Friday, September 25, 2009

The amazing Ringo Starr

The release two weeks ago of The Beatles version of Rock Band and the remastered versions of their 12 album catalogue in mono and stereo has, once again, reinvigorated interest in the greatest band that has ever walked the face of the Earth. Of course, few people, if any, question the unsurpassed legacy of The Beatles' multiple gifts to popular music -- the songs (real quick: has any band ever produced as many memorable lyrics to accompany the mind-blowing sophistication of their music? Some bands or artists produce great lyrics and modest music; some produce great music with lyrics that say little. The Beatles did both), the arrangements, the production values, the creativity, the stunning growth from album to album and the absolutely perfect chemistry between John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. And time has cemented among the civilian population what musicians have known for 40 years -- that Paul McCartney is easily the most influential bassist in the history of popular music, and that George Harrison deserves his place among the most important guitarists of the founding generation of modern rock music. John Lennon is justifiably never really discussed as an instrumentalist of any real import, since his major contributions came as a songwriter, singer par excellence and visionary. As a rhythm guitarist, though, Lennon is much better than people are willing to give him credit for.

So that, of course, leaves Ringo, who couldn't really write music or sing very well. For many years, I would hear know-nothings suggest that Ringo's vocal take on "With A Little Help From My Friends" was his best because he was singing from the heart -- here was this average drummer fortunate to ride the wave of his much more distinguished colleagues. Good 'ole Ringo, just tapping out those simple beats while Lennon, McCartney and Harrison weaved their magic spell.

If only this were true.

Let me be real clear about this: Ringo Starr is among the greatest drummers to ever sit behind a drum kit, regardless of genre.


What makes Ringo just so damn incredible is that was, above all, a musician first and a drummer second. The Beatles were a band that wrote and produced songs. They were not a shredders collective in which the musicians competed to see who could play the fastest, longest and most meaningless solos. No Beatle ever produced a recorded solo of more than 16 bars. In fact, the most commonly quoted George Harrison solos were eight bars over the bridge. There wasn't room for much more in songs that rarely exceeded three minutes and only three times exceeded four minutes ("A Day in the Life," "Hey Jude" and "I Want You [She's So Heavy]"). But in every single case Ringo created the perfect pattern for the song, and, most importantly, never overplayed just to show off. Compare, for example, the Dave Matthews Band -- a true song band and a great one -- with The Beatles. A DMB song just starts to get going by the time that "She Loves You," (2.15 minutes) "Day Tripper," (2.58 minutes)"Fixing a Hole," (3.16 minutes) or "Let It Be (3.50 minutes) are all done. So, sure, a drummer like Carter Beauford -- whose playing gives me a headache and gets in the way of some really great songs that would benefit from a chance to breathe -- gets a chance to show you everything he has in just about every song. But I wonder how Carter would fare if were asked to come up with the drum pattern in "In My Life." I don't think he could top Ringo. And I bet if you asked Carter, he would agree that you just leave Ringo's stuff alone.

Just the other day I had to explain to a pretty good 15 year-old drummer why Ringo is so great. (Proud parent moment: I have never had to explain this to my son, a good drummer, who gets it, and one of his best friends, an exceptionally good drummer, Ringo's greatness). Indeed, as I drove them to and from the DMB concert this summer in Hershey, we spent a great deal of time listening to different Beatles recordings at their request. And they weren't just listening, but explaining why such-and-such a song was so amazing (neither can get over Ringo's playing on "Strawberry Fields Forever).

To the point: here is what I told the young drummer who "doesn't get" Ringo.

1. Ringo was the drummer for The Beatles. The two greatest pop/rock songwriters ever, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, could have picked anyone on the local music scene to play their songs. They picked Ringo, who was the most sought-after drummer in Liverpool and even points beyond.
2. Ringo was the first pure rock drummer to appear on the world stage. Most drummers that played on pop, rock, rockabilly tunes before Ringo were trained in jazz, big-band and other kinds of traditional music. Ringo was the first real drummer to hit clean and hard, use a matched grip and really push a band. He also brought the "rim shot" into rock drumming so you could hear the snare drum above the amplified instruments. Remember, Ringo's drums were not miked in the early days of The Beatles' live performances.
3. Ringo was the first rock drummer to play a "swishy" hi-hat. Drummer before Ringo played the hi-hat tight. Ringo opened it halfway and filled up the sound. Listen to "She Loves You" and you'll get the point.
4. Ringo had perfect time while keeping a loose feel. Listen to "A Hard Day's Night," "Rain," "Drive My Car." "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "Fixing a Hole" just for starters. And he had an unmatched knack for choosing the right tempo. Remember, too, that these were long before anyone knew what a click track or loop was.
5. Imagine what "A Day in the Life," would sound like with any other drummer. You can't. No one can play like that. I can play Steve Gadd's solo in "Aja" note for note. I can play "Tom Sawyer" by Rush (and Neil Peart) note-for-note. I cannot play "A Day in the Life."

6. Ringo was the first drummer to close-mike the bass drum. Listen to how the bass (kick) drum sounded before "Sgt. Peppers." Listen to it on the that recording and on most rock recordings after "Sgt. Peppers." The standard boom-snare-boom-boom-snare" definition you hear? All Ringo -- his idea. He also "standardized" much of the muffling and tuning techniques that are now the norm in rock drumming.
7. Ringo picked perfect patterns for every song. He never overplayed or felt the need to show off. Moreover, his dynamics -- his understanding of when to play loudly or softly or not play at all -- was peerless. Take all the instruments away and you would still know it was Ringo.
8. The backwards roll with that hi-hat "clatch." Drummers will know what I'm talking about.
9. The drum solo on "The End," one of the few quotable rock drum solos ever.
10. Finally, and most important, you know who Ringo is after the first bar -- not first few bars, even. There are dozens and dozens of rock drummers (and jazz drummers) with amazing technical proficiency but no stamp of individuality.

Sure, Ringo benefited from a little help from his distinguished friends. But he gave them as much as help as he got, and, in some cases, a bit more.

Nobody plays like Ringo, and no one ever will.


tres_arboles said...

Beautiful little peon, Greg. As a kid (I'm your age remember), I always loved Ringo best. Because he was, well, lovable. The way you line up the evidence for your argument here is smart AND loving, and I really enjoyed reading it.

deacon blues said...

Very well stated, Professor.

Ringo knew 1) WHAT to play, 2) HOW to play it, and 3) had a great sense of dynamics. Playing drums in many of the Beatles songs was not (and is not) an easy task. And I liked your point about Carter Beaufort! Fantastic, but he often OVERplays the drums.

Bonus points for Ringo: He married Barbara Bach, one of the hottest Bond women EVER in my book.