Saturday, October 21, 2006
In Praise of Ringo
Okay. So everyone knows that Ringo Starr is the most underrated drummer ever.
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.
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 down 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 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.
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 I’m not sure anything 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. No 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,” “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 Allah exists and that He loves us.
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.
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 in the entire world. And yet they kept going back to Ringo again and again and again.
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.