Ah, the Beatles. You don't need my opinion on the Beatles, you've got your own, and that of every review page that ever existed.
And yet, what kind of review page would this be without the Fabs? (I know a lot of you clicked on this link first.)
So instead of rehashing every old argument about which album is the true masterpiece, I'll focus on my favorite Beatle, Ringo. Everyone always says, "…and Ringo was a great drummer for this group…" and leaves it at that. Well, I'm not going to leave it at that. Each of these album reviews will be focused on the drumming. Hope you enjoy the change of pace. If you insist on ratings, every Beatles album gets an eight.
Please Please Me
Oddly, this is the only one of the early albums with a good drum sound. Two factors contribute. First, this is mostly live-in-the-studio, so there aren't a lot of overdubs made on primitive equipment to muddy the sound. Second, the Beatles were still a dance band at this time, and Ringo's playing was a lot cleaner for that reason. As they started becoming a show band, he was able to loosen up a lot (but that's a discussion for later).
Because this is an album by a dance band, the drumming is fairly simple. Well done, but not particularly creative. I don't think there's a single fill in "Misery." Ringo keeps almost strictly to the basic set of snare, kick and cymbals - the first tom fill comes in "Boys", five songs in! And his trademark open hi-hat only occurs once, in the chorus of "Chains."
There are several nice moments, however. "Anna" has a jerky hi-hat pattern that really catches the listener's attention and contrasts nicely with the warm full sound of the acoustic guitar. "Please Please Me" has a beautiful tom-tom run into the bridge. "A Taste of Honey" shows his limitations, though - he's just not used to using brushes, being in a dance band, after all.
The best moment, of course, is "Twist and Shout." He's crushing these drums. Listen to the little press rolls into the verses, and the impact of the kick drum (you can actually hear it, unlike on the rest of the album). I've seen pictures of him at this age; he looks malnourished. Where did that skinny kid get this kind of power?
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With the Beatles
As their mission changed from keeping the Cavern Club's dance floor full to whipping an auditorium full of teenagers into a frenzy, Ringo adopted a new approach, designed to increase the energy level of the arrangements. He takes a more aggressive approach with his fills, but more importantly, he plays almost everything with the hi-hat open. The entire album has a "sizzle" emanating from the drums. It makes it harder to dance, but easier to get worked up.
This new style lasted through the next couple albums and helped define the "Beatlemania" sound with which they conquered the world.
He adopts this technique on just about every number. Even the covers which originally had other drumming styles get the new "Beatlemania" treatment. "Roll Over Beethoven" rocks even harder than Chuck Berry's version (helped by a key change and tempo increase, too), although there's a nice part in the bridge when Ringo comes down to just snare flams. "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" is more questionable - the smashmouth drumming takes a little bit away from the intimacy expressed by the melody; however, Ringo's fills answering the bridge are just brilliant - far better than the original drummer.
This is not to say that Ringo's got nothing else to offer. He works in a variety of beats around the open cymbals. "Don't Bother Me" is actually a surf-rock beat, and "Please Mr. Postman" has some very efficient fills into the verses. "It Won't Be Long" is an incredibly complex composition, but the drums keep up with every change. "All I've Got to Do" features a tricky hi-hat/snare combo on the "and" of 2 and 4 in the verses that many drummers would find difficult, but Ringo makes it sound easy, and throws in some great snare fills into the chorus.
Despite some excellent playing in places, I think this album is not Ringo's finest moment. "Till There Was You" shows that you shouldn't send a drummer to do a percussionist's job, and a lot of numbers like "All My Loving" and "Not a Second Time" seem a little overwrought with all the sizzle.
When it counts, though, Ringo turns in a terrific performance on "Money." He might have been tempted to really whip up the sound with the same open cymbals used earlier, but instead he goes for a simple tom beat that lets the attention stay on the fervid vocal line. Sadly, he loses the beat just a little toward the end, but he recovers in time for the big ending.
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A Hard Day's Night
There are a few places here where the overdubbing gets out of hand. I'm sure Ringo's playing on "I'll Cry Instead", but there's a very assertive tambourine obscuring him.
Anyway, I believe that some of this material gave rise to the old canard about Ringo not being a very good drummer. The big hits from this period - "Can't Buy Me Love" and "A Hard Day's Night" - are some of the Beatles' least sophisticated material, and Ringo plays it straight. The title song is strictly eight-to-the-bar from beginning to end, and "Can't Buy Me Love" is similar, although he does a rhumba pattern to open and close the number. So I'm sure a lot of people heard this drumming and thought, well any fool can play these parts. I guess, but I don't think Dave Clark could, for one example. There's a fine line between what Ringo does here and simple bashing, and our man stays on the right side of it. Despite all the noise, the band never loses its groove.
