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.


  1. I'm not sure left-handedness is no obstacle to playing a roll, either single or double stroke. But being a Leftie on a Rightie kit did mean Ringo played differently to most other drummers, often finishing his fills on the snare rather than crashing a cymbal. And while the great Phil Seamen (great drummer,and brilliantly his bass drum beater was the infinitely hard, smooth wooden ball from a coconut shy) had been using matched grip for decades, Ringo was certainly the best known non-orthodox/traditional grip player. And he looked like it was so simple, and so much fun.

    He wasn't the Best drummer in the world. But as you rightly say, he was the best drummer for the Beatles. Nobody not in a band really gets what a drummer Does. To some extent timekeeping, dynamics, punctuation and propulsion (and even in the best bands, there's a lot of this sort of shepherding going on), these are all secondary concerns. The main thing a drummer does (or fails to do) is Make Everyone Else In The Band Sound Good. Nobody has ever made a good band sound great as well as Ringo did.

  2. I always think those who trot out that Lennon line are just showing that they know nothing about music. Also, it shows a level of snideness that is just nasty, and I find it hard to like them afterwards.

  3. It would be hard to imagine Macca keeping all the postcards he got from Ringo when his drummer went on holiday.

  4. You can hear Bongo talking through left hand player/right hand kit business here...

    Another drummer distinction is behind the beat/ahead of the beat players. To my ear Ringo's a behind the beat player, giving The Fabs their signature shuffle. Whereas Charlie Watts (listen to Bitch or Tumbling Dice) is slightly ahead.

  5. Whoops that link's dead - you'll find it here. Well worth a listen to hear the mechanics of the movement and 'funny fills'.

  6. That's fascinating. Thanks for posting.

  7. Cor, chapter and verse! Nice work, Mr Mondo.

  8. Drummer status? Like all apocryphal stories, which we hope are true but suspect are not, I love the one in which Mick Jagger returns pissed to a tour hotel, and starts shouting about "where's my fucking drummer?" Charlie Watts is roused, comes downstairs, and lamps Jagger, proclaiming: "I'm not your fucking drummer - you're my fucking singer!!"

  9. I used to think that was a nice apocryphal story. I still don't believe anybody hit anyone but I do think Charlie has a point. The Rolling Stones are a rhythmic proposition or they're nothing at all.

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  11. It sounds deeply paradoxical, but yeah, it's true. Without them or the band as a whole speeding up or slowing down, drummers can themselves be Ahead or Behind the beat.

    My sense is that there are two elements to it: placement and feel, and they're sort of interlinked.

    Placement is where in the bar the notes happen. Here's a terrible Humph-I'm-Sorry-I-Haven't-A-Clue-One-Song-To-The-Tune-Of-Another-Intro metaphor: imagine Gromit in The Wrong Trousers, frantically flinging down sections of track ahead of the model train he's hurtling forwards on. And he's going to bark when the train is halfway over every equal-length straight section of track. He can bark a little bit before the halfway point of each section, or a little bit after. But if the offset forward or back is always the same, the sections of track always the same length, the speed of the train stays the same...OK, now I'm confused. My point was, I think, that "ahead" drummers play ahead of where the exact midpoint is, not ahead of where their previous already-fractionally-displaced note was.

    The other element is more about Feel. It's the sonic equivalent of watching people's walking gait. Two people might be moving at the same average speed, but one has a louche swagger with long smooth movements which makes them seem to be dawdling and the other appears to be marching jerkily and briskly. How fast they perform sequential bits of movement doesn't actually affect how fast they're moving overall. Stewart Copeland's drum fills are blurts and bursts of short notes, Ringo's are fat chains of long ones. Copeland sounds busy and frenetic and propulsive. Ringo sounds relaxed, even when charging forwards.

    And drummers very rarely voluntarily emulate Ringo. In fact, in the studio, one of the deadliest instructions one can be given is "Er, a bit more Ringo please, love" i.e. stop trying to play so many notes and concentrate on keeping time, because you're not. It's like confronting sax players who are consistently sharp with a casual "My, we're showing quite a lot of cork today" i.e. they haven't assembled their horn correctly, and the cork seal sections are visible in between the brass bits, throwing the entire instrument out of tune.

    And while we're (OK, I'm ) airing Hoary Old Musician Anecdotes, how about the session player, trying to make out the notes of a much-copied, much-smudged score, who frets "B sharp or B flat or B natural?", and then the old lag drummer behind him assures him philosphically "Never be flat, always be sharp, try to be natural".

  12. Hmm. Thanks for trying. I think that, on placement, you're saying that while the beat (down-beat) is where it is, the off-beat can move around a little. Or perhaps not...

  13. Bless you, Sir. You're kinder than that attempted explanation deserved. Rhythmic terminology is abstruse and often used interchangeably. Take the axiomatic "One-Two-Three-Four" count-in. The On-Beat is on 1 and 3. The Down-Beat, often called the Back-Beat, is on 2 and 4 - it's the classic rock and roll snare drum rhythm: intro to Born In The USA, Jumping Jack Flash, intro to Sergeant Pepper (albeit faster and with a busy bass drum) etc. The Off-Beat (where reggae happens) is between them, on the An'ds: one AND two AND three AND four AND.

    Oh, and sometimes the Down-Beat gets called the Off-Beat also.


    There's an old Dave Barry joke that you can determine if you're a Republican or Democrat merely by clapping along to "Hit The Road Jack". If you're clapping "Hit the Road - CLAP - Jack - CLAP...", you're clapping on the 2 and 4, you have rock and roll in your soul and you're a Democrat. If you clap "Hit the CLAP...CLAP", you're clapping on the 1 and 3, listen primarily to polka or classical music and are a Republican.

    However, this rule of thumb (hands?) was shown to be faulty. When Bill Clinton won the '92 election and Fleetwood Mac played "Don't Stop" to the thronging (presumably all-Democrat) supporters at the inaugural gala, there was a hideous process as general approbatory applause sorted itself uncertainly into clapping along on the Down-Beats, On-Beats or sometimes all the beats. I think the news footage showed Bill and Hillary at no point clapping the same beat in the same bar. Perfect.

    This slow crystalisation from ecstatic stochastic free-form chaos into uncertain and competing standards remains a toe-curlingly compelling rhythmic memory for me, an auditory madeleine of Proustian import. You see, if the CROWD at that gig had had a drummer, he'd have tidied them all up, got them on a nice safe 2 and 4, escorted them through the song, stopped them from speeding up, and and prepared them for the end of it. Alas, Mick Fleetwood probably already had enough to keep together as was.

    Anyhow, I reckon the placement issue is mainly about where the drummer puts their 2 and 4 relative to the mathematical, metronomic 25%-of-the-way-through-the-bar and 75%-of-the-way-through-the-bar points. It's a tiny difference, but it really does affect the feel.

  14. Hate to spoil Dave Berry's joke but James Brown was a Republican.