The Beatles for Drummers
by Louis Abbott
"I don’t think he can play in time."
"He never got much credit, but his drumming had become a kind of
center of gravity for the songs."
Ringo Starr’s drumming transcends the hype that surrounds the Beatles. His contributions throughout the entire arc of the band reveal a versatile style that is the template for single-bass Rock drumming. As a professional drummer for over 40 years, I cannot recall the number of times that I have heard this request: "Play like Ringo."
Despite this, a dark cloud seems to hover over Starr and his legacy with the Beatles. Was he the engine that drove the band or simply a prop for the EMI publicity machine? No matter how much documentation is presented or how many researchers produce proof, one question lingers: "Did Ringo play on these legendary recordings?" My reaction: "Who cares?"
Two facts are indisputable: (1) Ringo Starr is the ‘face" of the drumming on Beatles’ recordings and (2) the drumming is remarkable. The parts are creative, diverse, groove hard, and sound pristine. Without them, the recordings would be incomplete. They may not have been executed to technical perfection, but each part perfectly complements the atmosphere created by producer George Martin and a handful of creative sound engineers. The drumming contributes simplicity and musicality, even when negotiating some very challenging tempos, time and feel changes and a myriad of textures. The description used to describe drummers who emulate this style: "He plays the song." He also rocks and swings his ass off, which are musical elements that are beyond analysis but reside at the essence of this genre.
The Beatles recordings have a magical sound that is the result of a synergy of time, place, and personalities. Whether it is Ringo, Paul McCartney, Pete Best, some anonymous Indian drummers, or a mystery studio musician--the drumming taps into this synergy and rocks it. As for his place in the band, Ringo is an iconic figure. A line from a video called "The Drums" I recently viewed at a 3-year-old birthday party at Chuckie Cheese sums it up: "Ringo Starr’s got nothing on me."
These drumming masterpieces are but a single component of a song catalog about which Rock revolves and evolves, influencing generations of Rock and Pop musicians to the present day. But, as the decades pass, do we really need to know who performed on them? Would we hear the music any differently?
Moving the Music of the Beatles into Great Art
"… ‘Classical’ is a term applied for music that has a cachet of history and respectability. Nowadays, it could apply to Beatles’ songs as well as to the Bruckner symphonies."
I believe the music of the Beatles has entered the pantheon of Great Art, where future listeners will find the specifics of authorship irrelevant. Terms such as canon, period, opus, and legacy are now applied, as authors and fans debate the purpose of every decision made inside and outside of the recording studio. Rumors swirl as ancillary figures emerge and thousands of books rehash the same basic story in an increasingly prosaic style, often postulating Freudian projections to the creative impulses of the composers and support team. The analysis is turning into paralysis with the sole exception of the music. In spite of all the extraneous noise that surrounds The Beatles, their music (not their personal legacies) survives as Great Art.
In Great Art, the primary concern is the visceral impact, that is, the initial jaw-dropping response encountered by the beholder. This inevitably leads to a desire for repeated exposure and may also stimulate a quest for more information on the historical background of the performers. Fan clubs and academic guilds form as industries develop around minutia and trivia. In the case of the Beatles, for instance, over 8000 books have been written. There are Beatles-themed cruises, conventions, tribute bands, a Broadway show, a Las Vegas revue, a record-breaking video game, Liverpool and London guided tours, and numerous other marketing ventures including iTunes and Spotify rollouts. Memorabilia routinely sells for thousands and occasionally millions of dollars. Somehow, ringing through all of this extraneous static, the music still manages to stand on its own.
This idea crossed my mind as I encountered Michelangelo’s David for the first time. Arguably the most famous sculpture in history, the David stood exposed to the elements in a Florentine piazza for over 300 years before the city elders deemed it important enough to move indoors. Both my wife and I were left speechless in the presence of a human creation that seemed to dominate the space. We were not alone in this reverence; the room had a church-like feel that was only permeated by the guards’ frequent demands to refrain from taking cell phone pictures—an reaction not even conceivable during Michelangelo’s time. Even though we did manage a few pix ourselves, the overall experience was visceral in its grandiose celebration of the human body and the artist’s ability to capture it with a hammer and chisel.
If the music of the Beatles is now Great Art, a new set of parameters emerges for appreciating it. For instance, I suggest that we no longer need to consider the Beatles’ music as simply a mirror of the 1960s. The music is timeless. Does the spellbound listener today need to contemplate the influence of political, social, and cultural events to appreciate Mozart’s music in the 1760s or Beethoven’s in the 1800s? The Beatles’ recordings now stand as an anchor in the progression of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Rock music through the 20th century and beyond. Eventually, the influence of four boys growing up in Post-WW2 Liverpool, while of considerable interest to historians, will diminish. The factors that today seem so obvious will fade away like dates on a tombstone. Great Art outlives generations of humanity. The minutia fades across millennia, left to historians, scholars, and eventually archeologists. To quote the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates: "Ars longa, vita brevis" (Art is long, life is short).
Notation versus Recording
The 1962-1970 studio recordings of the Beatles are finished. As such, they now stand as fixed points in time. Unlike the European Classical masters (for example, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart) the music of the Beatles will traverse time as a recorded medium, not a notated one. This creates two pathways to Great Musical Art.
European Classical music was composed, interpreted, notated, and, when the technology appeared, eventually recorded. Interpretation of the written notes, then, is key to appreciating European Classical music and notation keeps the music accessible.
The music of the Beatles follows an inverse path. The songs were composed, recorded, interpreted live (until 1966) and notated. The recording, then, is key to understanding music created in most of the 20th century and beyond. The danger is that these recordings could become undecipherable by the loss of technology required to hear them. This is comparable to the degradability of paper that threatened ancient music before the arrival of the printing press. The Library of Alexander the Great, for instance, was destroyed over eight centuries by fire, war, looting, and state-ordered decree.
The 212 commercially released recordings of The Beatles between 1962-1970 possess a finality that subjects them to the same formal criticism applied to other forms of physical art. They represent recorded art as forcefully as Michelangelo’s sculpted David has welcomed awe-struck visitors for five hundred years.
The Beatles Today
"The function of the artist is to make people like life better than they have before. When I've been asked if I've ever seen that done, I say ‘Yes, The Beatles did it.’"
The Beatles stand as the best-selling group of the first decade of the 21st century (second only to Eminem overall), and, by adding iTunes, the Vegas Cirque show Love, RockBand and streaming services such as Spotify to their marketing stable, have assured profits into the future. Concurrently, the examination of the minutia connected to the Beatles from their earliest days is an industry of its own, with a cast of authors, ex-wives and girlfriends, hangers-on, critics and many others whom may or may not have any connection to the original group. How is all this activity possible when the band stopped performing live in 1966 (the first major act to ever do this,) made dreadful business decisions through the late 1960s, sued each other, lost the publishing rights to their own songs, and finally broke up in 1970, never to reunite? The answer can only be the music.
Recommended sources for further information:
Something About The Beatles, a podcast with Richard Buskin and Robert Rodriguez available through iTunes. In particular check out the episodes on Ringo’s style ("George Martin and the Beatles,") Bernard Purdie ("Beatles Myths,") and sacking Pete Best ("The Beatles and Pete Best").
The Beatles: Famous Fans Pick Their Favorite, Dave Grohl on Ringo on fooarchive.com.
The Big Beat, Conversations with Rock’s Great Drummers by Max Weinberg with Robert Santelli, chapter 14 on Ringo Starr.
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and Tune In by Mark Lewisohn.
The Beatles as Musicians, Volumes 1 and 2 by Walter Everett.