1973’s RINGO album was a smash, so the idea was — in the time-honored pop tradition — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, make a RINGO 2. But unlike the previous album, two of the Beatles didn’t pitch in. Harrison wasn’t around, presumably because earlier in the year he had confessed to his affair with Ringo’s wife Maureen. And McCartney wasn’t around because he was taking it easy after the success of BAND ON THE RUN. But Lennon contributed “(It’s All Down to) Goodnight Vienna,” which became the title track, and he and Starr followed McCartney’s practice of reprising it at the end of the record (which also, incidentally, filled up space).
“Goodnight Vienna” is another revelatory Lennon self-portrait, though cloaked in the grotesque gobbledygook of his 1960s books IN HIS OWN WRITE and A SPANIARD IN THE WORKS. (The demo version with Lennon singing can be heard on the LENNON ANTHOLOGY.) For some reason, “Goodnight Vienna” was Liverpool slang for “It’s all over/ time to get out of this place,” and the song is about how Lennon was realizing it was time to get out of Hollywood, where he had been partying to excess since Yoko Ono kicked him out in 1973.
Starr/ Lennon sings about how he can’t relax with his girlfriend because she’s so pretty, something that had been an issue in the past for Lennon. He had encouraged first wife Cynthia to model herself after Brigitte Bardot, but when Bardot actually invited Lennon over once in the late ’60s, he took so much acid he was reduced to a introverted mess and could barely communicate with her.
He had some heavy moments of insecurity with his “Lost Weekend” girlfriend May Pang, as well. At one point, she and Lennon went to lunch with David Cassidy of The Partridge Family. Lennon was disturbed to be face-to-face with the new generation’s heartthrob while his own career had hit a rough patch and he was in the throes of an early mid-life crisis. The paranoid Lennon became convinced Pang was flirting with Cassidy.
In the song, the singer devolves into a jealous frog who doesn’t believe his woman when she tells him she loves him. In Lennon’s mind, how could Pang love him when he was no young pretty boy – and could be abusive when he got wasted?
After the lunch when Lennon and Pang were alone, he ripped the glasses off her face and stomped on them, hissing that Ono “had been right about her.” He dragged her back to New York on a plane, vowing that they were through … then changed his mind a few days later and took her back to L.A.
Throughout Starr’s version of the song, Lennon as backing vocalist yells to get it up and keep it up. Back in the Beatlemania days, Lennon relished being a rock star stud, but ten years on it was getting more and more difficult to care about validating himself.
So, in the song, when “the butcher” arrives with his needles, it is tempting for Lennon to turn back to hard drugs to deal with his anxieties — especially as the booze turns him into a maniac who makes headlines by getting thrown out of the Troubadour club. Thus Lennon knew it was time to say “Goodnight Vienna” — get out of tinsel town and put his life back together, away from the Lost Weekend cronies like Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon with whom he’d been drinking himself to death.
And back in New York he did get it together, by focusing on his music, getting a number one single, then reuniting with Yoko and becoming a father.
The lively production made good use of horns and even an accordion, but only reached No. 29 – Starr’s last Top 30 hit. Earlier singles from the album did well, though: “No No Song”/”Snookeroo” (with Elton John) made No. 3 in the US and “Only You” made No. 6. But it would be the last album in which Starr was a Top 40 force to be reckoned with.
For the memorable marketing campaign, Starr recreated a famous scene from the sci-fi flick THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, wearing the space suit of the alien Klaatu. (Thus a Canadian band named Klaatu got some mileage in the beginning of their career with the hoax that they were actually the reformed Beatles with tunes like “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft.”) The deliberately cheesy TV commercial for GOODNIGHT VIENNA had goofy Lennon and Starr banter over images of Starr getting into an Ed Wood-looking Grade Z sci-fi spaceship outside the Capital Records building in L.A. and flying around L.A.
Lennon would write three other songs for Starr’s solo albums: “Cookin’ (In the Kitchen of Love),” and two that Starr never recorded: “Nobody Told Me,” and with terrible irony, “Life Begins at 40.”