The Fourth Beatle
Damn Right Ringo Was the Drummer
By Chris Conway
In April Ringo Starr was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the final Beatle individually recognized by that institution. George Harrison was inducted eleven years earlier, while both John and Paul had their names gilded in the nineties. Writing in Billboard prior to the ceremony, Rock Hall president and Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner admitted that "at this point, all the clear, obvious people have been inducted." This slights an artist who, at 74 years old, stood alongside Green Day and Joan Jett to be recognized for his influence on rock n' roll --an artist who set the beat of the most influential rock band of all time, now over a half century ago.
Yet Wenner isn't being altogether unfair. Despite a surprisingly successful solo career and a handful of compositions in the Beatles' catalog, Ringo's talent lies elsewhere. In a hall of singers and guitarists, he's the first drummer to be inducted. But for his fans and admirers, the belittling implications rub a raw nerve. There is a long history of disparaging Ringo Starr, most notably John Lennon allegedly claiming "he's not even the best drummer in the Beatles!" He's been considered the "lucky" Beatle, a regular bloke who happened to end up in a band of geniuses. At their worst, Starr-bashers call into question not only Ringo's rhythmic talent but his presence in the recordings, saying he often needed to be replaced in the studio by session players. Amid a rich fifty-year history of legend and renown, Ringo has become the butt of the joke. Here's why he deserves your respect:
1. Best drummer in the Beatles
First and foremost the Lennon quote needs to be debunked. There's no record of John ever knocking Ringo's talent, and the infamous gibe has since been traced to a single comedian in the 80s. In fact, John recruited Ringo to play on his debut solo album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. In 1980 he told Playboy: "Ringo is a damn good drummer. He is not technically good, but I think Ringo's drumming is underrated the same way Paul's bass playing is underrated . . . I think Paul and Ringo stand up with any of the rock musicians."
2. Best drummer in Liverpool (or, Better than Best)
There's good reason for John's praise. Ringo's abilities were not simply affirmed because of his success with the Beatles--he was already considered one of the best drummers in Liverpool before he joined the band. By 1960, Starr was playing in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, one of the city's l's most popular bands. At that point Ritchie Starkey had just taken the stage name Ringo Starr, and his onstage drum solos were dubbed "Starr Time." For two years The Hurricanes had a residency in Hamburg, with the Beatles as an opener. At the time the Beatles' drummer was Pete Best, who although well-liked by fans, was not meshing personally with the rest of the boys. Ringo began to play occasionally as a stand-in for Best, and his lighthearted nature fit in well with the other three.
In 1962 the Beatles landed their first recording contract with Parlophone and found themselves in the studio with producer George Martin. Martin felt that Best's chops weren't good enough for recording and wanted to hire a studio drummer, and the Beatles used the producer's recommendation as an opportunity to fire Best and invite Ringo to join the band. In this way, Ringo was far from "lucky" to end up with the Beatles. He was asked to join because he had proven his talent.
3. Yes, that is Ringo
To debunk another myth--Ringo played on every Beatles record (not including drumless tracks) with a few notable exceptions: on "Back in the USSR" and "Dear Prudence" Paul played drums because Ringo had briefly quit the band, and again on "The Ballad of John and Yoko" while Ringo was away to shoot a film and one other time on "Wild Honey Pie" where McCartney recorded everything himself. The only true example of a studio drummer replacing Ringo was on "Love Me Do" in 1962, when in the aforementioned transition from Best to Starr the skeptical George Martin hired Andy White to play on the single. At that point Ringo had only been in the band for three weeks. According to Starr, "Martin used Andy White, the 'professional' . . . the guy was previously booked, anyway, because of Pete Best. George didn't want to take any more chances and I was caught in the middle. He has apologised several times since, has old George, but it was devastating—I hated the bugger for years."
4. Part of the band
Ringo played a key role in the changing perception of the rock band. The idea of a band as a distinct, self-contained unit was essentially non-existent before the 60s. Bands were amorphous, changing players as needed, and usually identified with an individual. Behind the bandleader, players were often somewhat faceless.. Who were Bill Haley's Comets, and did it matter? In contrast, the Beatles introduced a new social structure for a rock band: four young men, performing their own music, each with a distinct personality and each equally necessary to the band's identity. As the drummer and least vocal member of the group, Ringo's presence in the band emphasized this point. For a Beatle, playing the drums meant just as much as any other role, and so Ringo's face was on every record sleeve and his drums stood upon a pedestal onstage, in full view above his bandmates. Ringo also sang lead around once per album, and even penned a few songs later in their career. In describing his social acceptance into the band, Ringo recalled, "I had to be, or I wouldn't have lasted. I had to join them as people as well as [as] a drummer."
5. Sound of the beat
Ringo changed more than just social perspectives and the concept of the group persona. The recorded sound of his drums changed how pop percussion was heard. Ken Micallef and Donnie Marshall described this change in Classic Rock Drummers: "While most rock ‘n roll and pop drum sounds in the early ‘60s were still influenced by big band, surf, and jazz, Ringo's sound, typical at first, soon became deeper and more expressive, following the Beatles' lead. Ringo's drums were tuned lower, the toms and snare sometimes covered in a towel for a deader, less ringing sound. Ringo's fat tom sounds and delicate cymbal work were imitated by thousands of drummers." In an era of radical sonic pioneering, Ringo's development was influential in its own right. This fuller, more present drum sound would come to dominate rock—illustrated most obviously by the powerhouse drummers like John Bonham and Neil Peart, but also by virtuosos like Jeff Porcaro and Phil Collins. Across the spectrum of post-Beatle pop, drums became stronger and rhythmic pulse more crucial, and Ringo helped effect this change.
