Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ landmark 1967 album, put Ringo Starr front and center as “the one and only Billy Shears,” the fictitious character who delivers the second track, John Lennon and Paul’s McCartney’s “With a Little Help From My Friends.” It’s a song that to this day brings audiences to their feet when it’s performed on tour by Ringo and His All-Starr Band.
The real lasting power of the drummer’s work that year, however, came in the form of the fiercely creative and wholly unique drum parts Ringo concocted for the most ambitious productions of the band’s historic recording career. Music, and drumming, have never been quite the same since.
Ringo Starr turned twenty-seven in 1967, and had recently ended four frantic years touring, recording, and making public appearances with the most popular band on the planet. The former Richard Starkey had married his childhood sweetheart, Maureen Cox, two years earlier, and in August the couple announced the arrival of their second son, Jason. (Zac, now the drummer with the Who, was born in 1965, and daughter Lee arrived in ’70.) The same month Jason was born, the Beatles suffered the loss of their manager, Brian Epstein. Ringo became more interested in photography that year, while the group filmed the Magical Mystery Tour movie. Recording technology would also play a part in his artistic development in ’67, as the Beatles entered a period of pioneering studio work that would set the standard for the way the world would hear music.
Two pivotal Beatles albums came out in 1967: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in June, and Magical Mystery Tour, a companion piece to the group’s third feature film, which hit the shelves in November. In the ensuing years, the ever-joking Ringo would tell reporters that his best memory of recording Sgt. Pepper was learning to play chess, and in 1997 he told Modern Drummer that a highlight was playing the piano chord at the end of “A Day in the Life.” When pressed, though, he said, “I felt the drums [on “A Day in the Life”] were as colorful as the song and the guitars.” This echoes a view that many others have expressed, and that the top drummers we spoke to for this story support: 1967 was the year when the Beatles announced to all the world the concept of using the recording studio as an instrument, and Ringo’s drums were no less a part of this sonic revolution than the vocals and guitars of John, Paul, and George, or the myriad other sounds the group employed in its startlingly vivid new music.
Today the Beatles’ eighth studio release is widely considered, by critics, fans, and musicians alike, “the greatest album of all time.” Recorded at Abbey RoadStudios on EMI’s Studer J37 four-track machines, and employing copious bouncing and overdub effects, the album was the most successful marriage of avant-garde and pop elements to date. The approach, applied to some of the Beatles’ most enduring songs, perfectly captured the blooming psychedelic culture of the day, and the album stayed at the top of the charts for twenty-seven weeks in the United Kingdom and fifteen in the United States. At the tenth annual Grammy Awards, Sgt. Pepper won in the categories of Best Album Cover, Best Engineered Recording, and Best Contemporary Album. It also took Album of the Year—the first rock LP to ever receive the honor.
Sgt. Pepper became the soundtrack to 1967’s “Summer of Love.” A landmark among the Beatles’ LPs and beyond, it was the first album of theirs to be issued simultaneously worldwide and the first on which the songs and their order of appearance were exactly the same for the U.K. and U.S. versions. It was also the most expensive album package of its time, featuring a gatefold cover designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, printed lyrics, cardboard cutouts of Sgt. Pepper Band costume elements, and, on the cover, an iconic collage of historical characters. This year the album, which has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide, was remastered and reissued as a special fiftieth-anniversary edition.
With all the attention paid to Sgt. Pepper, it’s easy to forget that the Beatles unleashed Magical Mystery Tour before the year was out as well. Continuing the mind-bending sonic and visual elements of its predecessor, the album presented another remarkable collection of out-there pop, from the carnival-like title track and “Hello Goodbye” to the woozy dream-state soundtracks “Flying” and “Blue Jay Way” to the otherworldly pop confections that made up the famous “double A-side,” recorded during the Pepper sessions, of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Throughout these tracks and those on Sgt. Pepper, Starr was very much the equal to his relentlessly creative bandmates, rising to the occasion with exploratory drum arrangements that gave little heed to the ways things used to be done and offered tons of evidence that the drums could be as revolutionary as any other music-making tool.
