When The Beatles exploded into our consciousness it seemed for all the world that they were a pre-packaged miracle. Unlikely as it might sound today, when their disparate personalities are so familiar, so analysed, it was once impossible to tell them apart. It was Saturday, January 19, 1963, and most of Britain was blanketed by a huge snowfall; and tea time, huddled around our black and white TV sets, was when those of us outside of Liverpool saw them for the first time ever, performing ‘Please Please Me’ on Thank Your Lucky Stars. They all looked alike, the same dark suits, the same Cuban-heeled boots, the same longish hair that hid their foreheads, the same cheeky grins. One played a guitar with a long neck that seemed to stick out the wrong way, creating a symmetry that other guitar-toting groups like The Shadows didn't have. The only one that looked vaguely different was the drummer and that was because he was the smallest, had the biggest nose and the saddest eyes, and when he played he shook his head from side to side so his fringe bobbed up and down like a floor mop, but as far as we were concerned they were a single united being with no history, only a present and, possibly, a future.
Not until much later did the truth emerge; that the position of drummer in the group remained in the balance until they recorded their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, in September the previous year. By contrast, two of the guitarists, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, had been playing together in groups since October 1957, with the third, George Harrison, joining them a few months later. The drummer, Ringo Starr, born Richard Starkey on 7 July 1940, might have been the oldest Beatle in years but in terms of Beatle experience he was far and away the youngest.
The circumstances that brought Ringo into the fold were devious and, in the eyes of their luckless former drummer Pete Best, downright shameful. Best had joined The Beatles in August 1960 on the eve of their first visit to Hamburg, sticking with them throughout that four month marathon, on through the whole of 1961 and the first half of 1962, a stint that saw two further arduous Hamburg trips and hundreds of shows around Liverpool, many of them at the Cavern Club. Best had succeeded a drummer called Tommy Moore who was considerably older than the others and whose sole claim to Beatle fame was accompanying them on an ill-fated tour of Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle, in May of 1960.
For all his hard work and enthusiasm, and the hours he put in, Pete Best somehow never fitted in, and in the early months of 1962 John, Paul and George began plotting his dismissal. Ringo, meanwhile was playing with another Liverpool outfit, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, though his stint with them was characterised by occasional signs of restlessness, not least an abandoned plan to emigrate to Texas – he’d always been a lover of Westerns. Manager Brian Epstein was given the uncomfortable task of firing Best on 16 August, two days after John had phoned Ringo at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness and invited him to join. Ringo needed no encouragement and played his first official show as a Beatle on 18 August at Port Sunlight, near Birkenhead.
The changeover wasn’t accomplished without a certain amount of unpleasantness in Liverpool. Although the group was largely unknown outside of the Lancastrian port, there had been early, minor outbreaks of Beatlemania in their home town where a sizeable following, mostly female and certainly vocal, was attracted by Pete Best’s good looks and moody image. A frosty reception greeted The Beatles down at the Cavern after Ringo’s appointment, and George somehow received a black eye in one fracas.
It helped that Ringo was a fixture on the Liverpool and Hamburg scenes where The Beatles cut their teeth. It probably also helped that he was somehow more congenial than Pete Best, that he shared the same quirky sense of humour as John, Paul & George and could be relied upon to enliven the party with a well-timed droll comment. More importantly, he’d played a few shows with The Beatles before he became a member, deputising for Best when he was ill, so they knew he could cut it on stage.
It was touch and go whether he could cut it in the studio, however. After his first session with The Beatles at Abbey Road in September of 1962 producer George Martin took the precaution of hiring session drummer Andy White when they returned a week later, leaving Ringo to disconsolately shake a tambourine. In the event the version of ‘Love Me Do’ that was released in October did have Ringo on drums, though for reasons still unexplained The Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me featured the version with Andy White.
If this shook Ringo’s confidence it didn’t show, and the Best episode was quickly forgotten – not that fans outside Liverpool knew anything of it anyway. Ringo was certainly in his element when the group recorded their first album in February of 1963, the highlight of which was John’s all-out assault on ‘Twist And Shout’, with Ringo’s snare powering the group through what was, by a wide margin, the most frenzied piece of pop music ever recorded in the UK up to that time.
When he became a Beatle Ringo was using a basic four piece Premier kit, a 20x17″ bass drum, a 16x16″ floor tom, a 12x8″ rack tom and a shallow white 14x4″ snare, together with one ride cymbal and a hi-hat. At first he had the initials ‘RS’ on the front of the bass drum, then added his full name. In early 1963 this was changed to The Beatles’ first logo in which the vertical line of the ‘B’ split at the top into two beetles’ antennae.
It wasn’t long before Ringo decided he needed something better and he bought his first Ludwig kit from Drum City on Shaftesbury Avenue in April of 1963, accompanied by Brian Epstein. He chose a basic four-piece kit in oyster black pearl with a 20-inch bass drum, two cymbals and a hi-hat, and it was Epstein who suggested that a new logo should appear on the front of the bass drum. In the event the famous Beatles logo with the large ‘B’ and dropped ‘T’ was designed in the store and painted on the front by their own freelance sign writer.
