Don’t Pass This Boy By

As a drummer, he was a natural—purely intuitive, remarkably tasteful, spirited but always basic, a proponent of the “less is more” school of minimal drumming. With an endearing sense of modesty, Ringo has always disparaged his drumming throughout the years (“Whenever I hear another drummer I know I’m no good… I’m no good on the technical things but I’m good with all the motions, swinging my head, like. That’s because I like to dance but I can’t dance on the drums…”); but the fact of the matter was that his willingness to lay back and take directions and feed the others—a quality which seemed intrinsically rooted in his very background and character—was what allowed the Beatles’ sound to take such powerful flight. He was, in essence, the perfect team player, a character musician whose ingenuity grew directly out of a sublime ability to make his deficiencies and flaws as a musician work to accentuate and liberate rather than hold back their music. He had an uncanny understanding of John’s rhythm guitar and Paul’s bass line. Time and again, the Beatles rode his backbeat to glory, and precisely because he never overstated a beat or over-accented a phrase (unless it was appropriate), he managed to get more mileage out of his licks than most drummers could ever dream of. The results were extraordinary: the rare clash of the ride cymbal or tom-tom roll imparted cataclysmic style and a powerful identity to passages—the machine gun snare of “Ticket to Ride”; the explosive roll and cymbals of “Day Tripper”—the examples are endless (everyone has their favorites).

As the Beatles rose to successive creative challenges over the years, so did Ringo, in his own way; he improved from album to album and his growth as a musician paralleled the musical-cultural directions of the group. In a curious way though, his utter simplicity remained a large part of his appeal as a drummer. He grew but he remained the same; he improved technically, but only enough to accommodate his mates. In the end he remained an original. If I could think of a single passage in which Ringo’s quintessential “style” as a drummer is most identifiable, it could well be something as late as, say, the drumming behind George’s guitar solo on Paul’s “Let it Be,” after the organ trails off. There, in simple 4/4 time, Ringo comes in with the trademark thump of the bass drum, a clean tattering snare and his insistent smashing of the high hat, unvarying, unyielding, yet distinctively Ringo. And you can’t help but smile, not for its banality but because it’s so perfectly adequate, and because one can readily envision Ringo behind his ‘kit as he plays it, beringed fingers clutching his sticks, swaying beatifically from side to side as he gets on with his work, blinking those astonishingly saturnine blue eyes. 

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