Coolest Beatle: Ringo?
Our guest blogger today is Steve Thornton — owner and operator of The Indiepop List, an online forum for lovers of pop music, particularly in the Belle & Sebastian vein. That’s where Steve first posted this vigorous defense of Ringo, and where I first read it. I should note Steve’s opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the DPD or of American Public Media. But they may very well provoke some poptastic arguments at your next dinner gathering… or in the comments section below. /RG
Ringo was the coolest Beatle.
I don’t see how anyone could dispute that; it’s obvious. It’s not even close, really.
Just watch “A Hard Day’s Night” again.
It’s fashionable to say John was the coolest, because he was so smart and cutting. Sure, he was a great songwriter and a great singer, but honestly, as a person he left a great deal to be desired. “Better run for your life if you can, little girl” — isn’t that charming. John was simply not a nice person. He was bitter and mean and and hurtful and held grudges, and he spent way too much time engaging in idiocy like “Bag Peace.” And singing “Imagine no possessions” behind the wheel of a $50,000 white piano in your hundred-acre country estate — OK then. Working Class Hero my ass; he grew up in a posh detached house. I’ve seen it.
George certainly wasn’t the coolest. He was pretty cool when he was young, with his bad-teeth smile and great lump of hair and “these shirts are grotty” lines, and yeah, he wrote a couple of decent songs, but somewhere along the way he turned into a religious nut. The Maharishi? I don’t think so. Krishna? Um, no thanks. “The lord helps those who help themselves” — OK, now you’re actually starting to get on my nerves, Georgie. I know he’s dead, which means he’s a saint, but I’ve never been interested in saints. I can’t imagine anything more boring than being stuck in a long conversation with Sanctimonious George.
Girls sometimes go for Paul, because he was the cute one, and Paul’s pretty cool. His image suffered under the relentless assault of John’s campaign against him, but Paul was always a pretty laid-back pot-smoker. But he also sang “My Love.” “Silly Love Songs” I can almost forgive because he’s making a statement, and indeed, “what’s wrong with that?” But what’s wrong with it is the sheer hackery of “My Love.” It’s not even a good tune; Paul’s songs often display holes and weaknesses that audibly cry out for John to come along and bridge the gaps. He just couldn’t quite do it on his own.
So who does that leave? Ringo.
And he’s no default choice, either. For starters, though The Beatles were often claimed to be working class, Ringo was the only one who really was. He was the only one born at home, in the grottiest of grotty council estates in a crappy part of Liverpool, and grew up in a pub. He’s always had a becoming modesty about him, even when, at his more recent concerts, he’s strutting around shouting “WHAT’S MY NAME?” “Ringo” they answer, and no one is more surprised or happier than he is. But he’s not cool because of what he’s like now; he’s cool because he was the coolest then. He was the one who’d been in lots of other groups and was locally famous and smoked with ten times the authority of trying-too-hard kid amateurs like John and Paul, and he wore rings on every finger. He knew who he was and where he came from, and how he got there.
People who don’t know what they’re talking about like to say Ringo was a lousy drummer. Ringo was a great drummer. Like everything else about him, his drumming was unpretentious; no thunderous crashes or bombs going off like Keith Moon. Ringo was a songwriter on the skins, crafting musical patterns that expanded the songs and tied together the sometimes disparate parts without drawing attention to them. Most Beatles songs can be instantly identified from the drum part. And he had the beat; there is no better introduction to the art of straight rock ‘n’ roll timekeeping than the first two Beatles albums (unless it’s the first Ramones album). An awful lot of modern rock drummers would do well to spend a few weeks learning to keep up, and to leave the theatrics behind. Ringo never, ever messed up. Supposedly he couldn’t execute a drum roll; excuse me, but when’s the last time you thought to yourself “man, what this song needs is a honkin’ big drum roll!” That’s what I thought. Keep your drum rolls in your marching band, and leave me with the tumbling toms of “Ticket To Ride” or “She Said She Said”. Ringo’s drums dance.
“A Hard Day’s Night” is about celebrity and the sudden power and imprisonment of a new kind of fame in a world that was totally unprepared for it. John and Paul and George put on the requisite rebel sneers, but they ring hollow. Look at John’s darting eyes, and Paul’s stiff eagerness. They’re playing at being aloof, but they can’t pull it off. Their longing for the camera betrays them, and while they’re cute and funny, they’re just not that cool. Ringo is. When the going gets tough, he takes off, in the movie’s most endearing scene, and goes “parading”, meeting up with the truant kid, kicking tires, wandering down by Kew Bridge, trying to take a time exposure with his Pentax but dropping it in the water, trying it on with a passing girl (in disguise) but getting shouted down, helping the dollie bird cross the puddles with his coat…. He is the distilled essence of cool.
Ringo’s solo career produced some of the highlights of the post-Beatles output. “Photograph” is the best thing any of them did afterwards. Have you actually HEARD “Two Virgins?” Ringo knew what pop music was about, and just as importantly what it wasn’t about.
Ringo never bought into the BS. He never claimed to find God (or to be God), he never wrote any songs calling his friends jerks, he never pontificated about anything. He was never conned, not by silly religion (the Maharishi’s place “was like Butlin’s,” he said), not by Yoko, not by radical politics, not by any of it. Sure, he turned into a bit of a drunk, but he was never a friggin’ heroin addict. What’s cool about that? Nothing! What’s cool about Ringo? EVERYTHING.
Even the nose is cool.
Fnarf (Steve Thornton) resides in Seattle, Washington, with his wife and her tropical fish. He is not cool at all.*