People Are Finally Recognizing Ringo Starr as One of Rock's Great Drummers

For decades, he was a figure of fun — respectful fun, of course, but still. He was the most lovable of the lovable mop-tops, the most good-natured member of that most good-natured of bands, The Beatles. But of all the things you might think of Ringo Starr for — wry comic relief, cute off-key singing on “Yellow Submarine,” the ability to get along with everyone in a group that eventually, contentiously disintegrated — you might not think of him as a drummer, the same way you’d think of Keith Moon or Charlie Watts or Max Roach as a drummer.

“Ringo’s personality used to out-charm his musicianship,” says Rob Sheffield, an acclaimed music journalist whose recent book, Dreaming The Beatles, finds fresh things to say about the world’s most chronicled band. “In a way we had to get more sophisticated as listeners to catch up with what Ringo was doing musically, as a drummer," Sheffield writes via email. "Like the rest of The Beatles, except much more so, he came on as a comic charmer in ways that tempted casual listeners to think he was doing something easy.”

Starr will never be considered a visionary like Roach or an inspired wild man like Moon. But the days when he was considered a second-rater — “an amiable mediocrity riding The Beatles' coat-tails,” as Ian MacDonald described the conventional wisdom of the day in his 1994 Fabs chronicle, Revolution in the Head — seem to be over. As a drummer, Ringo’s reputation is on the rise.

Starr — born Richard Starkey — was the oldest of The Beatles, the poorest, and the one with the least education. He is the sole member of the band who can unambiguously be called working-class. Despite John Lennon’s famously difficult early years, he was able to go to art school. Starr, by contrast, the son of a barmaid and an errant father he barely remembers, likely would have become a manual laborer had he not become a Beatle, according to UCLA music historian Robert Fink. After a case of appendicitis at age 6, Starkey slipped into a coma for days, and it was several years before his health really recovered. His first drumming experience was in the hospital.

Though the term meant something different in those days, the young Starkey was basically a punk, and his playing style — which made him more famous in the early days than the other Beatles — was raw and primitive. He was enough of a Liverpool legend for his playing with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes to make him a real prize when The Beatles landed him. On the audition the group did for Decca on New Year’s Day 1962 — with Pete Best still on the drumkit — The Beatles sound tired and disengaged, and the label turned them down. By the fall, soon after Lennon hired Starr, the full band were in Abbey Road Studios, signed to Parlophone/EMI, recording “Please Please Me” and “Ask Me Why.”

“On ‘Can’t Buy Me Love,’ Ringo’s drumming is the primal force that drives the song’s hormonal energy, all whipcrack snare and floor-tom bombast,” British journalist Ben Cardew wrote in a recent Guardian appreciation. He calls Starr’s style “a wall-of-sound hi-hat thrash that sounds like five drummers at once.”

Matt Mayhall, a Los Angeles drummer who leads a jazz trio and has played with the band Spain, calls Starr “the prime example of someone who did something really creative and unique within his limits, i.e., leading fills with his left hand while playing on a right-handed set-up.”

Even his admirers would not, for the most part, call Starr a virtuoso. “His playing had a clumsiness to it, yet it perfectly fit the song,” Mayhall writes via email. “His fills especially have this falling-down-the-stairs quality to them, and you sometimes wonder if he's gonna make it to the downbeat on time. But it's endearing rather than off-putting, not to mention pretty difficult to replicate.”

To his musician peers, Mayhall says, Starr is revered as someone who could not have done anything more to improve the incredible songs he played on. So why, for so many years, was Starr generally considered an also-ran?

Part of it was the weight of those other Fabs. Lennon and Paul McCartney are widely considered, alongside Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriters of the rock era, as well as two of its finest singers. (Joe Hagan’s new book Sticky Fingers, a history of Rolling Stonelikely magazine, describes how hard founder Jann Wenner worked to publicize Lennon as the key to The Beatles’ genius, especially after his murder.) George Harrison’s reputation, both as songwriter and guitarist, has been on the rise since musicians including Elliott Smith advocated for him. Throw in the competition — Moon and Watts playing in the other big British bands of the ’60s — and it becomes easier to see how poor Ringo got overlooked.

But some of the reasons are historical, and come from a changing sense of what’s important in popular music.

