Richard Starkey was born on July 7, 1940 in the Dingle, one of the roughest areas in Liverpool, England. At age 3 his father left his mother to raise him alone, and it was not until he was nearly 13 that his mother remarried. At age 6, after hardly a year at school, Richard developed appendicitis, and after the appendix burst, peritonitis set in. After two operations and over a year in the hospital, Richard returned to school, sorely behind in his studies.
At 13, he suffered his second major illness which began as a cold and turned into pleurisy, and this time, his stay in the hospital ran nearly two years. Upon his release, Richard’s required formal education had ended and he eventually secured a job as a messenger boy for British Railways, followed by a series of short-lived jobs, until with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes (a popular band in England), he decided to devote himself to music, full time. By this time, he had changed his name to Ringo Starr.
Few need to be told what ensued when manager Brian Epstein approached Ringo to take drummer Pete Best’s seat in the Beatles, another struggling group in Liverpool. In August, 1962, Ringo joined the Beatles, to become known throughout the world, and to make history by playing on their countless albums and appearing in their films, most notably A Hard Day’s Night and Help, while sharing the glory bestowed upon John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and himself.
When the group formally disbanded in 1970, Ringo went on to record several solo albums, including Sentimental Journey, Beaucoups of Blues, and Ringo, which spawned several hits.
Inspired by the early Beatles films, Ringo has also pursued a simultaneous career in acting, with roles in such films as Candy, The Magic Christian, Lisztomania, Sextette, 200 Motels, and most recently, the lead role in Caveman, during which he met actress Barbara Bach. They married earlier this year, both for the second time, and both with children from their previous marriages.
In the first of our pre-interview phone calls, Ringo warned me, “I don’t know much about drums, [pronounced “drooms”] ‘ya know,” to which I replied, “fine,” and explained, as an integral drummer in the history of music, it was important to Modern Drummer to speak with him. I was, therefore, well aware that we would not be able to get too technical, but at least we would have the opportunity to know the biography of a man who, by virtue of his professional status, inspired youngsters throughout the ’60s to play the drums.
I was warned by fellow journalists that he would be a most difficult interview, since he normally shied away from speaking about the Beatles and his past. Thanks to Jim Keltner, a staunch supporter of Modern Drummer, Ringo was made aware of our desire to interview him and Jim convinced him to grant us the time. Ringo not only agreed to speak with me, but allowed me to delve into the days of the Beatles, and his role with them. He gave freely of his time and his recollections, and the stories I had heard were proven wrong. He was kind, warm, giving and humorous, much to my delight.
We met in the garden of his rented Beverly Hills home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
RF: Why drums?
RS: I tried everything else. Originally, my grandfather and grandmother were very musical and played mandolin and banjo, and we had a piano, which I used to walk on as a child. Being an only child and a spoiled brat, my mother would let me do most things, so I used to walk on the piano, but never actually learned it. Then when I was 7, my grandfather brought me a mouth organ, which I never got into either, and then they died and I sort of ended up with the banjos, but never got into that. Drums were just the ones I always felt an affinity with. At 13, in the hospital, we used to play on the little cupboard next to the bed, and then once a week, they had a band to keep us occupied since we were in there for a year. So they fetched this band around and this guy would have these big green, yellow, and red notes, and if he pointed to the red note, you would hit the drum, or the yellow was the cymbal or the triangle, and things like that. It was a percussion band, but it was just to keep us entertained while we were in bed.
They used to come once a week to the hospital and we used to knit and do all stuff like that, anything to keep us occupied. So in the hospital, I wouldn’t play in the band unless I had the drum. When I came out, it was always the only instrument I wanted, so at 16, I bought a $3.00 bass drum, made a pair of sticks out of firewood, and used to pound that, much to the joy of all the neighbors. I couldn’t really play; I used to just hit it. Then I made a kit out of tin cans, with little bits of metal on the snare. Flat tins were the cymbals, and a big biscuit tin with some depth in it was the tom, and a shallow biscuit tin was the snare drum, and so forth. Then my step-father, England (we’re from the north), went down to see his family one Christmas, and one of his uncles was selling a kit of drums for 12 pounds (roughly $30.00). It was a great old kit—a great trap and all the wood blocks and everything, so I had that. I got that kit in January, 1958.
RF: Was it a named kit?
RS: No, it was made up of all different pieces. There were two problems, though. One, I didn’t have a car to carry it and, two, I wasn’t in a band. But in February, one month later, I joined a band, although I couldn’t play. Nobody knew, though, because they couldn’t play that well either. We were all just starting out playing. It was the skiffle days in 1958 in England.
RF: What was the name of the band?
RS: It was called the Eddie Clayton Skiffle group. The guy next door used to play guitar, a friend of mine used to play tea chest bass and we played “Hey Lidy Lidy Lo” and all the skiffle songs. We used to play for the men at lunch hour in the factory. It was mainly, if you had an instrument, you could join a band. It didn’t matter if you could play. But my problem was I was always traveling on the bus, so I couldn’t carry the kit.
Then we started auditioning and we did every audition in the world, every free show we could do. We had no sense of time, so we’d start with the count of “one, two, three, four,” and then it would be like an express train because we’d get faster and faster and faster. People were just dropping like flies on the dance floor because it was like, “Can’t you slow it down, can’t you slow it down?” And they dropped like flies.
So we did a lot of free shows. In that band, I didn’t really need the full kit, but I always wanted to play it. Anyway, I got the kit, and I set it up in the back bedroom like a professional, thinking, “I’ll practice and everything.” I only did that one night and we had all the neighbors yelling “Shurup [shutup], get out of here,” because we were in very close proximity to everyone else. So I never practiced since that day, except with a band. I made all the mistakes on stage, as it were.
RF: Did you have any drum idols?
RS: No, the only drum record I ever bought was Cozy Cole “Topsy” Part 1 and 2. I used to like Gene Krupa, although I never bought any of his records. It was that type of drumming, though, heavy kind of tom-tom stuff and Cozy Cole was another tom-tom person. I always liked the depth of the tom-toms.
RF: You’ve always used your toms more than a lot of people.
RS: Yeah, and the snare is usually deep. But I was never really into drummers and I never did solos. I hated solos. I wanted to be the drummer within the band, not the front man. The longest solo I ever did was 13 bars.
RF: I read somewhere, though, that part of the reason you changed your last name was that in the beginning, they wanted to bill your solo time as “Starr Time.”
RS: We used to have “Starr Time” when I had the solo spot about two years later with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes. We all went professional, as it were. The difference is that they pay you for playing. That’s the only difference in being a professional from being an amateur.
RF: What was your first professional gig?
RS: On the first professional gig, they offered me 10 shillings, which was about a dollar and a half in those days, and the guy got so drunk at the end of the night, that he didn’t pay us anyway. We were really down about that, but it was the first playing gig. We (the Eddie Clayton band) had done all the auditions and won a few competitions and stuff like that. Then we started to get paid after that, but also still worked in the factory. Then I joined a couple of other bands, a skiffle group, and I ended up with Rory Storme, which was basically a skiffle group, but we were going rock. We were the first band to be thrown out of the Cavern for playing rock and roll because it was a jazz club. The only thing we used to have different was that our lead guitarist used to come out of a radio. That was his amp. He used to plug into this little radio on stage, so suddenly we were too rock and roll for this jazz club, and they threw us off the stage. It was all in good fun at the time.
RF: When did you join up with Rory Storme?
RS: 1959. In 1960, we all decided to leave our jobs and go real professional, where that’s all we’d do. So I left the factory.
RF: That must have been a major commitment, the money being so poor in that line of business, particularly at that time.
RS: It was a major commitment, but it was all I wanted to do. The family said, “It’s alright as a hobby, but keep the job.”
RF: “You’ll never make a living by being a musician.”
