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My Greatest Decade: The Mystery of Billy Shears (alias Ringo)
Why The Beatles Still Matter
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away… okay, it was only at a college in New Jersey, but it sure seems long ago and far away… I read a fascinating article in a popular music magazine, in commemoration of the anniversary of the (already defunct) Beatles as a recording entity. I had purchased the magazine with some trepidation. What I feared most was drowning in some critic’s syrupy praise of the group’s brilliance, while being offered nothing fresh or substantive about the music that would make reading the piece worthwhile. What I actually got from the authors – it was one of those articles in which many writers are asked to contribute their opinions on a topic – was, to my considerable shock, quite the opposite. Concerning nearly every aspect of The Fab Four, most of those critics had precious little positive to say, and they expressed it with infuriating condescension. I recall that one of them actually claimed that the song Getting Better (from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) was a lie because “things don’t always get better.” (Such a profoundly intellectual insight!) The consensus was that The Beatles were, well, okay, but that they would soon be eclipsed by smarter, edgier, better bands.
Since that article appeared, at least a million rock and roll groups (by my conservative estimate) have been born and died in every corner of the globe, many of them, of course, inspired by The Beatles. But after all that sound and fury, the quartet from Liverpool with the silly (misspelled) insect name serenely retains the title of Greatest Rock Band of All Time, still bringing new generations of music lovers into the Beatle faith, while retaining the fierce loyalty of their original base. And I would maintain that one of the crucial reasons for their preeminence is the stellar work of the musician born Richard Starkey on July 7, 1940 – the man who calls himself Ringo Starr.
An Indispensable Element
He is, no doubt, the most famous drummer who’s ever lived, but is Ringo appreciated? Let’s be clear: there’s no question that, from a creative standpoint, he was the least important Beatle. The man himself would never dream of disputing that. But it does not follow that he was expendable; quite the contrary. The Beatles remain the greatest band in history partly because they were the most remarkable example ever of rock and roll synergy: four very distinctive musicians who collectively produced something much more powerful than any single one of them could have created. And that would not have been possible if all four, including Starr, had not been first-rate players to begin with.
However, they were, after all, a band that spotlighted guitars and voices, and that emphasis would have been seriously undermined if a virtuoso musician had sat behind the drum kit. To put it another way, Ginger Baker – who has been called, justifiably, the greatest rock drummer – was perfect for Cream, because that group required three master musicians to work. But he would have been totally wrong for The Beatles, because Baker’s extraordinary technique (and his tendency to showboat) would have upset the band’s delicate balance. Ringo respected that balance and worked to sustain it, and therein lies his greatness.
For this article, I’ll dispense with the biographical focus of my other Greatest Decade hubs. (The Beatles’ history is way too familiar, anyway.) I will concentrate instead only on the songs, specifically the drumming. Admittedly, it feels odd to single out one element in a Beatle song, because, above all, it’s the complex interplay of all the musical elements – the texture of the recordings – that makes them great. But such an analysis must be attempted to clarify Ringo’s essential role.
A Change of Plan
No recordings exist of Starr’s performances from his earliest career. But all evidence suggests that he was originally a show drummer, that is, he played fast and loud to get the audience up and dancing, and he took long, Buddy Rich-like solos that were billed as “Starr Time.” But at his second recording session as a Beatle at Abbey Road, Starr got a nasty shock. Producer George Martin, doubting his musicianship, had hired session drummer Andy White to perform on what would become the band’s first (minor) UK hit, Love Me Do, while Ringo was reduced to playing tambourine. It’s reasonable, I think, to surmise that this dismaying experience forced Ringo to rethink his role in the group. Whether consciously or not, to prove his indispensability he decided to become a songwriter’s drummer, subordinating his skill to serve the material, which meant constantly adapting his style to his bandmates’ intentions.
Perhaps the finest example of his new approach is She Loves You, the band’s classic fourth UK single. Notice how Ringo, as he would do over and over with The Beatles, plays hide and seek with the listener, sometimes fading into the musical fabric, sometimes calling the listener’s attention to the drums at just the right moment. What all four musicians created that day was a massive, powerful, happy sound that had no precedent in rock and roll. Interestingly, despite the fact that She Loves You (released on CD in the compilation Past Masters) became the best-selling single in the UK for the entire 1960s, and topped the charts in America in 1964, very few “name” artists have ever covered it. Partly due to Starr’s exemplary drumming, this song should be labelled “Property of Beatles.”
She Loves You - The Beatles' Fourth UK Single
The Beatles – Past Masters (Vols. 1 and 2) (2009 Remaster))
By the time the group recorded the soundtrack to the film A Hard Day’s Night, the band was on a roll, but Ringo was still focused on how best to enhance every song on which he played. For the opening of the wonderful Any Time at All, he came up with a great rimshot that sounds as loud and crisp as a rifle shot. One wonders whether session drummer Bobby Gregg had this Beatle moment in mind when he played the opening beat on Bob Dylan’s recording of Like a Rolling Stone – “the rimshot heard round the world.”
