When I think of popular music revolutionaries, grand images of glamorous, gleaming rock ‘n’ roll deities begin to form in my mind. I picture Elvis, sitting on a golden throne made of electric guitars and microphones. I picture Chuck Berry duck-walking across the stage as he powerfully plucks the strings of his white, hollow-body guitar. I picture John Lennon and Paul McCartney singing beautiful harmonies over sweet layers of light-hearted guitars as audience members scream and faint.
What I don’t picture — or didn’t picture until very recently — is Ringo Starr, sitting at a studio drum set, recording the drum track for “Love Me Do” and changing rock ‘n’ roll drumming forever.
A couple of weeks ago, as I sat at my desk avoiding school work, I decided to listen to the Beatles’ “Anthology 1,” the first of three double albums of never-before-released Beatles material. As I listened to track 22 of the first disk — a demo recording of “Love Me Do,” featuring the Beatles’ original drummer, Pete Best — I began to realize how important Ringo’s drumming was for the future of popular music.
As I listened to this demo version of “Love Me Do,” I noticed a stark difference between the drumming styles of Ringo Starr and Pete Best. In the demo version, as the song transitions into its chorus, Best provides a powerful drum fill then proceeds to use a wash on the high-hat as he swings the drumbeat in a sort of jazzy, flashy, big-band style throughout the chorus. This was common ground for rock ‘n’ roll drummers at this time; jazz and blues musicians often influenced them. Between each verse and chorus, they would insert fills that alerted musicians and listeners alike to changes in the melody. They would make sure that the drumbeat used in the verse differed from that used in the chorus.
After listening to Best’s version of “Love Me Do,” I went on to listen to Ringo’s — the single version — and investigate the changes made with the use of Ringo’s drumming. The beat used by Ringo during the verses is quite similar to Best’s, despite a different technique of striking the head of the snare drum. As the song transitions into the chorus, however, there is no drum fill. The beat remains steady as it does during the verse. Ringo does not use a wash on the high-hat. He does not swing the beat like a jazz musician. He does not show off.
After listening to both versions of “Love Me Do,” I came to three conclusions: First, I found that Best’s drumming was technically more impressive than Ringo’s, for he made use of more complex beats and fills. Second, I found the drums more noticeable in Best’s version. And lastly, I liked Ringo’s version better.
But if Best’s drumming was more impressive and more noticeable, why had I enjoyed Ringo’s version better? Why had the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, decided to fire Best and use Ringo’s version of “Love Me Do” for their first single?
As I pondered these questions, I began to think about the drumming techniques used by all of my favorite bands, all of the greatest rock and punk drummers and all of the most popular modern musical acts. I realized that none of these drummers make use of lengthy, powerful fills before each chorus. None of these drummers swing the beat like jazz musicians. None of these drummers consistently use a wash on the high-hat. They allow the melodies to speak for themselves. They provide a consistent and powerful driving force for the music. They are not afraid to be the backbone of the song. They are not afraid to be modest and keep a steady, strong beat.
It was at this point that I understood the true gravity of Ringo’s role in the history of rock ‘n’ roll and popular music. I realized that Ringo truly revolutionized drumming. He made the conscious decision to be steady, unchanging and powerful when sitting at the drum set.
And now, when I think of popular music revolutionaries, I imagine a young Ringo Starr, sitting at the foot of his drum kit, steadily nodding his head and shaking his long hair as he slowly changes rock ‘n’ roll music forever, one beat at a time.
Contact Jeremy Siegel at [email protected].