And to be sure, drummers—even those working in other genres—were paying close attention to Ringo’s new moves, with lasting effects that fed their own recordings for decades to come. MD asked several of those world-famous musicians to describe the impact that Ringo’s drumming had on them and to explain just how it represented the shock of the new.
“Animal instinct and a deep, natural feel”
In 1967, besides listening to Miles and Coltrane, the songs that hit me by the Beatles were “Strawberry Fields,” with that beautifully compressed and limited sound on Ringo’s drums, and the unusual prettiness of “Penny Lane.” “Within You Without You,” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was so cool because it had nothing to do with pop music but the vibe was so good it made its way onto a Beatles album. One of my absolute favorites to this day is “All You Need Is Love,” from Magical Mystery Tour. It still gets to me every time I hear it. The sound and feel of the song are absolutely perfect in every way.
The chemistry between those four guys was monumental! When they stopped touring they really started to understand what they could do in the studio. They started making records with sounds that no one had ever heard before in pop music. They got the world’s attention big time with their songwriting, singing, playing, and point of view. Ringo had his work cut out for him, but he was always ready for the challenge. His playing and those songs will remain timeless.
They were really blessed to have Ringo in the band. He upped their game when he came in. When I first met him and we started talking, I would ask him about certain fills and what he was thinking. He told me, “I just blacked out when I played the fills.” And that’s when he told me he starts all his fills with his left hand. His playing on “Strawberry Fields” is a perfect balance between carelessness and great attention to detail. And to try and copy that or make it happen with your own playing is impossible.
In the very early days, Ringo was cooler than everyone else in the neighborhood. (This was told to me by George, John, and Paul.) They all wanted to be like him. He was the oldest, had more experience, had a car, was funny, and had cool hair. He wasn’t a schooled player, and he didn’t realize what he was creating technically—it was total animal instinct and a desire to swing in the way he remembered from what he heard on the Glenn Miller, Sarah Vaughan, and Little Richard records his stepdad, Harry, played around the house. Everything Ringo played had such great, deep natural feel. He is the epitome of a feel-good drummer, with just the right amount of chops needed!
I was twenty-five years old in 1967, and back playing jazz—after being fired from Gary Lewis and the Playboys in 1966. I learned a serious life lesson. I let my young ego get in the way. I became full of myself. I went from doing all these cool gigs with Gary and playing on his hit album She’s Just My Style, making decent money, feeling like a star. I was driving around L.A. in my Corvette, listening to myself on the radio. But soon after that I was standing on the unemployment line. It was a big wakeup call. The real highlight of 1967, though, was the birth of our beautiful daughter, Jennifer Lee.
In ’67 I was doing gigs with Gabor Szabo around L.A. and up in San Francisco and Sausalito. And I was in a band with some great players called the Afro Blues Quintet Plus One. We played all over L.A. Then my best friend and genius bass player, Albert Stinson, got me the gig with John Handy up in San Francisco at a club called the Both/And. Our good friend Bobby Hutcherson was in the band, so it was truly a dream gig for me. A real bona fide jazz gig! Jack DeJohnette and I would hang out for the after-hours jam and watch John Handy’s drummer, the great Terry Clarke, play. He was Canadian, and his work visa had expired. That’s how I got the gig.
After that I joined a band called MC2. We were signed to Warner Bros. Records. That was when I met and got to watch session drummer Jim Gordon up close playing on one of their songs. He was so good and had a big effect on me and made me want to do more recording.
Early on, he recognized that Ringo was opening doors that we’d all want to walk through.
Iwas a kid in 1967, but I had a vast record collection. The unique thing about Ringo’s drumming from that period really started in ’66 with Revolver and when they stopped touring. He was already laying the foundation for a new, groundbreaking approach.
