BY JOE BOSSO | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
As a musical group and a cultural force, The Beatles were a sum of their parts. To suggest that they could have seized our attention and buried themselves in the thicket of our senses without even one of their essential elements would be folly. Any front line that combined the matchless powers of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison called for somebody special behind the drum kit. It called for a star, and they didn’t have to look far to find one.
Fortunately for the young Beatles of 1962, a fellow Liverpudlian named Richard Starkey had all the qualities they needed. He had even rechristened himself Ringo Starr—an absurdly hubristic stage name for anyone else but one that was especially apt for the genial, unassuming, sad-eyed chap with the elongated schnoz and a Liberace-esque penchant for wearing two glittering rings on each hand.
Fitting in took some doing. For a short period, Liverpool fans railed against The Beatles for sacking the immensely popular, handsome local boy Pete Best. But the shouts and signs that proclaimed “Pete forever, Ringo never!” were short-lived. As the group made its way to London to begin its amazing journey under the tutelage of producer George Martin, followers began to come around. By the time The Beatles’ first recordings impacted Great Britain in late ’62 and early ’63, Starr’s popularity had already eclipsed that of his bandmates—he was receiving more fan mail than the other three combined.
Director Richard Lester took notice of Starr’s inexplicable appeal, and he made sure that the drummer commanded the narrative and had the best one-liners in the band’s 1964 film debut, A Hard Day’s Night. Ringo’s comedic skills and bejeweled fingers figured even more prominently in the 1965 follow-up, Help!
Of course, none of this would have mattered if Starr couldn’t handle the musical matters at hand, and like the other Beatles, he not only played differently, but he thought differently, too. From his early ’60s tenure with Rory Storm And The Hurricanes—who rampaged their way through marathon sets in Hamburg, as had The Beatles—Starr became a relentless dynamo, able to swing, rock, and lay down a backbeat that wouldn’t quit. He kept that same driving beat with The Beatles, but as the band progressed through each exhilarating, earth-moving change, he blossomed too, providing artful, extravagant musical hooks whose worth would prove both incalculable and indelible.
This fact cannot be overstated, as Starr has taken some hits over the years from fans and even fellow drummers who make meritless claims that he wasn’t so great; that he “played for the song” and nothing more. Part of the reason for this notion is because what Starr did was so deceptively simple. It didn’t sound difficult—it wasn’t exhaustive or athletic enough—so it couldn’t have been hard. But what he achieved was more seamless and meaningful than mechanical flash: He played the perfect part at the perfect time.
Starr used to say that he played “funny little fills,” a modest assessment of the curious way he would lead with his left hand. (He’s a lefty who plays his kit as a righty.) Because of this, he’s practically impossible to mimic. One might be able to play his patterns by reading tabs or studying videos, but it’s impossible to download his feel.
Beyond that, there’s the inescapable matter of sheer style, and Starr radiated wondrously idiosyncratic flair. Whether he was tossing his shaggy fringe from side to side behind the drum kit, crooning forlornly on tracks like “Yellow Submarine,” or tossing off random malapropisms like “it’s been a hard day’s night,” “tomorrow never knows,” or other weird, head-scratching phrases that magically became catalysts for Beatles songs, he was always—inevitably—“just Ringo.” And The Beatles were the better for it.
Should you remain steadfast in your belief that “playing for the song” is just some thankless, mundane task, here are ten recorded moments that might make you think differently.
‘Please Please Me’
The song that introduced The Beatles in the UK bears another, perhaps greater distinction: It’s the tune that convinced Starr he was a bona fide member of the band. During the recording of the group’s debut single, “Love Me Do,” in September 1962, Starr—who had only been in the band for a month—was relieved of drum duties and handed a tambourine. Producer Martin, wishing to take no chances with an untested drummer, opted to use a “professional” session player by the name of Andy White. Starr was devastated, and while he dutifully—and dourly—hit accents on the tambourine, he thought to himself, That’s the end. They’re doing a Pete Best on me.
Nothing of the kind occurred, of course. While the album versions are indeed White’s performance, the first pressing of the single included Starr’s drumming, as did The Beatles’ next single two months later. At first, “Please Please Me” was slow and bluesy—Lennon’s attempt at writing something in the vein of Roy Orbison’s “Only The Lonely.” Martin thought the tempo was all wrong—“very dreary”—and pushed the band to instead record “How Do You Do It?,” a Mitch Murray composition. After a standoff in which the boys insisted on recording their own songs for singles, a new direction took hold: losing Lennon’s harmonica harmony and, more importantly, increasing the tempo.