RS: My mother still thinks that to this day, I think. “It’s alright as a hobby, son.” Anyway, this is a roundabout way of saying how the names came about. We decided to go away to play Butlin’s Holiday Camp in England, which is a camp where people go for two weeks’ holiday. So when we went professional and bought the red suits and the shoes and everything, we all thought we’d change our names because show biz means changing your name. That’s what’s so great about it; you can call yourself anything you like, like Zinc Alloy. So the guitarist called himself Johnny Guitar, and in the end, I think because we’re English, we all picked cowboy names like Ty Hardin, Lou O’Brien, Rory Storme and Ringo Starr, because of the rings, which I always wore then. But then, to get back to your point, I used to do a 20 minute spot with vocals. I used to sing songs, because we used to do hours, so anyone could sing, play a solo or anything. The guitarist would do a couple of guitar numbers, then the singer would come on, and then I’d do a couple of numbers and that’s why it was called “Starr Time.” So I’d do “Twist Again,” “Hully Gully,” “Sticks and Stones Will Break my Bones.” a Ray Charles number, and a couple of other numbers like that. God, it’s all so long ago. I was even doing “Boys” in those days.
RF: So you never did any drum solos?
RS: I never did any drum solos, no. Never have: never wanted to—even at the beginning. While we were still at this holiday camp, we used to play in the Rockin’ Calypso, but on Sunday, the big night, they had a big theater there and they’d have name acts, and the local people working there would be on the bill. So we were working with the Happy Wanderers, an English street band with a big walking bass drum, trumpet, clarinet, and they were like a walking jazz band. They used to walk around the streets of London playing songs, and then the guy would walk around with the hat. They became very well known. At the end of the show, it used to get to the solo and I used to let their drummer take the solo on the bass drum: “boom, boom, boom, boom.” I would never do the solo, even then. Never liked them. So, anyway, that’s when we got our names.
RF: Why did you grow up with such a fascination for the West?
RS: As children in England, your cowboys were great heroes to us. To an English kid, a cowboy was a fascinating thing, you know, in his leather waistcoat and his black gloves and all of that, so that’s part of it.
RF: Had rock come into the picture yet in England?
RS: Rock and roll was very big here and Elvis was out in 1957. We’re talking about ’59 and ’60, so we were just getting into rock and away from the skiffle stuff. We suddenly got amplifiers and played different songs. Rock was coming in and that’s where I went: that was my direction. I was purely rock and roll. Drummers or musicians were either going for jazz or rock. There used to be coffee shops and things like that in those days, and we’d sit around and I used to get so mad at the drummers who wanted to play jazz because I was just strictly rock and roll. I always felt it was like rats running around the kit if you played jazz and I just liked it solid. So we’d have these great, deep discussions about drums. It was all so exciting then. It’s still exciting. But . . .
RF: Were you a drum fanatic in those days?
RS: No, just a rock fanatic, but my instrument was drums. I never wanted to play anything else. But I also wanted every other drummer to play rock. I didn’t want them to play anything else. [Laughs] “You’ve got to be kidding. Just rock! Listen to it. Get into it.” There was more emotion in rock than in jazz. We went through jazz, in my opinion, just listening to it. I went through it in one week and knew I had had enough of that. Rock never ceases to make me happy when it’s good.
RF: How far into your Rory Storme gig were you when you came in contact with the Beatles?
RS: I was playing with Rory about 18 months or 2 years. We’d all played the same venues and, at the time, Rory and the Hurricanes used to be top of the bill. There’d be all these other bands on and occasionally, the Beatles would play. It ended up that they were the only band I ever watched because they were really good, even in those days. One morning, I was in bed, as usual. I don’t like getting up in the day because I live at night. So a knock came at the door, and Brian Epstein said, “Would you play a lunchtime session at the Cavern with the Beatles?” And I said, “Okay, okay, I’ll get out of bed,” and I went down and played. I thought it was really good. I thought the band was good and it was great for me to play.
RF: Were they different from other bands playing at the time?
RS: Yeah, they were playing better stuff. They were doing very few of their own songs then, but they were doing really great old tracks; Shirelles’ tracks and Chuck Berry tracks, but they did it so well. They had a good style. I don’t know, there was a whole feel about Paul, George and John. And Pete, it’s no offense, but I never felt he was a great drummer. He had sort of one style, which was very good for them in those years, I suppose, but they felt, I think, that they wanted to move out of it more. So I just played the session and then we went and got drunk and then I went home.
RF: So it was a one shot deal.
RS: It was a one shot, but we knew each other. We met in Germany when Rory played there and so did the Beatles, but we didn’t play with each other. There was heavy competition because we used to play weekends, 12 hours a night between the two bands, and we’d try to get the audience in the club, so there was a lot of competition. And then, at the 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning set, if the Beatles were left on, I’d usually still hang around because I was drunk, asking them to play some sort of soft sentimental songs, which they did. So basically, they were at one club and we were at another club and we ended up at the same club. That’s how we sort of said hello. We never played with each other but then out of the blue, Brian came and asked me to play.
RF: Was that an audition for you from their standpoint?
RS: No, Pete wasn’t well or something, so they needed a drummer for the session and asked me, or asked Brian to ask me. So I went and played and that was all there was to it. This went on for about six months where every couple of weeks I’d play, for whatever reasons. Then there was talk about me joining and I was asked if I would like to. I said, “yeah,” and then went away with Rory to play this holiday camp again because it was good money for three months and we just played what we wanted. About five weeks into this three month gig, Brian called and asked if I would join the Beatles. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to. When?” He called me on a Wednesday, and he said, “Tonight.” I said, “No, I can’t leave the band without a drummer. They’d lose a six week gig, which they have left to go.” So I said I’d join Saturday, which gave Rory the rest of the week to find a drummer.
RF: Why did you choose to join the Beatles if both bands, in essence, were starving young bands?
RS: Well, I’d rather starve with a better band and I felt the Beatles were a better band. By then, we weren’t actually starving. We were making, not great money, but enough to live on. And the Beatles were making a bit more—they were coming up real fast. But I loved the band so much. I thought it was a better band and I thought I had done everything our band could do at the time. We were just repeating ourselves. So it was time to move on again, and that’s why. And I liked the boys as well as the music.
RF: So you joined them that Saturday.
RS: I left on Saturday, played on Saturday night and it was in every newspaper. There were riots. It was okay when I just joined in and played a gig and left, but suddenly I was the drummer. Pete had a big following, but I had been known for years in Liverpool, so I had quite a following too. So there was this whole shouting match, “Ringo never, Pete forever,” and “Pete never, Ringo forever.” There was this whole battle going on and I’m just trying to drum away. But they got over it and then we went down to make a record. I’m not sure about this, but one of the reasons they also asked Pete to leave was George Martin, the producer, didn’t like Pete’s drumming. So then, when I went down to play, he didn’t like me either, so he called a drummer named Andy White, a professional session man, to play the session. But George has repented since. [Laughs] He did come out one day saying it, only when he said it, it was 10 years later. In the end, I didn’t play that session. I played every session since, but the first session, he brought in a studio drummer.
RF: I understand that there were two versions of the first tune (“Love Me Do”); one where Andy White plays and one where you play.
RS: You’re right. There are two versions. I’m on the album and he’s on the single. You can’t spot the difference, though, because all I did was what he did because that’s what they wanted for the song.
RF: I heard that Martin handed you a tambourine.
RS: Yeah, and told me to get lost. I was really brought down. I mean, the idea of making a record was real heavy. You just wanted a piece of plastic. That was the most exciting period of records—the first couple of records. Every time it moved into the 50s on the charts we’d go out and have dinner and celebrate. Then when it was in the 40s, we’d celebrate. And we knew every time it was coming on the radio and we’d all be waiting for it in cars or in someone’s house. We wouldn’t move for that three minutes. And then, of course, the first gold disc and the first number one! But like everything else, when you’ve had five number ones, one after the other, and as many gold discs as you can eat, it’s not boring, but it’s just that the first couple of records were so exciting. I think they are for everybody. It’s like sweets every day, though. You get used to it. So I was really brought down when he had this other drummer, but the record came out and made it quite well and from then on, I was on all the other records, with my silly style and silly fills. They used to call it “silly fills.”
