Early in his career, Richard Starkey was the drummer in another Liverpool band, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, with whom he played numerous gigs at Butlins — a chain of insistently cheerful holiday camps designed to provide affordable vacations for working-class Brits desperate for a break, any break. Almost 60 years later, the career of the man who became Ringo Starr has come full circle: He now drums in a band purveying insistently cheerful music for audiences desperate for a Beatle, any Beatle.
Sir Ringo, as we may now call him, was always the dispensable Beatle. When he first joined the group, as he admitted on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, he “wrote a lot of songs” but they were never recorded. (That was the only self-deprecating moment he allowed himself in the show, and even that was probably unwitting.) He certainly couldn’t sing. It is frequently, nastily, but quite possibly accurately asserted that he wasn’t even the group’s best drummer. (Take a bow, Paul.)
So his debut appearance in Israel, helming the thirteenth iteration of his wittily monikered Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band, was never going to be the kind of glorious nostalgia fest that Macca provided 10 years ago. But still, he was once a Beatle. And this was, he confirmed, his first time “in the country.” (Not quite sure why he couldn’t bring himself to say Israel.) We knew we weren’t getting the Fab Four. But didn’t we have the right to hope for at least the vestiges of a Fab One?
That the concert was dispiriting, and sometimes actually discomfiting, was not for a lack of planning. Well aware that he could not possibly sustain a show that put him front and center all night, Ringo’s All Starr Bands feature recruits from all manner of defunct combos, and a setlist that cherrypicks from their catalogues. And so, on this tour, Starr appears alongside assorted members of 10CC, Santana, Toto and Men at Work, each of whom pays dutiful tribute to the leader during the evening. (Five groupings with five different constituencies and agendas; our early-Beatles-loving prime minister, had he made the error of convoying in from Jerusalem, might have mistaken it for a cabinet meeting.)
Each of the guests pitched in with two or three songs from their old band — and of those 10 tunes, “Evil Ways” and “Black Magic Woman,” led by Santana’s former vocalist and keyboard player Gregg Rolie, were the evening’s standouts. 10CC’s Graham Gouldman, by contrast, dishonored “I’m Not In Love” with an awful new ending. Colin Hay (MaW) provided workaday versions of “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under.” Steve Luthaker (Toto) inexplicably failed to play the cheesy, ridiculous, wonderful “Africa” (330 million YouTube views as of this writing).
The packed arena had not come, however, to hear the Starrs, but, rather, the Starr. He did not shine.
He slipped in his best post-Beatles tune, “It Don’t Come Easy,” right after the opening number (“Matchbox” by Carl Perkins) and it was all pretty much downhill from there. He covered several of the songs he’d sung in The Beatles — and that’s really the sorry point: they sounded like cover versions even though the original, distinctive singer was right here in front of us singing them. “Yellow Submarine” was particularly depressing, a children’s ditty now lumberingly played by an assortment of late-middle-aged white men, bereft of Lennon’s cackling background irreverence, and saccharine tailored for Israel with a forced ad lib in which Starr asked Gouldman where their jaunty sub was headed, and the sidekick replied, “To the great city of Tel Aviv, sir.” (If you doubt that 70-something-year-old ex-Beatles can still be vibrant, musical and genuinely joy-bringing, watch McCartney’s new Carpool Karaoke. Defy you not to smile.)
Things got worse with an unwise performance of “You’re Sixteen,” whose lyrics no sensible man of 77 would attempt, but which Ringo rendered still more excruciating by actually asking whether there were any young girls in the audience.
Later, he accepted flowers from a woman near the front of arena, but recoiled in loud and unpleasant horror at her request for a kiss.
Starr is plainly uncomfortable at center stage. Between songs he exuded the faux bonhomie of a TV host, flashed endless peace gestures, and at one low point exhorted the audience to join him in “one great peace and love moment.” (This is a man, it may be recalled, who 10 years ago posted a “serious message” on his website telling fans to stop writing to him because he’d just throw their letters away. He accompanied that “warning” with a message of “peace and love” too.) He seemed more contented when behind his kit, allowing the others to take the spotlight, and allowing Gregg Bissonette, snapping and filling alongside him, to take on the more onerous drumming duties.
Starr did manage one joke in the course of the evening. Introducing the song “Boys,” he declared that this was a number he used to do with “that other band I used to be in.” There was a long pause, as everyone waited for him to say The Beatles. He didn’t, instead chortling: “Rory Storm and the Hurricanes.” Very droll.
The final song, almost inevitably, was “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and the operative line here was “I’ll try not to sing out of key.” That might now be the realistic limit of Starr’s ambitions, trying not to sing out of key.
Together with his curious assortment of musicians, Sir Ringo Starr, long ago a Beatle, then segued into a mercifully brief chorus of “Give Peace of Chance.” Fortunately, there was no encore.