Time has been a bit unkind to Ringo Starr. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – at 73, the former Beatle looks remarkably fit and youthful, and certainly, he has been rewarded with financial abundance for his work as one of the Fabs. He also seems to be enjoying himself, whenever you see him perform with the ever-rotating cast of his All Starr Band – which is playing a sold-out show at Artpark on Tuesday.
But strictly on a musical level, Starr has not weathered the years as well as his former bandmates – which might sound a bit odd, considering that only one of those former band mates is still alive. He routinely is regarded as one of the luckiest men in show business, a marginal talent who, to paraphrase an oft-repeated John Lennon quip, “wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” In fact, Starr’s abilities as a drummer are consistently called into question. The general gist of the criticism is this – Starr is a rudimentary drummer who happened to be in the right place at the right time, and who is famous because he spent the glory days of his career surrounded by three of the greater geniuses of the rock era. End of discussion.
I’ve been hearing versions of this argument for as long as I can remember. I became a Beatles fanatic at a tender age, and can recall older members of my extended family treating Starr as the butt of their jokes, the goofy member of the gang you tolerated, but didn’t necessarily respect. From the beginning, I struck a defensive pose when this subject would come up. The Beatles were sacrosanct to me, and I was deeply offended that anyone would criticize one of them.
Later – around the early teen years, when I fell beneath the sway of progressive rock and jazz, and was exposed to a level of technical virtuosity heretofore unknown to me – I began to toe the party line a bit. I mean, if you’re listening to Tony Williams, Neil Peart, John Bonham and Stewart Copeland on a daily basis, yeah, Starr’s drumming starts to sound pretty basic.
Today, however, I’m back to being defensive in regards to Starr’s reputation. I’ll admit to the belief that he hasn’t made a good studio album since 1973’s “Ringo,” a great collection that, not surprisingly, featured contributions from all three of his former Beatle buddies. And as fun as his All Starr Band shows most definitely are, Starr always is joined by co-drummers, and rarely attacks the skins with the commitment he once exhibited. His voice, too, remains what it always was – charming, but an acquired taste.
All of this aside, Starr’s record as a Beatle is more than enough to counter the “right place at the right time” arguments. I’ll say it – I believe Starr is one of the finest rock drummers in the form’s history. Yes, he’s rudimentary. But he also was incredibly inventive, a conjuror of monstrous grooves, and a drummer who perfected the art of playing for the song.
Here are 10 examples of Starr’s subtle genius within the framework of the Beatles. Even if the man has been coasting on his legacy for years, this work suggests that, perhaps, he has earned the right to do so.
1) “A Day in the Life”
The tom tom rolls, the sound of the drum set, the perfectly placed accents, the relaxed groove – all are masterful, and all have been copied over and over again throughout the decades.
2) “I Am the Walrus”
Starr was playing a hip-hop groove here, 20 years before hip-hop existed.
3) “The Abbey Road Medley”
The drumming throughout side 2 of the Beatles’ final recording offers a lesson in subtlety and restraint.
4) “I Dig A Pony”
Starr getting back to his roots as a primal rock ’n’ roll basher, but with maturity and a more evolved musicality.
5) “Magical Mystery Tour”
A four-on-the-floor scorcher.
One of the greatest snare drum sounds ever laid to tape. The sophistication of simplicity in full effect.
Another killer groove, with some sweet fills.
8) “Tomorrow Never Knows”
A simply iconic drum figure provides half of this song’s enduring magic. Rumor has it that Paul McCartney wrote the drum part. Regardless, it’s awesome.
9) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
Starr is driving the train here, without calling attention to that fact.
10) “Glass Onion”
An odd but amazing Lennon composition demanded authoritative drumming. Starr delivered.
Just as he always did.