Who doesn’t love Ringo Starr? For almost 60 years, Starr has been the everyman of The Beatles: goofy, amicable, and just as amazed at the material that was being put in front of his as the audience was. But a strange narrative began to form around Starr – that he was just lucky to be there, or that The Beatles could have succeeded no matter who was behind the drum kit.
That’s just flat out wrong. Starr is easily one of the most inventive and influential drummers of all time, perfecting the rock and roll backbeat for all stickhandlers that followed. Starr’s understated style was the bedrock that allowed the band to expand their sound, keeping songs grounded when they very easily could have gotten lost within their own psychedelic swirl. And when it was called upon, Starr could also hammer out some legendarily complex parts, like the fills that colour ‘Rain’ and ‘A Day in the Life’. Any decent drummer can replicate him, but nobody has the swing and style that Ringo does. He’s one of one: completely unique and essential.
Even his most maligned contributions to the band hold up well these days. It’s true that Starr wasn’t on the same songwriting or singing level as his bandmates, but for someone who had never written a song before joining the group, Starr has handled himself well within The Beatles’ catalogue. There’s ‘What Goes On’, the delightfully jaunty and slightly sinister cut from Rubber Soul, and of course the underwater wonderland of ‘Octopus’s Garden’. But for his first solo writing credit, Starr turned to country music for inspiration.
“I wrote ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ when I was sitting round at home,” Starr says in the Anthology series. “I only play three chords on the guitar and three on the piano. I was fiddling with the piano – I just bang away – and then if a melody comes and some words, I just have to keep going. That’s how it happened: I was just sitting at home alone and ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ arrived. We played it with a country attitude.”
As he continued to flesh it out, Starr realised that he had a full song on his hands. With all four members competing for individual artistic expression on The Beatles, Starr mustered up the courage to bring his new composition into the sessions. He even pulled a trick that Paul McCartney favoured: he recorded most of the song himself. With some help from McCartney on piano and bass, Starr recorded a large number of percussion overdubs, vocals, and even some piano parts himself.
“It was great to get my first song down, one that I had written,” Starr continues. “It was a very exciting time for me and everyone was really helpful, and recording that crazy violinist was a thrilling moment.”
That violin came courtesy of session player Jack Fallon, whose day job was as a jazz bassist and concert booker. He had booked occasional gigs for The Beatles in their early days, and it was through this connection that Fallon came in with his fiddle ready to play during the sessions for ‘Don’t Pass Me By’.
“George Martin had jotted down a 12-bar blues for me,” Fallon recalls in Mark Lewisohn’s The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions. “A lot of country fiddle playing is double-stop [two notes played simultaneously] but Paul and George Martin – they were doing the arranging – suggested I play it single note. So it wasn’t really the country sound they originally wanted. But they seemed pleased. Ringo was around too, keeping an eye on his song.”
According to Fallon, it was after he thought that the tape had stopped rolling that he began to mess around. Unbeknownst to him, Martin was still recording, and some of his improvisations ended up at the end of the song. “I thought that they had had enough so I just busked around a bit. When I heard it played back at the end of the session I was hoping they’d scrub that bit out, but they didn’t, so there I am on record, scraping away! I was very surprised they kept it in, it was pretty dreadful.”
Even though Fallon could have done without the ending, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ represented a major step forward for Ringo in terms of autonomy. During a time where he could have easily sunk into the background, Starr made a stand and picked out his best sonic attributes to contribute to a song of his own. Despite its simple nature, ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ likely laid the groundwork for Starr’s future solo career, establishing himself as a singer and songwriter in his own right.