20 September 2013

"I'm not expecting you to comb the bloody legend's hair"

In 1992 Ringo Starr was promoting his first album in nine years, Time Takes Time, which boasted a bevy of luminaries as producers including Don Was and Jeff Lynne. There was a single with a promo video, the passable Weight of the World, and a tour with the All-Starr Band to support the album. However, Starr had not reckoned on coming up against the indefatigable interviewer for rock mag Q, Tom Hibbert, he of the infamous 'Who the Hell...' column that entertained so many Q readers from the mid-80s to the mid-90s.

Many of Hibbert's Who the Hell interviews involved pompous windbags and half-baked celebs being allowed to embarrass themselves by simply being themselves: vain, intensely self-referential, and usually completely unaware of the fleetingness of their notoriety. But occasionally the interviews are testier when subjects are proper famous musos who are unused to being asked thorny questions by fearlessly sarcastic journos. Hibbert's Starr interview is a classic example of this genre, and the questions asked are not even that provocative; but certainly, Hibbert mentions Starr's well-known former problem with alcoholism, and is understandably far more interested in talking about Starr's time with the Beatles than with his new solo album. Ultimately, an innocuous enough misunderstanding tips the interview over into strop and flounce territory:

Ringo takes this opportunity to tell me what a great musician he is and how his new LP is really jolly good and everything until I interrupt to suggest that however good his new LP is, it can hardly hope to top Abbey Road, can it? He looks at me as if I am deranged: 
'What, as an album? My album can't beat the Abbey Road album as an album?' That is, in a nutshell, what I was driving at. 
'Well, the so-called B-side of Abbey Road is one of my favourite sides, the one with Bathroom Window and Polythene Pam but just by chance I was re-listening to Sgt Pepper the other day and that's a fine album too and it's a bloody marvellous album, it's a bloody fine album and The White Album was great because we were like a band and the first album which took 12 hours to put down was an achievement ... So I don't know what you're talking about. That was 30 years ago, man. I'm still making records and you can hear that I'm a great musician on the new record, Time Takes Time, if you can ever be bothered to mention it. This is an actual bloody legend in front of you. I'm not expecting you to comb the bloody legend's hair but if you could mention the new LP and these other fine musicians I'm still playing with'. 
Ringo Starr is close to rage and I don't know quite why. I decided to placate him by talking about his All-Starr Band. This ploy is not a success. What is it like working with Todd Rundgren, I enquire? Todd Rundgren's a bit mad, isn't he? 
Ringo lunges forward in the sofa, almost doing himself an injury. 
'What? What? Have you met him? Why would you say shit like that? You don't even know the man. How dare you say shit like that about a friend?' 
I meant 'mad' as in 'genius'. It is a compliment. 
'You're talking shit. That's like saying Frank Zappa's mad. Frank Zappa's probably the nicest man I've ever met in this business. I've been in the game too long for this shit! I've done my bit. I've made a record, I've made the thing and I hope it's a Number 1 because I've done my bit, I'm promoting the thing ... or I am trying to promote the thing...' 
What manner of umbrage is this? Ringo Starr seems to feel - and strongly - that my failure to spend this interview discussing his new LP and the brilliance of Tom Petty and Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter and Harry 'Schmilsson' Nilsson and everybody else who played on it - is impudence of the first order. But wouldn't such an interview be a trifle limiting and boring and...? I am unable to make this suggestion because The Clown, The Lovable One, seen here in his updated role as Pop's Mister Crosspatch, continues to rant away... 
'If you'd bothered to listen to the single Weight of the World you'd hear a line in it which goes ... er, er ... well, it says that you can't live in the past and that sums it up. Because you're living in the past. As far as this interview has been going on, it's shit because it's been The Beatles interview and you haven't even mentioned Time Takes Time or Weight of the World. But that's OK. You've got the time. That's what you asked. I've answered your questions. And ...' Ringo rises from the sofa, two feet nine inches of unbridled anger ... 'That is it!' And it is. He flounces from the room, a cry of 'Thanks a lot!' that oozes with sarcasm, his cheery farewell. What this man needs, in my estimation, is a stiff drink, or a cig, or both... 
- Tom Hibbert, 'Who the Hell... Does Ringo Starr Think He Is?', Q Magazine, June 1992, quoted in Best of Q Who the Hell...?, London, 1994. 

In honour of simpler and less trying times for Ringo, here's one of his best solo moments - the April 1971 single It Don't Come Easy, which hit the top of the pop charts in Canada and reached number 4 in both the UK and the US. The recording line-up is unsurprisingly top-notch, with George Harrison on guitar, Klaus Voorman on bass, Stephen Stills on keys, and Badfinger's Pete Ham and Tom Evans on backing vocals, with Ringo providing drums and lead vocals.

Sadly, Hibbert died in 2011 after a long illness that had prevented him from writing for more than a decade. But friend and colleague Mark Ellen remembers Hibbert at his finest:
Hibbert was transferred in 1986 to the new rock monthly Q, where a long-running feature known as Who the Hell … was devised especially for his withering humour and his extraordinary ability to get pompous public figures to make buffoons of themselves. 
Month after month, the gullible and self-important celebrities of the day –Jeremy Beadle, Jeffrey Archer, Robert Maxwell, Samantha Fox, Keith Floyd, Bernard Manning, David Mellor, Sir Jimmy Savile – would find their pearls of wisdom gently lampooned and their carefully constructed profiles vigorously barbecued. Tom flew to Brazil and tracked down the train robber Ronnie Biggs (whom, inevitably, he both liked and rather admired). He puffed his way across the Alps pointing his microphone at the charity-walking Ian Botham and his elephant. The health minister Edwina Currie once advised him that his fondness for nicotine might lower his sperm count. 
- Mark Ellen, 'Tom Hibbert obituary', Guardian, 2 September 2011
See also:
Music: Ringo Starr - Back Off Boogaloo (1972 single)
Music: The Beatles logo, 4 June 2013
Music: Marc Bolan 1947-77, 16 March 2009
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