Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Praise of Ringo

Okay. So everyone knows that Ringo Starr is the most underrated drummer ever.
All hail Caestarr!

Actually, not everyone knows that. But they should. In reality, Ringo is, bizarrely, the butt of many jokes. Folks will refer to the Beatles as Two Geniuses, a Really Talented Role Player…and the Luckiest Man in History.

Which is absurd. For one thing, the Beatles might never have made it in the United States in the first place if it weren’t for Ringo; the funny-lookin’ dude with the big nose and the goofy name got a seriously disproportionate amount of the press in the early days—far more than the conventionally handsome singers. He was an easy hook for the press to go with. And keep in mind that American success was far from a given—no other British rock act had ever really made it big here before.

Then there’s the chemistry factor. When you’ve got just four guys, if any one of them isn’t quite clicking for whatever reason, even if it’s just that his sense of humor is off, it can destroy a band, or at the very least keep it from reaching its full potential. Which isn’t to say that a band has to be best friends, of course—Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey famously feuded for years, even coming to blows onstage. In fact, nobody in the Who really liked anyone else in the Who. Which is fine. That worked for them, that was their successful chemistry. Love may be all the Beatles needed, but clearly hatred worked better for the Who. And the Who’s not the only band with those kinds of anger management issues, not by a long shot. Different strokes and all that.

So Ringo’s non-musical contributions shouldn’t be overlooked. The interaction of those four personalities was a major key to the band’s success. But let’s focus on Ringo’s actual musicality.

I recall reading a Modern Drummer interview with him when I was about 13, where the pull quote was something like, “It took me years to accept the fact that I was the greatest rock drummer in the world.” And I remember thinking how absurd that was, and believing that, for pete’s sake, I was a better drummer than Ringo.

"We're gonna play soon, right, lads...?"
Which was half-right. I probably was able to play faster and more cleanly and more complicated time signatures. But to think for a moment that all that meant I was a better drummer is a sign, as if any were needed, of just how young and stupid I was. (Some things never change. Well, I’m no longer young.)

It’s my impression that most people think Ringo’s a great drummer, because he was the drummer in the Beatles, and therefore he must be a great drummer. Which seems like flawed logic, although it’s actually rock solid (so to speak).

Then there are the people who love music and are quite knowledgeable about it. This is the group of folks most likely to think Ringo sucks and to make disparaging comments about him. Another common comment from the semi-educated is “Ringo was the second-best drummer in the Beatles.” A little knowledge is a mighty dangerous thing. Paul McCartney is a brilliant musician and he’s recorded some really fine performances on drums over the years. But there’s a big difference between doing that and being a drummer. As master drummer Rick Marotta—who recorded with Paul—once said, Paul’s never played an entire gig as a drummer, and until that happens, he’s a musician who sometimes plays drums, not a drummer.

Phil Collins, now obviously first thought of as a pop singer, was one of the truly great rock drummers of the 70s, both with prog-rockers Genesis, and jazz fusion band Brand X, as well as for art rockers such as Brian Eno. He said, “Ringo is vastly underrated. The drum fills on the song "A Day in the Life" are very complex things. You could take a great drummer today and say, 'I want it like that.' He wouldn't know what to do.”

Master drummer Kenny Aronoff once said, “I consider him one of the greatest innovators of rock drumming and believe that he has been one of the greatest influences on rock drumming today... Ringo has influenced drummers more than they will ever realize or admit. Ringo laid down the fundamental rock beat that drummers are playing today and they probably don't even realize it.”

And then there's Dave Grohl, the greatest drummer of his generation, who said, “No one needs to defend Ringo Starr—he's fucking Ringo Starr. He was in the Beatles. Without him the Beatles wouldn't have sounded like the Beatles. And if the Beatles didn't sound like the Beatles, there would be no Beatles.”

"I can't hear a damn thing anyone's singing!"
Which brings us to the one group of people who virtually always give Ringo his props: drummers. Because drummers know just how damn hard it is to get exactly the right feel for any given song. They know how easy it is to play one of the same old patterns for a song, patterns which always work just fine, and how tough it can be to come up with something new, that’s not just new but also just right. They know how hard it is to practice restraint and not overplay.

And all that stuff is stuff at which Ringo excelled.

