Peace, Beats and Love
IN THIS PHOTO: Ringo Starr in the 1960s/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Saluting the Incredible Ringo Starr at Seventy-Nine
IT is hard to know where to start when it...
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
comes to Ringo Starr! The recently-knighted icon turns seventy-nine tomorrow and, ahead of his birthday, it has made me think about all he has given to music. On a purely personal level, there are few out there as cool and inspiring as Starr. One only needs to look at his Twitter and Instagram feeds to realise he is one of the nicest and coolest people around. From the 1960s, we have opened our hearts to a man who promulgates peace and love. The positivity he sends out into the world is infectious and you can always rely on him to brighten your day and, of course, put out those peace-loving vibes. As a member of The Beatles, Starr was part of the Summer of Love back in 1967 and loved through a time where there was this spirit and harmony in the air – set against political turmoil and disconnection. Back then, in the U.S., the people came together and, here in the U.K., The Beatles very much took that notion to heart. There was this feeling that, through their music, they were bringing people together and sending out these incredible messages. I especially love The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because I can sense a certain harmony and magic. The psychedelic colours and iconic album cover, together with what was in the air in 1967 is absolutely magical. When one thinks of The Beatles, you have to consider Ringo Starr and how essential he was to their success…
We all talk about John Lennon and Paul McCartney because they wrote most of the hits and were at the front. George Harrison’s guitar work and incredible talent was a key ingredient and he wrote two of the biggest Beatles songs – Something and Here Comes the Sun (both from 1969’s Abbey Road). In terms of Starr’s songwriting contributions, well, I have always had a soft spot for them. Many claim Starr’s Beatles songs are a bit silly and, when you listen to the likes of Octopus’s Garden, there is a definite whimsy and originality. I love Don’t Pass Me By from 1968’s The Beatles but it is the Starr-sung songs that really strike me. Consider what he brings to The Beatles’ closing track, Good Night, and what a wonderful vocal performance it is. Track back to The Beatles’ debut album, Please Please Me, and a song like Boys – Starr was, in my mind, a stronger singer than George Harrison at that time. Yellow Submarine is a pretty silly song, to be fair, but it sounds utterly irresistible when you have Ringo Starr singing it! He turns the song into something almost transcendent – that might be pushing it but his voice is perfect for the song. Consider, perhaps, his greatest vocal contribution to The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’s With a Little Help from My Friends. I have been thinking a lot about The Beatles. In a few days (on 10th July), A Hard Day’s Night turns fifty-five: it is one of the best albums from The Beatles and a key turning point for them.
Also, on this day in 1957, a young Paul McCartney met a slightly older John Lennon at the Woolton Village Fete and, as they say, the rest is history! One can talk about some pretty incredible Ringo Starr vocals – What Goes On (Rubber Soul), Act Naturally (Help!) and I Wanna Be Your Man (With The Beatles) among them – but it is his drumming that has inspired the masses and helped score some of the greatest songs ever written. Let’s get one thing right straight off of the bat: Ringo Starr is one of the greatest drummers there has ever been. I will end with a collection of his best performances but you only need listen to songs like Rain and Ticket to Ride to realise what a player Starr was – and remains to this very day. Watch videos of him performing these classic tracks and he looks positively relaxed at the kit; giving songs these epic chops that other drummers would struggle to match. I guess the inter-band ribbing (I am not sure which Beatle said Ringo was not the best drummer in the world; he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles) but we all know how good Starr is. Some of the earlier tracks (1963-1964), maybe, was a case of him finding his feet and style but he was already cemented and realised by 1965’s Rubber Soul – in many ways, it is a drumming album and it is Starr’s passion that defines the songs.
Right from the rush and explosion of Drive My Car to the powerful performance on Think for Yourself to the excellent beats of If I Needed Someone…Starr’s unique D.N.A. is all over the album! One can look at some of the early songs and see Starr was adding so much to the music back then. Would She Loves You and I Feel Fine be the same in another drummer’s hands?! I want to bring in article from Drum Magazine that supports the case that Ringo Starr is one of the best drummers ever. They started by defining Starr’s technique and style:
“This fact cannot be overstated, as Starr has taken some hits over the years from fans and even fellow drummers who make meritless claims that he wasn’t so great; that he “played for the song” and nothing more. Part of the reason for this notion is because what Starr did was so deceptively simple. It didn’t sound difficult—it wasn’t exhaustive or athletic enough—so it couldn’t have been hard. But what he achieved was more seamless and meaningful than mechanical flash: He played the perfect part at the perfect time.
