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A Ringo: The Importance of Richard Starkey to the Beatles and the World
John. Paul. George. Ringo. This is the unofficial standard order in which the names of the Beatles are to be spoken or written; it was true during their prime and it is true of their legacy. Not only does it roll off the tongue nicely, but it also teaches fans and the world the order of their talent, contribution, and importance to the band. This order is never mixed up and is hardly questioned. Maybe it should be. The man who put the beat in Beatles, Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr, has received the least acclaim for his fourth of the Fab Four. The least is known about his journey to starrdom, his role in the Beatles, and his beliefs and messages. Ringo has often been thought of as a tag-along to his worthier mates. While he certainly kept worthy company, he has an incredibly unique story of his own and contributed a great deal to the most successful band in history. Because of his poor childhood, in money and health, Bill Harry considers Ringo's the greatest rags-to-riches story of his time (3). As the drummer of the Beatles, he provided a rock-steady pulse to the music and to the lives of his bandmates. In 1992, Ringo said, “We are the only ones who know each other. We knew what it was like. They are the only two that don't look at me like I'm a Beatle. They look at me like I'm a Ringo, and I look at him like he's a Paul or a George,” (Doggett 296). Well, what is a Ringo and what exactly does one do? A Ringo is someone who overcomes disadvantageous situations and misfortune, but does not miss a beat in preaching and living peace and love. A Ringo could be angry about his past, but a Ringo finds that energy better invested in happiness. A Ringo carries with him, and shares with others, the playfulness and joy of youth. Richard Starkey is no doubt a Ringo.
Ringo Starr was born Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940 in the Dingle area of Liverpool. The name Starkey dates back to 1260 and means “dry and unyielding” (Harry 28), but the events and character of his life are anything but. Ringo was born nine months after the start of World War II and he always says his mother would joke and say the war started because of him. The Liverpool Blitz, the “heavy and sustained bombing of the British city of Liverpool and its surrounding area,” began just a month after his birth (Wikipedia). Liverpool was an important target for the Germans because it is a large and crucial port on the River Mersey, which was the United Kingdom's main link to the United States. Coincidentally, the Mersey would later be the United Kingdom's greatest musical link to the United States as well, with the British Invasion. Before America could discover Ringo – Brian Epstein has said the Beatles going to America for the first time was really America discovering Ringo – he had to survive his childhood. Although he is a true advocate of peace, he certainly had many battles to fight in the early going.
Bill Harry claims, “Ritchie had the most remarkable journey of them all on his way to becoming one of the most famous men in the world. He was born in extreme poverty, deserted by a father when he was three and reared by a single parent who lavished love on him, but had to struggle to make ends meet on a job as a barmaid,” (2). Liverpool was in turmoil, and Dingle was one of its poorest and roughest sections, with little hope to offer its young. On top of that, Ringo was especially disadvantaged with ill-health. He nearly died (earning him the nickname Lazarus with the children in his neighborhood), spent several of his prime developmental years in hospitals, could hardly attend school or normal functions (he was the only Beatle not to go to grammar school), and “seemed likely to live his whole life mired in poverty” (Harry 3).
Ringo Starr's first love, drumming, was enough to make sure he never had to face that poverty again. He says, “I'm your basic offbeat drummer with funny fills. The fills were funny because I'm really left-handed playing a right-handed kit. I can't roll around the drums because of that,” (Harry 44). Forced to try things right-handed by his grandmother, he learned to drum in his own style. The result was the steadiest drummer around with a distinguishable sound. Because he cannot lead with his right hand and arranges his kit as though he can, his strengths and weaknesses are literally the reverse of most drummers. He says, “I have to start with my left hand. If I come off the snare onto the tom-tom, I can't go onto the other tom, to the floor tom. That's why we used to call them funny fills” (Harry 44-45). This means he cannot roll smoothly from left to right (from his view) but can roll the opposite direction better than anyone (from the floor tom all the way back up to the snare). This is what gave him his unique sound, which is what gave the Beatles their unique sound on so many of their songs.
