This month, the man who shot John Lennon, Mark David Chapman, will once again be up for parole. Chapman was sentenced to twenty years in prison after murdering Lennon, in December 1980. Since he became eligible for parole in 2000, Chapman has been denied eight times.
August 2016 is important to Beatles fans for other reasons as well. This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Revolver album, which contains classics such as “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Good Day Sunshine.” August 1966 was also the last time the Beatles, as a group, ever performed live in concert; for the remainder of their run, the four were strictly a studio band. Also, in August 1966, the band was still dealing with backlash over John Lennon’s comment a few months prior that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”
With all those milestones, it seemed like a good time to write a column about what the four members of the Beatles were doing in the 1980’s. Once I started writing it, though, I realized what a huge undertaking it was. Ultimately, I decided to focus on just TWO Beatles: John Lennon, who was shot at the beginning of the decade; and Ringo Starr, who spent most of the 80’s drunk or on drugs, before finally entering rehab in October 1988.
In the end, I thought there was some nice poetry in juxtaposing the death of one Beatle with the redemption of another. (Eventually, I’ll write another article about Paul McCartney and George Harrison, both of whom had some success in the 1980’s.)
May 19, 1980– Ringo Starr and his new girlfriend, actress/ former Bond girl Barbara Bach (whom Starr met on the set of the film Caveman), have a near-death experience when they are involved in a car crash in Surrey, England. Slippery roads from an earlier downpour caused the car to crash into two lampposts and flip upside down. Reportedly, Starr pulled Bach out of the car, then returned to get his cigarettes. Although the car is destroyed, the two miraculously sustain only minor injuries. Within days of the accident, Starr proposes to Bach.
June 4, 1980– John Lennon and his family have a near-death experience while sailing to Bermuda. During the perilous journey, twenty-foot waves and sixty-five mile-per-hour winds pelt the vessel (named the Megan Jaye). At one point, after the captain and crew fell prey to either seasickness or exhaustion, Lennon himself has to steer the ship.
June 11, 1980– The Megan Jaye arrives safely in Bermuda, where Lennon remains for seven weeks. The combination of the island and the near-fatal journey to get there seems to invigorate Lennon: during his stay in Bermuda, he wrote the songs that would comprise his next album, Double Fantasy.
July 28, 1980– Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach appear on the syndicated talk show, The John Davidson Show. Starr is obviously drunk– snapping Poloroids, slurring his words, taking the prepared questions out of host Davidson’s hands, and just being generally surly and uncommunicative. Starr’s actions causes an enraged Davidson to walk off the set. Starr later recalls, “While they were convincing him to come back, I was in my dressing room having a few more cognacs.”
July 11, 1980– Starr–under the auspices of his producer, Paul McCartney–begins recording his eighth studio album, tentatively titled Can’t Fight Lightning (so named because Starr and Barbara Bach had reportedly been nearly struck by lightning). Starr has a lot riding on this album, given that his previous two albums (1977’s Ringo the 4th and 1978’s Bad Boy) were huge flops.
November 17, 1980– John Lennon releases the album Double Fantasy, a collaboration with his wife Yoko Ono. It is Lennon’s first album of new material since 1975. The first single, “(Just Like) Starting Over,” originally peaks at #6 on the Billboard charts.
November 26, 1980– Lennon gives Ringo Starr his demos of a new song for Starr’s upcoming album and books a date to record the song in early January, 1981. Lennon had originally recorded the song– entitled “Nobody Told Me”– in August 1980, as part of the Double Fantasy sessions, but he never used it on the album.
December 8, 1980– Around 2:00, John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono pose for photographer Annie Liebovitz. Around 5:00, Lennon and Ono leave their New York apartment, the Dakota; before getting into his limousine, Lennon signs autographs for several people waiting outside.
At 10:52, while the couple return to their apartment, Lennon is shot in front of the building by a pudgy, 25-year-old former security guard named Mark David Chapman (who was one of the autograph-seekers only a few hours prior). After shooting Lennon twice in the back and twice in the shoulder (a fifth bullet missed), Chapman allegedly starts reading J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Lennon is rushed to the hospital and is pronounced dead at 11:07. He was 40 years old. In the ensuing days, only one of Lennon’s former bandmates comes to New York to comfort Yoko Ono: Ringo Starr.