On the other, more intricate, material, Ringo does a fine job of adapting his new style with a few tricks. "Tell Me Why" is great example - the Beatles clearly intend this number to swing in the Big Band style, but Ringo knows they're still a rock band. So he throws in a few Ed Shaughnessy rolls during the breaks, and he plays the hi-hat syncopated, but he keeps it open for the Beatle signature sound (a true swing drummer would open and close the cymbals during the verses, or head for the ride cymbal instead.) Or notice in "Any Time At All" how he kicks along with the first guitar lick after the refrain, but sticks to the back beat during the second lick. This helps smooth out the transition to the verse. "You Can't Do That" has a terrific off-beat fill on "I told you before [fill] you can't do that." I think my favorite is "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You." I love the little snare-to-crash licks that accompany the guitar chords after the chorus, and check out how he introduces a samba-style tom hit in the verses, all the while keeping up the open hi-hat. Nicely done.
Neither does Ringo insist on thrashing the whole way through. "If I Fell" has an awkward intro on the snare, but settles into a light cross-stick groove, while "Things We Said Today" anticipates folk-rock drumming in its light touch. And his bongos on "And I Love Her" are an improvement, although I still doubt Tito Puente was knocking on his door.
By the way, if you've picked up the United Artists soundtrack, "Ringo's Theme" is unfortunately not a drum solo or any kind of Ringo feature. It's an instrumental version of "This Boy" that was played in the movie behind our hero's big scene.
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Beatles for Sale
All right, fellows, easy on the tambourine! It drowns Ringo out of the mix on three songs here.
Seriously, though, this is the record where the Beatles started to conceive of studio recordings as a separate medium from performances, and texture becomes much more important. Ringo steps up to the challenge nicely. It's most noticeable in the folk- and country-flavored offerings that abound in this collection. "No Reply" has a very unusual rhythm in the verses - cross-stick hits at the rate of 6 per 8 beats. And he introduces a country-style two-step beat in several places - "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party", "I'm a Loser" are well-done.
In terms of texture, Ringo is starting to think about the sound of his drums, too. He tunes the snare differently for different songs, and even throws in a slack-tuned tom for "Mr. Moonlight."
Not that the thrashing is all gone - he keeps it going especially on the covers, which are in a sense this album's continuation of Beatlemania. "Rock and Roll Music" gets the same increase in energy that "Roll Over Beethoven" did, although there's a nice moment when Ringo switches to a mock-Latin pattern in the "congo" verse. "Kansas City" is another rocker that the open hi-hat works well with, but on the rockabilly items - "Honey Don't" and "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby" a more restrained approach would have been more appropriate. The greatest use of the style, however, is in the bridge of "No Reply" when the whole band bursts into the rock and roll bridge and Ringo powers them to the kind of frenzy that "A Hard Day's Night" was all about.
It is on the more savvy originals that Ringo really shines, however. Just as the rest of the band were varying their sound with studio tricks, our hero was doing the same with his parts. "Eight Days a Week" shuffles along with the open cymbals, then tucks into a rolling tom pattern in the bridge, and has one of the great moments in Beatles music when the singer reach up to "show I care" and Ringo gives 'em that flam! Not hard to do, but it sure sounds good.
"What You're Doing" is Ringo's first drum spotlight, and he gets a terrific sound out of his kick drum for the intro - again, he tunes it different here than usual, for a more middle-rangey sound that complements the piano line at the end. (Sophisticated, eh?)
And on "No Reply" listen to how deep the cymbals are. I suspect he's gotten some very large crash cymbals here.
And the ride cymbal comes into use much more on this album - "Baby's in Black" and "Every Little Thing" benefit from a new texture.
And for the ballads, they've finally given up on the bongos, so he just slaps an empty suitcase with the clasps loose. Soon enough, they'd just leave him out of it, which might have been the best choice from the start.
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Now that the Beatles are fully committed to the recording session as a separate event from a live performance, Ringo's approach to textured drumming becomes more and more evident. The only evidence of the old "Beatlemania" style is on "Dizzy Miss Lizzie," which certainly seems like an afterthought to the rest of these songs.
