I recently watched a fascinating and insightful documentary about Led Zeppelin. I still recall exactly where I was when we heard their first mind-blowing album: Scott Homan’s basement in Bridgewater, NJ. It was their U.S. kickoff.
The final punch-in-the-gut punctuation mark for their end as a band was the death of drummer John Bonham. The way the documentary put it, Bonham was the best rock and roll drummer that ever was. Was he? For a long time I thought Ginger Baker was the man. His work with Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce put him on many critics’ short list of stellar drummers.
And then there’s Keith Moon of The Who. What about that crazy wild man? You can watch YouTube and see his maniacal workmanship. Masterful mayhem.
I had all of Jimi Hendrix’s albums and what stuck out for me was Mitch Mitchell’s drumming on Manic Depression. To be part of the Hendrix experience you had to be good. Buddy Miles became the sequel in Jimi’s abbreviated career. Another phenomenal drummer was Buddy Rich whom I had the opportunity to see in Allentown a number of years ago, with his big band. Turns out he doesn’t qualify as a great rock drummer because he’s a great jazz drummer.
So, where does Ringo stand in all this? First off, those who dismiss him suggest comparisons of drum solos. Ringo’s recorded drum solo is a relatively brief 16 bars at the end of Abbey Road, side two. Try Ginger Baker’s “Toad” on Wheels of Fire.
But are drum solos the true measure of a drummer? Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones), like Ringo, didn’t really go for drum solos. So where does Ringo stand as a drummer? Was he lucky or was he good? When I was in college I remember a Playboy poll that had Ringo as Number One for several years in the 60s. (I’m going on hearsay here.) I somehow felt this bias due to the Beatles’ fame, not necessarily his workmanship as a drummer.
His birth name, as every 60s kid knew, was Richard Starkey. Born in Liverpool he bested the Beatles’ original drummer Peter Best, and became the fourth cornerstone of the most famous group in rock history. When the Beatles burst on the scene he was the steady force behind the boys, and showed his stuff not with dramatic drum solos, but rather with his charismatic, easy-going reliability.
Despite his career ups and downs since the breakup of the Beatles, Yoko Ono recently claimed, ‘He was the most influential Beatle.” According to this 2015 article in the Spectator when Paul and John first spotted him in Hamburg, in his suit and beard, sitting ‘drinking bourbon and seven’, they were amazed. ‘This was, like, a grown-up musician,’ thought Paul. One night Ringo sat in for their drummer Pete Best. ‘I remember the moment,’ said Paul, ‘standing there and looking at John and then looking at George, and the look on our faces was like… what is this? And that was the moment, that was the beginning, really, of the Beatles.’
Here’s an article that puts the Ringo question into perspective: 13 Reasons To Give Ringo Some Respect.
Ringo’s influence can be noticed in the many ways others imitated him. For example, Ringo started the trend of placing drummers on high risers so that they would be as visible as the other musicians. When Ringo appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, he immediately caught the attention of thousands of “drummers to be” by towering over the other three Beatles. Elvis’s drummer was looking at a collection of backs.
Ringo’s ability to play odd time signatures helped to push popular songwriting into uncharted areas. Two examples are “All you Need is Love” in 7/4 time, and “Here Comes the Sun” with repeating 11/8, 4/4, and 7/8 passages in the chorus.
There have been a lot of significant drummers and plenty of lists of the top ten or top 100. When it comes to Ringo’s stature he’s well respected by those in the know. Here’s one list of the Top Ten Drummers of All Time. When describing the Beatles’ drummer they state, “Without Ringo, The Beatles wouldn’t be The Beatles.”
Ringo provided the essential foundation upon which the other Beatles could build anything and everything. What do you think?
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com in 2016.