When one hears “Please Please Me,” it’s impossible to consider that it ever existed any other way. Led by Starr’s blissful, exuberant drumming, the track grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go. Starr commands the urgent, yearning verses with a splashy ride pattern, and he deftly navigates the song’s romping chord changes and dynamics with breezy snare and tom rolls that build to an overwhelming sense of euphoria. At the tune’s full-throttle finale, he lets loose with a series of hooky, wildcat snare-and-crash blasts that put to rest the idea that anybody else in the world belonged on that drummer’s throne.
‘She Loves You’
From the tumultuous two-count tom intro of Starr’s drums on “She Loves You,” you know you’re in for a knockout. Two seconds in, it’s apparent that something daringly new is going on. Unlike other pop tunes of the past two decades, the song starts on the chorus—the frenzied “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain that would spawn inferior copycats on both sides of the Atlantic for years to come. And there’s Starr, pounding out a jungle-surf beat on the toms, but catching each exclamation with a firecracker wallop on the snare. Even if it stopped right there you’d have a winner. But of course, there’s much, much more to follow.
Starr dances through the buoyant verses, sloshing merrily on an open hi-hat in a swinging, back-and-forth style, where less idiosyncratic drummers would have battered the damn thing like they were using a hammer. With each cry of “She loves you,” he punctuates the line with a whiplash snare roll and cymbal crash—anything more would have murdered the moment, anything less would have seemed empty.
Starr is perfectly in sync with the three players in front, particularly Harrison, who punctuates “and you know that can’t be bad” with a trio of ringing, descending guitar chords. Just then, there’s Starr opening the hi-hat just slightly, foreshadowing the galvanic response “and you know you should be glad—wooo,” to which he lands yet another monster snare roll. He’s not just along for the ride—he’s driving the car.
‘I Feel Fine’
When The Beatles recorded “I Feel Fine” in October 1964, they were on top of the world. Rather than regurgitate iterations of their sound, they were searching for new sonic treatments, even seizing upon studio “accidents.” One day, when the band was headed into the control room to listen to a take, Lennon leaned his acoustic-electric Gibson against an amp. Jarring, gnawing feedback rang out. The band was riveted and instructed Martin to put the sound on record.
And so “I Feel Fine” starts, and after Harrison’s splendid, arpeggiated opening riff, Starr grabs hold. Although the song is in 4/4 time, Starr performs the verses as something of a subtle hybrid of mambo and R&B, the main influence being the Latin feel in Ray Charles’ hit “What’d I Say.” While teasing the ride cymbal with a groovy, heavily accented “stuttering” pattern, he alternates between the tom and snare rim clicks as if they were conga drums—a sexy and stylish flow that works as the perfect counterpoint to Harrison’s distinctive lead lines.
Starr switches gears in the chorus, bearing down on a fierce backbeat laced with his signature sloshy hi-hat. Coming out of the brief instrumental reprise of the song’s guitar hook, he jackhammers the snare and kick before diving headlong back into the song’s main groove. “I Feel Fine” topped the charts in both the UK and the US.
‘In My Life’
By the time of 1965’s Rubber Soul, The Beatles were growing tired of the boy-girl unrequited love themes that put them on the charts. Lennon, in particular, was now heavily under the spell of Bob Dylan, and he began to explore more personal lyrics. When it was suggested by a friend that he write about his childhood, Lennon penned a long poem that he initially hated, but gradually, he turned the words into a stark and absorbing meditation of his past.
The instrumentation on “In My Life” matched the song’s gentle Baroque pop—Lennon on softly strummed electric rhythm, Harrison playing lattice-like riffs, McCartney performing understated bass lines. As for Starr, he provided a subtle rhythmic underpinning that is perhaps the song’s greatest sonic asset. Rather than keep a straight 2 and 4 beat, he composed an arresting and memorable soft-funk rhythm based around the hi-hat, snare, and bass drum—he doesn’t even touch his toms and crashes—and only attends to the ride during the tune’s captivating bridges (“In my life, I’ve loved them all”) where he splits his time between quarter- and eighth-note patterns.
Starr later overdubbed a tasteful tambourine part that underscored the song’s wistful lyrics, and Martin added a brilliantly composed, Bach-influenced piano solo section that sounded remarkably like a harpsichord. Everything came together to complete what Lennon would later call his “first real major piece of work.”