There was no doubt that Ringo was listening to his influences, and that’s what came out in his playing. And this is when they, as a complete group, started changing the landscape of recording. The songs they were writing really dictated his new style of playing and what the drums did. It wasn’t solely based on the Mersey beat anymore, with that open hi-hat and driving beat, which had been the hallmark of their sound. That was the major change in Ringo’s drumming. And then you add the sonic experimentation with the drums, which was also pioneering. In the recording process they now used compression, limiting, phasing, and backward recording. And then there was the use of the tea towels on his drums. So you combine those elements and you have sounds and playing that no one had ever heard before. All of this was brand new.
For anyone who’d ever questioned Ringo’s playing before, this [period] really highlighted his or her ignorance about the value of his playing and what his contribution was to the greatest band of all time. The drums are so prominent on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour—very dominant. It was clear to me, and I believe everyone else, that it was absurd to not understand his importance.
Let’s go through some of the tracks on those albums. With the kick-off title track of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you have the beginning of the driving/riding of the tom-tom—so different because there’s no hi-hat until later on in the tune. It sets up the album, like, Okay, this is going to be different from anything else. Then into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” you have this great snare sound, with the tambourine taking the place of the hi-hat. And you have those huge toms.
On “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” once again there was compression on the toms. This is where he adds his parts to the composition to fit the dictation of the song—though still sounding and feeling very natural and improvised. However, his fills were never “squared off,” straight 8th notes; the fills were always swinging. Ringo comes from that skiffle/shuffle vibe, and the man can swing with the best of them—listen to “Getting Better.”
“Fixing a Hole,” that’s a wacky and fun performance. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” that big tea-towel sound—again, very dominant [and informed by] the songwriting. He plays that carnival, marching band thing. It’s very spot-on for the song.
One of my favorite drum tracks of all time is “Lovely Rita.” I just love the way he plays on that song—and those fills, just fantastic. “Good Morning, Good Morning,” the big snare sound is brilliant, and his fills are interjecting hooks. That’s another thing about Ringo’s drumming in general—all his drum parts had hooks. Then the reprise of “Sgt. Pepper,” that beat comes in, just him, like a breath of fresh air. Then he hits that groove that’s familiar. And those fills are amazing—and, again, that swing. Then “A Day in the Life,” which really highlights the inventive and dramatic drum fills that punctuate the lyrics.
These recordings broke barriers of how things were recorded. No one had ever heard anything like them before. And it changed the way every band played and recorded from that point on. Same with “Strawberry Fields,” which was the single recorded during the making of the Sgt. Pepper album. Ringo was always playing for the sake of the song and not at all for the chops. He was driven by a different desire, and that’s why the drums are so prominent in those mixes. Those fills and drum parts all meant something. It was all musical hooks. Being in a tight-knit band is like being in a perfect marriage. You become so close that you can finish each other’s sentences. And that’s how he played a song written by John, Paul, or George. And it became very natural. No one else would have played those songs like that.
On the Magical Mystery Tour album, the song “Flying” is another of my favorite tracks of all time. When I was a kid, I loved that song so much, I would listen to it over and over. The groove is so sweet and the pocket is wonderful and shows how much they loved the blues. On “Blue Jay Way,” you have the phase-shifter thing going on the drums—big fills, really the start of the defined psychedelic drum sound. On “Your Mother Should Know,” that was the closest thing you wanted to hear in those two years that had that skiffle/shuffle groove of the earlier days. Then we have “I Am the Walrus,” with that legendary opening fill. Again, the song dictates the part. And the groove is great!
On “Hello Goodbye” he’s riding the toms on the chorus, with more trademark Ringo fills with the tea towels. On “Penny Lane,” that song really dictated what he played. “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” here again, sonically, you have the tea towels—which by now was the norm. That one is very loose and lot of fun. “All You Need Is Love”—I’d always wished the drums were a bit louder in the mix. The bass really drives that one. When they did it live for that satellite TV show, Ringo’s playing along to the TV track and that’s always tricky—even these days.
