Ringo Starr’s Beat Can’t Be Beat

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Ringo Rates His Own Place in the Hall of Fame by His Drumming Alone… Plus All Else He’s Done
Ringo swinging on the kit/Photo by Scott Ritchie

Ringo swinging on the kit (Photo: Scott Ritchie)

Kvetch all you want to about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the respect came rolling in for one Richard Starkey on April 18, 2015, in Cleveland. The man we’ve known for all these years as Ringo Starr was finally inducted into the Hall as a solo artist, the last of the Beatles to be so honored.

The guy who inducted him was the same fella who pushed hard for his nomination, Paul McCartney. Starr went to the podium, began with a deadpan “My name is Ringo and I play drums,” and went on to weave his starting-out story, finally getting to, “It’s been an incredible journey for me with these three guys who wrote these songs.”

There remains a stubborn contention that he was the luckiest guy in the world to have joined The Beatles – an average drummer who happened to have joined up with three genius musical talents. But there are many who know better.

Ringo turned 77 on July 7. He’s fit, trim and healthy. He’s been married to Barbara Bach since 1981 and lives, we have to suspect, a life of ease. His net worth is estimated at $300 million, so when he works, it’s his choice, a labor of love.

He lived the high life many decades ago, thank you, and drank all the booze and snorted all the cocaine he was going to with Harry Nilsson, Marc Bolan, John Lennon and various friends back in the ’70s. He also sold a lot of records back then – and, beating the odds, out of the box he was the most commercially successful of the ex-Beatles. He’s released 18 – count ‘em – solo albums.

Related: Ringo’s birthday celebration, a new album and upcoming tour

When I talked with Ringo eight years ago, around the release of Y Not, I asked him, “You launched your solo career after the Beatles’ breakup, and I know many people thought, ‘Oh sure, John, Paul and maybe George will make it solo – but Ringo?’”

“I made the Ringo album and I was like the biggest-selling Beatle! Ha-ha-ha-ha!” Starr said, before downshifting a bit. “We didn’t get too involved in what everybody talked about. We just kept doing what we did.”

Of course, his three ex-bandmates did play on that 1973 record. It gave the world the idea that whatever drove John and Paul apart, Ringo was still the glue that could bring them together (in a manner of speaking.) Lennon wrote the kickoff track, “I’m the Greatest,” and played on it alongside George Harrison.

Ringo & Paul (crop)

Paul joins Ringo at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (Photo via Carol Kaye)

Ringo had started his good-natured assault on the Top 40 two years earlier with “It Don’t Come Easy” (#4 hit) and “Back Off Boogaloo (#9). Ringo spawned two #1s, “Photograph” and “You’re Sixteen,” a #5 in “Oh My My.” In 1975 he hit #3 with “No No Song.”

The Five Minute Interview?

When we did that interview, it was locked in for five minutes, an absurdly short time in which to do even the most cursory of interviews. I was ever-aware of the clock ticking. This leaves little time for “hey-nice-to-meet-you” chat and creates a need to jump in the deep end.

Starr was approaching a birthday when we talked. I asked what he wished for. “At noon,” said Ringo, “I’d love everybody, wherever you are – in your office, on the bus – or whatever you’re doing, to stop for one moment. Put your fingers up in the peace-and-love way and say ‘Peace and love.’”

All he is saying is give peace one moment/Photo by Scott Ritchie

All he is saying is give peace one moment/Photo by Scott Ritchie

I couldn’t help myself: What, exactly, might that accomplish?

“Well,” Ringo said, “it will have an effect on all those people who do it. Because for one moment they’ll be thinking peace and love, and thought is very powerful.”

The Beatles’ “message” sometimes gets simplified as “peace and love” when it was a lot more complex and diverse.

“There was more, but that’s how it is,” Ringo responded when asked about that. “’Stairway to Heaven’ – if you talk about Led Zeppelin, you go right there. Everybody loves to put a tag on everything, but we were the peace and love band. That’s all it was. ‘All You Need is Love’ – we did that track and it was very high on our agenda. We did ‘Hey Bulldog’ and ‘Paperback Writer’ and a lot of other stuff. But I think it’s not a bad thing if you look at the Beatles and the representation is peace and love.”

Ringo likes to close his All-Starr Band shows with Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.”

“The whole idea is basically the same,” Ringo told me. “I was invited to put a band together and go on tour in 1989, and I’d never done it before. So in my nervousness, I took out my phone book and flipped through the pages and got Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Levon Helm, Rick Danko. It was like an orchestra. I was insecure and I got this band and it worked so well. I could be down in the front being Ringo, doing ‘With A Little Help from My Friends.’ Then I could be the drummer and play [the others’] songs. I got the best of both worlds. That’s why I love it and that’s why I continue to do it. And I continue to do it with different artists. I still don’t have a basic band. They have to have had hits in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. I certainly had hits in the ‘60s! That’s what we’re about.”