Any Time at All from A Hard Day's Night
The Beatles – A Hard Day's Night (2009 Remastered CD)
Ticket to Ride – from the album Help! – is one of the most joyful examples of The Beatles’ mid-period pop style, all jangly guitars and juicy melodic hooks. By contrast, Tomorrow Never Knows – from Revolver, recorded just one year later – is psychedelia at its darkest and creepiest, full of arcane lyrics, ghostly sound effects and backward tape loops. Yet if you listen to these two tracks, the drum pattern for both is essentially the same: a stuttering stop-start rhythm that in “Ticket” functions as just another very clever hook, but in “Tomorrow” serves to accentuate the song’s strangeness.
Ticket to Ride from the Album Help!
Tomorrow Never Knows from Revolver (with "lost" music video)
The Beatles – Help! (2009 Remastered CD)
The Beatles – Revolver (2009 Remastered CD)
They'd Love to Turn You On
While we’re on the subject of The Fab Four’s psychedelic period, we can’t avoid including the recording that everybody – including Ringo himself – considers the finest moment of his career: the groundbreaking single Rain (available on Past Masters: see above). On this track, all The Beatles excel as players: John comes through with a beautiful vocal, the guitars are mesmerizing and Paul’s bass playing is brilliant. Yet the record belongs to Mr. Starr. From the very first beat to the fade out, his drumming is “in the pocket” – tough, precise, agile, remarkable. Interestingly, in the video, Ringo is the very first Beatle we see, striding purposefully towards the camera, and he also waves goodbye at the end.
Ringo's greatest performance ever! Rain from the album Past Masters
As the band’s recordings became more complex and their musical textures much denser, it sometimes became harder for the listener to pick out an individual player’s contribution. Fortunately, this version of Strawberry Fields Forever included on The Beatles Anthology, Volume 2 contains not only one of the two recordings of the song that George Martin edited together to make the main section of the released version, but an edit piece spliced onto the very end of the song as a coda, in which Ringo’s drumming becomes so loud and wild that John has to tell him to “calm down”!
Strawberry Fields Forever (Take 7 and Edit Piece with original video) from The Beatles Anthology, Vol. 2
The Beatles – Anthology, Vol. 2
Of all the great albums of the 1960s, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the one that I find most difficult to discuss objectively. The work is so burdened with myth and hype that there have been times that I almost found myself agreeing with those pundits who think the work too slick, too gimmicky… almost. Because when I tune out the guitar that sounds like a chicken (and vice versa), and pay attention to the drumming, I can’t deny that this album is essential rock and roll, the third time (after She Loves You and the Revolver album) that The Beatles redefined the art form. Below is Good Morning Good Morning, a very dark song about how quickly people forget their dead loved ones.
Good Morning Good Morning from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (with lyrics)
The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (2009 Remastered Enhanced CD)
One of the most endearing things about The Beatles is their willingness to turn their wicked satirical wit upon themselves. For this George Harrison song – which was recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions, but only released on the Yellow Submarine album – the band created a memorable track that was both a hilariously parody of the excesses of psychedelic rock (particularly their own), and a glorious example of the style's “too muchness,” including Ringo’s heavily phased drums. (The lines, “Show me that I’m everywhere/And get me home for tea,” always knock me out!)
It's All Too Much from Yellow Submarine
The Beatles – Yellow Submarine (2009 Stereo Remaster)
When I slip Abbey Road into my CD player, I feel like I’m putting on a recording of Vivaldi’s or Schubert’s music. There are the unforgettable melodies, to be sure, but, like a great classical piece, there is so much else going on, so many brilliant little details, that it seems almost insulting to call it Pop. But “classic” Pop it is. This is particularly true of Ringo’s famous drum solo (his only one on a Beatles album) in The End – laughably simple compared to the playing that Ginger Baker or Mitch Mitchell had recently been doing in their respective groups, but mysteriously perfect and essential as part of the very last song on the last-recorded Beatles album (okay, except for Her Majesty).
The End (with Ringo's only Beatle drum solo!)
The Beatles – Abbey Road (2009 Remastered CD)
Finally, we can’t forget Ringo the Singer. Here's my favorite vocal performance by the man: Good Night, the song, written by John, that closes the double album The Beatles (aka The White Album). Interestingly, this is one of the few recordings on which only one Beatle performs. It is also one of the very few tracks on which none of the four plays a musical instrument! (Can you guess one of the other songs of which this is true? Take the poll below. I’ll reveal the answer to anyone who posts a comment.)
Good Night from the double album The Beatles (The White Album)
Mark Lewisohn; Paul McCartney (Introduction) – The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions 1962-1970
The White Album (2009 Remastered CD)
Beatles Trivia Poll
Choose a Beatles recording, other than Good Night, on which no Beatle plays a musical instrument.
“Good night, everybody, everywhere. Good night!”
The Beatles (The Original Studio Recordings) (Remastered CD Box Set)
© 2015 John D. Baldwin