In a few places, the overdubs overwhelm his drumming. It's a real shame on "It's Only Love," as Ringo turns in a unique syncopated figure. Things on "I Need You" are so bad that it sounds like he had to double-track the snare drum. "Tell Me What You See" is clogged with Latin percussion, but he gets a couple breaks that show that his drum line is playing a simple rock beat, but with the bass drum tuned very loose in tribute to the Latin drum sound.
In other places, Ringo's really innovative parts shine through. Take the title track - on the intro he's smashing an open hi-hat in half-time, then he throws in a snare fill, slips into the classic Beatlemania beat just for the verse, then into a ride cymbal pattern. This all happens without attracting your attention away from the vocals.
The most famous drumming is, of course, "Ticket to Ride" with that lovely syncopated tom line that glides smoothly into a backbeat during the bridge. I recommend Tim Riley's Tell Me Why for an in-depth analysis of this particular pattern. (See this site for rare footage - with audio - of the band performing an early version of the song.)
In other places, Ringo adopts a new closed-cymbal pattern which allows the guitars and keyboards to shine through more. It's not the classic "back beat" but instead has just a hint of swing in it. This is a style he would stick with through the rest of the Beatles' career. A good example is "You're Gonna Lose That Girl." He tries to modify it to a shuffle for "You Like Me Too Much" but perhaps a simple snare pattern would have been better.
The country two-step is still present, too, particularly in "Act Naturally" but also "Another Girl," while a dip into the Latin beat is a nice touch for the bridge of "The Night Before."
The band is finally learning about the ballads, and Ringo is left off "Yesterday" completely, and given a simple tambourine part for "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." However, the old random bongo part does re-emerge to mess up "You're Gonna Lose That Girl."
Overall, this album finds Ringo seeking ways to match his drumming style to the new studio-oriented Beatles sound. In a lot of places he succeeds, but there is evidence that he's still learning.
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Wow - it sounds like the engineer (Norman "Normal" Smith) decided to pay attention to the drums, and Ringo responded with his best work yet. Every song has carefully crafted and innovative patterns, and most of them are quite audible in the mix. In just a couple spots does the overdubbing drown the drums (particularly on "Run For Your Life"; since that's a terrible song you won't want to listen to, it doesn't matter.)
While exercising his creativity, Ringo never lets the rhythm slip. "Drive My Car" finds him doing his best Al Jackson impersonation, with the four-to-the-bar kick drum and funky syncopation in the refrain. There's a great sense of compression here - he sticks to the backbeat all the way through until ripping out a tiny little snare fill at the fade; it's one of the moments I look forward to most on this album.
Even an unimaginatively arranged number like "Nowhere Man" gets Ringo putting a big tom fill in the middle of the verse and pumping up the energy with a floor tom crescendo into the chorus.
But he's at his best when the material challenges him. Lennon and McCartney's songs on this collection feature a lot more "kicks" - strong rhythmic elements in the composition. Ringo does a terrific job of working them into his drum part, but someone on the production team decided they couldn't alienate the dancers (although I'm not sure who exactly was expected to dance to "The Word") and throw on insistent tambourine or maraca overdubs. If you listen past the percussion, though, Ringo is hard at work. "The Word" finds him switching up: the chorus has a steady backbeat, the verse slips into a half-time Beatlemania pattern, and he modifies the funky syncopation from "Drive My Car" into a uniquely timed transition fill. "Think For Yourself" is even odder: he plays the verses in quarter-time (one drum beat to every four from the rest of the band) and really opens up for the chorus. "You Won't See Me" has big kicks - sounds like an extra large crash cymbal - with a very cool feature: an overdubbed hi-hat playing triplets against the eighth-notes of the regular pattern.
The Beatles are attempting a new style of hybrid ballad/pop song on a few numbers here, and Ringo finds tasteful ways to integrate the drums. On "Michelle" he sticks to a cross-stick pattern, but with a nicely swinging kick drum on the four-and into the downbeat. "Girl" has him playing a rather active part, but using brushes. This idea doesn't work as well; it just sounds wimpy.
The best drumming is on consecutive tracks from side two: "Wait" has Ringo playing into the beat, landing each stroke just slightly ahead of the band. This has a wonderful driving feel, and the most interesting feature is the fill into the verse. Almost every drummer everywhere plays a drum fill into a cymbal crash. Ringo turns it around, with a big crash, a hi-hat sizzle and a swift tom fill into the back beat. Breathtaking.
