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.
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, wrapped up in Ringo’s signature sound: a wall-of-sound hi-hat thrash that sounds like five drummers at once. His drumming here is not complicated but – as numerous live versions of the song attest – it is lethally exact with not a note out of place.
Consider Tomorrow Never Knows, one of the most influential Beatles songs. How would it sound without Ringo’s beautifully lopsided breakbeat, his unexpected twitching snare pattern emphasising the song’s feel of psychedelic discombobulation? How would Strawberry Fields Forever feel without Ringo’s fantastically weary tom fills, which seems to drag the listener down into John’s nostalgia?
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 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 producer who understood this well was Danger Mouse, whose 2004 release The Grey Album married Jay-Z’s The Black Album to the Beatles’ LP The Beatles to wonderful effect. Ringo’s breakbeats are a key tool in making the album fly, whether chopped up for their unique timbre or used straight for their head-down funk.
The Chemical Brothers also borrowed the shape of the Tomorrow Never Knows beat for both Setting Sun and Let Forever Be, while J Dilla sampled Starr’s 1974 solo song Occapella on In the Streets. Other Ringo solo songs that prove the funk didn’t end when the Beatles split include the lolling glam funk of Back Off Boogaloo, the irresistible disco-ish stomp of Oh My My and the rolling percussive waves of It Don’t Come Easy, which has the added bonus of supporting an absolutely fantastic tune.
Ringo Starr : a masterful drummer, genius with a rhythmic powerhouse. If you don’t get Ringo, then you’re only getting three quarters of the Beatles.