December 22, 1980– Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over,” having re-ascended the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the wake of his assassination, reaches #1. Over the next three months, two other singles from Double Fantasy make the Top Ten: “Woman” (peaks at #2) and “Watching the Wheels” (peaks at #10).
January 9, 1981– Mark David Chapman initially pleads not guilty by reason of insanity (although he will change his plea to guilty later in the year).
March 30, 1981– Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice”– the song she and her husband were working on the day he was murdered– peaks at #58 on the Billboard Hot 100.
March 31, 1981– Barbara Walters interviews Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach. During the interview, Bach describes the difference between “Ringo Starr,” the public persona, and her husband, Richard Starkey: “Ringo’s the shades and the drinks and the cigarettes,” she says “And Ritchie is my Ritchie.”
When Walters asks Starr point-blank, “Do you drink too much?” Ringo responds: “It’s just our little joke, you see, and when it goes over TV, it will be in the national papers. Oh, he’s a drunk… and he had his shades on… it must mean he was on drugs… But, you see, you also learn that there’s no controlling them.”
April 17, 1981– The film Caveman— starring Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, and Barbara Bach– opens in the U.S. The slapstick comedy follows the misadventures of a caveman named Atouk (Starr), who is lusting after Lana (Bach). The film is essentially wordless; all the characters speak almost exclusively in grunts and non-sensical terms. Although it gets some good reviews (a New York Times review actually calls it “nicely whimsical” and “lots of fun”), the film is largely panned and disappears quickly from theaters.
April 27, 1981– Starr marries Barbara Bach; in their wedding rings are two fragments of shattered glass Starr had retrieved from the May 1980 car wreck. Yoko Ono is not invited to the wedding.
June 22, 1981: Mark David Chapman pleads guilty in the murder of John Lennon. The judge sentences him to 20 years to life in prison.
October 27, 1981–Ringo Starr’s album Stop and Smell the Roses is released in the U.S. Though it spawns a Top 40 single (“Wrack My Brain,” which peaks at #38), the album does not climb any higher than #98 on the U.S. charts. Due to the album’s poor performance, coupled with his previous duds, RCA cuts ties with Starr, leaving him without a label. According to the book Ringo: With a Little Help, at this time in his career, Starr is considered “industry poison.”
March 1982– The Sunday Mirror newspaper publishes a piece claiming Starr’s marriage is in bad shape. Starr later calls the paper to refute the rumor.
April 17, 1982– Elton John performs his tribute to John Lennon, “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny),” on an episode of Saturday Night Live. (Elton John is the godfather of Lennon’s son Sean.)
June 16, 1983– Ringo Starr releases his ninth studio album, Old Wave. The album is sold in many countries (such as Germany, Canada, Australia, and Mexico)– just not America or England. Due to the failure of his previous albums, no American or British record company wanted to sign him. Once again, the album flops.
January 6, 1984– John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me” is released in the U.S. (Lennon had given the song to Ringo Starr, who didn’t feel right using it after Lennon’s death.) “Nobody Told Me” eventually peaks at #5 in the U.S.; it is Lennon’s last Top Ten hit.
October 9, 1984– The children’s television show Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, narrated by Ringo Starr, debuts in the United Kingdom. Starr will narrate the show– about the adventures of Thomas, Gordon, Henry and their locomotive brethren on the island of Sodor– for two years, until 1986.
October 19, 1984– John Lennon’s son Julian releases his debut album Valotte in the U.S. The album spawns two Top Ten hits: “Valotte” (#9) and “Too Late for Goodbyes” (#5).
September 7, 1985– Ringo Starr becomes the first Beatle to become a grandfather, when his son Zak has a daughter, Tatia Jayne. (Zak is the child of Starr and his first wife, Maureen.)
December 9-10, 1985– CBS airs a two-part made-for-TV movie, Alice in Wonderland. The film stars a menagerie of celebrities, including Carol Channing, Scott Baio, Sammy Davis Jr., Pat Morita, and Ringo Starr (as the Mock Turtle).
February 25, 1986– At the 28th Grammy Awards, Julian Lennon loses the Best New Artist award to Sade.
