Usually it’s about John and Paul, sometimes George. When we think about The Beatles though, we don’t consider Ringo Starr nearly enough. Sitting back there with his sad eyes, banging away on the drums all alone, we never paid him much attention. We are usually enthralled with the joy of watching Paul McCartney sing, or the danger brought by the dark and brooding John. Ringo, he was always just…Ringo. Keeping the beat. Minding his business. What a disservice we have done.
The Beatles were arguably the best group in the history of rock and roll for many reasons, not nearly the least of which was the amazing skills of Ringo Starr. Here are my nominations for the best work done by Ringo during The Beatle years. These songs are in no particular order, but I did save my favorite for last.
Ringo himself cites this as one of his favorite performances. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone magazine writes “(Rain is) the greatest thing he ever played, and one of the all-time high points of rock & roll drumming.” The song begins with a snare attack sounding like rain on a tin roof, and does not let up. Where other drummers may be playing a 4/4 beat behind the music, Ringo wails away like a staccato locomotive. Check out the false ending at about 2:30…one of Ringo’s finest moments.
2. Hey Jude, 1968
Ringo never used a big, complex drum kit. He didn’t need one. He knew how to make the most of every single tool in his sparse tool kit. Listen to the use of the high hat cymbal here, the base drum, the rhythm he repeats at the apex of every “Na na na” at the end of a verse. A master class in percussion subtly.
3. Something, 1969
“Something” is one of George Harrison’s greatest recordings. And though we rarely consider the percussion when listening to “Something,” it certainly is something to listen to. Ringo keeps things quiet to match the tone of the song, accented with lovely fills until the chorus when Ringo plays answers every bass drum strike with a complicated cymbal response. Right before our very ears, Ringo shows how a drummer can fill every nook of a song with care and grace.
4. Ticket to Ride, 1965
I am not a drummer, but I would think that anyone who ever decides to sit behind the skins should learn how to play “Ticket to Ride,” because anything that a drummer would need to know how to do is in this song. Cymbal crash. Drum rolls. 4/4 rhythm. Syncopation. All there, all beautifully done, all with me playing “air drums” along side Ringo with love and respect every time I hear it.
There is little flourish here, but everything that Ringo does on “Drive My Car” he does well. A 4/4 beat is maintained consistently throughout the song, except for the build up to the chorus when he crushes the 1 and 3 with a double tap on the snare. Copious levels of cowbell and tambourine add to the magic.
6. Golden Slumbers Medley (The End), 1969
Though Ringo Starr is always acknowledged as one of the most important drummers in rock and roll history, he is rarely acknowledged as one of the best. Probably because he always ways there to serve the song, not to take the spotlight away from the song with lengthy, ostentatious drum solos (Grateful Dead, I’m looking at you!).
In fact, the only drum solo Ringo Starr ever had as part of a Beatles song was in “The End” at the end of the “Golden Slumbers” medley on side B of the Abbey Road album. And this is not just any drum solo. Ringo keeps consistent time on the bass drum will filling in with real intent and energy on snares and toms. It is a short solo, but it is excellent, and it feeds right into a blistering guitar solo duel between John and George. Truly a great recording.
7. Don’t Pass Me By, 1968
They didn’t let Ringo sing lots of songs in The Beatles, and that was probably a wise choice. Though an excellent drummer, Ringo’s voice always fell a little flat, and had little emotion. The songs he did sing were usually pretty lightweight, Lennon/McCartney throwaways.
“Don’t Pass Me By” is the exception. Written by Ringo himself as early as 1962 and recorded for The White Album, the song was wholly recorded by Ringo and Paul McCartney (interestingly enough, with absolutely no guitar) and features a splashy snare drum keeping a loud beat under the country western tinged love song. Never happy to just play a 4/4 beat, Ringo accents everything with fills that move the song along, connecting verse to chorus and back to verse again. The snare slows the song down, and speeds it up again.
8. You Can’t Do That, 1964
The Beatles were a rock and roll band, and this was one of their great rock and roll songs. Written by John Lennon, it is an excellent vehicle for Ringo to show his stuff, and it would not be the great song that it is if not for Ringo’s contributions. Every time as John sings “I told you before…” Ringo is there with a solid “kunk-a-chunk-a-chunk” fill on the drums, to which John replies “You can’t do that.” Add it a little cowbell, and this is a great Ringo showcase.
9. Come Together, 1969
It might have been enough if there were no other instruments on this track at all. Nothing except for Ringo Starr’s amazing, sensual, rhythmic drumming. There is not much more than a bass drum and cymbal, but Ringo uses that to create an almost sinister mood on this track to accompany Lennon’s wildly imaginative lyrics.
10. In My Life, 1965
This is not only my favorite Ringo Starr track in The Beatles catalog, but it may be my favorite drumming on any song. Ever. A strange choice perhaps. Usually, a ballad is not the best showcase for a drummer, but what Ringo does in “In My Life” is as specific as any lyric, and as beautiful as any grand piano chord.
Every part of this song has a specific drum part. The song begins with a simple guitar line, and as soon as Lennon begins to sing the lyric, Ringo is there…playing a deceptively complicated cymbal/snare line for the entire first verse. At the end of the verse, we switch to a tambourine bringing us to a 4/4 beat, and then into the chorus. The pattern repeats throughout the song.
The percussion is perfect, and is an ideal match to the sparseness of the rest of the band and the lonesome reflection of the lyrics.
These are my top ten Ringo tracks. What did I miss? What should be included in a volume 2?