RS: Everyone used to sort of say, “Those silly fills he does.”
RF: And yet, it turned drumming around for a lot of people.
RS: But we didn’t know that then. Everyone put me down—said that I couldn’t play. They didn’t realize that was my style and I wasn’t playing like anyone else—that I couldn’t play like anyone else.
RF: You really had an affinity for the toms.
RS: That was my style. Also, I can’t do a roll to this day, and I hit with the left first, while most drummers do it with the right first. Mine might be strange in its way, but it was my style. I can’t go around the kit, either. I can’t go snare drum, top tom, middle tom, floor tom. I can go the other way. So all these things made up these so-called “funny fills,” but it was the only way I could play. And then later on, after I was always put down as a drummer with “his silly fills and he can’t play,” I came to America and met Keltner and people like that who were telling me they were sick of going in the studio, because they’d only been asked to play like me. So it was very good for my ego, and it turned out that I wasn’t silly after all.
RF: How did it come to be that George Martin allowed you to play the second session?
RS: I think I drove him mad because we rehearsed for the next record and I had a tambourine in one hand and maracas in the other and played the kit with them. George was just flabbergasted. I didn’t have a stick in my hand, I just had a tambourine and maracas and I was hitting the cymbals and smashing the tom with the maracas, so he thought he’d better do something about it. So he said, “Well, if you use sticks, I’ll let you play.” He never said that really, but I think he just thought I’d gone mad, so he’d better please me and let me play on the next record. And from then on, I played, except for “USSR,” which Paul played on, because I wasn’t there. We just carried on from there, and then got to where it was always John and Paul were the writers and the bass player and rhythm guitar, and George was getting some notice as a lead guitarist but I was still getting, “he’s alright,” so it was a bit of a put down at the time.
RF: Well, drums were sort of a separate entity. It was always the guitarist, the bass player…
RS: …the singer.
RF: …and the singer, but the drummer was never really a respected entity at that time, anyway.
RS: That’s right, but you wanted to be.
RF: I think you helped change that. You were really the first drummer to gain any notoriety.
RS: Charlie Watts from the Stones, who is still an amazing player, still holds out longer than I do before he does a fill. I don’t believe you need fills if the guy is singing because you’re listening to the song. But if he stops, you dive right in. That’s all I do. I followed two rules, if any, and they’re never to practice and if the singer is singing, just hold it steady. Of course you raise and lower the tone slightly, but if he’s not there, you can just dive in. That’s about the only rules I ever had.
RF: Let’s talk about sessions. How much creative input were you allowed and how much did George Martin dictate?
RS: Well, at the beginning, George Martin dictated a certain amount, and then it was John and Paul’s writing to consider. See, what helped me a lot was that I had three frustrated drummers around, because everyone wants to be a drummer for some reason. John could play and Paul could play and George could play, but they each had one standard style. We all have one standard style, but they only had one sort of groove where I have two or three. John and I used to have, not arguments, but discussions, because we’d be playing all these records and he’d say, “Like that,” and I’m saying, “But John, there’s two drummers on there,” and he could never hear there were two drummers. They’d play stuff with two drummers on it and the three of them each had their own idea of what the drummer should do and then I had my idea. So all I would do was combine my idea, their three ideas, and the ideas of two drummers on a record. They got what they were given and it worked.
But that helped me to play, and also, the long hours in Germany, you know, you soon get your act together. And the style was there from the beginning. It’s the same style as I play now, although I can never do a fill in the same place at the same time, ever. I could never double a fill. Some of the fills I do today, I’ve done for 15 years, though if you listen to the record, the style has changed in its way. But there’s still stuff coming out that I did before, that I still enjoy. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s similar. When in doubt, I half the speed of the track, where drummers will do a fill maybe twice as fast as I. Like Keltner and I are called “Thunder and Lightning.” I’m Thunder because I’m the toms and I half it and he’s Lightning because he’s like a little cat who goes round and fast.
RF: You play together on some sessions.
RS: We play together on a lot of sessions and we play really well together, but we’ll get to Jim. Let’s finish the Beatles. So we were playing and making these records, and then we sort of got free formed rock in our own way, though it was a lot tighter than acid rock because we had songwriters and we did songs and didn’t just jam. We went through a lot of changes on records. Then in ’68, I got the kit with the calf skins and that changed everything. Then it really became tom-tom city because of the calf and wood. When you’re touring, everyone thanks God that the plastic heads were invented because you’re playing outside in the heat, or the wet, or whatever, and skins are very hard to handle. But since ’66, we were in a controlled environment, in the studio, so the temperature was always the same and you could deal with calf. You can’t deal with them outside, although drummers have for thousands of years, but if we had played Pasadena and Denver, one night the skins would be very taut and in Pasadena it’s soggy, so they’d get real messy and you’d be tuning forever. So plastic heads were a God-send on the road, but then when we were just in the studio, I ordered this kit and I had calf skins put on.
RF: What album do they come in on?
RS: Abbey Road.
RF: Why Ludwig? Did every company approach you?
RS: Not every company, but I loved Ludwig drums. Premier I felt were too heavy, Gretsch were too fast for me, and Ludwig just seemed to be the ones I could get real good tones out of and they were good for my style of playing.
To backtrack even further; I’d had this kit that my stepfather got for 12 pounds. It was a great old kit, but it was old-fashioned. I joined a band when I was 18. and in my silliness, thought, “I want a new kit.” So I bought an Ajax kit, which is an English company. It was a black pearl kit, about 47 pounds, roughly $125, complete with a pair of sticks. “You can take it away and play it,” it was one of those. You had everything you needed. Then one of the band got a car so we could carry the kit, because in the old days, as I was saying, we were on the bus, so you couldn’t take a kit. I would only take a snare drum, a hi-hat and a cymbal and beg all the other drummers for their kits. Some of them wouldn’t give them to me, so I’d just have to play with a snare. I never like to let the kit out either unless I know the person. You never let anyone use the snare. The only two times I ever lent a snare, it was broken. And it takes a long time to get it to how you want it to sound. I could understand others not lending the kit, but I thought they were real mean. One time, I remember a guy asking me if he could use my kit and I said, “Well, can you play?” And he said, “Yeah. I’ve been playing for years,” and if you can imagine, a guy gets on your kit and puts his foot on the beater of the bass drum pedal and thinks it’s a motor bike starter, kick starting. So I just went over and grabbed him off the kit and threw him off stage. It blew me away! The man never played in his life and he thought it was a motor bike. That was one time I lent the kit out.
RF: So you had this Ajax set.
RS: Right up to the Beatles, and then we were getting new instruments and things and I wanted a new kit. I wanted a Ludwig kit. It was good, for their own good and my good, because while we were touring of course, they would give me a couple of free kits because I was a Ludwig drummer. I used to play that mini-kit on stage. Couldn’t hear shit! But it was good for me to get behind because I’m not that tall, so I looked bigger with a small kit, so at least you could see me.
RF: But it didn’t matter much what you sounded like in concert, did it?
RS: No. That’s why we stopped.
RF: George Harrison said that he felt the response to the Beatles was some sort of hysterical outlet for people. The four of you must have sat around and conjectured as to what the hell was going on. That had to be mind blowing.