6. Keeping time
Any musician who's spent time on a record can attest that a good studio musician commands a very different set of skills than a live musician. While speed, technicality, and ferocity can fill a room, intonation and dynamic control are crucial for a good recording. Yet the most important skill, and often the most daunting challenge for musicians transitioning from the stage to the studio, is playing in time. A consistent tempo is the foundation a coherent track, and being able to keep time while retaining fluidity and personality is a prized skill.
In 1965 the Beatles left the touring circuit permanently. This marked one of the most profound changes in popular music, as the greatest of all rock groups began to use the studio not just as a means of capturing their live energy but as a treasure-house of sonic fantasy. Single-take performances were replaced by complex, ever-changing projects spanning weeks and months. Ringo had shown nearly perfect time since his early recordings with the Beatles, but now this skill set only became more crucial.
Ringo's consistency allowed his bandmates to edit and splice together multiple takes, record extensive overdubs, and experiment freely without a track falling to pieces. As the Beatles' recorded work ventured past onstage feasibility, and past reality altogether, Ringo became their backbone--subtly, steadily allowing the band to pursue its creative trajectories.
7. Here, there, and everywhere
While John and Paul began to explore further past the boundaries of conventional rock, Ringo proved himself not only consistent but increasingly versatile. In their early years, he matched the rambunctiousness of his bandmates' songwriting with an equally spirited style, playing an R&B-influenced backbeat with vibrant, off-kilter fills. But by Rubber Soul, the band had evolved past the sonic and stylistic cues that had defined their earlier albums. The drums mellowed with the writing, and Ringo took a more subtle approach on songs like "Michelle" and "In My Life." And it was during the late sixties that he showed his greatest diversity--from Revolver to Abbey Road, Ringo played with what may have been the widest stylistic breadth of any rock drummer (especially in a mere three-year span). Across folk rock, hard rock, R&B, psychedelic, baroque pop, country, avant-garde, Indian ragas, music halls, carnival tents, black hill saloons, odd time signatures, abrupt tempo changes, and sheer drugged-out what-the-fuckery, Ringo not only maintained the beat but flourished stylistically.
Furthermore, Ringo's playful versatility helped his bandmates (Paul especially) to inhabit the persona implicit in a given song by going along with the act. Listen to "Honey Pie" for example: the little hits punctuating the guitar solo section seem to chuckle along with the music hall shtick, and help to sell the whole thing with a touch of self-awareness. Ringo's personality always showed through in his performance, and his rhythmic wit helped make the genre pieces believable, or--if deliberately phony--enjoyably droll.
8. The role of a player
Finally, what makes a good drummer depends upon how we perceive the role of a player. An excellent musician should have both the ability and the acumen to play whatever brings the most out of a song. The Beatles were never a group to focus on instrumental virtuosity, instead highlighting composition and arrangement. Ringo may not be much of a songwriter, but in his own brilliant way he complemented the talents of his bandmates with an equally lyrical approach to his own instrument. He composed through his kit --I'd wager that you could identify any Beatles song by the drum stems alone.
Among drummers and musicians, this distinction of talent is crucial. Acclaimed studio drummer Steve Smith explains that "before Ringo, drum stars were measured by their soloing ability and virtuosity. Ringo's popularity brought forth a new paradigm . . . we started to see the drummer as an equal participant in the compositional aspect." In the same way Lennon-McCartney defined new expectations of the rock band to write and play their own material, Ringo helped open up an entirely new dimension of talent and responsibility for the drummer: playing not only with well-honed technique but with an arranger's ear.
9. Listen to the music
All eight of these reasons are in a way unnecessary. I could have just replaced this essay with a playlist of Ringo's best moments and a note saying "just listen." So--a few examples of Beatles tunes you could call Starr Time:
"I Feel Fine" The Latin-influenced groove here is impeccable. Taking rhythmic cues from Ray Charles's "What'd I Say," Ringo lays down a complex, layered track that elevates John's guitar riff. The beat here is a feat of coordination--syncopated tom and snare patterns but he still manages rolls on his cymbal bell. Yet after two verses Ringo moves to a rock ‘n roll fastball for the bridge, just to remind us who we're listening to, before jumping right back into the groove. In 1964 this is just as heady as anything the other boys had come up with.
"Wait" A vivid example of Ringo playing as an arranger. The first 30 seconds demonstrate my point: the dramatic interplay between cymbals and tambourine fits perfectly with the minor-key intro melody. Shakers and snare build momentum until a rolling tom fill brings the song into four bars of ecstatic release, before coming back down and doing it all over again.
"Happiness is a Warm Gun" - Tempo and time signature mapped here:
Considering that track was performed not in a piecemeal fashion but with the whole band in the same room performing the song, Ringo's precision in maneuvering through these schizophrenic changes is impressive. It reportedly took the band 70 takes over the course of two days to nail the tune. Almost always, a band looks to its drummer to set the time when performing together, and while he may not have written these abrupt rhythmic shifts, I'm sure Ringo was leading the way in playing them.
- Section A - 70 bpm, 4/4 time with sporadic measures of 5/4
- Section B - 140 bpm, 3/4 time
- Section C - 160 bpm, alternating 9/8 and 10/8 time
- Section D - 140 bpm, 4/4 time, overlaid with 3/4 for several bars
There are so many more instances of Ringo's genius littering the Beatles catalogue: the driving mantric pulse on "Tomorrow Never Knows," spiraling fills that dance around "She Said She Said," subtle flourishes marking the lyrics of "Something," the iconic tom hook that opens "Come Together." Sit and listen to any Beatles record with your ears on the drums--or better yet, dust off your old kit in the attic and try to actually play them--and you'll understand. Ringo was the drummer, and thank god for that.
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