Ringo Starr – Underrated, Easy Target

I was asked to write the following piece in October 2009 for the ‘Drummer of the Month’ feature on the ADC Drums website. Ringo Starr has long been an easy target for bitter never-made-the-big-time drummers from the 1960’s, who never seem to be short of reasons as to why they “could have done it better”. Well fellas, this one’s for you!

Ringo Starr
The man who launched thousands of careers – including mine.

Being a Liverpool drum shop, everything Beatles is on our doorstep to the point, it becomes something you shut off to and leave to the Japanese tourists. Would it be too predictable to have Ringo as our ‘Drummer Of The Month’? Well yes, that’s what we thought; that was until the recent airing on the BBC of the documentary covering the Beatles first tour of the USA in 1964. This broadcast served as a stark(ey) reminder to what a finely honed musician Ringo was back in the day, overlooked and often sneered at by some of the older drummers in our locality. We’ve heard many a sour-grapes rant from drummers who were amongst the Merseybeat peer group of the early 60’s who never ‘made it’ and are eager to tell us what a poor player he was.

Well guess what chaps? You’re wrong.

Just check out the video evidence if you don’t believe it. The film doesn’t lie. It serves as a recorded document to a band who were gig veterans by today’s standards. No monitors, no mic’s on the kit and vocals shoved through a house PA that was probably used to announce the baseball scores; this band played with precision, delivering vocal harmonies that they probably couldn’t hear themselves, whilst Ringo powered out precise backbeats that drove a band struggling to be heard under audience screams.

For sheer power and drive, check out this video of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’: (Video removed from YouTube due to copyright restrictions)

Check out the section at 1:44 where Ringo crashes accents with his left hand. Not an approach you’d associate with drummers of that era, more used to a lighter, jazzier touch. But this was black R&B influenced British Rock’n’Roll in its infancy with the ‘rules’ still being written. Now let’s look at live version of ‘Help’: (Video removed from YouTube due to copyright restrictions)

Note the Ringo’s left-hand lead keeping time on the Hi-Hats at the start of the song and his left-hand led tom fill at 0:12. Listen to the recorded version and you’d be forgiven for thinking he was playing quarter notes on Hi-Hats and washed Ride. The film however, reveals a tightly delivered consistent stream of eighth notes. Now let’s check out the promo video for ‘Help’: (Video removed from YouTube due to copyright restrictions)

This gives us an opportunity to examine Ringo’s technique close-up. Even when miming, it all adds up. We particularly like his two-hand unison fills throughout the song, a technique associated with black R&B players of the 50’s.

By today’s Olympic drumming standards, Ringo is no way a ‘drummer’s drummer’. But that entirely misses the point about what being a drummer is about anyway. As a supporting musician, Ringo wrote the book about serving 3 minute pop songs and playing what was right for the song. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t inventive. Can you imagine ‘In My Life’ played with a straight 2 and 4 back-beat? It just wouldn’t have the same feel – and that’s what keeps the phone ringing folks. So next time someone pipes up with “Ringo was crap”, ask them what they contributed to the history of popular music – and enquire what their bank balance is like whilst you’re at it…

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