RS: Well, we enjoyed them getting their hysterical needs out because no one came to listen to our gigs. They bought records to listen to. They just came to scream and shout, which was fine, but after four years, I was becoming such a bad player because I couldn’t hear anything. Because of the noise going on, all I had to do was just constantly keep the time, so we’d have something to follow. If you look at films, you’ll see I’m looking at their mouths—I’m lip reading where we’re up to in the song because I couldn’t hear the amps or anything. We were becoming bad musicians, so we had the discussion about it. Besides, we could play in any town or country in the world and get the same response, but only the four of us would know if we played any good, and that was very seldom because we couldn’t hear. So you’re getting the same response for a bad gig and it wasn’t any help. You only wanted applause if you did something that worked, so we decided to go into the studio. It was pointless playing on stage anymore.
RF: I guess I wonder what you thought. I mean, that response had never happened before. I look back and see myself as an example and wonder why I got hysterical.
RS: I don’t know—the media and the madness of the time, I guess. Things were very dead just up to when we came out and that was just part of what we did.
RF: So on stage, you were absolutely reading lips at that point?
RS: Yeah, just to find out where we were up to in the song, and just carrying a beat. So then we went into the studio where we could get back to playing with each other again, because we’d do the same 12 numbers every night and we’d do a 30-minute show. That seems amazing now because Bruce Springsteen does four hours. He still has the best show I’ve seen in the last 10 years, and I only watched two hours of that and it was enough. But every group does at least an hour and a half, and Bruce, who is the extreme, does four hours. We did a 30 minute show, and if we didn’t like the place, we’d play a bit fast and do it in 25 minutes. We were getting real despondent playing live, so we went into the studio for months and months. It got us playing again and exploring a lot of avenues of the technology of the studio, which compared to now, was Mickey Mouse.
RF: Eight track was a big deal then.
RS: And we didn’t have one. We begged for one because we did everything on four track up to Pepper [Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band] and four to four, but EMI was technically a very, very good studio with their engineers and electronic wizards. When we went four to four, to go tape to tape, there’s usually a loss, but the loss was so slight, because their engineers were technically so good that no one missed it. You can’t miss it anyway because the public didn’t know what they were missing, so they only got what they got. But we put the drums through phasers and things like that.
RF: How did you feel about all that?
RS: It was great because it worked with the tracks we were doing and it was magic. Just like magic. And we put it through the Hammond speaker and it goes round and round, whatever that’s called, and just tricks like that. We put the guitar through something going backwards and it was all experimental madness to us, but it was in the form of a song. It wasn’t us just freaking out, playing, which we did quite a lot, but we never released any tapes like that.
RF: And you knew you wouldn’t have to reproduce it on stage anyway.
RS: We knew we weren’t going out on stage and it ended up, like on Pepper, that if we wanted to go out, we’d have to take an orchestra with us. But no one was interested in going out. We were only interested in making records. So that was exciting, the sound we could get. And then the group broke up. So I started playing with a lot of other people. One year I did Leon Russell, Stephen Stills, B. B. King and Howling Wolf, which was good for my head. After being in one band so long, suddenly playing with such a diverse group of people was good for me.
RF: I wondered if during the Beatles, you ever felt you wanted to get out and do something else?
RS: No, never did. That was always good enough for me. I never played any other sessions. I only did a few like Jackie Lomax and a couple of other people. But then it was exciting when the group had split and I just started playing with a lot of people. In 1970, England was the place everyone wanted to make albums, so I played a lot of different sessions, like with Jim Webb and Harry Nilsson.
RF: After the Beatles, I heard that you really felt that you didn’t want to play drums anymore, for a while at least.
RS: It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play drums; I didn’t know what to do with my life. I’d been playing with the band for so long and suddenly it ended. I just sat there wondering what to do with my life because I wasn’t a producer and I wasn’t a writer.
RF: To backtrack for a second; the White Album. I read that you left for about a week.
RS: I left for two weeks. I felt I wasn’t part of the group. I felt that the other three were really together and close and I wasn’t part of the group, so because of that feeling, I felt I wasn’t playing well. I went around to John, knocked on the door and said, “I’m leaving the band, man. You three are really close and I’m getting out.” And he said, “I thought it was you three.” So I went around to Paul and said the same thing, “I’m leaving, I’m not playing well because you three are real close and I’m not in the band anymore.” And he said, “I thought it was you three.” I said, “Well, I don’t know who it is, but I’m going on holiday,” and I went to Sardinia for a couple of weeks to clear my head. That’s when they made “USSR” which I wasn’t on. Then I came back to the White Album, which I felt, for me, was a better album than Pepper for the group.
RF: Why do you say that?
RS: Well, we were much more like a band. We’re like session players on Pepper, using all those orchestras and sound effects. I mean it was good fun, but I felt we were getting more like a group on the White Album again, though it was a double album and double albums give too much information for me, anyway. But that and Abbey Road, besides Rubber Soul, are a few of the finest albums.
RF: The music became a lot more sophisticated and I’m sure you were called on to do more sophisticated kinds of things.
RS: Never. You got what you got. I don’t know if it got more sophisticated. I don’t think you’d call the White Album sophisticated, but I enjoyed it more than Pepper, which you could call sophisticated. But you’d only call that sophisticated because of what you put on top; the brass sections and such. The idea behind Pepper, which never fully got realized, was that it was going to be a whole show, but we only got into two tracks and then we made it just a regular album.
RF: A show as far as a concept album, or something to take on the road?
RS: Just a concept album of a show, and we segued from “Sgt. Pepper” into the next track with the cheer, and there’s Billy Shears, and then we did it for two tracks and we got bored with that and just made another album. The White Album was not to do tricks; it was for us to get together, I felt, and play together as a group, which is what we were, and best at.
RF: I read that Paul had been very critical of your playing on the White Album before you left for the two weeks and that’s one of the reasons you left.
RS: No, I left for the very reason I told you. I thought I just had to go away and straighten my head out because it was getting too silly. And while I was away, I got telegrams from John saying, “The best rock and roll drummer in the world,” and when I came back, George had the whole studio decorated with flowers. So Paul may have been pissed off. I don’t know—he never did anything. But he never actually said to me, “That’s not good,” or whatever, so I don’t know where that rumor came from. He was never that critical.
RF: Dispelled that rumor.
RS: I’ve never read that one, even. [Laughs] I’ve read most of them. There was a guy in New York who said he played on everything. All that bullshit has gone down. You have to let those things pass. Some drummer in New York wanted to make a name for himself and said he played on everything and I never played on anything. So what was I doing? I know on some sessions I wasn’t all there, but I wasn’t off; completely away.
RF: Obviously, John and Paul were the most integral portion of what went on in the studio . . .
RS: It was their songs.
RF: But what would happen? Take me through a typical session, or even a song.
RS: Well, what would happen is that someone would say, “Well, I’ve got this,” because it was very early on that John and Paul didn’t write together. It was their own songs, and then a lot of them would start as jams and someone would put lyrics to them, like “Helter Skelter” was a full-on jam, and “Birthday,” just to mention jams where we had nothing when we went in. Other songs would have a verse and a chorus and they’d finish them, or anyone could shout a line and if the line was good, they’d use it. The roadies, the tea lady, if anyone had a line, it would be used. It was always open like that and always the best line would be used. It wouldn’t matter who said it. No one had the ego big enough to say, “I have to write this.” Not all the time. I mean, they wrote 90% finished songs, but not musically, because they could only use what we could play. “Birthday” was one case. “They say it’s your birthday,” do you know that track?
RF: Of course.
RS: We went over to Paul’s and came back and wanted to do a sort of rowdy rock and roll track because Little Richard had freaked us out yet again, so we just took a couple of chord sequences and played them sort of raucous and loud and there was a newspaper on the floor and it was about someone’s birthday. So Paul started singing and we all just bopped on behind him. That’s how that came about, but we never went in with anything. We just went in and I sat behind the kit and they stood behind their instruments and that came about like that.
RF: On the finished tunes, would you get called into the session, come in and listen to the tune, and just supply what you felt was right?