Three months before they released the groundbreaking Revolver album in August 1966, The Beatles signaled that big changes were still afoot with the appearance of the single “Paperback Writer,” backed by “Rain.” Both recordings were startling departures for the fast-evolving group—neither song addressed romantic relationships or even sounded like the work of The Beatles. The guitars were clanging and raw, McCartney’s bass was pushed to the center of the mix, and Starr seemed to have replaced his drumheads with trashcan lids.
Listeners who were already taken aback by the barnstorming rock of “Paperback Writer” got more than they could handle when they flipped the single over and got a load of the droning, proto-metal B-side. Like its A-side brother, “Rain” was cut louder than previous Beatles songs due to a new piece of gear that young engineer Geoff Emerick had discovered: the “Automatic Transient Overload Control.” The ATOC pushed the dB levels to the max, and its effect on Starr’s drum tracks was astonishing. (Another Emerick innovation: stuffing a wool sweater inside Starr’s bass drum and miking it closer than ever before, resulting in a thunderous boom.)
For those who disparage Starr as an unadventurous drummer, “Rain” should prove to be an ear-opener. After firing off bracing snare shots, he’s all over the kit by the halfway point of the first verse, and he stays that way through the entire song, free-forming fills and never repeating a phrase. The Beatles cut five takes of the rhythm track, recording them at a fast tempo but then slowing down the tape, which resulted in lower tones and a more disorienting drum sound.
Rather than a standard-issue guitar solo, there’s a break at 2:24 during which McCartney performs a booming, squiggly run. Starr locks in with him, matching every note on the snare before taking off wildly into the song’s psychedelic coda, replete with Lennon’s drug-induced backward chants. Summing up his own work on the track, Starr is anything but humble, at one point calling it “the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’
The songwriting and sonic advancements made by The Beatles were coming at a furious pace in the mid-’60s. Revolver is generally regarded as the band’s masterpiece, with each track offering a new surprise. Listeners might have been overwhelmed by the time they got to the closing number, asking themselves, “What more is there left to do?” And the answer was: plenty.
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is about as radical as a pop song can be. It is primarily the work of Lennon, who composed the lyrics after reading Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. And, oh yes, he was consuming a whole lot of LSD during this period. Martin raised a producer’s wary eyeball when Lennon suggested the idea that a song could be based around one chord—there is a brief modulation from C to B flat—but he and engineer Emerick dutifully went about indulging the artist’s whims. And the results were staggering.
There are tape loops galore—seagull sounds, an orchestra droning on a B-flat chord, a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass—along with backward guitar solos and other bits of aural experimentation. Underneath Lennon’s almost unrecognizable sneer (altered by a Leslie speaker and artificial double-tracking) is a pounding, hypnotic, and utterly sensational drum performance by Starr. Playing on slackened tom heads, his minimalist pattern of eighth-notes on the crash (with a subtle variation on his snare-and-tom work from “Ticket To Ride”) barely waivers. Paired with McCartney’s equally repetitive bass line, it’s the perfect underpinning for this daring musical free-for-all.
Once the band finished the recording, McCartney eagerly played it for Bob Dylan, who offered the following summation: “Oh, I get it. You don’t want to be cute anymore.”
‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
A complex piece of work, written and recorded in piecemeal fashion over many months, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is one of The Beatles’ most astonishing tracks, and it also offers a full menu of Starr’s drumming skills.
Several iterations of the song were attempted in the last two months of 1966—it almost made Sgt. Pepper, but was instead issued as a B-side to “Penny Lane”—varying in moods from somber to raucous. After reviewing two completely different takes, both featuring Lennon and McCartney on Mellotron, Lennon asked Martin if they could work up an entirely new feel—something “more dreamy.” The final version of “Strawberry Fields” is mostly this third version with the second half of the second take, joined together with scissors by Martin and Emerick.
The resulting single features a cavalcade of musical riches—brass and cellos, backward cymbals, swarmandal (an Indian zither), pitch-shifting—and Starr matches the moods and dynamics with the precision of an orchestral percussionist. He’s a long way from being that basher at the Cavern as he glides thoughtfully and tastefully on a snare-and-bass-drum backbeat through the song’s first verses, his rolling tom fills foreshadowing the same masterful approach he would use two years later on Harrison’s “Something.”