The value of the addition of his drumming to the Beatles can be heard by a quick listen to his predecessor, Pete Best. One of the most marvelous things about the Beatles is the sheer amount of information and archived material available, and that includes the bad. Three months before Ringo was to join the band, they auditioned for Parlophone on June 6, 1962, with Best. Available today is that audition tape of “Love Me Do”1. The mood of the song is quite flat, and that starts with the drummer. The beat is messy and the tempo is unclear, although apparently basic. It lacks the steady movement, the life, that Ringo was able to use to energize the music. This dramatic difference is noticeable as early as their first single, “Please Please Me,”2 which is far from Ringo's best drumming. Even in a song like this, a very basic verse-chorus structured song with a typical rock beat, Ringo adds his touch and carries it along wonderfully. He constantly plays off the vocals and keeps the tempo right where it needs to be, while always remaining on time and true to the beat.
All the Beatles and George Martin admit that they would often tell Ringo what they wanted him to do in a song. Some may take that information as a lack of creativity on his part, but that was not the case at all. First of all, the others were not drummers. They simply had a general idea of what beat they wanted, but they did not know what that would entail. Secondly, Ringo always delivered what they wanted. He was able to take what they said and make it work, even though what they asked for did not always make sense and was often contradictory. He had the skills to adapt to their requests while giving it his signature sound. George Martin captured this when he said, “He's got tremendous feel. He always helped us to hit the right tempo for a song, and gave it that support – that rock-solid back beat – that made the recording of the Beatles' songs that much easier. He was sympathetic. His tempos used to go up and down, but up and down in the right way to help the song” (Harry 44). Ringo comments on his nontraditional method and also on his “feel,” which he likens to dancing: “Whenever I hear another drummer I know I'm no good. I'm no good on the technical things but I'm good with all the motions, swinging my head, like. That's because I love to dance but you can't do that on drums” (Harry 44). Maybe he could not dance on his drums, but his drums have made millions dance and were an invaluable piece of the Beatles' music.
John Lennon is observed to have said, “Ringo is Ringo; that's all there is to it. And he's every bloody bit as warm, unassuming, funny and kind as he seems – he was quite simply the heart of the Beatles” (Harry 80). Lennon is not calling Starr the heart of the band simply because of his reliable drum beat, but because of all the beautiful qualities he contributed as a person. Matthew Schneider argues that the part Ringo played in the Beatles was “the buoyant child, happy to be part of the group” (127). He certainly was happy to be part of the group, because he was happy with life, but not in the condescending way Schneider suggests. His evidence is that, “In the Beatles, Ringo sang the songs that expressed the child's desire for fantasist escape,...innocent longing,...lovesick bewilderment,...and the apprehensive songs about wanting to belong and be liked,” (Schneider 128-129). The flaw in the logic is that while the songs Ringo sang (“Octopus's Garden”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Don't Pass Me By”, etc.) could fit into those categories, so could countless Beatles' songs that he did not sing, which were the staggering majority. One would not have to list many songs to refute his argument. Pointing out “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a fantasist escape and “Don't Let Me Down” as an example of lovesick bewilderment would suffice. Schneider does attempt to give credit to Ringo for adding indispensable elements that turned a band into a family:
By bringing the tentativeness and tender sensitivities of the child to the Beatles, Ringo both fills out the group's enactment of a family dynamic and connects the Beatles to one of the most pervasive and influential Romantic themes. The Romantics followed Rousseau in celebrating the joy, spontaneity, and natural creativity of children. Instead of seeing childhood as a life stage to be done with as quickly as possible, the Romantics viewed children as exemplars of pristine human nature, to be cherished and nurtured as God made them rather than warped away from their innate goodness by educational and religious institutions, (129).
It is certainly true of Ringo that his goodness was not warped away by educational and religious institutions, as he did not attend much school and says religion never did much for him. It is interesting, however, that Schneider relates this to the Romantic view of children, considering the Romantics drew their views on children from their own education and religion.
Schneider tries to capture Ringo's importance, saying, “Often underestimated as just an affable, happy-go-lucky, carefree child, Ringo was much than that. He was the thoughtful, haunted, fretful child, straight out of Blake, Wordsworth, and Carroll...As the child, Ringo completes the Beatles, and is essential to their popularity. They simply wouldn't have been who they were, or as successful as they were, without Ringo,” (152). He is absolutely correct that the Beatles would not have been as successful without Ringo, but his argument is not perfect. He also says, “Ringo is a great drummer; but with the Beatles he was more than just a drummer. He was the touchstone in the Beatles of a truly universal psychological experience: what it feels like to be a child,” (130). Again, he pays tribute to Ringo, as he is a great drummer, but his argument is not perfect.
