Zooming in to Ringo’s new EP

Remember the sleeve notes of 1964’s Beatles for Sale LP, written by their press officer Derek Taylor? He predicted that the “kids of AD 2000” would still be grooving to Beatles music, and – as that  year saw the release of the multi-zillion selling 1 compilation – he wasn’t wrong (though his vision of said “kids” being radioactive and picnicking on Saturn were slightly less accurate). I assume his claim was probably greeted by mockery by wide sections of society at the time, but I wonder if even he – or anyone else – would’ve given much credence to the idea that Ringo would still be recording and releasing new pop music in AD 2021, at the age of 80. It would probably have been pushing it to say Paul would still be active (never mind topping the album charts), but at least he was a front man and a songwriter with a few big hits already behind him. But Ringo? The drummer, with “limited” vocal range, who was allowed to sing one track per album? At the time, even the Fabs thought anyone over the age of 30 was past it, and could never have dreamed any of them would be making music in a far-flung future when we would presumably be using flying cars, rocket ships and teleportation as our preferred means of transport.

Okay, not many people are actually still buying Ringo’s releases, but that’s kind of beside the point. What matters is, are they still any good? Well, I guess it depends on what yardstick you choose to measure them by. There are those who don’t bother with any of his solo stuff because, well, it’s “only” Ringo. Those of us who have continued to follow his career have been rewarded with some genuinely good stuff, particularly during the 1990s and early 2000s, when he hooked up with some well-suited collaborators and enjoyed a real hot streak. Over the past decade or so, it’s been more of a mixed bag. Eschewing outside producers, Ringo has opted to take sole charge of his records and downsized somewhat, making them all at home with a roster of familiar rock star pals. His usual approach has been to come up with a song idea, lay down a rough backing track, and then invite people over to help build the tune on top of it. His first stab at this, 2010’s Y Not, was solid enough, but the follow-up Ringo 2012 was hugely disappointing, a lazy effort which marked a real low point. 2015’s Postcards from Paradise offered only a modest improvement, but he then came back with his most consistent album in years, Give More Love (2017).  His last release, 2019’s What’s My Name, was decent too but, generally speaking, he’s been playing it safe in recent times – the same way of working, in the same place, with the same people, producing samey results (even the album covers are barely distinguishable from each other). I guess at his time of life he’s entitled to do whatever he likes, and it’s not as if anyone expects Sgt Pepper any more. Still, he is a Beatle, and I want to see him step outside his comfort zone from time to time.

The first Beatle release of 2021

Which brings us to his latest offering, Zoom In. For some reason, Ringo has decided that What’s My Name is to be his last album, and he will make only EPs from now on. Not quite sure what the thinking is behind that – especially when you consider he’s planning to release a second EP later this year, so he’s effectively putting out two halves of an album a few months apart. Go figure. Anyway, Zoom In features five tracks recorded last year which, on the face of it, follow the usual Ringo modern-day pattern: made in his home studio, with a little help from famous friends, with a cover trumpeting his peace-and-love credentials (though the bouffant lockdown hair cut is new – where does an octogenarian get all that hair?). However, while not radically different, he does ring a couple of changes this time out, to good effect. First, he’s given full sway to outside writers – in fact, he co-wrote just one number – which gives the material a different feel. And while he is still co-producing with regular crony Bruce Sugar (apart from on one song), he’s gone for fresh approach here. There were hints of it on What’s My Name, but the generous helpings of horns, organ, female backing vocals and the like help to create a fuller, richer ambience than usual; a throwback to the 1970s, in some cases. He hasn’t sounded this good for quite a while. And some of the songs are pretty strong, too.