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With a little help from his friends…

Ringo was heading into his 70s at the time of the interview, and given Paul’s famous song, “When I’m 64,” I wondered what his thoughts were when he turned that age. Did 64 seem so far away when the Beatles first tracked it?

“I don’t think you think like that,” Ringo said. “I was probably about 26 when we recorded that, and you’re just doing what you’re doing. Paul had written that song and we played it to the best of our ability.”

Did he think he would make it to that age?

“No. But I gotta tell you 64 was a big birthday just because of that song.”

 

A True Superstar of The Drums

Even as he becomes the first star from the drum stool to enter the Hall of Fame solo, the question remains: Is Ringo a good drummer?

As charming as Ringo was in public and as solid as he was behind the kit, there has (or had) been the contention that he wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, the best one being Paul (and some also suggest Pete Best, who he replaced). McCartney drummed on “Back in the USSR” and “Dear Prudence,” as Ringo had temporarily quit the band in a snit. Later, McCartney also played on “The Ballad of John and Yoko,” as Ringo was off doing a movie.

Ringo photo included in the White Album

Ringo photo included in the White Album

I had to ask how he felt about those who underrated him.

Me: Your skill as a drummer has been debated widely over the years. Many have sung your praises, but even you have taken note of your limitations, calling yourself average, I think.

Ringo: “No, never average. Nobody plays the groove like I play it.”

I asked another drummer what he thought of Ringo’s technical skills.

“Ringo’s technical skills are perfect,” said Chris Frantz of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. “After all, that’s why John, Paul and George picked him to be in The Beatles.

Living in the "Yellow Submarine" movie.

Living in the “Yellow Submarine” movie.

“Was Ringo the fastest drummer? Was he a virtuoso? Could be play more notes-per-bar and more complicated beats than any other drummer? Of course not. Too many people consider speed and complexity to be the best measure of technical skill, which is absurd.”

And in that way, Starr eschewed drum solos. But the one he did do on side two of Abbey Road in “The End” was at the time iconic and today even more so. Frantz, who notes that he is “not a big fan of most drum solos,” finds it “impeccable.”

 

Maximizing Minimalism

Ringo has been described as a “minimalist” drummer. Frantz feels that “to say that Ringo is a minimalist drummer is not inaccurate. His playing is essentially backbeat drumming with a whole lot of swing and not a lot of frilly stuff, thank God. However, if you listen to, say, ‘Ticket to Ride,’ ‘Rain’ or ‘Come Together’ you can hear that his playing can also be maximal and conceptually rigorous.”

One of the sweet benefits of living with the Beatles’ catalog for these many years is that over time the seemingly “small” musical touches reveal themselves as crucial. And that is especially true with Ringo, who, by the way, is a left who plays a right-handed kit.

"Ah, the famous Ringo" in Help!

“Ah, the famous Ringo” in Help!

His interplay with McCartney as a rhythm section was another secret to the greatness of the band’s music. “Paul and Ringo worked together in interesting and not always predictable ways,” Frantz points out. “Paul is a pretty good drummer himself, but he’s no Ringo Starr.”

A Drumming Wizard, A True Super Starr

Drumming skills that have been too often criminally underrated and even bashed weren’t all that Ringo brought to the Fab Four. “I think Ringo benefited from having a surplus of charisma and a joie de vivre that translated easily to photos, television and the big screen,” Frantz observes. “Of course, he had the good fortune to be in the most photographed band in history. To me, the images I saw of Ringo and the sound of the records convinced me that the drummer was every bit as important as the guitarist.

“No question that Ringo made the drummer’s role more visible,” Frantz observes. “To their credit, the other Beatles and their management and press people knew what they had in Ringo. He wasn’t called Ringo STARR for nothing.”

Watch Ringo and three other guys in a Pizza Hut commercial…

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan

As a high school baseball player growing up in Maine, I used to pump myself up for games by playing Raw Power by Iggy & the Stooges –the ultimate adrenaline rush. My friends and team mates didn't quite get it. They liked Chicago (the band). But that was OK: the punk rock revolution was around the corner, and that's where my musical taste locked in with many others, bored with corporate rock. Yes, I had Slade, Mott, Bowie and Roxy to get me there, too. That punk (and post) period was a time of extreme excitement (friction, joy, conflict) that inspired me to write about what I loved. And it opened the doors to even more worlds.

I wrote about pop music and other arts for the Boston Globe for 25-plus years, with more than 10,000 stories to my credit before leaving in 2005. Since then I’ve freelanced for the Boston Phoenix, Boston Herald, Where magazine, Boston Common, Yankee magazine online, Time Out Boston, US News & World Report, the Cape Cod Times. I host the XFINITY on Demand music/interview show “Boston Rock/Talk,” and write and edit www.jimsullivanink.com, which serves as a critical guide to arts and events around metro Boston.
Jim Sullivan
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  1. tagoldich
    #1 tagoldich 16 July, 2017, 20:19

    One of the great drummers, Ringo is the king of feel!

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