Axel "Ringo Starr" Clarke Talks Beatles vs. Stones

The Boulder Theater will host a Beatles vs. Stones tribute show.
The Boulder Theater will host a Beatles vs. Stones tribute show. Michelle Fairless
The tribute show Beatles vs. Stones - A Musical Showdown will take over the Boulder Theater on January 23. The event pits a Beatles tribute band, Abbey Road, and a Stones tribute band, Satisfaction, against each other, reviewing the two original bands' decorated musical histories.

Ahead of the hoopla, Axel "Ringo Starr" of Abbey Road spoke to Westword about what fans should expect from the show, how he balances being a part-time teacher with performing as the eccentric drummer of perhaps the most influential music group of all time, and the relationships between various Beatles tribute bands.

Westword: How did the idea of a Beatles vs. Stones show come about?

Axel "Ringo Starr" Clarke: I know other Beatles and Stones bands have done it in the past, like shared a bill where the Stones open and Beatles close — but our management and our band looked at it like: "You know what? What if we actually incorporate this back-and-forth and make it more of a double-headliner concept?" And it kind of grew out of that. Probably about eight years ago, we started the idea.

What’s been the most rewarding part of being Ringo Starr in this show?

Oh, gosh. Well obviously, it’s catching on with people and has had a lot of success: We book more shows than we can possibly play. It’s great to see an idea come together, coalesce and become something really successful that people enjoy and want to see.

On a personal note, as a Beatle, I always like seeing people — obviously seeing people who are going to die on the hill for the Rolling Stones at the start of the show in the audience, but by the end of the show singing along to and enjoying Beatles tunes as well.

Winning over the other side, bringing them from dark to light [laughs].

How will your show incorporate multiple costume changes to reflect the music you're playing?

We do the three main classic-Beatle eras. Our first set’s the early black-suit Sullivan era, and we cover the early songs. Our second set we get into Sgt. Pepper gear and do psychedelic-era music. For our third, we get into Abbey Road era, later-period White Album to the end kind of songs.

We hit most of the major points of the Beatles’ career. The Stones have got a little more time, but their looks aren’t necessarily as locked in as the Pepper look, so they’ll do an early-’70s and ’80s kind of feel to their looks, with songs to match.

Do you have a favorite period of the Beatles music to perform?

No, because they all have really cool things to them. The early stuff’s super-poppy and upbeat and rocky; the psychedelic stuff is all trippy, and some of the more complicated stuff to play; the late stuff’s got some slow, grindy blues-rock kind of feel. It’s all very fun to do; I enjoy every section of the show.

Before joining this band, were you interested in being involved in a Beatles tribute? Did that come about simply because an opportunity came about?

It was really just the opportunity. I’ve played in some other tribute bands throughout the ’00s. I played with other tribute bands and just saw an ad around 2009 saying, "Hey, forming a Beatles tribute band for shows." I thought "Hey, that could be a laugh for a couple months."

Here I am, like ten years later, almost. Like every musician, I grew up — and am — a huge Beatles fan, so the chance to play their music was obviously very tempting.

Is it true you're a teacher when you aren't performing?

Yeah. I was always teaching part-time, teaching university and high school part-time. I still fit it in. It’s getting a little trickier with the touring schedule, but I fit it in as much as I can.

Do your students care at all about your other life as Ringo Starr?

Some people are interested in it. I don’t go around advertising it. Some people think it’s way awesome; some people think, "Oh, okay, that’s your gig." No one has ever said it’s silly or lame.

That’s the good thing about the last two generations: They're teaching that the good stuff is good stuff, and they're getting into the Beatles like I did when I was their age. It’s lasting.

In "All My Loving," Ringo goes into the chorus beat by mistake during a verse. When there are mistakes like that in the recordings, do you come to appreciate little imperfections like that? Do you care about that sort of thing?

No, no, I certainly care. With the example you brought up, it’s like the kind of thing where it’s like you gotta play that. It’s pretty obvious, you know? For all of us, and for me especially, my job is not to fix what Ringo did; it’s to play what Ringo did.

If he goofs up, I gotta do the goof-up. We keep all that, and I don’t mind it at all. I love the human element in music, and especially the human element in music at that time before you had all these Pro Tools and locking things down to the grid and all that stuff. The music could breathe, and I appreciate that aspect to it.

It’s a mindset, because you have to fight — because they’ve got some songs that move a couple clicks here or there in terms of tempo, and you have to fight your urge to be like [imitates robot voice] must-always-stay-perfectly-in-tempo, you know?