RS: No. On the finished tunes, they’d sit at the piano and play them. Then we’d go through several different changes of how we all felt it should be done. Mainly, the writer had the definite idea, but if anyone did anything to change it and it was good and moved into a place they enjoyed, that’s how it would be. There was a lot of open-mindedness. There were very few tracks with, like, the definite idea—this is how it has to be. Mostly, if someone came up with anything that was different and worked, then everyone would go along with it.
RF: In those days, for a drummer to have that kind of creative allowance was somewhat unusual.
RS: Well, I was allowed to create anything I could as long as it worked, and it was the same with the guitar or the bass or the piano. It was all the same, but the difference was that it had to fit around their song.
RF:What about when you began to write?
RS: First of all, I used to rewrite Jerry Lee Lewis B sides and not really know it. I just put new words to all the songs. It took me years to fetch a song in because I, as much as anyone else, was in awe of our two writers who I felt were the best writers around. So I’d write my little songs and I’d be embarrassed to fetch them in because of John and Paul. So then I started fetching them in and they’d all be laughing on the floor, “Oh, you’ve rewritten ‘Crazy Arms,’ ” or something. So then I started writing a bit more like “I listen for your footsteps coming up the drive,” some song I wrote, don’t know the title anymore. [“Don’t Pass Me By”] That was the first one that we did of mine. But they used to write songs for me, tailor made, because they knew my range and it was like a personality thing I used to put across. Or then I’d pick the country song, because I always liked country & western. “They’re gonna put me in the movies.” [“Act Naturally”] “Boys” I had done for years, then they started writing songs just for me. Then I started writing my own, and then I wrote “Octopus’s Garden.” I always mention “Octopus’s Garden.”
RF: That was the first one you were proud of really, wasn’t it?
RS: Well, it was so silly.
RF: That was written on your holiday in Sardinia?
RS: Yeah. We were on this boat and they offered us this meal and we’d ordered fish and chips (fish and french fries to you Americans), and the fish came and I said, “What’s that?” There were legs and things. And the guy said, “Oh, it’s octopus,” and being English and foodwise, that blew me away. “Are you kidding? Octopus? You’ve got to be crazy. Nobody eats that. Tentacles—it’s not fish; it’s jet propelled.” Then I got talking to the captain and he was telling me the story of octopuses building gardens under the sea. They find shiny rocks and tins and whatever and they build these gardens, and I found it fascinating. I was just sitting on the pier one day and wrote “Octopus’s Garden” for me and the children. And some days you really feel like you’d like to be there, under the sea, in an octopus’s garden, because it gets a bit tough out here and it was a tough period then. So I felt it would be very nice to be real quiet under the ocean.
RF: Was the break-up gradual? I presume it didn’t happen in just one day.
RS: No, the break-up came because everyone had ideas of what he wanted to do, whereas everyone used to have ideas of what we would do, as a group. Then we weren’t really fulfilling John’s musical ambitions or Paul’s, or George’s, or my own, in the end, because it was separate. We weren’t working for one aim—just the one band. Everyone wanted to do other things as well. So you could see it coming, but like everything else, we all held it off for awhile. Then it just got too silly and we had a meeting about what everyone wanted to do. You can’t keep a band together. We never did it for the money; we did it for the playing. I mean, the money is very nice, but we were players first. As anyone will tell you, if we had wanted, we could have just carried on and made fortunes, but that was not our game. Our game was actually making music. So it became too strange because there was a lot of stuff I didn’t want to play on that I felt just wasn’t exciting anymore.
RF: Can you be specific?
RS: Well, John is the easiest to talk about. He wanted to do stuff which was avant-garde in its way. Besides, I had no place being on it and I wasn’t on some of it. He wanted to do that more than play with the group, and Paul wanted to do another thing, and George was wanting something else.
RF: What did you want?
RS: Well, I just wanted to play really good music—not that any of it is bad. I enjoyed the group thing, and then people wanted to do other things, which could have included us if we had wanted to. But half the time, we didn’t want to get involved with certain tracks because it just wasn’t what we were there to do as a group. We were there to do it individually, but not as a group. So the regression started about ’68 and it was over by ’70, so that was the end of that and I did feel lost, as we talked about before.
RF: I would imagine it was an adjustment personally, but did you feel lost musically?
RS: Well, I’d never played with a better band, you see, so I think that’s the loss I felt.
RF: Where does one go from the best?
RS: It’s not even just the best. A lot of it was telepathy. We all felt so close. We knew each other so well that we’d know when any of us would make a move up or down within the music, and we’d all make it. No one would say anything or look at each other—we’d just know. The easiest word is telepathy. The band worked so well and we were four good friends, a lot of the time. But like any four friends, we had rows and shouted and disliked each other for a moment.
Then it ended and I started playing sessions and had a really good time, but I was just playing. You can play with any band, but that band was something special to me and it’s never been like that again. I’ve had great sessions, great tracks, but it’s never been like that, and I think you can’t expect that if you walk into a studio and play someone’s session. You’re strangers. We had all lived together so close; we knew each other so well; that it crossed over into the music. We knew exactly what the other was doing. That’s even the wrong way to explain it. We just knew that the chemistry— it worked! The excitement! If things were just jogging along and one of us felt, “I’m going to lift it here,” it was just a feeling that went through the four of us and everyone lifted it, or everyone lowered it, or whatever. It was just telepathy. When I do sessions now, I’m playing the best I can and some sessions are really great. But I’ve never played on anyone’s album all the way through because I always felt it was boring, so I’d do three or four tracks.
RF: They don’t expect you to read at sessions?
RS: No. I can’t read, but they’d get the style. I played this session the other night, which was ridiculous because I do have a style of playing and it’s no good pulling me in to play a romantic sort of mariachi-type band track, and that was the session I went to. I was saying, “You asked me to come down and play. You know how I play. You should at least have a song where I can complement you, and I’m not too good at Mexican mariachi.”
RF: Can you define what you think is a good drummer?
RS: Yeah, me. It took me a long time to think of myself like that, but I am probably the best rock drummer.
RF: Why do you say that?
RS: Because I play with emotion and feeling and that’s what rock is. Rock is not reading, and I’m not putting reading down, although it’s something that I don’t do and something I never wanted to do. I did have one lesson in the old days and the guy wrote all those dots on the paper, but I felt it wasn’t the way I wanted to play. I only wanted to play, and some days it’s a real bummer for people, because if I’m on a downer, I still have to play and you only get what’s in my soul at the time. But that’s life. We all make a choice. A lot of session guys can go in and read and play five different sessions a day—totally different types of music. He just reads it and plays it, but that’s a different musician to me.
RF: There was never a time where you felt you should have lessons or you’d like to take lessons?
RS: Only in the very early days when I first got the kit, because you think that’s what you should do. So I had one lesson and realized that wasn’t what I should be doing.
RF: Did you play along with records?
RS: No, I never practiced in my life. I just practiced one day and then joined a band and made every mistake I could on stage.
RF: That’s incredible.
RS: Well, it was easier then. I don’t know if it was easier then, but it seems like it was. Now, you’ve got to be an amazing player to get a job, even in the local band that plays a bar mitzvah. You’ve got to read and play. As I told you before, back then if you had an instrument, you were in a band. That was how easy it was when I started. And a month after I had the kit, I had one lesson, gave that up, practiced once in the back room and joined a group and I’ve played with groups ever since. I think it’s better for you. Well, I don’t know if it’s better for you, but it was for me. I have a son who is a drummer, who played for three years, three hours a day, practicing with headphones on to records and to himself, but that’s his style. He plays a totally different style from me and he plays, not better, but technically, he can do more than I can do. And he’s interested in all those words they keep mentioning, like flams and paradiddles and things like that, which I never understood.
RF: So you really feel that what made you special was that you worked from your gut emotion?
