What a voice this man has. Vowels so flat, you imagine they've been dropped from a tall building on to a hard surface. Strong Liverpool accent, with every word as murky as the Mersey, as if he suffers a permanent head cold. Not much variation in volume, emphasis or inflection, but with regular deadly deployment of the pregnant pause, giving the impression of an extremely dry, deadpan sense of humour.
Yes, that's right. I'm talking to Ringo Starr - the famous gentleman who was once a fixture on kids' TV as the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine. Also, come to think of it, he spent most of the 1960s whacking the drums for a little quartet with a dopey "rhythmic insect" name: The Beatles. You may have heard of them.
How are you, Ringo? "I'm doing great, thank you," he says from a posh suite in Hollywood's London Hotel. "And I must say, how lovely to hear your voice. I've been sittin' here in this hotel room, just waiting for your call."
See? The epitome of deadpan. But where does one start when offered a chinwag with such a man? His band made records that forever changed the way we thought about music - how it might sound, what it might do, what it could mean. He enjoyed a lofty vantage point in the eye of the cultural hurricane that was the 1960s. Years of his life were spent with overawed teenage girls weeping and screaming his name. Not as many as were screaming "John!", "Paul!" or "George!", admittedly, but still.
Like Zelig, Starr was everywhere during an explosive period in history when the world grew its hair, shed its clothes, dropped acid and buggered off to India to meditate with the Maharishi. So, probably best to just jump right in and hit him with the big questions first, I suppose. Honestly, the thing I'm most desperate to know is - does he still have it? Or did he just quietly bin it somewhere out by Wellington airport?
Surely you've seen those famous photos. It's June 21st, 1964, and there's Ringo - alongside George, Paul and John - arriving here for The Beatles' only New Zealand tour. As they step off the plane in Wellington to a chorus of overheated yowling from 7000 fans, a Maori concert party loops each band member's neck with a ginormous plastic hei-tiki. What became of these, I wonder. I like to imagine Starr's super-sized tiki is still knocking around somewhere in his Beverly Hills mansion, its wide-eyed gaze freaking out his cleaner whenever she has to dust the thing.
"Oh, yes! I still have mine. Really, I do! It is definitely at home somewhere, I'm sure of it," he says with a dry chuckle. He remembers that tour very well. "I've been down to New Zealand as a visitor since, but the only time I've played there was that Beatles tour of 1964. We had a good time. It was early days, and we were going around the world and being well received. I remember on that tour, we had a Sunday off and we were sitting watching TV in the hotel room, and there was a programme on the coalmining industry, then a programme on the fishing industry! All day long it was, like, the weirdest TV we'd ever seen."
I resist the urge to tell him about The G.C., The Ridges, New Zealand's Got Talent. If Starr thought our TV was weird in 1964, he'd be appalled to see it now. Many of us would welcome a return to programmes on the coalmining or fishing industries, to be honest.
STARR HEADING DOWN UNDER
But I digress. Starr has agreed to a natter because he has a tour to promote. Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band are to play Christchurch CBS Arena on February 7 and Auckland Vector Arena on February 9, 2013. The All Starrs is a clever concept; rather than Starr having to carry all the weight as a front man, he gets by with a little help from his friends, roping in mates from other bands, including Richard Page of Mr Mister, Steve Lukather from Toto, Gregg Rolie from Santana, and Todd Rundgren.
"I've put these kinds of bands together over the last 23 years. I'll sing some songs I did with The Beatles and in my solo career, and some old Carl Perkins songs, and the other members will also sing songs you all know: Gregg from Santana will do Black Magic Woman, Steve from Toto will do Africa. You know how you sometimes buy a great compilation record? Well, we are that compilation!"
I imagine the biggest cheers will come when Starr wheels out the handful of hits he sang with The Beatles: the amiable LSD-assisted whimsy of Octopus's Garden and Yellow Submarine, the 1965 cover of Buck Owens' country stomper Act Naturally, and of course, 1967's With a Little Help from My Friends, a song recorded the day before the band did the photo session for that famous Sgt Pepper's cover. After a knackering all-night recording session, his bandmates cajoled him into recording the lead vocals at dawn, gathering around the mic with him for moral support.
Some of Starr's 70s solo hits are also rippers. Photograph and It Don't Come Easy have aged very well, though You're Sixteen and Hey! Baby have merely gone a little mouldy. You have to wonder, though, why he still puts up with the more gruelling aspects of life on the road.
The Beatles made him a few bob - he has houses in Surrey, Los Angeles and Monte Carlo and his personal wealth has been estimated at £200 million. Baby, you're a rich man. Why keep jumping on and off planes and travelling to the ends of the Earth? Surely Starr could simply sit on his bum in palatial splendour for the rest of his days if he felt like it.
"Yeah, I could, but would you? I'm a musician and I get to play with a lot of great players, and tour and have fun. I love playing live; I come from that school. When I started we played live, at weddings, clubs and theatres, and then we played stadiums, and then, eventually, we played New Zealand. I'm doin' what I love to do and I feel blessed that I can still do this."