The first track, ‘Here’s to the Nights’, released as a single (or what passes for one these days) just before Christmas, is the one you may have heard. Penned by veteran songsmith Diane Warren (who’s provided a bewildering array of hits for everyone from Aerosmith to Lady Gaga), it’s a big, bombastic anthem about breaking rules, having fun and, er, getting blind drunk. Okay, there’s nothing subtle about it and the lyrics could’ve been lifted from a greetings card, but it’s an uplifting, instantly memorable tune with a slick, stylish arrangement. It’s the kind of track Ringo hasn’t attempted for some time (it’s particularly nice to hear a big string section on one of his records again), and it fits him like a glove. For the booming chorus, he enlists a, ahem, starry list of guest vocalists, including Dave Grohl, Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz and our very own Paul McCartney, though the end result is so megalithic you may struggle to tell the individual contributions apart without the video to help you. Ringo’s own voice is, probably for the first time, showing signs of age on this, but even that adds to the wistful, nostalgic glow of the song. And he still manages to hold an impressively long note at the end (seemingly much to his own amusement, judging by closing chuckle).

The video for ‘Here’s to the Nights’, with some nice clips of Macca alongside Ringo

I didn’t care much for ‘Zoom In Zoom Out’ to begin with, but it’s a real grower. It starts off a little like Davie Bowie’s ‘Jean Genie’ but then settles into a shuffling, relaxed groove behind another surprisingly catchy melody. While repeating the standard ‘love is what it’s all about’ message, the lyric is actually quite clever, managing to be cosmic and commonplace at the same time (who’d have thought we’d get to hear him sing a line like ‘Shift your paradigm’?). Laced with some nice bluesy guitar from The Doors’ Robbie Krieger and featuring a crafty false ending, it’s a good track, full of Ringo’s characteristic bonhomie and optimism. His grandad dancing in the accompanying video is best forgotten, though.

Next up is ‘Teach Me To Tango’. As with ‘Better Days’, one of the stand-out tracks on What’s My Name, it was written by Sam Hollander, who’s provided hits for Katy Perry, One Direction, Panic! At The Disco and many more. And Ringo should definitely keep him on speed dial, because this is another winner. After a rumbling, drum-heavy intro, it powers into a hook-laden tune which rocks along for a rollicking, invigorating three minutes. The chorus will lodge in your brain and the tasty arrangement – topped off with a sizzling guitar break – is enough to get anyone on their feet. A perfect party tune, this is exactly the kind of thing Ringo should be doing these days, and it’s possibly the best number here.

One Starr that’s still shinging bright

The remaining two songs are not quite so good, but still far from write-offs. Co-written by Ringo, ‘Waiting for the Tide to Turn’ is one of his occasional ventures into reggae, and – alongside the obligatory reference to Bob Marley – he makes some big claims for the music’s healing power in these troubled times. “Just play some reggae music and it will be a better day”, apparently. Be that as it may, there’s not much of song here, but it does have a definite Caribbean vibe to it and a certain hazy charm. Again, the meaty production really gives it some heft. I think ‘King of the Kingdom’, the reggae work-out on Give More Love, was a stronger composition, but it’s not bad.

Ringo was persuaded to record ‘Not Enough Love in the World’ by the sentiment of the title alone, which makes you wish he’d be a bit more stringent when choosing his material. Written by former Toto guitarist and long-time All-Starr Band member Steve Lukather, it’s a bouncy, bright bit of mid-tempo pop, with a 1960s/70s feel. The lyrics are as hippie-ish and as daffy as the title suggests, sung with the carefree attitude you’d expect of a multi-millionnaire living in Los Angeles, though there’s a nice nod to our current situation in the middle eight (“I’ve lived a pretty crazy life/And I now I have to stay inside, oh my”). There’s nothing wrong with it – it’s pretty catchy, and Lukather supplies some fine guitar in it – it’s just the kind of thing we’ve heard many times before.

All in all, though, Zoom In is a pleasant surprise and rewards repeat listens. Ringo sounds spry, vital, and full of intent. It has no real clunkers, no heavy-handed references to The Beatles, and none of the air of going through the motions which has marred a few of his tracks in recent years. It shows the benefits of using outside writers and material tailored specially for him – like John, Paul and George used to do, in the old days – and of a bigger, more punchy production ethos. It certainly whets the appetite for the follow-up EP later this year which, considering Ringo will be 81 when that comes out, is surely more than we have any reasonable right to expect. I doubt not even Derek Taylor, with his radioactive kids picnicking on Saturn, would’ve predicted that.

A little featurette on the making of the EP

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