RS: Well, I think that the drums are an emotional instrument and there’s no melody. It’s not like you can sit in a room with a guitar or piano and play. It’s only “boom, boom, boom” or “rata tat tat,” and there’s no real melody there. That’s why I dislike solos. I don’t care which drummer does a solo—it’s not melodic and he just has an ego problem.
RF: When was your first solo album?
RS: After the break-up, I was sitting around, wondering what to do with myself. I had done a few sessions, but it was the end of that gig and I was wondering what to do next. I realized I had to do something, so I ran and did a standard album. I did all the tracks I was brought up with at the parties at the house, “Sentimental Journey” and “Stardust” and all those old ’40s tunes.
RF: Was Sentimental Journey really a gift to your mother?
RS: Yeah. It was a gift for her and it got me off my ass. So I did that and I then was working on George’s album and he flew Pete Drake in because Pete had done something with Dylan’s album and they were friends. I lent Pete my car and he noticed I had a lot of country cassettes in the car and I told him I liked country music, so he said, “Well, why don’t you do a country album?” And I said, “I’m not going to live in Nashville for six months,” because, you know, I had been used to being in the studio for six months, which was how long the Beatles would be there to make an album. He said, “Are you kidding? We did Bob’s album in 2 days.” I was blown away, even though the Beatles’ first album took 12 hours, but it had been so long ago my memory had failed. So I said, “Okay, I’ll come over next week and we’ll do an album.” And we did the album in three days. It was just all to get me moving.
I did the Sentimental Journey album, then the Nashville album (Beaucoups of Blues), and then Harry Nilsson called me. Harry and I had been invited to present some Grammy Awards, so I thought, I’m not going to fly all the way to America just to present a Grammy Award and then go home. Why don’t I do some sessions in Nashville again? So I phoned Richard Perry who I had met in England while playing on some sessions for Harry, and said, “Why don’t we do some sessions while we’re in Nashville?” Then he called back saying, “Well, why don’t you leave Nashville and fly down to L.A. and we’ll do some sessions there?” So I figured I’d make two weeks out of it and that’s how the Ringo album came about. I came into L.A. just to do the album and it just happened that John had flown into L.A. and George was in L.A. I was making an album, and we’re all friends even if we had split up, so I said, “Have you got any songs, boys?” And John said, “Yeah, I’ve got a song,” so I said, “Well, come and play.” So he came down, and I asked George if he had one and he came down, and then I called Paul in England and said, “You can’t be left out of this,” like it was the big deal of his life, so we came to England and did the track. That’s how that came about. It was all accidental—not planned.
RF: How did you feel, suddenly becoming the focal point of a project in an album that revolved around you?
RS: It was really good. Before that, we had had the two singles, which George had produced, “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Back off Boogaloo” which were number one. I had written them and George finished them. So that was exciting and I was getting excited about the business again as a solo career, so I was back in the music trade as a solo. It just took time for me to get used to the idea because I had never been a solo artist. I had always been in a band, since drummers are usually in the band.
RF: Were drums any less exciting to you at that point?
RS: No. Drums have never been less exciting. Early on, I was playing with George, which helped because he’s a fine player and a fine producer. And we did the Ringo album and John was there. Then I was playing with Keltner.
RF: How did that come about?
RS: That came from Bangladesh. When we did the Bangladesh show, it was the first time I met Jim. We rehearsed the whole show for 3 hours and that’s all. and we met and became friends. With Jim, there was no competition. We both knew we could play and I’ve played with other drummers where it gets into competition. What’s anyone trying to prove? But there’s no competition with him. We were complementing each other, and then I’d do sessions with other drummers and there would be this terrible conflict.
RF: Did you ever work with another drummer during the Beatles?
RS: No. We overdubbed. We never had two kits. So I found that with Jim, he’s the most relaxing drummer to play with and we used to listen to each other and understand each other’s playing. We got on really well as human beings and as players. I’ve worked with other drummers where we never got on as human beings or players, or with some drummers where it was fine as human beings, but don’t put us in the same room because it just doesn’t work. So when I came to do the Ringo album, Jim and I played on it, and the second album we just sort of formed a team, Thunder and Lightning.
RF: I had never heard that before.
RS: Well, that’s just our nickname.
RF: When you play with Jim on a session, how do you work together?
RS: We’ve found out how not to get in each other’s way. You see, a drummer has only one chance. You can’t spread a chord or anything, you just get one hit. So when we’re both rocking, we have to listen to each other, besides the band and to ourselves keeping time or whatever. Jim and I have done a lot of flams when two beats don’t quite match up.
RF: Flams? So, you do know those words! You just play dumb.
RS: We’ve done a few flams, folks, but overall, it’s like one drummer because we’re really good together and if he does a fill, it’s totally different from mine. He sort of hangs around until I do mine and then sometimes we both get crazy at the same time and do them together, and that works too. We just did a few tracks where we both take the breaks at the same time, and with different styles, it’s really interesting.
RF: Who was that for?
RS: Me. We did one track where we both took the breaks at the same time all the time.
RF: Is that, “Can’t Fight Lightning”?
RS: Well, it’s not going to be called that anymore, if it ever comes out. It’ll come out of course, but we don’t know when.
RF: Was the film business ever really a competitor in your life?
RS: No. You see, I believe you can do several things in life. You can play and you can sing and act. I think it’s all part of the one. When you’re playing, you’re sort of acting out the part of the song anyway. That’s how I play. My fills are acting to make the overall picture. It’s just beats coming through a color like a canvas, so you put the colors in where you think in acting, and it all seems like one trade to me. I don’t see why you couldn’t do both or three of them— singing, playing, dancing, acting, or designing furniture, or dig gardens or plant roses.
RF: Of course, the media felt as soon as you did a movie that you had left music.
RS: Well, that’s just what they say. But if I had to choose one thing in my life, it would always be the kit. There’s still so much joy that comes out of playing. I’d hate it to ever get down to that, really, with only one choice in life, but if it did, it would be just playing drums.
RF: Are you still with Ludwig?
RF: How many kits do you have?
RS: Three. And then I had a kit built. I’m always trying to get things deeper and bigger. If you listen to the early records, you don’t hear the drums anyway. They just weren’t ready to mike up kits, so if you listen to “Please, Please Me,” and all that, you can’t hear the drums. So I went crazy one day and called Ludwig and said, “I’d like you to make me this kit.” The dimensions were ridiculous—a 24″ snare drum; 34″ bass drum. It was a kit built for a nine-foot man, and what I didn’t realize was that once I put my legs around the snare, I couldn’t reach the bass pedal. [Laughs loudly] So I used to just use that for overdubbing snare, but I just wanted the depth and I thought the size would give me depth. But I didn’t think that these little legs and arms would not be able to reach across the snare drum once it was in front of me. So we never actually used that kit. That was the giant kit. And I also think that was a throw back from using the mini-kit in the early Beatles.
RF: Do you remember those dimensions at all?
RS: No, I don’t. We had the mini-kit for touring and the first studio days and then I got a regular kit for the studio. Then I got the wood kit with the calf heads, which I’ve used on every session since 1968.
RF: What kind of cymbals do you use?
RS: Avedis. I still love Avedis. It’s a personal choice, but I feel Avedis is the best cymbal—an old Avedis. I love old cymbals. If anyone has any real old cymbals, send them to Ringo. I also bought an old kit. These friends of ours used to look after Jim’s kit, my kit, Hal Blaine’s, and a lot of drummers, and they found this old kit built in 1920 for the Ice Follies. It had all these heating elements in it because the condensation would make the skins warp and get too slack, so to keep it constant, it had all these heating elements, which I had taken out. The kit itself, the five drums, is okay, but they have one tom which is a pure magic drum. It’s a steel-bottomed floor tom. It’s like a mini-timp and it’s against all the laws of life that a steel-bottomed drum can be so deep, because steel is so high. It’s a wood shell, but has a steel bottom and I don’t know how it does it, but it’s deeper than any tom I’ve ever used. I used to have it set up here and it had all these very old calf skins on it. It has a beautiful sound. The snare has 24 tension rods, which is quite a lot, although I don’t know how many they have these days. I was never technically involved with the drums; never went to the drummer’s conventions and things like that. And tuning—I only tune to the tone I like, never to notes. Some drummers will tune this to E and actually tune them like a piano. That was never my way of playing. I’d tune them just to feel the depth. If it felt good, that’s all I ever did.