And if he wants to make a record between tours, he doesn't even need to leave the house. "My last two records were made in this room off my kitchen. It's great! It used to be the guest house, but I kicked the guests out, and now it's my studio. I just go in there and lay down the rhythm tracks, and because I'm in LA and know a lot of musicians, if you pass my door and ring the bell, you're usually on the next record! That's how it works."
'IT'S FALLING APART, THE RECORD INDUSTRY'
Not that people will necessarily buy those records. The hits have been fewer and farther between for Starr since a run of well-received solo material during the 1970s, something he puts down to changing technology rather than the quality of the songs. "It is falling apart, the record industry! Now you can get delivery of your music - from outer space! Even so, you can't deny today's pop music. You can't deny Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber, or all the rap acts out there, and in amongst it all somewhere, there are always bands. I'm not so excited by the boy bands, you know, who just dance around and sing; I prefer to see a band play. But whatever it is you like, there's a lot more of it.
"You used to have to choose between five or six main acts, now you have to choose between 100. There are so many styles of pop music, now. It's open city, and that's what I like. Anyone can break through, if you work hard enough."
Starr's own road to success was not without obstacles. Born Richard Starkey in 1940, he grew up in a cold, damp house in working-class Liverpool, and his father left the family when he was three. Starr was a sickly child, falling into a coma at age six after complications from appendicitis, and developing chronic pleurisy when he was 13, spending two full years in hospital. Starr also had numerous allergies and gastric problems, becoming a vegetarian to combat these. He remains cautious about germs to this day, and shuns shaking hands, preferring to bump elbows instead.
During his early teens in hospital, he built a rudimentary drum kit out of biscuit tins and lumps of firewood to pass the time, and later served his apprenticeship in several popular Liverpool bands. Starr was eventually invited to replace the Beatles' previous drummer, Pete Best, in 1962, and, well, you know - they ended up being pretty good, really, didn't they?
These days, Starr frequently declines interviews because he gets tired of people "endlessly banging on about The Beatles". He'd rather not discuss his personal life either, but has been married since 1981 to former Bond girl, Barbara Bach, and has three children by his first marriage, one of whom is a chip off the proverbial block: son Zak has been drummer for both Oasis and The Who.
Given the choice, Starr would probably prefer to focus on his latest solo album, Ringo 2012, but frankly, it's pretty dull. I'm more interested in what he's like as a bloke. "How would a close friend describe me? Gorgeous! Ha ha ha. A tower of strength, with muscles like Popeye! In my head, I'm 24 and fit as a fiddle." Really? But according to that infallible font of modern truth, Wikipedia, you are actually 72.
"No, not at all. I'm 69, eternally. Actually, no, I'm 24, in my head."
Starr is a very funny man, but not everyone appreciates his Sahara-dry wit. Appearing on a 2008 chat show, Starr was asked by host Jonathan Ross if there was anything he missed about Liverpool. He replied, "No, nothing". The city of his birth did not take this well. There were formal complaints to the BBC, and some particularly irate citizen vandalised a topiary Beatles sculpture near the Liverpool train station, cutting off Starr's head. The newspaper of the day grimly reported that "the head has still not been found".
'THE LUCKIEST DRUMMER IN HISTORY'
Sometimes, he gleefully participates in gags that reveal deeper truths. In 2011, Starr appeared in a BBC Comic Relief sketch screened to raise money to fight famine in Africa. The sketch abounds with cameos as various stars gather around a table, all desperate to convince one another they should be chief fundraiser for the year.
Eventually Sir Paul McCartney takes the floor, proclaiming that he's really the only person with the international clout to get the job done: "Listen - I was in the biggest rock 'n' roll band in the history of music. My music has touched millions of people around the world. I am the last remaining Beatle!"
There's a short silence as the assembled stars nod in agreement. Then Starr pipes up: "What about me?". It's brilliant: a sly skewering of McCartney's reputation for arrogance, and an acknowledgement that people tend to forget about him, a man once patronisingly described as "the luckiest drummer in human history".
With their more obvious lyrical and melodic gifts, it's frequently assumed that John, Paul and George were the shining stars in the band, while Starr merely grinned and kept the beat. A cursory listen to The Beatles' back catalogue proves this was not the case, yet the notion persists, and I imagine it rankles to be so unfairly underrated.
"Really, I was never underrated in the band," says Starr, sounding mildly mystified that I should even think such a thing.
"I know what you're getting at, though. To some people, it was always John, Paul, George … and Ringo.
"But actually, musically, it was always the four of us, and now that they're remastering all those Beatles records, you can hear my drums a lot better.
"That remastering cost me a lot of money, but it was worth it, because the drums are so much louder now.
"It never bugged me at the time, but now you can hear that, you know, the boy really can play!"
Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band play Christchurch CBS Arena February 7 and Auckland Vector Arena on February 9.
- © Fairfax NZ News