The problem with Schneider's argument is that Ringo was not a child, but a man. He was a man who understood the value of gentleness. He lived towards peace and knew the power of love. What he failed to see was a reason to abandon playfulness and sincerity and replace them with bitterness and jadedness, and that is no failure at all. The difference between Ringo's and children's tendencies is that children are joyful and unassuming partially because they do not know or understand the negative things in the world yet. They do not understand any reason to be any other way. They live in their own worlds, which they somehow manage to separate from the worlds of everyone else. Ringo's peaceful and loving choices were not the product of naivety, but insight. He had experienced the hardships and the negative, he saw the world for what it is, and his life was anything but private/separate, but he did not stray, as a man, from the beautiful qualities often attributed to youth. Rock band Pearl Jam has a song that claims, “All that's sacred comes from youth.”3 If that is so, Ringo shows that all that is sacred does not need to end with youth.
Ringo Starr is dedicated to peace and love, and those are very mature aspirations, not childish. There is nothing but strength found in peace. It is easy to be resentful, to be bitter; anyone can do it. It is difficult and special to remain peaceful in the most challenging of times. Ringo could have looked at his past and responded with anger. Instead, he responded with love. Bill Harry says it nicely: “What he did have, despite all that had happened to him, was a gentle nature, one that wasn't poisoned by anger at his apparent early poor fortune. He was someone whose cup was half full rather than half empty,” (3).
A nice example of Ringo's peaceful strength can be found in the story of “Octopus's Garden,” both in the story of its creation and in the song itself. It took place in 1968, while the Beatles were recording The Beatles (the White Album). The group was still trying to make sense of their direction, less than a year after the death of Brian Epstein, who had always kind of taken care of that for them. Tensions were high, the future was uncertain, and it became easier to turn against each other instead of uniting, as the group found difficulty balancing individual egos and a common purpose. During a particularly stressful session it is said that Paul was harsh and very critical of Ringo's drumming, and Ringo walked out. In 1995, Ringo told his version of the story, without blaming Paul:
“I felt I wasn't playing great, and the other three were really happy, and I was an outsider. I went to see John, who was living in an apartment in Montague Square with Yoko since he moved out of Kentwood. I said, 'I'm leaving the group because I'm not playing well and I feel unloved, and out of it, and you three are really close.' And John said, 'I though it was you three!' So I went over to Paul's and knocked on his door. I said the same thing: 'I'm leaving the band. I feel you three guys are really close and I'm out of it.' And Paul said, 'I though it was you three!” (Schneider 149-150).
For Ringo, it was simple: he was not happy and did not want his time to be spent that way. He had the perception to notice that things were off, but lacked the desire to blame the others. It should also be noted that John and Paul claimed to feel the same insecurity, yet it was Ringo who approached them and made his feelings and opinions clear, the first step towards restoring peaceful relations.
The motivation for “Octopus's Garden” came during Ringo's time away from the band. He remembers,”
“During the White Album, I left the Beatles, and went on holiday. We were lent this yacht [Peter Sellers' yacht] and we ordered lunch and the guy presented us with octopus and French fries. And we thought, what the hell is that? The captain proceeded to tell me that octopuses actually go round the seabed 'resting their head' and picking up shiny coral stones and actually putting a garden around their cave. I just thought that was so beautiful and I happened to have a guitar there and wrote the song,” (Harry 260).
The song, which Schneider dismisses as the child's desire for fantasist escape, is actually quite peaceful and honest. It is a simple song, with a basic three chord structure (Ringo only knew three chords on the guitar at the time), but it is clear and possesses a real vulnerability. Although it is a desire for escape, it is surprisingly not very metaphorical. Ringo genuinely thought he would “like to be under the sea, in an octopus's garden, in the shade,” for the time being and enjoy a “little hideaway” while life above the waves was so hectic. He actually thought it sounded like a nice idea. Also, when compared to many Beatles' songs, which are masked with layers and layers of metaphors, it is quite straightforward. The hardest thing to do with language is to say exactly what one means to say, but that is exactly what Ringo does. Instead of hiding behind identity confusions as to who is the Walrus or looking through kaleidoscope eyes, he simply says, “Oh what a joy, for every girl and boy, knowing they're happy and they're safe.”
