Ask any drummer worth their weight in broken drumsticks, and they’ll tell you that Ringo Starr got a rough ride. Perpetuated by the old story of John Lennon claiming that Ringo wasn’t only not the best drummer in the world but wasn’t “the best drummer in The Beatles” — a statement later correctly attributed to Jasper Carrott, not Lennon — Starr suffered from some severe image damage during his time with The Beatles. But, through the isolated drum tracks of the Fab Four’s song, like the one below, we get a genuine sense of Starr’s immeasurable talent.
Ringo Starr may not have been a studious percussionist or particularly gifted with what was deemed as precision playing. Still, he had that one unteachable thing that every musician craves — he had style. As Paul McCartney said when picking his favourite drummers: “Not technically the best by a long shot, but for feel and emotion and economy, they’re always there, particularly Ringo.” It’s something that comes to the fore when the drum track is isolated, and for the band’s seminal song ‘I Am The Walrus’, Ringo Starr delivers in spades.
Featuring on the band’s 1968 LP Magical Mystery Tour, the song has gone down in history as some of John Lennon’s most fragrant songwriting. Lennon was quick to lean heavily on his inspirations when writing songs, and the words for ‘I Am The Walrus’ leapt right up from the page. The track was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s book Alice in Wonderland and sees Lennon use an allegory and his own acid trip to create a mysterious point. “Walrus is just saying a dream,” recalled John Lennon in his infamous 1980 interview with Playboy. Like many dreams, the song is a composite of a few different themes. The basic rhythmic pattern came from one piece about inner-city police, which Lennon had based on a police siren. The other two threads were dreamed up when Lennon was high on acid, with one being written as if he was on a cornflake.
In the same 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon confirmed: “The first line was written on one acid trip one weekend. The second line was written on the next acid trip the next weekend, and it was filled in after I met Yoko… I’d seen Allen Ginsberg and some other people who liked Dylan and Jesus going on about Hare Krishna. It was Ginsberg, in particular, I was referring to. The words’ Element’ry penguin’ meant that it’s naïve to just go around chanting Hare Krishna or putting all your faith in one idol.”
It sees Lennon put down on paper the fuzzy drug-fuelled sessions that underwrote the band’s output at this time, but it was the rhythmic sway of the song that would eventually sell it. It’s a marker of Ringo Starr’s endless appeal to musicians and drummers. When asked to pick the best drummer of all time, Nirvana sticksman Dave Grohl responded resolutely: “Define ‘best drummer in the world'”.
Grohl explained further in a tribute video for Starr’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presentation. “Is it someone that’s technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.”
That’s the exact sentiment that Ringo Starr puts across on the isolated drum track for The Beatles song ‘I Am The Walrus’. It’s not that his fills are particularly mesmerising or that they take us to a new plane of existence. It is more simple and more connective than that. Ringo Starr spoke directly to your heart with his playing. While he was happy to allow his bandmates the spotlight in the studio to do their thing, he casually went about providing a unique and exciting backbeat for some of the best songs that were ever written.
Listen below to Ringo Starr’s isolated drums from The Beatles song ‘I Am The Walrus’.