Ringo Starr has long been a divisive factor in the world of music, both for casual listeners and musicians themselves. There are those, like me, who think he’s an excellent player, and those who think he’s not at all. Some of the latter agree with the remark that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles (falsely attributed, by the way — no Beatle ever said it, it was a joke from British comedian Jasper Carrott). And there are even some extremists who claim Pete Best was the better drummer (note: “extremists,” in this case, is a synonym for “heretics”).
No, seriously. I’ve heard the recordings. There are some other tracks on the Anthology that he played on; there were also CDs released with the original sessions, but I don’t have access to them at the moment (and which may be out of print for all I can tell).
Long-time readers of this blog might know that Ringo is the reason I became a drummer. And after watching this video where some popular professional drummers discuss why he’s great, I decided to create a list of what I consider his top ten best drum parts.
I mean, if everyone else can do clickbate-y lists, so can I, right?
First off, let’s start with the honorable mention:
“Ticket to Ride” (Help!, 1965): This one often comes up when people talk about Ringo’s drumming. Personally I don’t find it terribly impressive or interesting, but I can’t deny that it is original and has Ringo’s unique touch. So I’m giving it an honorable mention because it deserves at least that much, even if I don’t think it’s one of his best.
With that said, here’s the rest of the list:
- “Rory and the Hurricanes” (Postcards From Paradise, 2015): This song is the first track on Ringo’s most recent album. The title is a reference to his pre-Beatles band. At first glance this one may not seem like anything special — it’s basically, for the most part, your bog-standard backbeat, after all. But that’s the beauty of it. This is sort of the essence of Ringo. It’s simple and elegant. Towards the end there are some traditionally “Ringo” fills — heavier on the toms, as his unique left-handed playing requires. The drumming on “Rory and the Hurricanes” is distinctive in its simplicity, and that’s often difficult to do effectively, especially for drummers who are more “technically proficien.”
- “Helter Skelter” (The White Album, Disc 2, 1968): This is one of those few Beatles songs where Ringo is able to cut loose and show that he can rock just as hard as anyone. And he does it all without a double-bass pedal or blast beats, or any other technique that you might hear on a heavy track like this — it does kind of border on early metal, in some ways. Ringo’s drumming is both crisp and messy, if that makes any sense. You can hear exactly what he’s doing, but the sound is muddied and unpolished, meaning it fits perfectly with the heavy distortion on the guitars and the throbbing bass.Plus, let’s not forget that he got blistahs on his fingahs.
- “It Don’t Come Easy” (Ringo, 1973): Ringo almost always opens his All-Starr Band concerts with this song. It’s particularly interesting to me because there’s such a broad variety of techniques/sounds in just one song. It opens with a grand wash on the cymbal with some accents scattered through the intro. Then there are some fills/rolls across the kit that build up to the main portion of the song. It shows a good range and it also proves that you don’t need more than the basics to create an interesting and dynamic drum part.
- “Back Off Boogaloo” (Goodnight Vienna, 1974): It’s not as easy to play most of a song on basically one drum. You’re not just hitting the head in time, after all. You have to make it dynamic and interesting. You need to know where to accent beats, where to change patters, and a host of other subtleties. So at first blush, the drums here probably seem simplistic. But if you listen closely, even without any drumming experience, you should be able to hear some of what I mean.
- “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967): Even while I was writing this I was second-guessing whether or not this song deserved a spot on the list. But while it seems like nothing terribly impressive, what you don’t notice is that the song is actually really driven by the drums and the bass. And while the same can be said about “Back Off Boogaloo,” this is a bit different. That song really focuses mostly on the drums, but “Sgt. Pepper” doesn’t — not intentionally at least. There are times when the drums and bass are the only really audible things, and that throb is what holds the song together. Without it, it would just be a mess of disparate musical sequences. (Note: I noticed that this is a bit harder to hear on the version of the song on Spotify, but the remasters released back in ’09 made Ringo’s drumming a lot clearer.)