"In My Life" is less complex but no less impressive. Starting with a jerky hi-hat pattern reminiscent of "Anna", he builds into the chorus with a slow ride pattern (doubled on tambourine) then a swift fill and rides out the rest of the chorus in double-time. It's a pattern many drummers could play, but it is unique and demonstrates superbly Ringo's intuitive grasp of how to support a melody and arrangement. "In My Life" was voted the best song ever written in a recent magazine, and the drumming is a brilliant underpinning to the sublime melody and delicate arrangement.
And Ringo's creativity here is not limited to the drums: he co-writes the lyrics for his vocal feature, "What Goes On" (with a fairly undistinguished drum line - which is usually the case when he's singing), plays a mean Hammond organ on "I'm Looking Through" and on the same track creates a percussion part that has mystified listeners for years. It turns out, according to Barry Tashian, who wrote a memoir of his experience opening for the Beatles on the 1966 American tour, that it's Ringo tapping on a matchbook. Pure genius!
The drumming would be better recorded on future Beatles records, but never better performed. This is Ringo at his peak.
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There's a new engineer at work here, Geoff Emerick, but his big breakthrough on the drum sound will come next album. On some of the tracks here, the drums actually sound worse than on Rubber Soul. Lots of distortion on the cymbals, and often the drums are buried in the mix.
What's more troubling, though, is that Ringo seems to be suffering a bit of "drummer's block" here - there's very little of the imaginative drumming we heard last time around, and much more of the strict back beat. However, that may simply be a reaction to the songwriting.
Instead of aiming for the pop glory that typified their previous work, Lennon and McCartney (and Harrison) are stretching out into new forms; in fact, there are two numbers here on which Ringo doesn't play because they're not even remotely related to dance music for English teenagers: "Eleanor Rigby" is chamber music, and "Love You To" is an unidentifiable hybrid of raga and Phil Ochs.
Even on the numbers that are more pop/rock in style, there's a tendency to avoid the dramatic kicks and hooks and instead work on drones or minimalist-style repetition, and idiosyncratic drumming would only work against it. So "Taxman," "Dr. Robert," "And Your Bird Can Sing" and "Got to Get You Into My Life" all get the basic eight-to-the bar treatment from Please Please Me, although sometimes with a tightly compressed snare fill here or there. "For No One" has a similar harmonic plan, although Ringo plays a "4/4 waltz" beat (like a waltz but with three heavy beats after the light downbeat) with open hi-hat. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is another drone song, but Ringo punches it up with a well-recorded (for once) though unvarying tom-tom pattern.
There are a few moments where the music allows Ringo to show his ingenuity. "Here, There, and Everywhere" calls for an extremely light touch, which he approaches innovatively. Instead of brushes, he plays the full kits with sticks (throwing in some nicely timed fills on low-tuned toms to ease into each verse) but played very quietly. "She Said She Said" is a drummer's nightmare - all sorts of tempo and time signature changes, but he plows ahead with a fill-crazy verse pattern that sounds improvised (no two fills are the same) and then finesses the triple-time with a snare-kick combo on every beat, which eases back into the verse smoothly (he handles this much better than he did on "We Can Work It Out" where the time change is glaringly disruptive.)
"Good Day Sunshine" has him facing another percussionist's phobia - double-tracking the drums. He handles it well, giving just the basic snare beat on one track, and playing lots of exciting snare fills and big cymbal crashes on the other.
It's always a challenge for a drummer to cope with psychedelia, and Ringo shows admirable restraint here, but his performance next time out, along with improved recording, would be a milestone in rock drumming.
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One thing that does frustrate me though is the way so many of those albums are mixed -- especially the middle period albums that are on CD in stereo (I'm 23 so I never heard the vinyl versions anyway)-- and particularly when trying to appreciate Ringo's drumming. It's not just that they overdub tambourines/maracas/etc over the drums, it's that they push all of the drums all the way the hell over into one ear, so that they're almost inaudible.
It works sometimes -- on “Getting Better” you can better appreciate the two different patterns he is playing -- but other times, as in the title track of Sgt. Pepper or “Taxman,” it seems like the entire band, (including lead vocals!!) is inexplicably pushed to one side with the other channel being virtually empty for most of the song so you can barely distinguish the more subtle parts -- Ringo's drumming, in particular.
