My appreciation for Ringo’s contribution to The Beatles as a drummer grows every year. When I first got into the band it was quite fashionable to mock or traduce his role in their success, with lots of people quick to single him out at the weak link or claim he just got lucky and rode on the coattails of the others’ brilliance. I think the fact that his own music career had dried up at that point and that he was more famous for narrating children’s show Thomas The Tank Engine probably had a lot to do with that attitude, along with general ignorance and a perhaps understandable search for some mortal aspect of the group’s all-conquering, almost super-human prowess. Part of Ringo’s appeal had always been that he was the ‘everyman’ in their ranks, the bloke next door who didn’t write an endless flow of astonishing songs, whose singing wasn’t all that removed from what you’d hear in your local pub, and who kept his feet on the ground while the others were seduced by psychedelia, Transcendental Meditation, LSD, avant garde art and the like (as John once said: “When I feel my head start to swell, I look at Ringo and know perfectly well we’re not supermen.”) It may be that people just started to assume that he probably couldn’t drum very well either, but they were wrong. Boy, were they wrong.
Over the years, as each new remaster or remix of the group’s music has made the drums more prominent and players from Phil Collins to Dave Grohl have lined up to praise his talent and enduring influence, Ringo’s cachet has slowly grown. Of course, there are still some lazy, ill-informed assumptions, but gradually facts are coming more to the fore. Mark Lewisohn’s brilliant biography Tune In makes it absolutely clear that Ringo was undoubtedly the best drummer Liverpool had to offer in the early 1960s, which is one reason why the city’s biggest band wanted him. Recalling the moment he first played with The Beatles, Paul later said: “I remember the moment, standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like, fuck you. What is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of The Beatles.” Ringo played on solo records by John, Paul and George after the split, and even when he wasn’t there his influence was still keenly felt, with Lennon regularly telling session drummers in the studio to “play it like Ringo”. He didn’t stumble into this group by accident.
You have only to listen to The Beatles’ (failed) audition tapes for Decca Records at the start of 1962 and compare it with their performance at the Star Club in Hamburg just under 12 months later to understand what the Starr man brought to the table. I’m not here to trash Pete Best, but the difference is colossal. Even allowing for the fact they were in an unfamiliar recording studio on a chilly winter’s day (as opposed to a sweaty club filled with well-oiled admirers), the band on the Decca recordings sounds tentative, stuck in a low gear; the drumming basic, samey, even tepid at points. On the Star Club album, by contrast, it’s a different beast altogether. A snarling, persuasive, confident beast, driven relentlessly forward by a dynamic, dynamite set of rhythms pumping out of the drum kit. The band’s startling synergy was now in place and would remain ever after, as Ringo kept pace with the others’ spiralling musical aspirations and effortlessly dealt with whatever was thrown at him over the next seven years. Indeed, there’s an argument that he didn’t even peak until their final recording sessions, so crammed is Abbey Road with fluid, memorable drum parts.
I’m no expert when it comes to drumming, but I thing Ringo’s qualities are pretty evident. He was versatile, inventive, reliable. He has a recognisable sound, a “feel”, and yet could turn his hand to just about anything – from ‘When I’m 64’ to ‘I Am The Walrus’. He’s not a flash, busy player, like The Who’s Keith Moon was, for example. It’s all about what the song needs, what the band needs. He’s selfless, a team player who provides that steady centre, the anchor which allows the others to go on their incredible flights of fancy and return safely to earth. In fact, most of the The Beatles’ recordings are such fine ensemble pieces, with each member providing an important piece of the jigsaw, it’s hard to take Ringo’s contributions out of context. Nonetheless, what follows are ten of my favourite drumming performances in their catalogue – moments of real Starr quality, if you like, exceptional even by his superlative standards. I’ve opted to do this list in chronological order, to illustrate the way he developed over the years.
1. I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You) (Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, 1962)
As I mentioned earlier, the lo-fi live album recorded in Germany in late December 1962 is a great showcase for Ringo’s power and precision, demonstrating how he instantly moved the band up to another level. The primitive nature of the recording means the drums are really in your face here, and the energy of the playing on tracks like ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset is exhilarating, like proto-punk (but with more musicality). He can be loose and lithe when the material calls for it, too (his playing on the lilting ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ is just achingly right), but on the more rocking numbers he really delivers fireworks – none more so than on this Elvis cover. The song careers around wildly on his frantic beat and rapid-fire fills, but he never loses control. Quite showy, by Ringo standards, but brilliant. The first version I had of this album in the mid-1980s (on cassette) erroneously featured an old shot of the band with Pete Best on the cover. My Dad duly assumed he was the man behind the kit and, when this song came on, said: “Well, there’s nothing wrong with this drumming, is there?” He wasn’t wrong.
2. Twist and Shout (Please Please Me, 1963)
After a shaky start in his first recording session with the band at Abbey Road, which led to George Martin booking a session drummer as insurance when they came to record debut single ‘Love Me Do’, Ringo quickly found his feet in the studio, as his fantastic playing on their follow-up, ‘Please Please Me’, demonstrates. Likewise, their first album is laced with terrific drumming, notably on ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Anna’. But he saved the best until last, on this classic cover of the Isley Brothers’ hit. The drums are such an integral part of its appeal, and it sounds like he’s smashing through brick walls at some points. But what I really love is the way he tracks and underpins the vocals, helping the others build to a frenzy during the climbing harmonies section, and supporting John’s rasping lead. The rat-tat ending is just right, too. Magic.
