All You Need Is Plugs: Ringo Starr and the Improbable Hairlines of Our Heroes
The Newest Knight of Beatledom is as famed for his locks (or lack thereof) as his music.
On March 20th, Ringo Starr placed his right knee on a wine-scarlet cushion, knelt before Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, and was proclaimed a Knight Bachelor.
Despite the fact that the Beatles’ legacy is coated with the filthy dung-dust of musical colonialism (as I detailed in multiple pieces last month), Ringo’s Knighthood is much deserved. Really. Mind you, this is not necessarily because of Ringo’s actual playing: Although the fellow has a certain skill and, oh, élan, Ringo is also largely responsible for introducing American rock drummers to the absolutely hideous tic of keeping the four-beat on the crash cymbal.
This dissonant rhythmic spasm was almost entirely unheard of in rock drumming before him, and due to the Beatles ubiquity (and the peculiar notion that anything the most popular group of all time did must be a “good” thing), it became a standard aspect of rock drumming. “Riding” the crash cymbal is a hideous, anti-musical habit; all it does is create a wash of sibilant noise that cuts directly into the vocal and guitar frequencies. I am tempted to say that using the crash cymbal a rhythmic instrument (as opposed to employing it primarily for punctuation or emphasis) is the worst thing any human ever did to rock music.
Go listen to the crisp clarity and power of the drums on any Eddie Cochran record, or anything by Huey Piano Smith, Fats Domino, Elvis, or Little Richard; or more pertinently, listen to the clean, powerful swing of Charlie Watts or the hard-nailed hi-hat of Bobby Graham (a legendary English session drummer who plays on most of the early hits by the Kinks, the Dave Clark 5, Them, and the Animals). These drummers power their bands while leaving space for the guitars, bass, and vocals to do their thing. Then listen to Ringo, who sounds like he is swinging a freaking dead fish at the crash cymbal during the verses of many Beatles songs. Seriously, man. So very, very many rock’n’roll recordings and live performances would be infinitely improved if the damn drummer just stopped whacking away at the crash cymbal; and the reason people do this can pretty much be traced back to ol’ Ringo.
But I still think he deserves the Knighthood, I really do, because he was in the freaking Beatles. We lived in the shadow of the Beatles cultural Everest; they are literally the gateway drug to the life-long high of electric pop music. No matter what poo I may fling at them, I honor, love and respect all that they have inspired in me and in the world. There are a dozen or more bands whose work I treasure more than the music of the Beatles — the Beach Boys and Wire, to name just two — but I know, truly, that it all began with the Beatles; they were my first musical nightlight, the frame on which I first hung all my pop-rock dreams, they are the door to the ecstatic electric heaven.
And I utterly adore Ringo’s toupee.
See, Ringo’s got a very respectable elderly rock star hairpiece. Although the color is highly improbable (it is the kind of blackness one sees when you stare at the hidden sun during a total eclipse), it is really a solid and tasteful piece of work: It even creates the illusion of hair loss (this is otherwise known as Le Sting). By the way, I do entertain the idea that it may not be a true toupee; it might just be a wee bit of strategic filling in.
Contrast that with Sir Paul McCartney’s increasingly comical mop-piece, which looks like something he bought at a tag sale at Liza Minnelli’s house. It seems that every six months he makes it more ridiculous, and I swear that it sometimes resembles something you’d see on a lusty old man in a bit on The Benny Hill Show. It’s almost like Paul is challenging us to mock him.
Which brings us to Gene Simmons.
The massive, utterly unlikely wedge that frames Simmons’ ancient and pickled face is an imposing geometric triangular sweep strongly resembling the formal wigs of the Egyptian upper class in the 4th and 5th Dynasties (roughly 2500 years ago). It appears to be made of bitumen, or some other petroleum-based goo, that has hardened under the snows of a long northern winter. Like the elaborate architecture that crowned the pates of Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or Rip Taylor, it does not presume to be convincing or naturalistic; it is just a crown, yes that is what it is, something designed to mark a tribal leader to be obeyed and feared.
Then again, we must consider the distant chance that Gene Simmons isn’t joking, hasn’t adorned himself with some ancient formalistic symbol of potency and power. Could he possibly intend us to think that’s actual hair?
That would be frightening indeed, nearly as frightening as the time I shared a make-up mirror with Mr. Simmons. This was many years ago, at the crack of the final decade of the last century, during the relatively brief period of time I was a specialty and news VJ on MTV. Unintentionally, I found myself being powdered and painted at exactly the same time as Gene. When he was done, Gene hopped out of his make-up chair, leaned into the mirror, and so help me god began making little kissy faces at himself. He then hissed, “I would f*ck me!”
I couldn’t help myself: I said under my breath but, well, not quite enough under my breath, “I guess you would f*ck Lainie Kazan!” Because at that point in his life, Gene looked a great deal like Lainie Kazan. Now, he mostly looks like the titular character in Paul Wegener’s 1920 German expressionistic classic, Der Golem.
But back to Ringo.
So, Ringo is a Knight Bachelor now. To add a soupçon of perspective, seemingly lost in the hoopla over Ringo’s Knighthood is the fact that Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees also received the exact same honor, too, at the same time (Robin Gibb, by the way, eschews the hairpiece thing entirely, preferring a traditional comb-over/blowout combination).
And as much as I despise what Ringo did to rock drumming (when you actually hear a drummer who doesn’t continually beat the crash cymbal to death it is like finding Diet Sprite in the Desert), the fact is, he is still a Beatle. And the Beatles were, like, the Beatles. They taught us to read rock’n’roll, they taught us how to listen to rock’n’roll, and with charm and humor and invention they introduced us to all the visual, audio, and cultural tools of rock’n’roll. And very, very few people were Beatles.
So now Sir Ringo joins Sir Paul. Mind you, both still rank below Andrew Lloyd Weber, who was made a Life Peer in 1997 – that means he can be addressed as The Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber or Baron Lloyd-Weber, and the honor actually gave him a seat in the House of Lords (roughly the English equivalent of our Senate).
What’s quite strange – considering Paul McCartney’s prodigious gifts and wealth, and the almost unprecedented impact he has had on Western culture as a composer and pop conceptualist – is that his live performances have become increasingly desperate. Here’s what I mean by that: Paul still works his ass off on stage (even if his voice has gotten rough around the edges), but as the years groan by he has altered the set list to include not only more Beatles songs but songs associated with both John Lennon and George Harrison. Which, to me, is just bizarre. It’s almost as if Sir (NOT Lord or Baron) Paul is almost hysterically intent on not only reminding us that he was in the Beatles but somehow laying claim to the entire Beatles legacy. Paul is a genius and the pinnacle of rock royalty, this desperation does not become him, and, frankly, it confuses me. But it would also, somehow, explain why he has such a ridiculous toupee. “I am a vital and vibrant and active and Ensure drinking Beatle!” his fringy wig — and his set list — seems to say.
Ringo, on the other hand, just does that Ringo thing. His modest, onyx-black partial skullcap says, “I am your Beatle friend. I have nothing to prove. I am happy to share this time with you. Now let’s hear one of those quirky new wave hits from Colin Hay.”
So, like, Ringo. Yeh.