Ringo Starr, Keeping the Beat for 70 Years

We had a show on Paul McCartney’s birthday, but no dice for Ringo; as always, the man gets no respect. But wait! Today is Ringo Starr’s 70th birthday, and I am determined to honor him! He is a wonderful drummer; his technique during his time with the Beatles went from the simple, pleasurable backbeat of Please Please Me to the complex, sophisticated drumming of Abbey Road. Like fellow Beatles John, Paul, and George, the growth he experienced over six or seven years was remarkable. And for 40 years now, ever since the band broke up, he has quietly released a steady stream of solo albums. Some are pleasant, a couple–Ringo, Liverpool 8–have been excellent, and though most are mediocre, the fact that he’s had a recording career for close to half-a-century is a terrific accomplishment. (Plus he’s never released anything as ear-bleedingly awful as John’s Life with the Lions or Paul’s Liverpool Oratorio, so props for that, Rings. Can I call you Rings?)

So in celebration, I present to you Ringo’s Top 5 Beatles Songs!

I could probably take a broader view and determine Ringo’s best Beatles songs by taking into account his actual drumming (in which case, I’m thinking “Rain,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Tomorrow Never Knows” would likely be contenders for the top spot), but I’m only going to count the songs he sang. There were only 12, but all are worthy additions to the Beatles catalogue.

5. “What Goes On,” Rubber Soul (1965)

I met you in the morning, waiting for the tides of time. But now the tide is turning, I can see that I was blind.

Rubber Soul is an album fraught with girl troubles, and even the usually happy-go-lucky Ringo finds himself at odds with a lying, cheating girl. As with many Ringo songs, “What Goes On” has a country-and-western flair, though I doubt many C&W songs sport anything as lovely as John and Paul’s background harmony. Paul’s stabbing bass provides a nice counterpoint to George’s clean guitar lines, nicely capturing the song’s mood.

4. “Don’t Pass Me By,” The Beatles (1968)

Waiting for your knock, dear, on my old front door. I don’t hear it; does it mean you don’t love me anymore?

The first of Ringo’s two full-blown compositions for the band, “Don’t Pass Me By” is another country-tinged number, this one a little more refined and laidback. I’ve always thought this song was tremendously underrated; The Beatles (AKA The White Album) is brimming with ingenious songs, so perhaps it’s inevitable that a Ringo number would get lost in the fold. Inevitable, but disappointing. The song finds Ringo wondering where his date is, and added a crucial piece to the Paul Is Dead puzzle: “I’m sorry that I doubted you/I was so unfair/You were in a car crash/And you lost your hair.” I didn’t know this, but in addition to singing and drumming, Ringo also plays sleigh bells and piano here. Additionally, Jack Fallon’s violin is indispensable.

3. “Octopus’s Garden,” Abbey Road (1969)

Oh, what joy for every girl and boy, knowing they’re happy and they’re safe.

This is the other of Ringo’s solo compositions for the group, and it’s a beaut. On first listen, it could sound silly, but the more you listen to it, the more magical it becomes. It’s a very peaceful, amiable song, and as Ringo sings of an idyllic underwater haven for boys and girls, the vision it plants in your head becomes very real. This is helped along by bubbling sound effects and Paul and George’s gurgling background vocals. George helped Ringo write the song, and as such, his majestic guitar work is a major highlight; I gold-starred it on The Beatles: Rock Band, irrefutable proof of my awesomeness.

2. “Yellow Submarine,” Revolver (1966)

As we live a life of ease, every one of us has all we need. Sky of blue, sea of green, in our yellow submarine.

It can be easy to forget just how great “Yellow Submarine is,” with its childlike chorus and nonsense lyrics. But the same qualities that some cite to dismiss it are exactly why it’s so great. It’s simple and intentionally childish, but it’s loaded with Revolver‘s pervasive dreamlike themes. Like much of that album, “Yellow Submarine” represents the sunnier side of psychedelia. In 1966, the band was no longer rooted to earthly concerns, and so it doesn’t feel out of place for Ringo to sing a song about a collective peacefully sailing along on a yellow submarine. The break in the middle, with silly sound effects and the band members yelling orders, is bliss.

1. “With a Little Help from My Friends,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?

The ultimate Ringo song. Three years earlier, the A Hard Day’s Night film gave Ringo a bit of a reputation as the sad, lovelorn Beatle; here he hones that persona to perfection. John, Paul, and George ask Ringo questions about love, and the master offers his words of wisdom: “Do you believe in a love at first sight?” “Yes, I’m certain that it happens all the time.” Though Joe Cocker’s interpretation from 1968–captured in this awesomely soulful Woodstock performance–is rightly iconic, the Beatles’ original remains the superior accomplishment: slightly melancholic, slightly uplifting, totally Ringo.

As for Ringo’s solo work, check out the albums mentioned above as well as the compilation Blast from Your Past, which may as well be an official album anyways. The much more recent Photograph: The Very Best of Ringo Starr probably includes all the songs from Blast from Your Past, plus many fine post-1975 selections, but it doesn’t have the same tightness, and too much solo Ringo can sometimes dilute his affable charm.

But any which way you take him, happy birthday, Richard Starkey!

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