All the hoopla last week about the 50-year anniversary of the Beatles invading America got me thinking about Ringo again. The first time I saw a video of Ringo pounding the kit like a punk rock drummer changed my opinion of him irrevocably.
If you're one of those that's ever questioned Ringo's contribution to the band, then check out the show they played at Washington Coliseum in D.C. on February 11, 1964. It was their first concert in America, just two days after they appeared on Ed Sullivan. They were a fully-formed force of rock & roll by then.
Ringo's playing is deceptively simple. It doesn't swing as much as some of his contemporaries like Charlie Watts, but that wasn't what The Beatles needed. They were straight-ahead rock and rollers like Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Elvis.
Just watch the video of that first D.C. show. Ringo is slouched over the drums like Dave Grohl playing "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You" with power that would have worked gotten him a gig in The Stooges. I think that energy is more easily overlooked on the recordings, but it's unmistakable in their live performances. Ringo was beating the crap out of his drums. It's a style that punks like the Ramones and Dictators were trying to get back to in the '70s. Nirvana's Nevermind is a direct descendent.
Serve the Song
As the Beatles' music evolved, Ringo was there to lay the foundation. He was a subtle, steady servant of the songs. A great contemporary comparison is Glenn Kotche from Wilco. Kotche is a virtuoso drummer that restrains himself in service of the songs. The best proof of this is on Wilco's classic album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ringo was the original template for this kind of restraint.
Listen to "Baby You're a Rich Man" or "Dig a Pony." They're simple, powerful beats that always serve the song. There is no ego involved. Of course a guy like that would be in danger of under-appreciation. You have to go a little deeper into the song to understand the drummer's contribution. You often forget that the drums are there, humbly supporting fantastic songwriting and seminal recording techniques.
As Paul's bass lines became more lyrical, Ringo was right next to him hitting those toms hard, getting great tone, and creating a sonic bed for the songs to lie in. Ringo's drum parts are a perfect complement to the melodic complexity and groundbreaking textures swirling around them. It takes a wise man to play the drums this way.
Watch the footage below, and listen to Revolver, The White Album, or Magical Mystery Tour again, this time with Ringo in mind. You won't hear them the same.
Watch how much the drum kit is shaking around 2:36 on "Twist and Shout." He is beating the crap out of it.
Listen to the fills at the beginning of "She Loves You." Ringo has great tone when he strikes each tom.