You have to let go of some of the prejudices that are built in as a modern musician. But once you do, you just enjoy it and appreciate it more.

It’s almost like being more of a historian than musician at times. The gig requires both, but you’re chronicling the life of someone else!

Yeah. I tend to call it musical acting. You’re portraying a role that’s pretty well set and was being played perfectly before, and you’re just trying to do justice to it and find little places where you can bring yourself into it while at the same time respecting what the source material is.

click to enlarge The Rolling Stones tribute band Satisfaction is sure to make a compelling case that the real Stones is the best band ever. - MICHELLE FAIRLESS
The Rolling Stones tribute band Satisfaction is sure to make a compelling case that the real Stones is the best band ever.
Michelle Fairless
Is it ever a daunting task playing Ringo?

At first, no, because you’re just like, "Hey this is fun, playing the music." But as you start to learn about the scene and the level of detail the top tribute bands — not all, but especially Beatles tributes — all bring to it, then it becomes daunting to do it. Like, "Oh, wow, there’s a lot of work to do here [laughs]."

The subtleties and fine-tooth-comb thing is intimidating. We’re all still working on it through the years. You still go back to videos. You still go back to recordings to review. You still find new things to bring in or things you tweak or mutated over the last year that you need to repair. It’s an ongoing task; it’s never a done project.

Do you interact with other Beatles and Stones tribute acts?

Oh, yeah. The Beatles tribute world is pretty incestuous. We all kind of sub with each other and know each other and fill in here and there because we all know the same songs. We know just about all the bands, at least on the West Coast of the United States, and we’re all friendly with all of them, and we all encourage each other.

At the same time, we’re in competition, too.

Why do you think the show with you and the Stones has been so successful?

Not to put too much of a business spin on it, but it’s definitely a bang for your entertainment dollar, I think. You’re getting the two greatest rock bands of all time in the same show, you know? That’s always going to appeal to people.

And also, just the combination of the two. We have people coming up to us all the time saying, “The Beatles and Stones were friends! They weren’t rivals,” and we’re like, "Yeah, we know." But the fans are rivals in many ways.

They’re the ones having this "Who’s better?" kind of argument. It’s sort of playing into their concept of the two bands.

What has been the most surprising part of this gig?

I don’t want to get too musical geeky on it, but I think in terms of for myself, just delving into Ringo. I always appreciated him as a drummer, but the further you go in, the more you appreciate his unique style, his approach, and you start to see the trails and traces of just how influential his style was for drumming and rock drumming through the years that came after him.

He created his own sound and style, to the point that you go into the studio to work with someone, and they’ll say, "Hey can you play something Ringo-y?" and you know what they mean. Not many drummers get that kind of cred!

Just a deeper appreciation for a legendary musician, really.

In the future, is there any reason you wouldn’t want to do this anymore?

I mean, age creeps up. I’m sure there will be a day when I look at a photo of myself on stage and go, "Oh, no, I don’t look good anymore" [laughs]. Then it will be time to step down.

And, you know, we all have families and stuff like that, so the draw to being home over being on the road is something that’s always there that you’re fighting with. I’m sure there will come a day when you’ve seen every part of the country two or three times, and you’re like, "Ah, okay, I think it’s time to let someone else step in here." I’m sure it’ll come, but for now I’m more than happy to ride this out and see where it goes.

It seems like a very fun gig for however long you decide to do it. Playing original music might fulfill a creative itch that being in a cover band does not, but you’re playing some of the best music ever written, and that’s probably pretty fun.

Oh, yeah. It’s very lucky. "Blessing" is not too strong of a word to be able to go out and make a living playing this music. Yeah, no doubt. And the great thing is we do well enough at this that when we’re at home and not on the road, we don’t have to hustle necessarily for other jobs or stuff like that.

We can stay at home and do the stuff that stokes our individual artistic fires. We don’t have to worry about, "Oh, is this marketable? Am I going to make money off of this?" You can just do it for the love of it.

That’s a nice little liberation that the gig gives you.

Anything else people should know if they’re thinking about buying a ticket to the show?

Just that if they love the Stones or the Beatles, they’re gonna love the show; if they love the Stones, they’re gonna love the show; and if they love the Stones and hate the Beatles, they’re gonna love the Beatles afterward, and if you hate the Stones, you’re gonna love the Stones after it. Come on out. It’s a great show!

Beatles vs. Stones - A Musical Showdown, 8 p.m. Wednesday, January 23, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder.
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Ben Wiese is a writer in Denver. He covers music for Westword.
Contact: Ben Wiese