It may be redundant to say Ringo Starr has relied mainly on his famous friends to bring his solo music to life, but for someone who was primarily the Beatles' drummer as opposed to the songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney, Ringo has perhaps had no other option. After 1973's RINGO, which set the standard for that "Ringo Starr & friends" format, he began to slowly dip in terms of consistency & enthusiasm, so much that 1981's STOP & SMELL THE ROSES is widely acknowledged as the worst Beatles solo album (and considering some of John's solo music, that says a lot), and even 1983's OLD WAVE could not get released in America.
Ringo battled various addictions throughout the 1980s, so much that it was not until 1992 with his album TIME TAKES TIME that he at least appeared to be awake while making his music. While it was his best work in years, who knew Ringo could only get successively better afterwards. 1998's VERTICAL MAN managed to do just that even if its commercial inactivity was both unfair & disheartening to Ringo, who had put his heart & soul into it.
By now, Ringo had a really fine collaborator in songwriter & producer Mark Hudson (most famous for his recordings in the 1970s with The Hudson Brothers), and maybe it was this new blood that finally encouraged Ringo to take his songwriting seriously for a change, for all but 2 of the 13 songs feature his name on them. In most cases, it is a case of "What took you so long, Richard?"
The opening track "One" is not just one of Ringo's most perfect songs, but would be of anyone's career, so again Ringo's luck wins out. Unlike the spot-that-star game that the rest of the songs employ, "One" mostly relies on in-house musicianship, save for Jeff "Skunk" Baxter's pedal steel guitar, who comes close to stealing the show.
"What In The...World" at last gets the famous-friends theme started with Joe Walsh playing guitar (and doing the solo), and Ringo's old Beatle mate Paul McCartney playing bass & singing back-up. Even Paul thought this song was one of the most Beatlesque tunes you could lay your ears on, and all that is missing is George to chip in to make it another Beatles reunion. The stuff dreams are made of!
"Mindfield" is a sort of Dylanesque turn that appears to say "Don't take celebrities for their word; listen to yourself". Quite a statement from a celebrity himself, and one who employs them on a regular basis. For this tune, we have Joe Walsh returning, with Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, Alanis Morissette (we'll hear more from both), and Stone Temple Pilots' Scott Weiland making up the fervent chorus.
Finally, Ringo manages to create a melancholic number to rival that of "Photograph" on "King Of Broken Hearts", and maybe it was no accident that George Harrison (who co-wrote the former) was also involved here. The distinctive slide guitar is undoubtedly some of George's finest work (considering that his health was beginning to fail by now), and helps make the song any listener is sure to weep over.
A Beatles cover? Surely, you jest. But 'tis true, Ringo redoes "Love Me Do" on VERTICAL MAN, mainly because he claimed it was his favorite Beatles song(!), and that Ringo did not play on the Beatles' version (a session man filled in). Ringo gets to take it back finally, slowing the tempo down a bit, and enlisting Steven Tyler to fill in for John Lennon on the harmonica. Instead of being a sign that Ringo was out of ideas, it manages to work no matter what its intention was.
The title track is a bit off-the-wall even for Ringo Starr, and its origin comes from Ringo's stepdaughter & a book of quotations she made. However, any song that has Ozzy Osbourne singing back-up is still worth a listen, and sounds like something John would have come up with, circa "I Am The Walrus". And it also has the cello part played by producer Mark Hudson's landlord's secretary, her having done it in lieu of rent money!
Even as Ringo was beginning to flex his songwriting muscle, he still allowed himself the occasional cover on Dobie Gray's "Drift Away". Slightly re-arranged as a trio with Tom Petty (Steven Tyler had done it originally, but was removed due to contractual issues) & Alanis Morissette (her contribution being especially fine) each taking a verse, I think this could easily have been a hit before Uncle Kracker turned it into one as a duet with Dobie a few years later. Steven Tyler does turns up though, this time, amazingly, on drums.
"I Was Walkin'" is a freewheeling rocker that seems to be a statement of purpose not just for Ringo, but all musicians. In Ringo's case, his "occupation is syncopation, and when I hit 'em well it saves my life". Steven Tyler the blues-harpist returns & also joins the "I Was Dreamers" singers with Alanis & Paul McCartney.
"La De Da" is a similar song about living your life true to yourself & nobody else, and no one knows about this more than Ringo Starr. His credo is whenever life drags you down, sing "la de da", get back up on the horse & ride on. The stars come fast & furious on this one, with another axe solo by Joe Walsh, back-up singing by Paul McCartney, Steven Tyler, Walsh & the "NOT the Village People Singers" (which are too numerous to mention but include Ringo's wife Barbara Bach & his daughter Lee Starkey among the choir).
Ringo then goes to India for parts of "Without Understanding", tabla and all. Sounding like an outtake from SGT. PEPPER, the song even features background vocals by Beach Boy Brian Wilson, the same Brian Wilson who was often frustrated at being unable to overtake the Beatles' musical masterpieces. We all know he would finish SMILE eventually, but "Without Understanding" on the whole sounds like it could have been created during those infamous original sessions that led to his breakdown. The gospel group Sauce also joins in the madness singing back-up.
"I'll Be Fine Anywhere" is a bit uncharacteristic from Ringo, being a song about the wandering type when, in a few songs, he would be praising settled domesticity. But it does give Ringo a chance to work with George again, who contributes another fine slide guitar solo. I think this would be the last time Ringo & George would work together, sadly. It is nevertheless a fine way to end one part of a great musical love affair.
"Puppet" once again has a take-nothing-from-nobody kind of philosophy, but it is not quite as well-said as the previous songs on the album did. The closest thing to filler on what really was one of Ringo's most solid efforts.
VERTICAL MAN says goodnight with the gentle lullaby "I'm Yours", that has Ringo Starr, former hellraising Teddy Boy, declaring eternal love to his wife Barbara, even mentioning her by name. Some might say the lyrics are of the dippy type Paul McCartney is often accused of writing, but the emotion is genuine coming from Ringo's voice. The string arrangement is from old producer George Martin, who probably will not work with Ringo again, seeing as he is now offically retired from the music business. Again, what a way to go!
In all honesty, people probably did not really care about Ringo Starr's music anymore by the 1990s. George Harrison had all but retired from active duty, while Paul McCartney kept on truckin', but even he would not recharge his batteries until later in the decade. The fact that VERTICAL MAN did not set commercial records when it at least should have had the chance to is unfortunate, and I believe shortly afterwards, Ringo considered retiring to spend time with his family. Of course, he would return with an album that superseded even this winner, so even a Beatle's retirement is not exactly a permanent one.
Until we'd see more in RINGORAMA, VERTICAL MAN is a wonderful surprise that shows Ringo Starr can & will do more than just rely on help from his friends because on here, they just add to the fun rather than guide Ringo by the hand.