RF: You were using double-headed drums when a lot of the ’60s drummers preferred the ring of the single-headed drums. Was that your choice or George Martin’s?
RS: I always made the choice. What we’d do in the studio is, I would get the sound on the kit. Anyone who has been into a studio knows that the sound on the kit, once it’s gone down the wires and through the board, changes radically. So we’d try to compromise between the sound we’d want and the sound that would sound good electronically reproduced on tape and record. You have so many problems sometimes with a kit, or with any instrument, getting it down the wires sounding good. So we’d always have that to work on and we’d always work first to get a good drum sound, because it’s not easy. I’d have to do that. I mean, no one could tell me how. I’d tune them first and then they’d do some takes. Then, although it was sounding great down in the studio, when it’s coming through the wires, if it was a bit tighter or needed a bit more cloth on them, I’d adjust them. I used to cover them in cloths to make them dead and deep. But you have to make some sort of compromise. That’s why in ’68 I only used the one kit in studios because it was perfect for me and the studio. I would set the kit up and there’s nothing they had to do, bar mike it up. We never had any hassels with that kit.
RF: You mentioned that the miking changed through the years. How so?
RS: I go to sessions now and they put 13 mic’s on you. There used to be a couple of overheads, a bass drum and a snare mic. Now it drives me crazy sometimes. They’re miking the hi-hat, top and bottom; the snare, top and bottom; the bass drum; and each tom has a couple. You get surrounded, and it’s silly sometimes because someone takes the kit down and sets it up and then they mike it up and I get behind there and there’s no chance on earth that I could hit a drum because of the mic’s. So I push the mic’s away and get the kit ready for them and then they mike it up. If you let them, the technicians sometimes think they’re more important than the players, and you have to say, “But I have to hit them and if I come to smash the cymbal and your mic is in the way, you won’t get the sound. I’ll be hitting the mic stand.” So you have that to deal with. But in the old days, there were four at the most. But you see, we weren’t looking for too much separation because the drums were going on one track anyway. Now they put me on five tracks so they want all that separation. It’s just electronic tricks where they want to be able to put you all over a spread. I don’t mind a little spread, but sometimes they spread you out too much where, looking at your speakers, your floor tom is on the extreme right of the stereo, and the snare and hi-hat on the extreme left, the toms all in the middle. I always fight to close them up. A kit with that much spread sounds shitty.
RF: How many toms do you have?
RS: Three. Well, I used to only have two toms, but since about ’66 I’ve had three toms, a bass drum and snare. I went through the madness of trying the double bass drum and I never got that together because I rely on the hi-hat a lot.
RF: Did you ever play the double bass on any of the recordings?
RS: No. We just tried it and I got rid of it because all I was doing was exactly what I would have done on the hi-hat, so it was just holding the beat.
RF: What other kinds of things did you experiment with?
RS: George (Martin) thought it would be nice to get me all these drums. In those days it was called the Hal Blaine kit, and it went from a bongo to a big deep tom, so there were about nine toms in a big row around me. But if we came to a fill or a break, by the time I wondered which one to hit, the break was over. So I thought I’d better get rid of them, too. Even five toms are too many. I wanted to get back to just snare drum and bass drum. You know, it’s just moments you go through. Years and years ago, in the ’50s, and I’ll always remember it, I went to see this old New Orleans traditional jazz band called George Lewis. They were all 90 years old and had an upright bass and this 3’9″ guy playing on it, jumping up to reach the notes, and the drummer just had a snare and bass drum. Every time he went to do a tom thing, where we’d naturally use a tom-tom, he just leapt onto the kit and did it on the bass drum with sticks and his beater. He’d do any sort of Gene Krupa fill on his bass drum and it blew me away. I mean, that is the full-on use of drums because as a matter of fact, the rest is frills. We only need two drums. That’s as basic as you can get. So I went through a period of wanting to be basic.
RF: Are there recordings of you being basic?
RS: There’s “Back Off Boogaloo,” where it’s just a snare drum and bass drum. There’s, whatever that Beatle track was we did on the roof. [Hums a few bars]
RF: “Get Back.”
RS: I knew we’d get to it somehow. That was basic, so that’s when I started the basic period and then came back to being basic four years ago. You go through changes, you know. We tried all the toms, we tried the double bass drum, I tried getting back to just the snare and bass drum, then back to the toms, then back to the snare again. In the end, I wish—well, not wish, because if I wished it, I could do it—to just use a snare drum. Nothing else. So I have this fantasy of doing some of that, which I’ll get around to one day.
RF: How many cymbals do you use?
RS: Only two: a crash and ride and the hi-hat. I never had a great amount of cymbals around me either, because there’s very little stuff where I play top cymbals through a whole track. If you listen, it’s mainly hi-hat. The hi-hat is most important to me, and they’re Avedis too.
RF: Are there specific recordings you are particularly proud of?
RS: There’s different styles, though it’s the one attitude. I still think the finest stuff I did was on “Rain.” “Rain” is, to me, my all-time favorite drum track.
RS: Because of what I did; wherever my head was at the time. It is a vague departure for me. And Abbey Road, and there’s lots of things in between; bits here and bits there. “Get a Woman,” B. B. King, I felt I played some real solid drums on that. “A Day in the Life,” I felt the drums were as colorful as the song and the guitars. There’s one, “It’s been a long time…” [“Wait”] That has really fine tom-tom work on it. It’s fine on everything, really, but some of them knock me out. And it took me awhile to listen to Beatle records without going through the emotions of the day; how we felt, what was going on, who was saying hello to who. After we broke up, it took me a couple of years to really listen. You know, you’d make the record and really enjoy making it and when it was finished, you’d enjoy listening to it in the studio and enjoy having it at home as a piece of plastic in a sleeve, but then I would never play them again. Then only in the last six or seven years, could I listen to them as tracks. And you can also look back and see the stages you were going through or you went through.
RF: What about highlights, as far as playing, or personal?
RS: There’s too many. Well, there’s high and high. How high do you want to get? You know what I’m saying? As an act, which we were, the Palladium or the Ed Sullivan Show, because they were definite moves in a career. I always thought, though we played music, we still wanted to be the biggest band in the world. Not that we knew it would be a monster, but we knew we were aiming somewhere and the only degree of saying it is popularity. And we did become the most popular group on earth, so there’s all those moves. But like the “Rain” session where something just comes out of the hag; that just arrives; that’s exciting. It’s not a conscious thing—it just happens and some sessions can get exciting. Musically, sometimes you would he blown away with what came out, hut not every time. Other times you did the best you could and if it worked, great. But sometimes a lot of magic, a lot of magic, just came out of the blue and it comes out for everybody. To play with three other people, any other people, when it works is when everyone is hitting it together, no one is racing, no one’s dragging, t he song is good or the track is good and the music is good, and you’re all just hitting it together. If you’re not a musician, I don’t know if you’ll understand that, when just three, four, ten of you, a hundred-piece orchestra, hit it together for as much time as you can (because there’s very few times it goes through the whole track, never mind the whole album), there’s a magic in that that is unexplainable. I can’t explain what I get from that. It’s getting high for me. Just a pure musical high.
RF: How does someone maintain his perspective on being a human being when the world has made him larger than life?
RS: I t h i n k you’re horn with it. Also, at certain periods. I did go over the edge and believe the myth, but I had three great friends who told me, “You’re bullshitting yourself.”
