I’ve always been more than happy to admit that I think Ringo Starr is a fantastic drummer and don’t find it much worth arguing over. Then again, more and more people seem to have come around to that point of view. Or at least that’s been my experience. Maybe it has something to do with the length of exposure. Once you’ve lived with the Beatles’ music for, say, twenty to fifty years, you’d had a lot of time to reflect on your favorite songs, or favorite moments (like the breakdowns in “Hello, Goodbye” and "Strawberry Fields," for example). A lot of time to appreciate just how well so many of those songs, and Ringo’s drumming, have aged.
But not all of them. I haven’t always found the very early Beatles albums to hold up well for me. There’s something about... well... okay, maybe Ringo wasn’t always a great drummer. But he became one. The thing about a retrospective appreciation is that it’s highly selective.
However, if we were to select elements of Ringo’s technique from songs spanning the whole of his Beatles career, we would be able to see how his playing refined from 1962 to 1995, when he made his last recordings with George, Paul, and John---who left several home demo tapes over which his bandmates layered harmonies and rhythms. (Hear “Free as a Bird” from those sessions here.)
You could take the time to edit together several seconds, chronologically, of famous Beatles songs throughout the sixties and seventies. Or you could do that and play all those parts yourself, and shoot and edit a thoroughly engaging, high-quality video of yourself playing them. That’s what Kye Smith does in the videos here, part of a long series of 22 exercises he calls “5 Minute Drum Chronology.” As you’ll see in his Beatles video at the top, Smith has made some very thoughtful selections from the canon, showing how thoroughly versatile Ringo’s playing became; how well he came to understand nuanced dynamics: when to attack and when not to play at all.
In his Nirvana “5 Minute Drum Chronology,” above, Smith not only duplicates the huge, booming sound of Dave Grohl’s drumkit, but he also perfectly captures Grohl’s tremendous energy. With the focus squarely on the drums, Grohl (through Smith) seems even more the hardcore punk drummer that he was for years before he joined Nirvana. But by the time we get to “You Know You’re Right,” the last song the band recorded in 1994, we see how he had discovered a much lighter touch as well, one he developed even further as a drummer for indie stars like Cat Power.
Smith’s other twenty 5 Minute Drum Chronologies track bands who made it in the nineties, like The Offspring, NOFX, Blink-182, and Foo Fighters. In many cases, none but ardent fans will know the drummers of these bands or have a sense of their full discography. But at least by the time we get to their breakout 1994 album Dookie, many of us will be familiar with a song or two from all of Green Day’s releases. And we’re likely to know the name and face of drummer Tré Cool. (The band’s first drummer, Al Sobrante, takes up the first 20 seconds of the video above.)
Is Tré Cool a drummer who has evolved over the years, developed better feel and more finesse? At least the way Kye Smith plays him. Smith is such a talented drumming impressionist that one can look away and forget that it’s him on the drums and not Cool. Which raises other critical issues with the impressive artifice of these chronologies. These are, of course, interpretations. And in any case, musicians have good nights and bad nights, great takes and not so great takes, and their style might vary more across a single album than between songs on different records.
And in the case of a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, we've seen three different drummers by the time the band released their fourth album, Mother’s Milk and took on highly skilled Will Ferrell lookalike Chad Smith. Nonetheless, Kye Smith gives us a lot to chew on as we watch, by proxy, these drummers adapt to the evolution of their bands’ songwriting. Some of those journeys are naturally more interesting than others. See the complete collection of 22 5 Minute Drum Chronologies here, or down below.