Beyond that, there’s the inescapable matter of sheer style, and Starr radiated wondrously idiosyncratic flair. Whether he was tossing his shaggy fringe from side to side behind the drum kit, crooning forlornly on tracks like “Yellow Submarine,” or tossing off random malapropisms like “it’s been a hard day’s night,” “tomorrow never knows,” or other weird, head-scratching phrases that magically became catalysts for Beatles songs, he was always—inevitably—“just Ringo.” And The Beatles were the better for it”.
There are four songs that, I feel, are turned from gems to masterpieces by Starr – with Drum Magazine providing the commentary:
“For those who disparage Starr as an unadventurous drummer, “Rain” should prove to be an ear-opener. After firing off bracing snare shots, he’s all over the kit by the halfway point of the first verse, and he stays that way through the entire song, free-forming fills and never repeating a phrase. The Beatles cut five takes of the rhythm track, recording them at a fast tempo but then slowing down the tape, which resulted in lower tones and a more disorienting drum sound.
Rather than a standard-issue guitar solo, there’s a break at 2:24 during which McCartney performs a booming, squiggly run. Starr locks in with him, matching every note on the snare before taking off wildly into the song’s psychedelic coda, replete with Lennon’s drug-induced backward chants. Summing up his own work on the track, Starr is anything but humble, at one point calling it “the best out of all the records I’ve ever made.”
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is about as radical as a pop song can be. It is primarily the work of Lennon, who composed the lyrics after reading Timothy Leary’s Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. And, oh yes, he was consuming a whole lot of LSD during this period. There are tape loops galore—seagull sounds, an orchestra droning on a B-flat chord, a finger rubbing the rim of a wine glass—along with backward guitar solos and other bits of aural experimentation. Underneath Lennon’s almost unrecognizable sneer (altered by a Leslie speaker and artificial double-tracking) is a pounding, hypnotic, and utterly sensational drum performance by Starr. Playing on slackened tom heads, his minimalist pattern of eighth-notes on the crash (with a subtle variation on his snare-and-tom work from “Ticket To Ride”) barely waivers. Paired with McCartney’s equally repetitive bass line, it’s the perfect underpinning for this daring musical free-for-all.
The resulting single (Strawberry Fields Forever) features a cavalcade of musical riches—brass and cellos, backward cymbals, swarmandal (an Indian zither), pitch-shifting—and Starr matches the moods and dynamics with the precision of an orchestral percussionist. He’s a long way from being that basher at the Cavern as he glides thoughtfully and tastefully on a snare-and-bass-drum backbeat through the song’s first verses, his rolling tom fills foreshadowing the same masterful approach he would use two years later on Harrison’s “Something.”
With each new verse, he opens the kit up more, laying down a furious sixteenth-note groove on the floor tom while increasing the intensity of his fills. By the final verse, taken from the “harder” second take, he’s bearing down like he’s in a drum line. After the innovative fade-out/fade-in fake, Starr is in full freak-out mode, performing some of his most flamboyant and sophisticated licks before the whole thing ebbs away with Lennon’s infamous “cranberry sauce” line, which many listeners thought was “I bury Paul,” one more element of the “Paul is dead” hoax.
The penultimate track on Abbey Road—and the last song recorded collectively by all four members—gave us something we’d never heard before: an honest-to-goodness Ringo Starr drum solo. “The End” gives us something else too: a chance to hear the other three Beatles trade guitar solos. It features a wicked display of the other three Beatles’ individualistic six-string chops in a blistering section of hard-rock glory; the three go at it with a series of two-bar blasts. (For those keeping score at home, it’s McCartney, Harrison, and Lennon, in that order.)
Starr famously hated drum solos—he’d always preferred to function as a crafty accompanist—but he was swept up in the spirit of the band to end their career on this extended instrumental spree. In truth, Starr’s section didn’t start out as a true solo; he originally played to guitar and tambourine accompaniment, both of which were muted in the final mix.
He begins with a forceful eighth-note pattern on the bass drum and keeps it going while hitting a dramatic series of tom fills, alternating his sticking approach (left to right when working his way down, right to left when moving up) before wailing on the floor tom. With his drums now wide in the mix, he opens the door for the other three Beatles to rush in like gangbusters for their fiery axe gunfight”.