- “Revolution” (single, 1968): I’ve written about this track, which was the b-side to “Hey Jude,” but I didn’t really talk about the drums. By my count, the pattern starts at the second eighth-note of the fourth beat of the preceding measure — I might have no idea what I’m talking about but even if that’s the case, anyone with a modicum of music theory experience should be able to tell that there’s something odd about the timing here. It’s a unique pattern otherwise, as well, and again very much a “Ringo” thing. What he may lack in technique he makes up for with originality. What’s more, the pattern has a sort of rhythm that feels like it matches the feeling of a protest. Which is, of course, exactly what the song is about. It probably wasn’t intentional on his part, but it works perfectly. It’s also interesting that his drumming often feels sort of peaceful, considering that the other instrumentation has a sort of early-punk vibe.
- “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” (Abbey Road, 1969): Okay, yes, I know they’re technically three songs, but only if you go by the track list on the album. I’m counting is as one because you can’t really have one without the other two. If you really want to see Ringo’s range, this is your chance. His drumming here will take you on a trip across genres, in a way, from the soft lullaby inspired “Golden Slumbers” to the chanting “Carry That Weight,” softening into a theatrical reprise of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” And then comes the grand finale. “The End” opens with a rousing drum solo, and then everything descends down to a final, perfect close. Honestly, this should have been their last album; it was the last recorded, after all, but it was released before Let it Be, for some reason. Abbey Road and “The End” would have been the perfect send-off to a groundbreaking career. Anyway, putting that aside, listen to the drums. There’s a reason they’re so memorable.
- “Rain” (single, 1966): Ringo has said that this is his favorite performance. It’s easy to see why, too. While “Rain” is not as widely discussed as its a-side, “Paperback Writer,” it’s well worth listening to, even if just for Ringo’s drums. It’s still very distinctively his drumming, but no other song displays this style. It’s frenetic, full of fills and embellishments. It’s something you might expect more from a punk rock drummer, maybe. And yet it somehow still fits with the song. That’s Ringo’s talent, of course — he always plays for the song, and it always fits.
- “Come Together” (Abbey Road, 1969): “Come Together” has a very dark, smokey sound — that’s the best way I can describe it. And I think that’s in large part due to the drums. The rolls during the iconic bass line lend an almost furtive feeling, as though the song itself is sneaking around. Which I suppose could be a good way to describe it. The verse is literally just a throbbing, repetitive beat on one drum, and then suddenly the chorus breaks in and for a few seconds it becomes a full-fledged rock song. It’s yet another example of Ringo’s drums being the driving force of a song, and I find it hard to imaging any other drummer creating a beat like this.
- “In My Life” (Rubber Soul, 1965): I’m sure a lot of you think I’m insane for this. After all, it does seem odd to put “In My Life” above… well, any of these tracks, I suppose. But appearances can be deceiving. I imagine most people never ever really paid attention to the drums here. After all, there are beautiful lyrics, soothing guitars, and a harpsichord solo (really just a sped-up piano recording — George Martin couldn’t play his composition fast enough to match the tempo of the song). But focus on the drums and tell me if you’ve ever heard anything like them. Bass-snare-bass-hat-snare. There are plenty of other ways to play this song. You could easily fit a simple backbeat behind it, or some cymbal accents, or any other myriad things, to various degrees of success. But nothing would be the same. The pattern is simple and original, at once soft and comforting, and new and exciting. And that fits perfectly. Because “In My Life” may be about looking at the past with nostalgia and tenderness, but there’s also an implication of looking toward the future. It speaks to the changes that have already taken place, with the tacit understanding that change will continue to come. It carries the weight of the past into the future — after all, if the love has lasted so long it stands to reason it will continue on — and it does so boldly and with the knowledge that uncharted territory lies ahead. There is a comfort in this drum pattern, but also a pending evolution, a great change lying just beneath the surface. But through it all, the rhythm and soul of music is always there.
So there you have it. My top ten Ringo drum parts. I’m sure there are things on here that were surprising, and maybe some omissions that you’re mad about. Sound off in the comments — tell me what I missed and why you think it belongs. Be sure to check out the playlist below to hear all of the songs in this post, and as always, visit us over at our Facebook page and hit that “like” button.
Until next time, peace and love.