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Saturday, July 03, 2010

The man who guarded the secret of the Beatles

Ringo's 70 next week. Somebody's bound to trot out that old John Lennon line about him being "not even the best drummer in the Beatles". This misses the point on purpose, as if the best drummer for a group was always the one with the most skills. What matters with any group musician is fit.

But drummers are a different category altogether. A musician friend recently pointed out to me that the drummer is the one who "knows where the beat is". This intrigued me. He was explaining that once the drummer had decided where the beat was, which will be a product of his ear, personality and physical disposition, then you either go along with it or replace him, either with a drummer nearer to your taste or, as is the increasingly the case, with a drum machine. There's no point thinking you can change the way he plays any more than you can change the way he walks, holds his head or drinks his tea. Ringo was also unusual in that he's a left handed person playing a right handed kit. That meant that there were some things he couldn't do very well, such as play a roll, but it also made him, in his own words, "a handy kind of player". It may be why he was one of the first drummers not to hold his left stick like a chopstick.

Ringo knew where the beat was on the greatest creative streak in popular music, which is quite a responsibility. Not being involved in the creative squabbles on the front line he had one simple job - to define the pulse of the group. He knew their secret. On the best Beatle records he's an equal contributor. Take away those flourishes towards the end of She Loves You, the jubilant ride cymbal swing of Eight Days A Week, the straightening middle-eight of No Reply and the brilliant off-kilter funk of She Said She Said, and these are only instances, and you would have records that are not only 25% less musical but probably 50% less Beatle. And because he was a glass half-full personality his percentage contained a greater than normal injection of that buoyancy and joy which is key to the group's DNA.

So Happy Birthday for next Wednesday. It's still Ringo's world. We just live in it.