Before wrapping things up, I want to bring in an article from The Guardian from back in 2017 that, again, explained why Starr is such a great drummer – and why so many people (who think he is not) are wrong:
“Most drummers recognise this. “Define ‘best drummer in the world’,” Dave Grohl said in a tribute video for Starr’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame presentation. “Is it someone that’s technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.”
What this means is that many of Ringo’s best performances go unnoticed. These are beats designed to enhance the song rather than show off the drummer’s abilities. Take She Loves You, the song that kicked off Beatlemania. Ringo’s brief introductory tom roll is the shot of adrenaline that gets the heart of the song thumping; it is teen mania in sound, and one of the most important drum rolls in recorded music history.
Some people consider Ringo to be a terrible drummer because he doesn’t play solos. But who, apart from other drummers, really enjoys a solo? Ringo knew this and for years resisted all attempts to get him to play them, eventually giving in for the 15-second break on Abbey Road’s The End. It’s not flashy or difficult, but it has an understated funky charm and when it turned up on Beastie Boys’ The Sounds of Science 20 years later, it was hard to resist a smile.
In fact The Sounds of Science, which also borrows Ringo’s strident drum beat from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (Reprise), shows just how funky Ringo’s drums could be when recontextualised. One
At 77, being the butt of drumming jokes is certainly not going to faze the famously phlegmatic Ringo Starr. But underestimate him at your peril. Because if you don’t get Ringo Starr, then you’re only getting three quarters of the Beatles – and that’s no laughing matter”.
It seems that Starr has had to battle off these uneducated ears and tongues for most of his career. A man who is so laidback and love-focused does not let that get to him because he and everyone else knows that the drumming beats he puts down are insane – and have inspired countless other artists. There are articles out at the moment that give you some cool facts and, as he turns seventy nine, there are new interviews about. I want to quote from one because, right now, I do not think there is anyone cooler than Sir Ringo Starr!
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
“How do you stay in such great shape?
I get up in the morning and I meditate. I go to the gym and I have a trainer, and I work out myself too, when I’m on the road. I’m a vegetarian. When we’re on tour, to get out of the hotel, I usually go to the local organic shop just to see what they’ve got. But I’m only a vegetarian, not a vegan. I eat goat cheese. A vegan is very hard, and they eat a lot of sugar. I’m careful about sugar.
You also have a sustained dedication to photography. Another Day in the Life is your third book of photos. What attracts you to photography?
There are only seven photographs of me taken from birth to 18 or 19. We never had a camera as a family. So when I got a camera, I just loved it! And I got better cameras as the Beatles went forward—eight-millimeter cameras, a lot of them.
In the same way that the Let It Be film was seen as a sad end to the Beatles, many originally saw 1968’s White Album [officially titled The Beatles] as a chronicle of a band coming apart. Was that accurate?
We were not falling apart at all until we split. We played together right up until that. I love the White Album. I mean, Pepper [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] was great, but there was a lot of sitting around. We were like studio guys. This time, we were back to being a band. People say, “What’s your favorite song on there?” I love “Yer Blues.” We’re in a six-foot room—amps, drums, vocal mics. No separation. It was like, “Yeah!”
What’s your favorite Beatles song of all time?
There are too many. I like to say “Rain.”
What’s your favorite Beatles song that was sung by you?
I think “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It’s given me a whole career. I’m thankful many a time for that”.
I have quoted from articles and interviews and, to be fair, that is only the tip of Ringo Starr. He is a legendary bloke and someone who, nearly every day, is spreading joy and love to the world. He looks ridiculously good – how the hell can he be seventy-nine and look so youthful?! – and there is no stopping him! I have not really covered his solo career and you can check out his work here. There is also a cool Starr-compiled playlist of peace and love that is worth checking out but, if you want an ultimate Ringo Starr solo album then I would recommend 1973’s Ringo. There will be lots of love for Starr tomorrow and, as we consider what makes him such an icon, we have to consider the drumming and singing; his tireless philosophy of peace and the way he keeps on making the world a better place. To me, Starr was the key ingredient regarding The Beatles’ compositions; the terrific beat and rush that made their early work shine and, later on, a blossoming and evolving player who was turning seemingly simple songs into these nuanced, golden cuts. There is nobody like Ringo Starr and, at seventy-nine, he is in a league of his own! If you want to discover more about Starr then you can look here but, really, it is the music that does all the talking. A drumming genius and all-round superstar, let’s hope we have many more years…
OF Ringo magic!