Starr throws out wristbands at his 74th birthday celebration at Capitol Records in Hollywood in 2014.
Starr throws out wristbands at his 74th birthday celebration at Capitol Records in Hollywood in 2014.
Michele McManmon

Though it’s often a punch line these days, it’s impossible to overlook the decades-long dominance of prog rock. If rock music is “art,” and instrumental virtuosity — in the case of drumming, complex polyrhythms and time changes — its most crucial expression, a player like Starr is not all that impressive. Punk was supposed to kill prog and retire bloated arena bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But as late as the ’80s and perhaps after, it was possible to be told, in a suburban high school classroom, that Rush was a better band than The Beatles because Neil Peart could out-drum Ringo. Even as prog's influenced waned in the ’80s, the elaborately programmed drum tracks of much pop and rock music of the era made Starr sound like a garage-rock Neanderthal by comparison.

The rise of the audiophile aesthetic, similarly, elevated busy and detail-oriented players who could be heard crystal-clear on expensive stereos. “Ringo had zero interest in all that,” Fink writes via email. “He hated solos, never wanted to take them. His fills were primitive. But he hit the drums hard. Look at him working during any of The Beatles' live gigs. Unlike John, Paul and George, who could get bigger and bigger amps as the crowds grew, Ringo had to smash the drums loud enough to keep the group going.” They weren’t called The "Beat"-les for nothing.

Instead of the constant chaos and energetic soloing of a Keith Moon, or the jazz-inspired playing of Cream's Ginger Baker, Starr took his inspiration from soul-music drummers who played in the pocket. Motown and Stax, more than jazz, have only risen in centrality as popular music — now dominated by hip-hop and R&B — has moved forward. (A distinguished, suit-wearing jazzhead like Charlie Watts, who would have been at home in Count Basie’s band, bet on the wrong horse as far as today's cultural currency.)

The other crucial historical shift is a rethinking of which era of the Fabs matters most. During their last years, and in the decade or so after, the cult of Sgt. Pepper’s — originally taken as the most ambitious and accomplished album ever made — and Abbey Road was so strong, the other work was considered a prelude. “If you are focused on the later albums as avant-garde masterpieces,” Fink says, “Ringo is nowhere. That’s why he almost quit.”

Similarly, the middle-period Fabs in favor by the ’80s and ’90s with artists like Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Stone Roses, Oasis and Blur are not particularly distinguished by their drumming. (An exception should be made, of course, for Starr’s titanic playing on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which influenced not only psych bands but dance groups like The Chemical Brothers.) Those years, of Rubber Soul and Revolver, are remembered mostly for craftsmanship and songwriting.

“Ringophobia is linked to the longtime tendency to underrate The Beatles’ early stuff, when they were ‘just’ a rock & roll band,” Sheffield notes. “For many years, experts were under the spell of The Beatles’ later studio albums (understandably), so there was a habit of condescending to the mop-tops. But when you listen to ‘It Won’t Be Long’ or ‘Money’ or ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ or ‘There’s a Place,’ you hear their originality and sophistication as rock & roll musicians, before they were anything else. And they built that mastery around Ringo’s spin on American R&B rhythms (as well as country and rockabilly).”

Says Fink: “If you value the ‘backbeat’ era Beatles, then Ringo is pivotal.” And the very early Beatles have now become the mythical version of the band. “No one's making movies about middle-period John and Paul. They are making movies like Nowhere Boy, about the Beatles in 1957. And Billy Bragg wrote a whole book on skiffle,” the style the band members played in the ’50s.  “People are imagining The Beatles in a pre-Beatles world. And in that world, Richard Starkey was a big deal.”

The irony here is that Ringo’s genius was there, right out front, from the very beginning.

“If you put on that first album, Please Please Me, and focus on it as if it’s the only Beatles album in the universe, you can hear they already had one of the greatest rock & roll drummers who’d ever existed,” Sheffield says. “And you can also hear the other three knew it. You can hear it during ‘There’s a Place’ and ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ the first two songs they cut the day of the Please Please Me session — it’s their big morning in the studio, they’re all scared stiff, they're sniffling with their winter colds. But during both those tracks, you can hear them speed up when Ringo drives them harder.”

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