Starkey Malarkey: The Lighter Side of the Sad Beatle

Though he may not have been as lyrically or musically talented as John, Paul, or George, Ringo Starr possessed a public charisma and idiosyncratic personality that the other Beatles lacked in comparison. It can be argued that “Ringo Starr” was not just a pseudonym for Richard Starkey, Jr., but an on-stage persona. Or, if you will, multiple personas. Just as David Bowie sifted through phases of being Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Sold the World, and others, Ringo’s unappreciated virtuosity allowed him to be either an idealistic man-child pining for an “Octopus’ Garden, a hammy pseudo-American country-western crooner inexplicably sandwiched between three Liverpudlians, or a pessimistic also ran who encountered enough cruelty from his bandmates that fans naturally wondered why the band’s initial drummer Pete Best was sacked in the first place.
This final persona easily remains the most shocking, as if A Hard Day’s Night is to be believed, Ringo acquired much more fan mail than even John or Paul. His renditions of American rockabilly and country standards including “Matchbox” and “Act Naturally” cemented his reputation as the most popular Beatle in America, where in fact “Matchbox” was actually released as a single (it was merely on the B-side of the “Long Tall Sally” EP in Britain). At first glance, this does not explain why the band constantly poked fun at Ringo in multiple media, including films, interviews, and even a short-lived and cheaply-produced American Saturday morning cartoon. Each episode of this cartoon featured The Beatles performing one song in response to a simplistic, often forced conflict. One particular conflict occurs when Ringo not only has an omnipresent cumulonimbus cloud raining on his mop top, but involuntarily causes misfortune to everyone around him (YouTube). True to the show’s formula, Ringo’s raincloud goes away when the Fab Four perform “Good Day Sunshine” from Revolver, but this does not solve a more pressing issue: why Ringo? Why couldn’t John suffer from this meteorological phenomenon? In the film Help!, why didn’t Paul wear a ring which put him in danger of becoming a human sacrifice to a culturally insensitive quasi-Indian cult (besides the undeniable facts that the film would have lost one of its many bad puns, and that Ringo received his nickname from constantly wearing rings in the first place)? And would it be all too much for George to press the red button in Yellow Submarine after explicitly being instructed not to? Unfortunately, the band’s borderline malicious treatment of Ringo was not his own lighthearted self-deprecation. As John Lennon once famously improvised when asked if his band’s drummer was the greatest in the world, “Ringo’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles!” (Daily Mail). This is not a gentle quip, but an indication that Lennon could behave like a “jealous guy” to not only lovers, but friends as well.
Considering the mockery he endured, Ringo’s attitude was usually quite positive throughout The Beatles’ tenure. True, there are exceptions in the early period which initally labeled him “The Sad Beatle,” including his bitter dismissal of a Beatlemaniac’s flirtations in the opening scene of A Hard Day’s Night (“she’ll only reject me and then I’ll be frustrated”). However, by the band’s middle period, it became more evident that “The Sad Beatle” was in fact Lennon. Songs like “I’m a Loser” and the disturbingly suicidal “Yer Blues” demonstrated that not only could money buy love, but it couldn’t buy happiness for Lennon either. Ringo, on the other hand, seemed much more well-adjusted, especially when he sang childlike songs like “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’ Garden” which naturally worked better on Sesame Street than they did on their respective albums, Revolver and Abbey Road. It is hardly a surprise that Ringo later found success as the narrator of the British children’s television program Thomas the Tank Engine. With this in mind, Ringo can be described as a prototype of future, more prolific songwriters who would extend their lyrical reach to the children’s market, such as The Modern Lovers vocalist Jonathan Richman (whose “I’m a Little Airplane” also received airplay on Sesame Street) or more recently, They Might Be Giants.
It is a pity that the other Beatles stunted Ringo’s output, because he upstaged them with his presence. The laughable “Don’t Pass Me By,” the first of only two Beatles tunes penned by Ringo, might not be the greatest indicator of his talent. Paul McCartney even mocked the tune’s saccharine predictability in an interview held with the two currently living Beatles. Yet, it was Ringo’s “natural” and often hilarious acting abilities, his scarce drum solos such as the one in the middle of “The End,” his unique witticisms such as “a hard day’s night” and “eight days a week” that helped shape the language spoken by The Beatles and their fanatics, and most importantly, his ability to singlehandedly keep the band functioning until 1970 despite frequent quarrels between Lennon, McCartney, and the similarly neglected George Harrison which prove that every persona of Richard Starkey, Jr. was essential to the overall Beatles experience.


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