His lack of compositional abilities aside, is Ringo Starr generally considered as a drummer: A. A very talented instrumentalist whose abilities are/were underestimated? B. A not-bad musician elevated by his good fortune in winding up a Beatle? C. A pretty lame musician by comparison not just to his bandmates but to most of his contemporaries in successful rock bands? I have thought both B and C at various points, but heard (possibly fulsome/insincere) testimony to A. Help me out!
A huge caveat: answering this question requires more subjectivity than most of the others in the book, so you might not agree with the next few paragraphs, even though I’m right. Conventional wisdom has historically oscillated between B and C among all but the most devoted Beatlemaniacs, but lately, more people would opt for option A. (Paul McCartney has also gone through a long-term critical resurgence, possibly because he no longer gets lightweight but massively successful ballads on the radio, so people can remember why they liked him in the first place. But that’s another story.) Personally, I would say the truth lies somewhere between A and B, and if you made me pick one option, I’d plump for A.
Starr was the least nimble instrumentalist in the Beatles, and wasn’t flashy, but his great virtue was his impeccable timing, which is the single most important thing for any drummer. He was always in the pocket, always laid down a solid groove, never got in the way of the other performances. Sure, lots of other drummers had more chops, but that doesn’t mean that, say, Charlie Watts (to pick a random excellent rock drummer with jazz training), could have done a better job playing on those Beatles tracks.
Let’s check in with Lenny Kravitz, another underrated drummer: “Next to Ringo, I like [Stevie Wonder] best. Both of those guys are very lyrical drummers. They’re the kind of drummers that a lot of other drummers just don’t get. Like I hear musicians say, “Yeah, Ringo can’t play.” You know what? Fuck you. Because you obviously have no ears at all. Ringo was so sick, it was ridiculous. I mean, nobody played a tom solo like Ringo.”
A few Beatles tracks where Starr really shines, and worth listening to while just paying attention to the drums, are “Drive My Car,” where he’s particularly inventive on the breaks, “Ticket to Ride,” where he basically invents heavy-metal drumming, and “Rain,” where he plays like a man possessed. The “Strawberry Fields” outtakes on the Anthology 2 collection also show him doing some really interesting stuff (he comes up with proto-versions of the trip-hop beat).
Also, Ringo had star power (no pun intended). As John Lennon said, “Whatever that spark is in Ringo, we all know it, but we can’t put our finger on it. Whether it’s acting, drumming, or singing, I don’t know. There’s something in him that is projectable and he would have surfaced as an individual.” That doesn’t really add to his value as a drummer, but it certainly added to his value as a Beatle.
(Excerpted from the 2006 book Is Tiny Dancer Really Elton’s Little John?: Music’s Most Enduring Mysteries, Myths, and Rumors Revealed, published by Three Rivers Press, written by Gavin Edwards.)