RF: But weren’t they going over the edge as well?
RS: Yes, but they had three friends too, to tell them they’re bullshitting themselves. It’s not that we actually all did it at once.
RF: You play piano as well, don’t you?
RS: I play a couple of chords. I write the songs on piano and guitar but it all has to come together, melody and some of the words, because that’s how I write. If I get the melody, an idea, then I sort of sing 50 verses and have more typed up and pick the ones that work, because I just say anything that comes into my head. It’s not that I work songs out.
RF: What other instruments do you play besides piano and guitar?
RS: Well, I wouldn’t say I play piano or guitar.
RF: Okay, a few chords of each.
RS: And that’s all.
RF: And percussion.
RS: Oh yeah, but I can’t really play congas or bongos. They’re hand drums and I need the sticks. I mean, I can play. I can hit them and play within the structure of the song, but I’m not a conga player, by any means. You need Ray Cooper for that. Congas and bongos are like the violin. They’re as far apart from the drums as a violin to me. The drums are my instrument and you hold things to hit them with, and the hand instruments, like the congas and a violin, are both equally as strange, though I can pass easier as a conga player than a violinist.
RF: What kind of sticks do you use?
RS: I used to use my own Ringo Starr sticks put out by Dallas Arbitor in England, but now I use any sticks. They have to be medium weight, wooden tips. I don’t like the plastic tips because they tend to fly off. I tried to use the fiberglass sticks, but they’re too heavy and they don’t have, not the bendability, but wood has something. You’re holding a piece of nature and trying to hit a piece of nature, though I know for all you vegetarians out there, it is cowhide. But I’m trying to get it down to wood and skin. It’s very important to me; not plastic and metal.
RF: You’re still using the calf skins?
RS: Yeah, I still do. It seems the natural make-up of the instrument to me, and feels better than plastic heads, fiberglass sticks, and steel shells. It goes against the nature of the instrument to me. I play it primitive and I like the instrument to be primitive.
RF: So you use the calf skins on the bottoms as well.
RS: Yeah, although it depends. Sometimes when we break a skin or two, we have to use the plastic one right away, because you can’t just shove a calf skin on. It does take a lot of work to get the calf heads sounding good.
RF: Do you do all that in the studio?
RS: Yes. Usually I have a kit in the house. You just came round on the wrong day. Not that I play with them too much. I like to have a kit in the house for children, because all kids like the drums because of the power and the noise, if they’re allowed in the house, where I was never allowed to make so much noise. I think it’s a throwback to that also. In the summer, I used to give kids lessons. I only ever give them one lesson, and if they show no aptitude for that, it’s pointless anyway.
RF: How do you teach them?
RS: All you show them is the basic bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, the basic 4/4. and if they can grasp that after awhile (because no one can do it right away), then they can go on to play. But if they can’t get that basic rudiment, as it were, then you might as well forget it because no matter how much they try, if you can’t work out two feet and two hands, you’ll never play anyway.
RF: Are you teaching Barbara’s children?
RS: When we had the kit here, I showed them, and even Barbara, and they got off on it and it lasted for awhile. Because the kit was here, they’d get on it, and they liked the power of it and kids come around and they liked to hit them, but it’s like everything. If they’re just hitting them, that’s fine for awhile. But if you can show them, “Imagine if you could do this . . .” that’s actually working and they get more excited. Then there’s like a goal for them. But I don’t mind, they can go back to just bashing them if that’s the pleasure they get. But my son, Zak, has been in a band for two years in England. I only gave him one lesson the basic “boom chick”—and I let him do that. I had the kit in the studio in England at the time, because I had a studio at the house, and the next week, I said, “Okay, how are you doing?” He was 10 at the time and we went in and he played “boom chick.” So I thought I’d show him sort of a move which was “boom boom chick, boom chick,” and he says, “I can do that.” So I said, “Fine, you’re on your own.” He’s more dedicated as a drummer because he did play three hours a day for years. The drums are his life. Now Jason also plays, my second son, and his style is so different. He plays like he’s 95 years old in a blues band. He’s like an old blues player; a totally different way of playing, but he has a problem. He doesn’t like to play in front of anybody.
RF: That would be a problem.
RS: So he’ll probably go on with a mask, which wouldn’t be bad either, if he ends up as a drummer. I don’t know. But for Zak, that’s all he wants, and that’s all I wanted to be, although I had to do other things to survive. I knew I’d always be a drummer, and if it hadn’t happened that I joined several groups and ended up in the Beatles, I think I would still be a drummer, still bumming me way around the world with the kit. But that may have forced me to get a job, I don’t know.
RF: Do you have any advice to give to young drummers?
RS: I think if you listen to our chat, there’s no real advice bar getting out there and playing. That’s all I ever did. I can give good or bad advice, which is: you take a tutor, listen to records—you can do all that, which is something I didn’t do, but there’s really no advice, bar playing. That’s it. It’s all down to you’ve got to play. You can go to all the lessons in the world, but one day, the teacher is not going to be there and you’re on your own. It’s very nice to be able to do a triple paradiddle flamhead boff-off in the room with a practice pad, but go and do it with a group and see if it works. The only advice, if anything, is to get in a band. Get with your pals who can’t play either, because no one can play at the start. You learn together and you see the motivation. Other drummers say, “Yes, take the lessons, hold the sticks this way and do all this.” It’s show biz, you know, and half of it’s luck.
RF: Are there particular drummers you listen to?
RS: Never since I started. I bought that one Cozy Cole record and that’s all. I mean, I listen to Keltner and drummers on record . . .
RF: That’s what I mean.
RS: But I listen to the track; I don’t listen just to the drummers. For me, if it works, the drummer’s working too. If the track works, everyone’s working. I don’t listen to the drummer to stand out and I never listen to solos. I’ve never heard anyone do a solo that wasn’t boring. I think solos are a major ego problem. What are they trying to prove? That they can hit every drum 300 times in 40 seconds? I don’t understand solos and that’s just purely me. I never wanted to do a drum solo. I find them boring. I just want to play with players. Otherwise, the curtain might as well open and I’d do 20 minutes on the kit and they’d close again. I play with other guys and that’s part of the magic—playing with other people.
RF: You were talking about that magic before.
RS: It’s all magic to me.
RF: During all the talk about a Beatles reunion and all of that, was there ever a time when you thought if you got together for a night that . . .
RS: Well, we did. The four of us never got together, but at certain times since the break-up, three of us got together.
RF: Was that magic still there?
RS: Well, we looked at each other and smiled. It was interesting. Now, it’s impossible to put it all back together of course, but I don’t think any of us really thought we’d get back together. Everyone got too busy. No matter how much money they offered us, we never did it for the money, then or now. Then, when we were doing it in the ’60s, and when they were offering us 50 million dollars in the ’70s, it wasn’t an incentive to play. Money is no incentive for musicians. It’s nice to have, but it’s not enough.
RF: I think it was John and Paul who said they felt that spark couldn’t be recreated. I wondered whether you agreed, or how you felt.
RS: I don’t believe that. I think, had the four of us gotten down and played, that spark would have been there. But the reasons would have been different and that was the difference.
RF: What kind of effect would you say the Beatles, the fame, etc., has had on you today?
RS: I don’t know. It’s hard to say where I’d be if it hadn’t happened. But it did, so I’m exactly where I feel I should be. Does anybody know what he would have done if he hadn’t been doing what he did do at the time he was doing something? It’s impossible to tell. The difference would be that you wouldn’t be interested in talking to me if I had just been playing some little club somewhere. But whether I would have been a different human being . . . it’s hard to tell. I’m sure I must have changed, but would I have changed had I gone through a whole different type of life? I don’t know. The effect it all had from being born to today and everything that went on in between, is that we’re sitting here in the garden, trying to say hello.