‘Liverpool 8’ is Ringo Starr’s 15th studio album, which seemed remarkable to me after I counted them up. It’s quite a career for a singing drummer with a mediocre voice. Ringo’s solo career can easily be divided in two phases: 1970-83 and 1990-present. Beginning with two albums, of standards and country, that his audience didn’t quite know what to do with, he made his solo mark with ‘Ringo’ in 1973. Featuring songwriting help from his former bandmates, it remains his biggest commercial and critical success. It slid down from there, resulting in a string of late ‘70s albums that could generously be called unlistenable. 1981’s ‘Stop and Smell the Roses’ was a comeback of sorts, with Harrison and McCartney back to help their old friend for a fun, ‘Ringo’-style spin. The momentum faded with the follow-up, which didn’t even see U.S. release.
What followed was even grimmer than the disco of ‘Ringo the 4th’. Starr’s partying lifestyle and drug and alcohol addictions were ruling his life. He had to sue producer Chips Moman to block release of an album he had recorded while intoxicated. He was at a personal and professional low. Then he and wife Barbara very publicly entered rehab to manage a life spun out of control.
Newly sober in 1989, Starr began the next phase of career: jovial ‘60s icon and ringmaster of has-been rockers. Ringo mounted an All-Starr tour, featuring ex-Eagles, half the Band and others whose heydays were far behind them. The momentum of a successful tour led to a live album and a return to the studio, sans inebriation. The result, ‘Time Takes Time’ was a true comeback - a critical success and enjoyable album that evoked the Beatles and the ‘60s. Like his tour, Starr drew on former hitmakers as well as seasoned session musicians and superstar producers Don Was, Phil Ramone and Jeff Lynne.
One of the ‘Time’ musicians was Mark Hudson of the Hudson Brothers, a mildly successful group of the mid-‘70s. Hudson and Starr must have got on well, because he’s been Starr’s producer ever since, with the records sounding as much like the ’66-’67 period of the Beatles as possible. Along with Hudson were sessionmen who became known as the ‘Roundheads’ – pianist Jim Cox and guitarists Steve Dudas, Dean Grakal and Gary Burr – who were also Starr’s multi-partner songwriting team. Hudson’s approach was novel at first, with ‘Vertical Man’ in ’98, but the use of the same backing flourishes and vocal effects has worn thin. That’s why I was excited when the press for ‘Liverpool 8’ announced that Eurythmic Dave Stewart was the producer because maybe we’d get a new direction. Imagine my surprise on first listen when, as the album went along, I heard all the Hudson production values roll in. Checking the credits, there were Hudson, Dudas and Burr in full force, with Stewart on a handful of tracks. ‘Produced by Ringo Starr and Mark Hudson’ it reads, and then below, ‘Re-produced by Ringo Starr and Dave Stewart’. What the?!? “Re-produced”? I’ve never seen that credit before. Reading some other reviews I found out Hudson and Starr had some sort of falling out before finishing the album and that Stewart came in to polish it up. Those same reviewers praising Stewart’s work as a departure haven’t heard ‘Ringo Rama’ or ‘Choose Love’, his previous two studio works with Hudson.
Not that I want to bash the record. If this, at age 67, is to be his career-capper, it’s a pretty good note to close out on. Starr mixes it up with a country track, a couple Latin-rhythms and a touching Tin Pan Alley tribute to his friend Harry Nilsson. The title track (co-written and produced with Stewart) is the least Hudson-esque of all the songs and an autobiography of his early days up to when the Beatles rise took them out of Liverpool ("Liverpool, I left you, but I never let you down"). Starr seems most at home when he's doing bouncy, jaunty sing-a-longs. I do find myself joining in on "Think About You" and "If It's Love That You Want", vacant as they are. Atmospheric and moody fare like "Gone Are the Days" drag the album down, assuring you his strength is with lighter fare.