3. Little Child (With The Beatles, 1963)
This isn’t one of their finest early compositions; in fact, I’d say it’s the weakest track on their second album. What saves it, however, is the performance – and Ringo’s playing, in particular. There’s nothing especially clever about it, especially during the regular verse/chorus sections. But during the instrumental break in the middle it explodes, as he bashes the hell out of his kit amid a flurry of cymbals (he’s always great on his cymbals). It meshes fantastically with the piano and harmonica parts, and by the time John starts singing again, you feel quite giddy.
4. Ticket to Ride (Help!, 1965)
While the drums are quite prominent on their first two albums, by Beatles For Sale at the end of 1964, they seem to have been downgraded a little, buried in the mix. However, this tune – their first release of 1965 – returns them to centrestage, and is unquestionably one of Ringo’s finest moments with the group. While it was apparently Paul who came up with the quirky rhythm which propels the song, as Ringo likes to say, it’s all about the fills (the bits where drummers veer off from the song’s main beat to do their own thing) – and the fills here are extraordinary. In keeping with The Beatles’ creative ethos, every time John sings “a ticket to ri-hi-hide” on the chorus, Ringo comes up with something different, keeping the listener on their toes. And, after a series of drum rolls, the way he echoes the sense of emotional exhaustion and resignation in John’s voice on the final chorus with just a single hit of the skins is genius.
5. You Won’t See Me (Rubber Soul, 1965)
This has long been one of my Fabs favourites, and if any Beatles numbers can be said to be criminally underrated, this is surely it. Listening to it again recently, I realised how the drumming is so integral to its charms. Right from the opening crash, Ringo’s playing is artful, direct and elegant, once again perfectly in tune with the needs of the song. The core beat is decorated with subtle cymbals and endless fills, and the way he leads the band into the middle eight part (“Time after time…”) keeps everything flowing so naturally, you don’t notice how clever it is.
6. Rain (b-side, 1966)
One of Ringo’s personal favourites and among his most highly regarded efforts, the flip side of ‘Paperback Writer’ is an obvious choice. His performance is just dazzling. As the others brought in ever-more complex songs, he rose to the challenge time and time again. I can’t even tell you how he achieves some of this, it’s like he’s on another plain here. The drums are almost the lead instrument, and pull off the amazing trick of anchoring the song but somehow disorienting you at the same time. Kudos goes to George Martin’s production, Paul’s stupendous bass playing and (of course) John’s hazy, trippy song, but Ringo is the Starr of the show on this.
7. A Day in the Life (Sgt. Pepper, 1967)
Another inevitable pick, I suppose.There is so much going on in this track, but it just wouldn’t be the same without Ringo’s contributions. He doesn’t even appear until almost 50 seconds in, but what an introduction – the deft little fill behind “He blew his mind out in a car”. Then the rhythm starts in earnest, leaning heavily on tom-toms to build the song as John ethereal observations gather momentum. His playing here is so skillful and sensitive, it’s like a little work of art in itself. The pace picks up for Paul’s bouncy middle eight, then it’s back to the original pattern for the final verse, only a little faster as the song nears its crescendo. Ringo’s work gives it all a deep, sonorous ‘bottom end’, yet is lively and articulate in its own right. It’s just perfect.
8. It’s All Too Much (Yellow Submarine, 1967)
Ringo goes epic on George’s psychedelic tour de force, recorded in 1967 but not released until early 1969. It’s such a grandiose, powerhouse number, it needed drums to match or the whole enterprise would’ve collapsed under the weight of its ambitions. Ringo doesn’t disappoint, attacking his kit from the get-go with real vigour, and the whole thing bristles with energy. It’s one of his more muscular, busy outings, and he sounds like he’s having a blast. It’s certainly a long way from ‘Love Me Do’.
9. Here Comes The Sun (Abbey Road, 1969)
The Beatles’ final recorded album might just be Ringo’s finest hour (or 47 minutes). It’s a masterclass of drumming, from the adroit rumblings of ‘Come Together’ to the simple but expertly executed solo which kicks off ‘The End’. I could’ve chosen almost any track here, but have gone for this Harrison tune because it illustrates, for the umpteenth time, how Ringo instinctively knew what his bandmates needed. His drums (intertwined with Paul’s bass) are like galloping horses pulling the song into sunlit uplands, giving it the joyful impetus the lyrics demand. And his dexterity and imagination are in full bloom during the “sun sun, here it comes” instrumental section, leading us on a merry dance before returning us home for the breezy finale. Breathtaking stuff.
10. You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road, 1969)
One thing that definitely showcases Ringo’s playing on this album is the production – he never sounded better. It highlights how good he was, and this number is another stellar example. Again, for the first minute or so, you hear only some delicate cymbals here and there, but when he comes in on the “out of college…” section, it’s just electrifying. And listen to the way he shifts gears slightly to set up the “one sweet dream…” part, and then dives into fill heaven during the extended fade-out, dropping cymbal bombs all over the place. It’s majestic. It’s awesome. It’s Ringo.
Honourable mentions: ‘You Really Got A Hold On Me’, ‘Wait’, ‘She Said, She Said’, ‘I Am The Walrus’, ‘I’m So Tired’, ‘Something’….. in fact, pretty much everything they recorded. He scarcely missed a beat during their entire career. Ringo didn’t get lucky getting into The Beatles. The Beatles got lucky getting him.