An example: the odd pattern he plays at the very beginning (and many other places in the song) of “Come Together.” There’s nothing particularly difficult about it. And yet nothing like it was ever put on record before. It’s interesting and strange and tasteful and fits beautifully—a rare and magical combination.

Another example: the odd and restrained pattern he plays on “In My Life,” where he doesn’t play quarter-notes or eighth-notes on the hi-hat, as would every other drummer in the world. Instead he merely plays whole notes, hitting the hi-hat once per measure, just before the 4. So unusual, so tasteful, so perfect. Not difficult, just rare beyond words, and yet absolutely ideal for the song.

“Rain,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Ticket to Ride,” “She Said She Said,” “Get Back,” “Two of Us”—these songs have nothing in common save exceptional Ringo performances, imaginatively conceived and absolutely flawlessly executed.

There are dozens, nay, scores of other examples, but just listen to one of the most-neglected masterpieces in the Fab Four’s canon, “Long Tall Sally.”

Ringo rocks so hard and so tight, it’s the drumming equivalent of a diamond’s atomic structure. Getting that half-straight/half-swing feel is an almost-forgotten art, and even back then it was incredibly hard to nail as immaculately as he did during this two minutes and three seconds (two minutes and three seconds!) of perfection. Possibly Paul McCartney’s greatest rock performance as a vocalist—if it weren’t for “Twist and Shout,” it might just be the greatest vocal performance on any Beatles recording—it’s not difficult to believe that Macca was spurred to such stratospheric heights by Ringo’s asskicking. This is one of those songs that is undeniable proof of their greatness—to cover a great song done extremely well by Elvis and brilliantly by Little Richard and somehow manage to top them both is practically inconceivable. And yet there ‘tis. An unsurpassed performance by the greatest cover band in history. The fact that the cover band was also the greatest collection of writers in rock history is merely proof that the Flying Spaghetti Monsters exists and that He loves us. Oh, and did I mention that was the first take? And that they didn't even bother with a second because how do you improve upon perfection?

I said up above that there was one group of people, drummers, who always gave Ringo his due. Actually, there was one other group. It was called the Beatles.

world's greatest garage band...even on a roof
It’s no coincidence that after the break-up John, Paul and George all continued to work with Ringo on a regular basis. Even after all three of them had worked with other drummers, including magnificent drummers like Jim Keltner and Jim Gordon and the incomparable Steve Gadd—easily a contender for the shortest of short lists of Most Versatile and Just Plain Best Drummers Ever—they all kept going back to Ringo. These are guys who, it’s safe to say, knew something about creating great music, guys who knew how vital a drummer is to great music, guys who could not only afford but also had easy access to absolutely any drummer on the entire planet. And yet they kept going back to Ringo again and again and again. As George Harrsion said, "Ringo's got the best back beat I've ever heard and he can play great 24-hours a day."

Maybe, just maybe, those guys were onto something. The Beatles was one seriously exclusive club. They didn’t let just anyone in—in fact, obviously, they let almost no one in. But they not only let Ringo in, they booted a long-time member to make room.

Ringo got in the old-fashioned way: he earned it, by being one of the greatest rock and roll drummers ever.

Originally published at Left of the Dial.


  1. Excellent post! Spending a lazy Saturday listening to The Beatles, and being in awe of Ringo's skills.

  2. Best thing I've seen written about Ringo in a long time. Thank you very much. Don't forget his insane unison fills on 'Tell Me Why' and 'Help!', or his pummeling single stroke tom rolls during the 'Something' guitar solo.

  3. The tom intro on "Something" is one of the greatest, smoothest and tastiest fills/intros ever in my opinion. You can sit 50 drummers down to track that song and I can almost guarantee not a single one would have come up with that as an intro. He was and still is phenomenal and as you said, we drummers know who the greats are and where we owe our gratitude! Drummers like Rich, Purdie, Porcaro, Roach, Bellson, Williams, Bonham, and the list goes on...but Ringo laid the foundation for rock drumming. Call it Mersey-beat or whatever but we are still playing and copying something that he brought into the main stream back in 1964! Damn right Ringo was influential! Great article!

  4. True, Ringo is underrated. He is nowhere as "untalented" as some people made him up to be, he was pretty good as a drummer. And I also find his song titled Octopus Garden to be kind of cute.

  5. Good blog you have here.. It's difficult to find quality writing
    like yours these days. I truly appreciate individuals like you!
    Take care!!