Usually, when we explore the isolated tracks or song deconstructions here, we like isolate the flashiest and most fun performances in music: listen to Eddie Van Halen go berserk on ‘Unchained’, or maybe key in on how unhinged and creative Keith Moon is on ‘Young Man Blues’. Marvel at the bouncy bass abilities of Paul McCartney playing ‘Lovely Rita’, or the inhuman smoothness of Al Green singing ‘Let’s Stay Together’.
Most of the time, though, it isn’t about being the fastest or biggest player out there. If everyone was showing off at once, most songs would be an insufferable mess. Solos on top of solos on top of solos; what is this, a Grateful Dead concert? No, songs need control, and no one was better at understated control than Ringo Starr.
The Beatles didn’t really have a rock band they modelled themselves on: they were the model for rock bands. But whether consciously or not, the classic rhythm sections of rock and roll instructed them how to play. Even though it had Elvis’ name of the sleeve, George Harrison was still listening to Scotty Moore. Even though he sometimes went uncredited, Paul McCartney still knew when James Jamerson was playing.
Through his favourite skiffle and early rock acts, Starr too developed his most essential quality: learning how to fit into a song. Ringo’s lack of refined technical skill and absence of professional guidance actually worked out in his favour, since he developed his own distinctive style and picked up different fills and rhythms through records. Starr discovered that he didn’t like flash or showing off, instead finding that serving the song was his ideal way of playing.
That’s why drum parts like ‘Come Together’, ‘Ticket to Ride’, ‘A Day in the Life’, and ‘Rain’ aren’t technically terribly difficult, but legendary in their memorability and creativity. Ringo pushed himself to his own creative limits, and though others could imitate or replicate it, his drum performances were always singular. Many tried, but no one could really play like Ringo.
It takes the least impressive drum parts to prove why he was just so remarkable. Take ‘If I Fell’, the third track from the band’s third album, A Hard Day’s Night. A slow acoustic ballad, Ringo’s job becomes clear – keep it uncluttered, keep everyone in time, and keep it from sagging. Instead of a loud whack of a snare drum, Starr opts for the crisp snap of the rim instead. When he enters, it’s a simple snare fill that represents the only use of the drumhead. Cymbals are out, except for the final hit of the song. A steady beat on the hi hat and a simple driving bass drum pattern completes the song.
It’s so unremarkable that it often completely goes by without you even paying attention to it. But it’s the rock solid propulsion that keeps the song from falling into saccharine mush. At the end of each middle eight, Starr finds the perfect opportunity to reintroduce the opening fill. No variations, no showing off, just a solid, recognisable fill. Keeping it simple might not sound like a task, but look at his contemporaries: Keith Moon, John Bonham, Ginger Baker. Only Charlie Watts could have been that ok doing not much of all in a song. Ringo does it just right.
Just as a warning, the video down below doesn’t include the vocal parts, which I imagine were stricken from YouTube due to a copyright issue. I thought you were here for the drums anyway. If you want the vocals, go listen to the regular song.
Check out the isolated tracks of ‘If I Fell’ down below.