With each new verse, he opens the kit up more, laying down a furious sixteenth-note groove on the floor tom while increasing the intensity of his fills. By the final verse, taken from the “harder” second take, he’s bearing down like he’s in a drum line. After the innovative fade-out/fade-in fake, Starr is in full freak-out mode, performing some of his most flamboyant and sophisticated licks before the whole thing ebbs away with Lennon’s infamous “cranberry sauce” line, which many listeners thought was “I bury Paul,” one more element of the “Paul is dead” hoax.
‘A Day In The Life’
The final number on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was actually the first track The Beatles recorded for what originally began as a concept album about their childhoods in Liverpool. Thought by many to be the band’s finest song, it’s certainly their most ambitious work, one that blends psychedelic, folk, and art rock to form a stylistic whole that grows in meaning with each repeated listening.
Lennon and McCartney frequently combined song fragments for wondrous results. In “A Day In The Life,” the two widely disparate sections—Lennon’s dreamy, transportive main verses and McCartney’s perky, extended bridge—are miraculously married in a way that would have vexed most songwriters. Throughout this remarkable composition, Starr elevates himself from being a crafty, inventive timekeeper to that of a distinguished composer.
Lesser drummers might have approached Lennon’s folk-flavored first verses with a straight beat or even a soft shuffle, but Starr treats them as musical theater, dispensing with the idea of rhythm in favor of those well-placed, well-spaced tom flurries. Played on low-tuned calfskin heads and drenched with echo, they sound like timpani in a concert hall, contrasting with the spine-tingling effect of Lennon’s detached, almost otherworldly vocals.
After an orchestral crescendo and the ring of an alarm clock, Starr keeps militaristic pace with McCartney through the cheeky “woke up, fell out of bed/dragged a comb across my head” section, and then we’re plunged back into Lennon’s kaleidoscopic vision. Here, Starr is in full bloom, working double-duty as a peerless timekeeper and a virtuoso pit drummer, providing ingeniously propulsive tom licks that rise up to meet Lennon as the song spirits away to its shattering conclusion.
The Beatles’ swan song, Abbey Road, kicks off with what Martin called his favorite recording by the band: “Come Together,” Lennon’s swampy blues rocker that borrowed more than a thing or two from his idol Chuck Berry.
Throughout the latter part of the ’60s, the sound of Starr’s drums had changed radically from the ringing, splashy vibrancy of The Beatles’ earlier recordings. Now they were lower, dryer, even muted. This sonic shift was brought about by Emerick, who experimented with various muffling techniques, such as draping tea towels across the drums to add more bottom-end punch to their sound.
Emerick’s innovations worked wonders on the minimalistic drum figures Starr employed on “Come Together.” Coming off a sixteenth-note triplet on the hi-hat, Starr plays what is now one of his signature licks, a melodic triplet roll across the toms—“tapita tapita tapita tap”—that segues into the backbone of the song, a floor tom–led pattern that sounds both groovy and ominous. On the next two choruses, he transcends the “less is more” ethos with beautifully placed snare cracks on the 2 and 4, and it is not until the organ/guitar solo section that he opens the kit up, laying down a driving rhythm on the crash and snare. For the final chorus, he reduces his playing to a single quarter-note bass drum pattern before taking flight once again.
All in all, it’s a masterful performance that once again underscores Starr’s ability to compose the perfect hooks and to play exactly what is needed at exactly the right point in a song.
The penultimate track on Abbey Road—and the last song recorded collectively by all four members—gave us something we’d never heard before: an honest-to-goodness Ringo Starr drum solo. “The End” gives us something else too: a chance to hear the other three Beatles trade guitar solos. It features a wicked display of the other three Beatles’ individualistic six-string chops in a blistering section of hard-rock glory; the three go at it with a series of two-bar blasts. (For those keeping score at home, it’s McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, in that order.)
Starr famously hated drum solos—he’d always preferred to function as a crafty accompanist—but he was swept up in the spirit of the band to end their career on this extended instrumental spree. In truth, Starr’s section didn’t start out as a true solo; he originally played to guitar and tambourine accompaniment, both of which were muted in the final mix.
He begins with a forceful eighth-note pattern on the bass drum and keeps it going while hitting a dramatic series of tom fills, alternating his sticking approach (left to right when working his way down, right to left when moving up) before wailing on the floor tom. With his drums now wide in the mix, he opens the door for the other three Beatles to rush in like gangbusters for their fiery axe gunfight.
True to form, Starr’s solo is a model of precision and efficiency, and it’s a non-stop hook-a-thon—you can even sing the drum parts. While other drummers filled whole album sides with free-form solos that dragged on interminably, Starr gave listeners a shining 20 seconds they’ll always remember.