The thing I’d like people to take away from this is that Ringo’s playing in 1966/67 went to another level of drumming, with a new approach and style that you could hear on the radio. Up until then, you didn’t really hear that amount of drumming on AM radio. It was always the beat being the most important thing, but you didn’t have those melodic and musical drum fills that punctuated the music. Can you imagine anyone else coming up and playing those parts? I can’t! His drumming had purpose. He always played the song first. And then you add all the new sounds and new ways of recording with the experimentation at its highest peak. It’s amazing that, still to this day, it’s just as important and relevant as it was fifty years ago. That says it all.
Notes from two decades of studying Ringo under the microscope
As we know, the Beatles had quit touring by 1967 and for the most part had locked themselves in Studio Two at Abbey Road. With touring and its headaches behind them, the band was now able to focus on deeper levels of songwriting and presentation. The biggest change on Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour from previous recordings is the number of ideas that were being crammed into the production, occasionally to the detriment of Ringo’s drum sound but more importantly to create a broad landscape.
Reductions of tracks from one multitrack machine to another usually meant that the first instruments recorded were going to be squashed in the transfers. For this reason, the drums can sometimes be a bit low in the mix or less of a pulse, with later percussion overdubs sometimes louder than the drums themselves. Having said that, this also created a dreamy bed of waves of groove and crazy percussion. An example would be the song “Magical Mystery Tour,” with its glistening, airy drums and improvised cowbell overdubs.
Another example of this is the song “It’s All Too Much,” which was recorded in ’67 but not released until ’68, on Yellow Submarine. It’s a freight-train haze of drums and percussion that creates a third entity, complete with the drum tracks having been placed in backwards at the last chorus (snare on 1 and 3). This was the blueprint for a new way to paint—and it was about color more than pulse. Artists like Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix took on this method soon after.
Ringo was marking new territory with his sonic and playing approach in other ways. At the time, most drummers were still tuning their kits in a jazz fashion, with a high pitch to cut through. On songs like “A Day in the Life” and “Lovely Rita,” the toms were purposely tuned way down to sound like kettle drums. Levon Helm noted that he tuned his toms low for the Band’s “The Weight” after hearing “A Day in the Life.” Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick relayed that this is the period where he brought the microphones closer to the drums and cymbals in an attempt to maximize the tone. The result was a punchier sound on some songs, like the snare on “Baby You’re a Rich Man” and the crisp overall sound of “Hello Goodbye.”
There was also extreme experimentation, like the double drumkit tracks on “Fixing a Hole,” the snare overdubbing on “I Am the Walrus,” and the flanging techniques, invented in Beatles sessions, on “Blue Jay Way.”
Ringo was now also becoming an extreme arranger with his parts. The kick/hat-to-tom pulses on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is perfection and creates a carnival-act image. With his trademark groove, innovative arrangements, and brand-new sonics, Ringo Starr opened the door once again to a higher level of creativity.
Lesson learned: Drums are as important as guitars!
On 1967’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour albums, the Beatles were doing more complicated and orchestrated music, as well as experimenting more with sound. To fit in, Ringo’s drums became part of the orchestra. The miking of his drums was different, and he started placing tea towels on his drums for a flatter sound. Not only was he keeping time, he was now creating different parts for the intro, verse, chorus, and bridge of the song—his parts changed with the mood changes in the song. On “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields,” his drums were the instrument that answered the vocals, whereas before the release of Sgt. Pepper, it was normal to hear guitar or keys doing the answering. This took the mind of a thinking drummer. When the melody changed, so did Ringo’s drum part. To change a Ringo drum part in a Beatles arrangement would be like changing the chords to the song.
Where were you in ’67?
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1, 1967, and I turned seventeen on August 8. I was playing with the New Rock Workshop, and I met Billy Joel that year as well as my bandmates, guitarist Russell Javors and the late bassist Doug Stegmeyer. I also met Carmine Appice and Vanilla Fudge, and I jammed with Fudge guitarist Vinnie Martell.
Recognizing Ringo’s genius, the jazzer was unknowingly preparing for his own classic work with Paul McCartney.
