Ringo Starr: I like to think the Beatles would have had a reunion (2013)
Ringo Starr has been asked the “crazy question” a million times before, and he knows that it’s coming. I know he hates being interviewed because it’s always questions about the Fab Four, if he misses George and John, and whether he’s jealous of Sir Paul’s knighthood.
Five years ago Ringo dented his reputation as the joker of the Beatles pack when he posted an irate message on his website saying he would no longer sign autographs because fans were flogging them on eBay.
So I slip the question in between asking about his new band, his charity foundation and his love of gardening.
Would The Beatles have reunited by now had they all survived, after all their Sixies arch-rivals the Rolling Stone are back on the road again and due to headline Glastonbury next month for the first time?
“Don’t know,” he says with a sigh, lolling across the boardroom desk like a bored schoolboy. “It’s a crazy question.”
There’s an awkward pause while I wonder whether to ask about George, who died of lung cancer 12 years ago, and John, shot dead in New York in 1980. And there’s Macca’s gong…
Then Ringo adds, as if he’s only just decided, “but… I’d like to think, yes, we would. Paul still goes out with his band, I go out with mine and John would probably have been going out with his.
“George was not big on touring so I’m not sure about him. But who knows… it could have come together.”
Then the pop icon, who turns 73 next month, goes on to chat happily about growing up in Liverpool, becoming one of the most famous faces on the planet, the drink and the drugs, and life after the Fab Four.
The fact that Ringo is now so at ease again with “the Beatles thing” is, I suspect, all due to his latest project – a trip down memory lane that has made him reflect afresh on the great times he had with his “three brothers”.
This week he’s releasing Photograph – a fascinating collection of never-before-seen photos, mementos and items from his personal archives – first as an ebook, then as a hand-bound and signed limited edition volume.
In compiling it, he trawled through thousands of long-forgotten negatives and snapshots from his childhood, early days as a drummer, and life on the road with John, Paul and George and manager Brian Epstein.
And, for the first time, Ringo also opened boxes he had taken from his late mum Elsie’s Liverpool home and stored in his attic since her death in 1986.
“It was like an Aladdin’s cave – a treasure trove of memories,” he explains in delight.
“Mum was a bit of a hoarder and she collected all this amazing stuff from my life. There were baby pictures, ones of me with Nurse Edge when I was in hospital with TB aged 14, the receipt for my first drum kit, my report card from technical college where I was studying to be an apprentice engineer, stuff like that.
“Later, even when I was in The Beatles, she must have emptied my bag or my pockets when I came home and put random things away.
“I’d never have saved that stuff. There were notes and memos from Brian – ‘Make sure you look smart tonight, lads, it’s a big show’.”
Elsie raised her son alone – with the help of her parents – after his dad walked out when Ringo was three. Ringo, born Richard Starkey, says: “That woman loved every second of my life and remembered every second of it.
“She worried about me too. When I decided to leave the factory and go to Butlins with my first group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, her advice was ‘Well, it’s all right as a hobby, son’.
“I had a proper job and who knew where this was going to go? But I said ‘No. I’ve made the decision, I’m a drummer now, this is what I do’.”
Readers of the ebook will be able to click on icons to see videos of Ringo or hear him explaining the photos.
“Yep, I’m blahing all over them,” he explains in his distinctive half Scouse, half Californian tones. “All the Beatles had cameras after we went to Japan but I’d been taking pictures for a while before that. I found one shot of me wearing my favourite necklace. My aunty had bought it me, it was a St Christopher and I loved it. But it reminded me that in New York some girl jumped on me – not to hurt me, but to love me – and she ripped it off.
“So I went on the Cousin Brucie radio show out there and I said ‘If you bring back me necklace I’ll give you a kiss’. And Brucie is there going ‘Yay! Ringo’s gonna give ya a KISS!’
“And the girl brought it back. So I gave her a kiss. And I’ve still got that necklace. That was just one strange minute in the life of The Beatles.”
We are chatting in the Chelsea HQ of Apple, the company The Beatles set up to run their business empire. Half a century on, the brand is bigger than ever and conquering the world again thanks to new technology.
Ringo is still the “poorest” of the two surviving Beatles – having made an estimated £200million compared to Macca’s £680million fortune.
Yet such figures would have been incomprehensible to the young Ringo when he joined the band in 1962.
Wearing his trademark dark glasses, with his cropped hair and beard looking blacker than ever, Ringo is far skinnier and smaller than I imagined.
A father of three, including Zak also a drummer who’s played with Oasis and The Who, he plays down his status as a musical giant: “I don’t talk about myself in the third person and I laugh at people who do. I’m still me, despite the unreal experience I went through.
“Being in The Beatles was a short, incredible period of my life. I had 22 years leading up to it and it was all over eight years later.
“Now I’m nearly 73 so a lot has happened after it. I don’t think I’ve got grandiose. But just using that word ‘grandiose’ probably makes me grandiose! Looking back at my photos I see these four lads from Liverpool trying to live normal lives – washing, eating, drinking, playing Monopoly – amid this frenzy.
“And, at one point, around 1964, I let it go to my head. I think everybody did, because it was all just too big to handle.
“The saving grace was that I had three brothers, so when I went a little off the rails they would bring me back. And I did the same for them.
“We all went through it at different times. Suddenly we were out there and there was no one bigger. We had cars, lived in nice houses, and had bathrooms. We used to wash in the sink in Liverpool.
“We never thought it was going to last though.” Ringo famously once said that he would open a hairdressing business with first wife Maureen once the bubble burst. He laughs: “I get nailed for that hairdresser line to this day.
“George was going to open a garage, Paul thought ‘Well, we’ll keep writing’ and John thought we had a good four years in us. Ha!”
Ringo has talked candidly in the past about the band’s experiences with drugs and his later battle with booze and medication. He was the first of the Beatles to smoke marijuana.
Ringo vividly remembers that occasion after a US gig in the mid-60s: “I went first – the drummers always go first.
“We didn’t draw lots or anything – we got high and laughed our asses off.”
Some of the photos in his collection cover their “experimentation” phase. “Substances did come into our lives,” he says. “We wanted to look at what was happening with different drugs, we were part of that movement and some of our songs relate to that.
“But the lesson was when we overdid it the music was s***.
“We would do too much, then make the music and take the tape away to listen to it at home. Then we’d go ‘This is crap. We’ll have to do it again’. And we did.”
Ringo and second wife Barbara Bach went to rehab in 1988, and he says he hasn’t drunk since. He and Bond girl Barbara, 65, have been happily married for 32 years.
“I don’t have a secret. I loved the woman from the moment we met. I love her now and I’m blessed she loves me.” Ringo looks remarkably fit and has been in good health since 1979 when he had intestinal problems caused by the peritonitis that led to him being him in hospital aged seven.
This summer he will be doing his 13th tour, this time to South America with his All-Starr Band.
He says: “I still get nervous before every show. I used to watch Frank Sinatra and he’d just walk on, really cool and my fantasy is to be able to do that.
“But for a few seconds before every show I’m ‘Oh God – I want to go to bed!’ so I have to actually run on and grab the mic and once I’ve done that I’m fine.
“It goes back to when we first played the London Palladium and I puked in a bucket before going on. I was terrified. It was the PALLADIUM! I still love to play. I told my mum way back then ‘I will be a drummer.’ And I still am.”