Sunday, July 25, 2010

July 7, 2010: Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

For a guy who is doubtlessly the most famous drummer who ever lived, Ringo Starr has received a fair share of guff for his behind-the-kit skills. He’s been called The Beatles’ weak-link and the luckiest guy in the world for hooking up with three superiorly talents musicians, but those kinds of flippant barbs miss how fine a drummer Ringo is and how much he changed his instrument. The Ringo Starr beat is unmistakable: that constant wash of semi-open hi-hat, that hard kick drum, those odd-ball fills that lead with the toms (a consequence of him being a left-handed drummer forced by his grandmother—who believed lefties to be minions of Satan—to play a right-handed kit). His playing has been copied by major players from Charlie Watts (check out his work on “Dandelion”) to Max Weinstein to basically every other player who’s picked up a pair of stick since 1964— whether he or she realizes it or not. Anyone who still questions the man’s prowess on a four piece Ludwig need only hear Ringo’s Ten Greatest Beats

1. “I Feel Fine” (1964)

“I Feel Fine” is a track that perfectly illustrates why Ringo’s drumming is so misunderstood: his work is deceptively simple and seems perhaps too lax, yet it’s actually quite metronomic and perfectly compliments what the other Beatles are doing. Ringo’s salsa stumbles in behind Lennon’s propulsive guitar riff and matches its effervescence loosely but not lazily. Then he shift gears radically for a hard bass/snare fill following the guitar break before easing back into that salsa and riding the record into the sunset.


2. “Rain” (1966)

Ringo often refers to “Rain” as his favorite of his own performances. While it doesn’t sport the tricky time-signatures that make a song further down this list his most accomplished feat, the crisp fills he scatters throughout “Rain” make it his most audacious.


3. “She Said, She Said” (1966)

All the proof you’ll ever need of Ringo’s greatness is packed into the final track on Side A of Revolver. Ringo double-tasks, driving along the meter, which constantly shifts between a slack 4/4 and a rigid 3/4, while regularly discharging “Rain”-style fills that scoop up the beat and keep it from careening into the abyss.


4. “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966)

As uniform as “She Said, She Said” is chaotic, “Tomorrow Never Knows” finds Ringo riding the same beat for its entire three minutes. Not a fill breaks the rhythm, yet it’s an amazing performance because of Ringo’s rhythmic idiosyncrasy. Each measure kicks off with the standard movement from bass to snare before shuttering into a double rap on the snare that threatens to halt the beat each time. It’s like listening to a bear trap constantly springing open and snapping shut.


5. “Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)

Ringo’s greatest performance amps up the trickiness of “She Said, She Said” (this time the meter careens from 4/4 to 2/4 to 3/4) and the abandon of “Rain”, while also delving into pure experimentation. “Strawberry Fields Forever” contains a “wild drum track” of massed percussion that creates a thrillingly frenzied undercurrent beneath a placid surface of brass, cellos, and Lennon’s stoned-to-the-gills vocal.


6. “A Day in the Life” (1967)

The Lennon-composed sections of “A Day in the Life” are so rhythmically airy that Ringo didn’t even play his drum kit on the basic track (rather, he taps the congas). But that expansiveness allowed him to roll out some equally spacious drum fills when it came time for him to add his drums to the second verse. The double-time fills he scatters throughout the final verse are equally sublime.


7. “Only a Northern Song” (1968)

The essence of psychedelic drumming. Ringo piles on his trademark “funny fills”, which contribute as much nervous tension to “Only a Northern Song” as those twittering trumpet bursts. The way he punctuates the waltz-time refrain with his bass and crash lends a revivifying dose of power to this characteristically languid George Harrison track.


8. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (1968)

One of Ringo’s strangest rhythmic feats can be heard on one of The Beatles’ strangest songs. The final movement of Lennon’s mini-suite “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” is a doo-wop parody on which the guitars, bass, and vocals lurch into 3/4 time. But Ringo remains in 4/4, creating an incomparable rhythmic push-and-pull that helps the song’s most comedic passage maintain the tension established in the frightening movements that precede it.


9. “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” (1968)

Long believed to be recorded solely by McCartney, “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” does, indeed, feature Ringo behind the kit. The raunchy blues might have been one of the more forgettable tracks on “The White Album” if not for the stuttering jive Ringo lays down in its opening moments.


10. “I Found Out” (1970)

Good-natured Ringo was an unlikely collaborator on Lennon’s primal scream exorcism John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band, but he adds a funky wallop to several of the album’s fiercest tracks. “I Found Out”, which ruthlessly debunks the exceptionalness of everyone from Jesus to Paul McCartney (Lennon spends much of the rest of the record debunking his own established myth while simultaneously building a new one), is among these. Ringo’s subtly shifting rhythm, combined with Lennon’s absolutely filthy guitar and Klauss Voorman’s slithery bass, makes “I Found Out” as infectious as it is pungent.

Ringo Starr was born 70 years ago today.
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