Thursday, November 25, 2004

Ringo Starr replaced the famously ousted Pete Best as the Beatles’ drummer in August James Rosen

1962, on the eve of the band’s dazzling emergence from Liverpool.

A myth has long persisted that because Ringo was the last to join the group, he was just lucky, incidental to the Beatles’ sound and success.

Today, the man who put the beat in Beatles is fast approaching 65. He has, according to published reports, undergone three shoulder surgeries this year just to be able to continue playing the drums in that familiar, cross-handed, deceptively simple way of his.

Earlier this month, Capitol released the Beatles’ first four American albums on compact disc, in mono and stereo. September saw the publication of Ringo’s own valentine to his old mates - “Postcards From the Boys” (Chronicle Books), a coffee-table book reproducing the fronts and backs of alternately sweet, silly and sad dispatches he received from his fellow Beatles spanning 1965 to the mid-‘90s.

Ringo’s book of postcards, paradoxically enough, reinforces the stubborn misconception that his three great claims to fame are named John, Paul and George.

The postcards from his friends might feed the myth - but those early albums he recorded with them don’t.

There’s one thing about the Beatles that still needs to be said. It can fit on a postcard: Ringo Starr was a musical genius. His drumming revolutionized pop music and was indispensable to the Beatles’ artistic alchemy and commercial dominance.

It is a tribute to this legendary performer’s self-effacing nature - his unassuming personality and uncanny knack for knowing how much, or how little, was needed to build and release tension in a song - that the world has showered every last superlative on the Beatles’ output without ever fully recognizing the contribution of the fourth man, the noncomposer, the novelty vocalist - the comic relief.

The myth holds that the Fab Four could have made it with any passable yahoo planted behind them, simply keeping the beat to those indestructible Lennon-McCartney gems.

Didn’t they replace Ringo on “Love Me Do”? Didn’t some other guy (Name: Jimmy Nicol) put on the suit and play in Ringo’s place for six tour dates in spring 1964? And didn’t the girls scream just as loud? And didn’t Paul McCartney play drums on “Ballad of John and Yoko”?

All true - and all irrelevant.

Ringo Starr revolutionized pop drumming not once, but twice.

Turn on oldies radio sometime, and give a close listen to the drumming on any top-40 hit from the PBE (pre-Beatles era). There is no comparison. It’s a quantum leap from even the best of the lot to the muscularity, crisp, cracking sharpness, boxy backbeat bigness, the exciting, lunging aliveness that Ringo brought to - you name it - any up-tempo tune off those first four American albums.

There are only a handful of PBE hit songs that even approach - forget equal - the innovations Ringo wrought from 1963 to 1965. The drumming on the great ‘50s hits - seminal records by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and the rest - was rooted in the jazz-swing tradition, from which so many of the era’s session drummers hailed.

In the early ‘60s, there were a few hints of what was to come: the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” with its interplay of snare drum and handclaps; Nino Tempo and April Stevens’ “Deep Purple,” with its steady, easy-rocking rhythm; and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like A Man,” with its complex, constantly changing rhythms.

But these fade in comparison to the furious machine-gun precision on display in “Please Please Me,” the rolling thunder and raining-cymbal attack on “She Loves You,” the controlled chaos of “It Won’t Be Long” the Latin-hard-rock fusion driving “I Feel Fine.”

Simply put: No rock drummer had ever played quite the way Ringo did, with the combined strength of his snapping snare and bass-drum backbeat. He also offered unusual, convention-shattering fare such as the beats on “Ticket To Ride” and “In My Life.”

By the time the wave caught up with Ringo - in the form of more technically proficient speed demons such as The Who’s Keith Moon and percussive maestros including Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham - the happy-go-lucky Beatle was already onto a whole new thing, also without equal in the charting pop music of the day. This was his elegant and highly intuitive exploitation of the tom-toms, not only for “fills” - the little spaces between chord changes where drummers typically show off - but as the continuous stuff of the song itself.

It started on “She Said, She Said,” with its slurred, manic fills; grew on “Hello, Goodbye,” where the fills began expanding into whole verses (check out what Ringo’s playing while Paul sings “Why why why why why why do you SAY goodbye”); and reached its apex on songs such as “Come Together” and “Sun King,” where Ringo virtually surfed during verses.

Modern Drummer magazine has recorded that Ringo is responsible for more people taking up the drums than any other musician in history, a fact that speaks as much to Ringo’s art - his unique, damnably deceitful, head-swaying illusion of making it look easy - as to his proximity to John and Paul.

How many other artists - public figures of any stripe - can take a glance behind them and see so much created in their image?

James Rosen is a Fox News White House correspondent and author of the forthcoming book “The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon and Watergate” (Doubleday).

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