“Photograph” — Ringo Starr

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Photo by Michael Henry on Unsplash

When we think of their post-Beatles careers, we remember Paul McCartney and John Lennon, of course. Some remember George Harrison. But few remember Ringo Starr’s contribution to pop music’s back catalogue.

In fairness, that’s perhaps because, with apologies for the pun, his star flickered only briefly, but Ringo Starr landed two Number Ones on the Billboard Hot 100 during 1973 — firstly with “Photograph” and then with “You’re Sixteen”. Neither record did quite so well in the UK, but they were both Top 10 records here.

When I heard “Photograph” on the radio recently, I was transported back to our family’s summer holiday in 1974. One of my two sisters had discovered a deep and abiding love for the songs of John Lennon in the months leading up to this family holiday and played his songs incessantly. So my other sister discovered a deep and abiding love for the songs of Ringo Starr…out of spite more than anything else, I think.

Let’s just say the heated debates on our 1974 family holiday, accompanied with frequent door slamming and stomping upstairs to one bedroom or the other in the little cottage we were staying in was an experience I’ve never been keen to repeat…

That said, “Photograph” is quite a pretty song…especially for a song about a fairly sombre topic…

Every time I see your face
It reminds me of the places we used to go
But all I’ve got is a photograph
And I realise you’re not coming back any more

Often seen as the member of the Beatles who clowned around more than the others, Ringo does manage to keep a downbeat topic relatively upbeat, and rather matter-of-fact, which is quite a skill in itself.

I don’t think even Ringo would argue he was one of popular music’s most talented singers but in a strange way that actually helps here. Most singers would have been tempted to turn up the heartache quotient a fair bit and make “Photograph” into a more mournful and heart-rending song.

But Ringo keeps everything surprisingly level-headed…

I can’t get used to living here
While my heart is broke, my tears I cry for you
I want you here to have and hold
As the years go by and we grow old and grey

And that’s probably what made “Photograph” into a Billboard Number One.

The war in Vietnam was approaching its end in the autumn of 1973 when “Photograph” was released. The years of young men coming home in flag-draped coffins was taking its toll on America.

Especially since those young men did not come home to the hero’s welcome their brothers-in-arms would have experienced in earlier conflicts. The Vietnam was was deeply unpopular by the early 1970s and many…rather unfairly, I thought…attributed some of the blame to the young men who were conscripted into the US Army to fight a war far from home which clearly wasn’t going well.

So for the mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives and girlfriends who got the most terrible news anyone can ever receive there could only be a sense of quiet dignity in the midst of their grief.

There wasn’t going to be a victory parade or a memorial for their fallen hero. The mood of the country was against it. It was a war everyone wanted to forget.

So all they had was a photograph to remind them of the places they used to go after they were told someone they loved wasn’t coming home any more.

That’s where Ringo Starr does a great job on his vocal. A more mournful, more sombre, more obvious treatment wouldn’t have matched the emotions of those relatives getting the bad news back home nearly as well as Ringo does.

“Photograph” is a great example of the vocal performance being perfect for the job in hand, even if better technical singers might scoff at Ringo’s vocal limitations.

Ringo had some help on the vocals — fellow ex-Beatle George Harrison co-wrote the song with Ringo and delivered the backing vocals as well.

Jack Nitzche, Phil Spector’s musical arranger, had a hand in re-creating something of that “wall of sound” feel to “Photograph”. Top session musicians like Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys and Jim Keltner also featured on the record.

Listening back to it today through headphones with much better sound reproduction than my sister’s mono record player could hope for in the summer of 1974, “Photograph” has a very accomplished Spector-ish arrangement which nods to the heyday of the wall of sound without sounding too much like a cut-and-paste copy of the technique.

While Ringo Starr wouldn’t trouble the upper reaches of the pop charts for too much longer, “Photograph” remains quite a charming song to this day.

Back in the day, I did my best not to get into fights between my sisters as I had no desire to end up as collateral damage in one of their colossal rows. But if we were having that 1974 holiday again today, I’d stick up more for my younger sister, the Ringo Starr fan.

“Photograph” is a much better song than a cursory look at Ringo’s post-Beatles career would have you believe, and well worth a listen if it’s a while since you had the pleasure.

Here’s Ringo Starr, with the song’s co-writer George Harrison on backing vocals, performing his 1973 US Number One hit record, “Photograph”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/1hwN2eAwsXgktvw9Qe8TrP

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Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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