March 25, 1986– Julian Lennon releases his second album, The Secret Value of Daydreaming. Its first single, “Stick Around,” peaks at #32. Fans and critics generally that the album represents a sophomore slump.
December 6, 1986– Several news outlets report that Ringo Starr would be paid over a million dollars to appear in commercials for “Sun Country Classic” wine coolers– making him the first Beatle to endorse a product. The ad campaign proves to be a bust– partly because Starr didn’t connect to a younger audience, and partly because, as the book Ringo: With a Little Help suggests, the company made the mistake of “employing an alcoholic to promote alcohol.”
February 1987– Starr hits some snags while recording a new album in Memphis. First, he threatens to move the sessions to Los Angeles after a local paper calls him “yesterday’s news.” In addition, Starr’s drinking affected his performance; he later admits that, during the recordings, he and his collaborators “were all under the influence of wine, tequila, or whatever else we felt like drinking.” Two years later, Starr successfully sues to make sure the material from these sessions is never released on an album.
May 1987– Nike begins airing ads using the Beatles song “Revolution.” It is the first time a Beatles commercial had ever been used to endorse a product, something the Beatles had never allowed. Nike had purchased the song from EMI Capitol Records (owners of the North American licensing rights to the Beatles) as well as from Michael Jackson, who bought hundreds of Beatles songs in 1985. (According to the National Enquirer, Jackson sold “Revolution” to Nike after he was granted permission to do so by John Lennon’s ghost.)
Initially, Yoko Ono praises the commercial, telling Time Magazine it makes Lennon’s music “accessible to a new generation”; two months later, in July, she joins the rest of the surviving Beatles in suing Nike over its use of the song.
January 28, 1988– The Beatles are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; only Ringo Starr and George Harrison accept the award. Paul McCartney did not attend the ceremony, due to lingering business differences. “I would feel like a complete hypocrite,” Paul told the event’s organizers, “waving and smiling with (his former bandmates) at a fake reunion.”
October 11, 1988– Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach check into Sierra Tucson Rehabilitation Center. Ringo admits he had been drunk on high since the Beatles broke up, in 1970.
One of Starr’s friends, Melody Stuart, reports (in the book The Beatles: Off the Record 2) that the stint in rehab came about after the couple had been “drinking round the clock for three or four days”; according to Stuart, that particular drunken spree culminated in Bach smashing her husband in the head with a lamp, which caused Starr to slap her. (The same book maintains that, earlier in 1987, the two fought outside a Jamaican hotel, during which Bach and Starr slapped and threw bottles at each other.)
December 1988– Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach emerge from rehab. They have been clean and sober since.
January 1989– Ringo Starr begins his rehabilitation with his next role– as the diminutive “Mr. Conductor, on the PBS show Shining Time Station, featuring the Thomas the Tank Engine characters. Starr is later nominated for a Daytime Emmy for his work on the series.
July 23, 1989– Ringo Starr’s “rising from the ashes” comeback continues, as his All-Starr Band begins touring the U.S. in Dallas. The first incarnation of the touring supergroup included Joe Walsh (of the Eagles), Nils Lofgren, and Clarence Clemons; Bruce Springsteen, Paul Schaeffer, and Ringo’s son Zak also play with the band at various points. The tour travels to thirty different cities, with many of the venues selling out, and earns praise from fans and critics.
2016– Ringo Starr, now 75, and his wife Barbara Bach have been married for thirty-five years. In June, he begins touring with the twelfth incarnation of his extremely successful All-Starr Band.
Badman, Keith. The Beatles: Off the Record 2–The Dream Is Over. Omnibus Press, 2009
Cossar, Neil. This Day in Music. Omnibus Press, 2010.
Harry, Bill. The Ringo Starr Encyclopedia. Virgin Books, 2004.
Koznin, Allan. “Ringo Starr, Back on the Road.” New York Times. August 2, 1989.
San Souci, Brian R. “There’s No Place Like Nowhere.” June 2010. http://www.rimonthly.com/Rhode-Island-Monthly/June-2010/There-039s-No-Place-Like-Nowhere/index.php?cparticle=1&siarticle=0#artanc
Starr, Michael Seth. Ringo: With a Little Help. Backbeat Books, 2015.