I was always a fan of Ringo’s drumming, and I must say that it influenced me coming from the world of jazz to the world of pop and rock. Those days were extremely busy in the studio world, and I didn’t get much time to listen to pop music, but you couldn’t avoid hearing the Beatles. Ringo’s drumming on Sgt. Pepper was simply breathtaking. His feel on “Getting Better” and the use of the hi-hat breaking up his patterns was groundbreaking. “Lovely Rita” was also one of my favorites, as well as his iconic drum fills on “A Day in the Life,” where he played the muted toms within the sparseness of his parts, which seem to fit the songs so perfectly.
Two of my favorites on the Magical Mystery Tour album were “Hello Goodbye,” where his fills were so musical, and again, his use of the toms so distinct and stylistically Ringo. And when I first heard “Strawberry Fields,” I understood what a creative genius Ringo was in crafting drum parts that were perfect for each song. Ringo has influenced drumming as much as any musician has throughout time.
I was just starting my career in 1967. I got home from my last position in the navy band after being in the south of France, and I landed a gig in New York in the Catskills. I was in a band that played with a singer/dance team and a comedian, six nights a week. It was great training to play with New York musicians—challenging music every night. One night a bass player named Russ Savakus filled in for our regular bassist, and he turned out to be a contractor for recording studios in New York City. After working together, he suggested that I come into the city and he’d help get me started in session work. I was also playing with a piano player named Dave Frishberg, who told me of an opening at New York’s famed jazz club the Half Note. I went down to sit in with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and I got that gig and became the house drummer for about a year and a half. During that time session work became steadier, and I did my first recording with J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding.
Where were you in ’67?
In 1967 I had just recorded my first solo album, Soul Drums, on Columbia-Date Records. By this time I was producing Peaches & Herb and Sly and the Family Stone for the label as well. My manager at that time was Dave Kapralik, the vice president of Columbia Records and also the manager of Peaches & Herb and Sly and the Family Stone. It was a fortunate time for me. I was the hottest drummer in [New York City] and was doing twelve to fifteen recordings a week.
Ringo taught the future Chili Pepper that the song was king, and commitment is the law.
In that great musical year of 1967, I was six years old; I could barely read and write, but even at that young age I knew I liked music, and I knew that if it had a good beat I liked it even more. Back then we got our music either from the Detroit AM stations on our transistor radios or in our parents’ car, or from a record on the stereo. They would play Marvin Gaye, Johnny Cash, the Beach Boys, James Brown, and the Beatles all in one block of time. We were exposed to a lot of different styles, and from the jump I enjoyed the music that rocked.
The Beatles were here, there, and everywhere back then. You couldn’t miss ’em. My sister and brother listened to them, and it seemed like they were always on the radio. Being that young, I don’t specifically remember the days Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Magical Mystery Tour came out—I just remember the music was changing, and those two records probably had more to do with that change than anything else. The bar was raised.
The main thing I learned about drumming from Ringo on those recordings was just how important it is to fit the drums to the song rather than the other way around. He would find the exact right thing to play, and play it like he owned it. Ringo used to get the rap from music snobs that he was “simple” in his approach to drumming—as if that’s a bad thing! He could play simple and strip a part down to its essential pieces and make it work—and swing—but if you think he couldn’t compose intricate drum parts, take a listen to “Getting Better,” with its unorthodox approach that only Ringo could have come up with. It works so well for the song that, fifty years later, you can’t imagine a better way to do it.
I think about swing and unique fills when I think about Ringo. I love his fills on songs like “A Day in the Life” and “I Am the Walrus.” His pocket and time are fantastic, and his character comes through on every take. When Paul and Ringo zero in on a rhythm track, you know it’s not going anywhere. I try to channel that commitment when I record. I want the groove to help propel the song, but not so much that it gets in the way of what the essence of the song is. That’s the Ringo influence.
It blows me away to think that Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour came out within seven months of each other. Ponder that for a moment. The Fabs were producing iconic, history-changing music at a rate we can’t even imagine today. Their entire recording career only lasted seven years! And fifty years later no one has come close to topping them. That’s a pretty amazing legacy.