Ringo was loyal to Ludwig. He was using a second Ludwig kit by the time the group played their first concerts in America in February 1964, and in May of the same year he was given his third kit by a grateful Ludwig whose sales had shot up as a result of Ringo’s patronage. Retaining the same finish as his first kit, this was a Super Classic kit with a 22x14″ bass drum, 13x9″ rack tom, 16x16″ floor tom and 15x5″ wood-shell snare. By the time of The Beatles 1965 US tour he was on his fourth kit, and henceforth he seems to have chopped and changed between the various kits he owned.
During the remainder of The Beatles’ career two further kits made an appearance, the first Ringo’s ‘giant kit’ in white pearl with a 28x14″ bass drum, and the second his gold Hollywood kit with twin rack toms which he used during the session for the ‘White Album’ and during the filming of Let It Be. It is widely believed that Ringo still owns most, if not all, the kits he used during his eight years as a Beatle.
Ringo’s playing style and technical ability have always been hotly debated. His drumming skills have inspired tremendous acclaim and terrible derision in almost equal measure, the latter occasionally at the hands of the rest of the band with John Lennon once famously smirking that Ringo “wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. It may well be true that the sheer variety of drum parts in The Beatles’ songs can be attributed to the rest of the band’s musical imagination and awareness rather than Ringo’s skills, but it would be churlish to suggest that any half-way competent drummer would be capable of such remarkable diversity. Paul McCartney was particularly forthright in his criticism – perhaps naturally, as the bass player – and was also the most clued-up Beatle in regards to American soul and R&B. There is a definite Motown-esque energy to the tom-tom roll introduction and triplet fills that drive ‘She Loves You’, and McCartney has revealed that the quasi-Latin feel to ‘I Feel Fine’ was inspired by Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’. However, it is testament to Ringo’s abilities that he was able to execute the ideas he was charged with and performed so successfully. This willingness to absorb the other’s concepts was a key part of why the dynamic of the group worked so well; a more independently-minded drummer might have found himself at odds with his bandmate’s collective musical ambition and have been unable to contribute so sympathetically. The result is a set of drum performances which are an intrinsic part of these great songs. For instance, the drums for ‘Ticket To Ride’ helped make it the strongest track The Beatles had recorded up to that point. The staggered tom-tom triplets of the initial verses were truly original, and the shift from this to more conventional patterns in the later verses gives a momentum that demonstrates how The Beatles’ musical sophistication and fast-developing mastery of song structure was embedded in Ringo’s parts.
While Ringo’s drumming was never self-consciously flashy (he famously resisted playing the solo in ‘The End’ at the climax to Abbey Road, and relented only when it had been halved in length), many of The Beatles’ mid-period songs demonstrate how his role was not limited to that of a background time keeper. ‘She Said She Said’ is punctuated by (relatively) extravagant snare fills, never allowing the song to settle. ‘Rain’ – also a watershed for McCartney’s role as the other half of the Fabs’ rhythm section – was a favourite performance by Ringo and again is full of tom rolls and flourishes that match the song’s psychedelia perfectly.
The hi-hat fill and tom-tom rolls which kick off Lennon’s ‘Come Together’ show how Ringo’s particular feel could define a fairly simple pattern. Interestingly, Starr was born left-handed, but developed ambidextrous skills at a young age and always played a right-handed kit. This facilitated some unorthodox ideas, but also made some more conventional drum figures somewhat awkward; the result was Ringo’s personal, inimitable style. ‘Get Back’ would be unimaginable without Ringo’s underpinning snare shuffle; it’s B-side, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ features another idiosyncrasy in the 16th-note hi-hat pattern heard on the first beat only of each bar.
All this is interesting to compare with the performances on ‘Back In The USSR’ and ‘Dear Prudence’, where an unprecedented falling-out had led to Ringo’s temporary departure from the band, and McCartney played drums instead. Who knows how Ringo would have played these drum parts; there is perhaps a stiffness and straightness to some of McCartney’s comparatively undeveloped playing, but his avalanche of tom-toms at the end of ‘Prudence’ remains a definite standout Beatles drum moment.
A glance through the interviews he has given over the years gives the impression that Ringo Starr never believed that he was a great drummer, let alone a great singer, or a great anything else really. Yet, like his contemporaries Charlie Watts in The Rolling Stones and Keith Moon with The Who, he was unquestionably the perfect drummer for the group in which he played, steady and reliable with occasional touches of greatness that he modestly shrugs off with his trademark self-depreciation. In 1964 American Beatles fans mounted a campaign to elect Ringo for President. Well, he’d certainly have made a better fist of it than some I can think of…
(I am grateful to Music Sales senior editor Tom Farncombe for help with this and yesterday’s piece about Paul McCartney’s basses)
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn (Hamlyn/EMI 1998)
The Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk (Backbeat, 2002)
Here There And Everywhere by Geoff Emerick (Gotham Books, 2007)
Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald (Vintage, 2008)