In defence of Ringo Starr a masterful drummer and the Beatles’ unsung genius

He may have lacked precision and showmanship and he did write Octopuss Garden. But those who dismiss Ringo as a journeyman who got lucky wildly underestimate a rhythmic powerhouse

In 1983, the British comedian Jasper Carrott made an unhelpful contribution to Beatles legend when he coined a joke that would go down in history: Ringo isnt the best drummer in the world, he quipped. He isnt even the best drummer in the Beatles.

It resonated, to the extent that it entered into Beatles lore as the wisdom of John Lennon. That was eventually debunked by Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn but the misrepresentation says a great deal about the publics perception of Ringo Starr: a non-musician who got lucky, a journeyman alongside three musical geniuses.

This is total nonsense. Ringo, whose new album Give More Love has just come out, wasnt just the funniest Beatle, the life and soul of those early press conferences; and he wasnt just the best drummer in the Beatles. He was the best drummer for the Beatles.

This is a vital distinction to make. His beats may not have had the furious technical clarity of Led Zeppelins John Bonham, say, or the phenomenal precision of James Browns drummer, Clyde Stubblefield. But what he had was perfect for the Beatles, where Bonham would have been too showy and Stubblefield too tight.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Ringo Starr, centre, with the Beatles. Photograph: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Most drummers recognise this. Define best drummer in the world, Dave Grohl said in a tribute video for Starrs Rock & Roll Hall of Fame presentation. Is it someone thats technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.

What this means is that many of Ringos best performances go unnoticed. These are beats designed to enhance the song rather than show off the drummers abilities. Take She Loves You, the song that kicked off Beatlemania. Ringos brief introductory tom roll is the shot of adrenaline that gets the heart of the song thumping; it is teen mania in sound, and one of the most important drum rolls in recorded music history.

On Cant Buy Me Love, Ringos drumming is the primal force that drives the songs hormonal energy, all whipcrack snare and floor-tom bombast, wrapped up in Ringos signature sound: a wall-of-sound hi-hat thrash that sounds like five drummers at once. His drumming here is not complicated but as numerous live versions of the song attest it is lethally exact with not a note out of place, giving the lie to the notion, repeated by John Lennon in a 1980 Playboy interview, that Ringo was not technically good as a drummer.

Another criticism of Ringo is that he wasnt a creative god like the other Beatles. He didnt write the songs and he wasnt a studio genius like producer George Martin, who helped to mould Lennon, McCartney and Harrisons tunes into something spectacular. Again, this is nonsense. Octopuss Garden may not put Ringo into the songwriters hall of fame, but his drumming helped to shape countless Beatles classics, bringing personality and life to them.

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Consider Tomorrow Never Knows, one of the most influential Beatles songs. How would it sound without Ringos beautifully lopsided breakbeat, his unexpected twitching snare pattern emphasising the songs feel of psychedelic discombobulation? How would <a href=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UQK-UcRezE” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Strawberry Fields Forever feel without Ringos fantastically weary tom fills, which seems to drag the listener down into Lennons nostalgia?

Some people consider Ringo to be a terrible drummer because he doesnt play solos. But who, apart from other drummers, really enjoys a solo? Ringo knew this and for years resisted all attempts to get him to play them, eventually giving in for the 15-second break on Abbey Roads The End. Its not flashy or difficult, but it has an understated funky charm and when it turned up on Beastie Boys The Sounds of Science 20 years later, it was hard to resist a smile.

In fact The Sounds of Science, which also borrows Ringos strident drum beat from Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise), shows just how funky Ringos drums could be when recontextualised. One producer who understood this well was Danger Mouse, whose 2004 release The Grey Album married Jay-Zs The Black Album to the Beatles LP The Beatles to wonderful effect. Ringos breakbeats are a key tool in making the album fly, whether chopped up for their unique timbre or used straight for their head-down funk.

The Chemical Brothers also borrowed the shape of the Tomorrow Never Knows beat for both Setting Sun and Let Forever Be, while J Dilla sampled Starrs 1974 solo song Occapella on In the Streets. Other Ringo solo songs that prove the funk didnt end when the Beatles split include the lolling glam funk of Back Off Boogaloo, the irresistible disco-ish stomp of Oh My My and the rolling percussive waves of It Dont Come Easy, which has the added bonus of supporting an absolutely fantastic tune.

At 77, being the butt of drumming jokes is certainly not going to faze the famously phlegmatic Ringo Starr. But underestimate him at your peril. Because if you dont get Ringo Starr, then youre only getting three quarters of the Beatles and thats no laughing matter.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/19/ringo-starr-great-drummer-the-beatles-genius

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