A different drum

It’s often puzzled me that I’ve never heard a decent cover version of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter.” Yes, it’s the Beatles — arguably the best recording act the world has seen, and not to be taken lightly by prospective imitators.

But like many of the Beatles’ best-covered songs (“I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Come and Get It”) “Helter Skelter” is written from the straight-up rock ‘n’ roll playbook. It has the horsepower that should make lesser bands sound better than they are. With its buzzsaw guitar intro, blood-curdling vocals and the refrain’s killer machine-gun riff, it’s a muscle car just begging for a worthy rock act to test drive. And many have tried. It’s not that they’re bad. They simply are missing something, and I think I’ve figured out what it is: Ringo Starr.

History has been kind in assigning proper belated recognition to Ringo Starr, but he still ranks alongside producer George Martin as an overlooked staple of the Beatles arsenal, a critical piece of their musical machinery in the vein of McCartney’s Rickenbacker bass or Abbey Road’s magical mixing board. Ringo was much more than that, and “Helter Skelter” shows why.

We only need to listen to the aforementioned pretenders who’ve come up short in taking on this formidable classic: Aerosmith, Pat Benatar, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Motley Crue and, yes, U2. These are no slouches. Yet each one focuses too heavily on the front end of the Beatles’ original — the guitar and vocals — while, you guessed it, overlooking Ringo Starr’s unique contribution on the rhythm side. As a result, the drummers tend to follow the frenetic pace of the song — like that muscle car, it’ll go as fast as you want it to. And that’s where the problem lies. “Helter Skelter” was McCartney’s attempt to write the loudest, brashest song he could, and the guitars and his vocals do their part to make that happen. But what Ringo adds is the mayhem. He doesn’t pace the song, he bludgeons it. He smashes his way around the requisite fills, abusing his kit with such primitive fury (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) it likely got Keith Moon’s attention. And it keeps the song from gaining too much form, which is exactly the point.

It’s a lesson on how a great drummer can make a song better by working against its grain, becoming a counterbalance of sorts. On the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, Ringo takes the opposite approach. The song opens with an unfathomable soup of organ and strings before he counts in with a steady beat to provide much-needed structure under the wash of instruments and John Lennon’s lyrical stream of consciousness. Many drummers would say “this is a trippy song, I need to be trippy.” Not Ringo. He played straight man to Lennon’s clown in the same way he took a high-octane, quarter-mile McCartney rocker for a punishing off-road ride. It’s a rare talent indeed, and rare talent, especially when unrecognized, defies imitation.

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When a demo will do

Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay

Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album “Nebraska” was a singular phenomenon. The release represented a thematic reversal for Springsteen’s career, both in its lyrics and sparse musical arrangement, but in a greater sense that arrangement signaled a stunning break from conventional wisdom with its rejection of traditional studio production techniques.

Springsteen recorded “Nebraska’s” tracks on a simple 4-track cassette device in his New Jersey home. The intention was to re-record these cuts with his band for the next studio album, but Springsteen decided to stick with the original demos, which would become the defining sound of a dark and barren album. It was a gutsy move for the Boss, who would quickly resume full-throttle studio productions with 1984’s  more commercially viable “Born in the U.S.A.” For one album, listeners were treated to a rarity in rock ‘n’ roll — 40 minutes of a man and his guitar (and harmonica) fully exposed against a stark and depressing lyrical landscape.

I’ve often wondered why albums like “Nebraska” are the exception rather than the rule. True, a demo recording is a first draft of sorts, but you could argue it’s the truest representation of the artist’s vision before a production team refines the song into something more palatable to public consumption. “Nebraska’s” rough edges comprise its greatest charms and in many ways outline the themes the album explores. The uneven mixing and flat instrumental and vocal tones exude a sense of loneliness and distance — and at the same time an intimacy — that fits the mood of the album, which is perhaps why Springsteen chose to go this route. A full album of, say, Britney Spears demos probably wouldn’t work out so well and would be better off in the hands of a skilled producer.

Occasionally I’ll hear demo versions of well-known pop hits that slip out of the vaults, either unintentionally or via official “stripped down” re-releases. Some leave me amazed at the voodoo that studio engineers do so well in turning a humdrum guitar-and-vocal piece into something truly remarkable. But more often than not, I’m disappointed at the intrusion of so much polish at the expense of the heart and soul of a song put forth in the artist’s original recording. When to turn on the studio magic and when to lay off is obviously the artist’s call, in consultation with his or her producers and/or collaborators. But my suspicion is that commercial concerns weigh heavily into these decisions, leaving me only to wonder how “Nebraska” would sound had Springsteen not had the audacity, and more importantly the clout, to follow his instincts.


Here’s an example of a highly polished, fully produced recording in John Lennon’s original studio release of the single “Woman,” from 1980’s “Double Fantasy.” The acoustic guitar is softened, presumably to suit the mood of a love song, and the voice is equally sweetened to puppy-love levels better suited to a high school dance.

Now listen to the “stripped down” version re-released in 2010. It’s technically not a demo, but a “remastered” version of the above studio recording that focuses on a simpler arrangement. The guitar isn’t so effected, and the voice, though not always in perfect tune, is pure John Lennon. This is probably more faithful to his original conception of the song, if not the demo he would’ve provided to the producer.