time of Time Takes Time , we started climbing back up the hill. And since then they're all just getting better."
The rock steady drummer is excited to find himself in such a healthy and extended musical groove. "I've said this over and over again, but I love being in a band," Starr explains. "And I love hanging out with a crowd of musicians. And that's what we are and that's what we do. We write them and we record them."
For Ringo Rama, the "we" of which Starr speaks of is a fine group of fellow travelers that includes producer Mark Hudson, and writer/players like Gary Burr, Dean Grakal, Steve Dudas, Jim Cox and Gary Nicholson. There are also some notable guest appearances from old friends like Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Willie Nelson, Shawn Colvin, Timothy B. Schmidt, Van Dyke Parks and Charlie Haden.
The album was recorded largely at Starr's English studio, with a few tracks cut at producer Hudson's tiny studio in Los Angeles.
"I refuse to go into a so-called 'real,' stuffy studio anymore," Starr says. "I like to see us all sweat together and feel the music together."
Starr credits producer Hudson with helping to create an ideal atmosphere to work and play.
"Mainly we have a lot of laughs," he explains. "It's a lot of fun working together. And we can shout at each other without us getting really hurt and leaving the room. Sometimes it gets a bit tense in the studio, but Mark brings a lot of love, a lot of musical talent and a lot of diplomacy within the group in terms of holding us together. We have a team and we hang out. And it just matters how many of us are in the room how many write the song. It's whatever comes up at that minute. It's not all so pre-planned."
The spontaneous, positive spirit at the heart of Starr's work since his days with the Beatles is very much in evidence on Ringo Rama, right from the aggressively peaceful first track "Eye To Eye" with its opening allusions to Starr's own first solo smash, 1971's "It Don't Come Easy." Like several other tracks on the album, "Eye To Eye" represents an impassioned cry for peace and love in tense, even traumatic times.
"To me 'Eye To Eye' sounds like there's a war going on and we're trying to make it a war of love," Starr offers. "I know it's easy to say, but we're trying our best to see eye to eye because then the world would be a better place. With me, the mission all the time is the same - peace and love and four guys sitting around a room writing songs of love."
Another standout on Ringo Rama is a love song of a different sort, "Never Without You" - a luminous, deeply felt tribute to Starr's friend and former bandmate George Harrison. "It was my way - with the help of Gary and Mark - to say how much George meant to me and how much he will be remembered," he says softly. "Gary Nicholson started that song, and Mark brought it over and we realized we could tailor it. George was really on my mind then. I actually tried to get George, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson all into that song. But it got too busy, so I thought I'm just going to do it for George."
To play the moving guitar solo for "Never Without You," Starr reached out to another guitar great and close friend of Harrison.
"I called Eric Clapton up and it was great to have him," Starr says. "Eric's on two tracks on the album, but I really wanted him on this song because George loved Eric and Eric loved George. I wanted Eric to come and play that solo because I only wanted people on the track who George knew and loved."
Another major guitar player, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame, appears on the wryly philosophical tune "I Think Therefore I Rock & Roll" and "Missouri Loves Company."
For the record, Starr points out that both of these legendary players were not only inspired but also convenient.
"We had a funny joke over here," Starr recalls from his home in England, "People would ask, 'So who's on the record?' And we'd say, 'Just a couple of local guys. You know, like Eric Clapton and Dave Gilmour.' Because they do both live just around the corner."
Certain Ringo Rama - like "English Garden" and "Elizabeth Reigns" - reflect the album's British origins.
"Elizabeth Reigns" was because when we were recording here the Queen's Jubilee was going on, and there was this big party where Paul played and lots of other bands too. And it was so in your face. And our American 'cousins' who were staying with me at the time - namely everyone in the band on the record - were so excited about it all. Dean Grakal started the song. And because I thought they've had their day in all honesty myself, I had to put in that verse, 'Six hundred servants/Use her detergent/Scrubbing the Palace floor.' Elizabeth was the last of the great ones, and like the song says, 'we don't really need a king.'"
Even closer to home is "English Garden," which references Ringo's beloved wife Barbara and even the family dog Buster. As befits an album created by a bunch of Brits and Americans, Ringo Rama also features songs with a decidedly American feel.
A lifelong country music lover - witness his classic cover with the Beatles of Buck Owns "Act Naturally" and his 1970 Beaucoup of Blues album - Starr shines on the country-tinged "Write One For Me" which features a strong vocal assist from the one and only Willie Nelson.
"That one was done long-distance because I was in England and Willie was touring in America," Starr explains. "But I've met Willie time and time again, and he's a beautiful human being. He's a gentleman who's open to everything - an incredible man."
The hilarious and lovely "Missouri Loves Company" is an excellent, pun-filled road trip of a pop song.
"We love the double entendre of the thing," Starr says with a warm laugh. "For me I wanted it to be a kind of travelogue around America. America is still very romantic to me. Route 66 is very romantic to me too. That's sort of where I came into this thing with Chuck Berry." And the King of Rock & Roll himself is name checked in "Memphis in Your Mind."
"I Think Therefore I Rock & Roll" is another stirring testament to the importance of music in Starr's life.
"It's about rock & roll, the blues, just music really," Starr explains. "I love music. I still listen to it. I don't actually listen to that much of what's going on, though you can't doubt Coldplay. I love bands, but I'm not into all these bands from reality shows put together on TV. They haven't put in the time and the energy for it. That stuff is all a bit instant and it sounds a bit instant. In fact, you blink and you've missed them. I do love Eminem. I love that groove he always has and his writing has so much humor"
Finally, just between friends, there's a bonus track at the end of Ringo Rama.
"We used to have quite a bit of those little tags on the Beatles albums," Starr remembers. "We'd throw a little something in. So I suppose it's part of that."
This time around, Starr's parting shot of love and peace is the short but sweet "I Really Love Her," which he recorded all on his own. "Just one time in my career, I wanted to do it all," he says, laughing. "I'm tired of all my other mates doing everything. So I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to do it all.' So that was a lot of fun for me."
The inspired fun of Ringo Rama is likely to spread this summer when Starr takes the latest set of All-Starrs out on the road. "We're going live again this year," Starr says. "And I promised our promoter David Fishof that I'll play three new songs. So get ready."
Written by David Wild
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