Happy Birthday Ringo! The Drummer Who Served the Song

ringo 1

Ringo turns 77 on 07/17 and I wish him peace and love. The numbers look great with all those sevens. Ringo isn’t settling down with his comfy slippers just yet. As recently as February of this year, he was working with Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh on new material.

In interviews he is the boss, takes no prisoners and is unafraid to show his disdain if merited. He can be generous but interviewees know the rules. He likes to look forward, reluctant to go into great detail about the Beatles, unless, of course, it suits what he’s promoting like new albums or books, such as 2015’s, Photograph (Genesis Publications).

He still doesn’t do autographs and these days he doesn’t shake hands either, preferring to bump elbows instead. In public, he’s seldom seen without his sunglassesI love his eccentricities and crankiness, he can do as he pleases, he’s Ringo Starr.

I’m often asked to name my favourite drummer. People assume I’ll chose the heavy hitters; John Bonham, Ginger Baker, Dave Grohl. The entertainers and showmen like Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa or Keith Moon, or the technicians, guys like Steve Gadd, Carmine Appice or Billy Cobham.

The answer has always been Ringo Starr, closely followed by Charlie Watts. I know why they’re my favourite drummers; they serve the song. Ringo or Charlie are rarely quoted in the upper echelons of what is assumed to be ‘the best drummers ever’ yet they have drummed on some of the best and most iconic albums and singles of the 20th Century.

Since it’s Ringo’s birthday, let’s chat about him.

To me, the most important thing about ever being in a band is that shared love of music and the excitement of making and buying and listening to records, not technique. I’d rather be in a band with someone who was a good guitarist with a great record collection than someone who was a virtuoso with a crap one. I’ve always thought music made by people who have been music fans from childhood shows so much more emotion. Who wants to be in a band with anyone who buys guitar magazines instead of the NME?

When the Beatles decided they wanted to jettison Pete Best they had Ringo in their sights. He was a much sought after drummer. While playing in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes he was quoted. They famously were set to support Eddie Cochran in Liverpool but Eddie was killed during the British tour in April 1960. Most of the other bands in Liverpool at the time recognised he had swing, groove and great timing. While Rory and the Hurricanes were playing Butlins, Kingsize Taylor offered Ringo £20 a week to join The Dominoes to replace their drummer Dave Lovelady. Ringo accepted but was then offered £25 a week by Lennon and McCartney to replace Pete Best in The Beatles.

As well as being a great drummer, Ringo had a huge range of styles and most crucially, was a music fan who could play and copy different styles. Along with the other Beatles, Ringo loved Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Gene Vincent. He brought shuffle and swing from his dance band background and somewhere in the centre of all that pop, soul, rock ‘n’ roll and great music you can dance to, you get the essence of what Ringo’s brought to the band. Swing, groove, style, feel and taste.

He was the missing piece of the jigsaw and when he did join, which often happens in bands, everything gelled. Suddenly The Beatles were propelled toward super stardom. Ringo’s distinctive style brought out and enhanced John and Paul’s growing repertoire of songs.

Due to his attitude and down-to-earth nature and because he was the drummer in a band that spawned two of the best songwriters in pop and rock history – George Harrison wasn’t too shabby either, Ringo is often treated as the lucky guy along for the ride who was great with a quip. He’s almost unfairly gone into folklore, as the guy who got the break of a lifetime rather than someone brought in because of his talent as a great drummer. Only people who don’t understand music would slag off Ringo.

It might be fairer to say that Ringo, to the outsider, may not be a flashy drummer but he was exactly the drummer that John and Paul wanted and in fact probably needed and was perfect for the job. He played with great imagination and feel, there’s loads of emotion in his playing, especially the fills. He shuffled brilliantly, usually just behind the groove, giving Lennon and McCartney the launch pad, the structure and foundations that would help catapult the band. He was serving the song. John and Paul wanted swing and Ringo had it. It was also his broad influence of taste and style that attracted the attention of Lennon and McCartney.

ringo shay

If they said to Ringo, play an R&B shuffle like Milt Turner, the drummer on Ray Charles’s ‘What I’d Say’ he’d be able to do it and actually did so on ‘I Feel Fine.’

Here’s an isolated version of ‘I Feel Fine’…

Sometimes efficiently trained drummers are so wrapped up in technique, they can drown the feel, invention and imagination. It’s great to show off complex patterns copied from Rush’s Neal Peart but does it add anything to the song? I’m not saying basic rudiments aren’t worth learning, in fact, I wished I had a rudiments exercise book and practised them. I listened to my older brothers’ records to learn drums. I can play fast and slow, hard and loud and if I don’t get distracted or start day dreaming, can do that for four minutes.

By playing along to Charlie Watts, Marky Ramone or Dinky Diamond and playing to ‘Do Anything You Want To Do’ by Eddie and the Hot Rods, I would be learning to be in the centre, serving the song. By listening to and trying to copy Clem Burke, Stewart Copeland, or Ian Paice doing ‘Union City Blues’, ‘Message in a Bottle’, or ‘Smoke on the Water’ I was learning about timing and dynamic and different styles.

I remember being obsessed with the drums and the drummer on Top of the Pops when Sparks were on with ‘This Town Aint Big Enough For The Both of Us’. I loved his drums, the colour of his huge kit. I also loved the song, I understood the whole package of the pop song, especially appreciating the dynamic and role of the drummer.

I wouldn’t know about time signatures or backbeats or transitions going into to the bridge and chorus. I was a pop fan. I knew that the drummer was the late Dinky Diamond and he was amazing I did know  The Rubettes ‘Sugar Baby Love’ kept Sparks off Number 1.

Buddy Rich famously slagged off Ringo stating ‘he was adequate, no more than that.’ I’m sure Buddy could have sat in and delivered a competent session of the drumming to ‘Ticket to Ride’ for example, but would he bring that idiosyncratic solidity, imagination and taste?

ringo studio 2

There are many great Ringo highlights. The drum fills on ‘A Day in the Life’. The excitement on the early singles, and energy on ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Twist and Shout’. The playing is exemplary on ‘And I love Her’ and ‘Your Mother Should Know’ and of course most of Abbey Road.  Ringo’s favourite drumming performance is on ‘Rain’. I also love the sound and feel on ‘Lady Madonna’ where he plays two separate drum tracks.

Ringo’s career as a Beatle is probably distilled and perfectly summed up in the drumming on ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Here we have the perfect example of the musician aiming to marry the Eastern trippy psychedelic looping feel John Lennon wanted. Ringo’s imagination and expression (as well as sterling studio trickery with the toms slackened and heavily compressed) but again, the drummer, right in the centre, serving and adding to the song.

Here is a link to Ringo’s best bits. Where he is at his best, serving the song.

There is one small tip I learned years ago when listening and playing along to an album called a Collection of Beatles Oldies which I picked up for 99p in Paddy’s Market. Ringo (Keith Moon too) were fond of drumming along with the vocal. If you do that while drumming to a Beatles song, along with leading to the toms with your left hand as Ringo was left handed- you won’t go far wrong.

Thanks again and happy birthday, Ringo.

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