That is what Ringo wants for himself and for everyone else, to be happy and safe. He had arguably the most difficult childhood of the Beatles, but his joy is in peace and happiness, not in angst. In his first solo single, “It Don't Come Easy,” he sings, “Got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues;” however, what is remarkable about Ringo is that he paid his dues and does not want to sing the blues. Instead, he reminds us not to dwell on the past: “Forget about the past and all your sorrows;” and explains, clearly, “Please remember peace is how we make it.”
For those who bother to notice, Ringo Starr has become an international symbol of peace and love. His message is consistent and easy to understand for those willing to listen. During his time with the Beatles, his message was not often heard, but it has remained rock-steady. In an interview4 with Jody Denberg, he says,
“Every song is peace and love. I've got the peace sign going there and I've still got it going because, you know, it's, it's what I'm about. I am about peace and love. I am about non-violence. And so I've just got to express that every chance I get. Actually, you know, what drives me crazy is that I've been put down for that. You know, who does he think he is? (Laughs). I'm just me, folks...peace and love.”
They are two simple words, peace and love, but they are one powerful message, and one of no small feat. In the same interview, responding to why peace and love are so hard to achieve, Ringo says, “Well, you know, everybody has something to hide. (Laughs). I don't know, I have this incredible dream that one day, one minute, the whole world, at the same time, will decide it's time for peace and love. So I just do my part.”
Ringo has expressed that exact dream many times in different interviews and speeches and has actually twice now tried to organize official peace and love moments. The first time was in Chicago in 2008. He announced that he wanted everyone who could to dedicate a few seconds and shout “peace and love.” The result was a gathering of about 300 people, occupying a city block, sharing in the dream of peace. Two years later, in New York, he was asked in an interview5 what he wants for his 70th birthday. He responded, “You know what I'm asking for: peace and love,” and later added, “I want to spread the word that at noon, wherever you are – in New York, in L.A., in Paris, in London – I just pray that you'll put your fingers up and say, 'Peace and love.'” He was then asked if there is a good chance that we will get peace and love this year, and he said he did not know, but, “I think the more we promote it, the more chance we have of getting it.” Although he knows it don't come easy, Ringo says it is never difficult to keep spreading the peace and love message. Earlier this year, he was asked if it is challenging to always maintain, for example, on the anniversary of John's murder.6 He said, “No, it's never hard to keep that message up. It's never hard to spend a couple seconds of your life doing the peace and love hand.”
Perhaps the greatest tip we can take from Richard Starkey is that, “You have to remember how deep your love is when you're having those bad days.”7 It is precisely that attitude, simply remembering his love, that allowed him to overcome his rough times and spread a lifelong message of peace. Once a Beatle and always a Ringo, he has been an unwavering contributor of musical and philosophical harmony. In the words of Jody Denberg, “A very special thank you to Ringo Starr, simply for being himself.”
Blake, John. All You Needed Was Love: The Beatles After the Beatles. New York: Perigee Books, 1981.
Clayson, Alan. Ringo Starr: Straight Man or Joker?. New York: Paragon House, 1992.
Doggett, Peter. You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup. New York:
Harper Collins, 2009.
Gould, Jonathan. Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. New York: Three
Rivers Press, 2007.
Harry, Bill. The Ringo Starr Encyclopedia. London: Virgin Books, 2004.
Schneider, Matthew. The Long and Winding Road from Blake to the Beatles. New York: Palgrave
Turner, Steve. The Gospel According to the Beatles. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox
3Pearl Jam. “Not For You”. Vitalogy, 1994.
5NY TIMES. “Ringo at 70: I'm Not Hiding From It, You Know”. July 5, 2010.
6“Ringo Starr Interview: Beatles Legend Almost Moved to Texas at 19, Orders the Rolling Stones to Tour for 50th Anniversary”. www.spinner.com/2012/02/01/ringo-starr-houston-stones-tour/
7Jody Denberg Interview