I'm by no means a mono purist, but this approach to stereo mixing on these (and many other sixties records) is so frustrating. Why would they have thought that was a good idea?? The great thing about stereo is that it can create an audio "image" that more closely approximates hearing the music in person. But even if they weren't going to take that approach, they did such a disservice to Ringo by not allowing his drumming its rightful place as the rhythmic backbone of the Beatles sound by placing it in the center (or at least closer to it!).
Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
A couple new factors in these sessions make for a big difference in the drum sound: first, Geoff Emerick must have put in some time figuring out microphones, limiters, compressors, etc. to achieve maximum oomph, and second, Ringo, having retired from the road, is now playing on calfskin heads - more sensitive to the weather and thus unsuitable for travel, but with a deeper and more resonant tone than the plastic heads he had been using.
The very first track shows these developments to great effect (it can be appreciated even more on the reprise when Ringo gets several bars all to himself - and the inevitable maracas). Ringo's playing a much more rock pattern than usual (as opposed to the mildly swinging style that was usual) with an intriguing kick pattern playing dotted eighths in the downbeats. It's a very powerful sound and quite appropriate to the aggressive guitar work. Another feature that stands out typifies much of the drum work on this album: Ringo plays big fills right in the middle of the verses. These fills are not what you'd expect from him - normally he'll only play a fill to ease the song into a new section or support a hook. Instead, the fills are just another layer of musical detail piled into the arrangement. The drumming throughout this album is less about rhythmic support, although it does that in many places, and more about creating another texture. This is not a complete departure - we saw this at work as early as With the Beatles - but the tendency is more pronounced this time.
Take "Getting Better" -- Ringo plays a unique pattern in half-time, emphasizing a dramatically struck open hi-hat and a double-tracked snare (using two different snare tunings). It works well within the arrangement, contrasting with the tightly wound guitar parts, but I can't imagine it serving a useful function in helping the other band members stay on the beat. In fact, during the bridge he drops down to just a cymbal tap, letting the rhythmic attention flow to the conga/handclap ensemble. From what I've read, Ringo didn't enjoy these sessions because he felt more like a session musician than a member of a working band. Often, he would overdub a new drum track after the original band tracks had been recorded, and I suspect these elaborate parts replaced a more fundamental approach used for tracking; this may have contributed to his discontent.
That said, he plays brilliant parts. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" finds him thumping out a beat that sounds just like a circus band - the kick drum is removed of all reverb to sound like a big bass drum played with a mallet, the hi-hat is struck only on the offbeats so the march rhythm is emphasized, and he even throws in a little snare fill like the kind that announces the spotlight. Too bad he loses the beat in the waltz section.
"When I'm Sixty-Four" shows that Ringo has gained some confidence with the brushes since "A Taste of Honey". The snare line is carefully syncopated - quite tricky - and it's quite a feat when he switches to sticks to play a very complicated 32nd-note pattern on the ride cymbal during the bridges.
Not everything is fancy, though. Ringo throws together a very solid backbeat for "Lovely Rita" with some subtle touches - notice how he lags behind the beat in the verses, then leans ahead of it during the last two bars into the refrain. And he shows admirable restraint during the freak-out section at the end - other drummers would have been all over the kit, but by sticking to the beat he allows this regrettable exercise to pass without too much abuse of the eardrums.
"Good Morning Good Morning" is another drummer's headache - it varies between 4/4 and 6/4 (or it's in 5/5), but he smoothes out the rhythm by sticking to a strident soul-style 4-to-the-bar pattern. When he switches to the hi-hat during the bridge it's a nice way to lighten the atmosphere.
Of course, on what is probably Ringo's most famous drumming of all, he creates an entirely new drum style. On "A Day in the Life" he breaks every convention of drumming, in that his lines serve no rhythmic purpose whatever - they're merely obbligatos designed to play against the melody. It's either insane or brilliant, but this time it works in spades. The fills themselves are quirky in their timing, leaving lots of spaces between the notes, then a flurry of tom hits. The beauty of his new calfskin heads is expressed particularly well here.
Ringo's work on Sgt. Pepper isn't consistently great - "Fixing a Hole" is poorly recorded (at a different studio) and haphazard, with accents coming at random - but the new world of drumming presented by Ringo is an achievement to match any of the other rock milestones established by this classic album.
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I've been trying to convince a friend for years that Ringo's playing on "A Day In The Life" is exceptional. I've even quoted him Phil Collins saying that Ringo's work on the song is "impossible to duplicate", but he still wouldn't buy it. I'll show him your site and maybe then he'll accept Ringo's genius on that track!
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