Need to be convinced Ringo was a good drummer? Try playing Beatles music.

Bell-ringing enthusiasts from across the U.S., U.K. and Canada converged inside the National Cathedral's tower for the annual North American Guild of Change Ringers convention this weekend. (John Kelly and Casey Capachi/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist August 31

Being a rock star may look easy, but believe you me, it’s a lot of work. Have you tried to throw a TV off a hotel balcony into a swimming pool lately? The way today’s flat screens catch the air it’s more likely to sail into the valet parking area than hit the water. Embarrassing.

And then there’s the musical part, the only part that I really know anything about since my rock star experience has largely been limited to playing in my basement and the occasional gig at a dive bar. I’m here to tell you that playing music is harder than it looks. Even playing the drums.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

This was driven home recently when I was asked to play drums at a private party for an evening of Beatles music. If you play an instrument — whether clarinet or clavichord — you’ve played a Beatles song. The Beatles are so much a part of our musical DNA that their music can seem “easy.” When it comes to the drums, there’s even a school of thought that believes Ringo Starr isn’t a very good drummer.

I’ve never been in that school — can you imagine anyone but Ringo? But until I tried to play the songs properly, I never realized just how tough it is to duplicate — approximate, even — Ringo’s drumming.

Sure, you know the signature drum figure in “Come Together” — bum bum biddley bop, tapita tapita tapita tap — but do you know how many times it’s played before you go to that bit with the organ/guitar solo? Or how many times in “Birthday” you play quarter notes on the snare after each guitar lick?

Or listen to something that seems fairly simple: “In My Life.” The drumming is so spare that it seems as if Ringo’s hardly doing anything. But get it wrong and the whole thing falls apart.

I’m an amateur compared with Scott Rabino, the drummer in the Apple Core, one of my favorite Beatles tribute bands. (My Monkees cover band, the Stepping Stones, once opened for them.)

“When people say Ringo didn’t know what he was doing, that’s just cuckoo,” said Scott, who lives in Fairfax. Scott has made it his business to study the seemingly loose style that is Ringo’s signature. He thinks it’s easier to grasp if you understand its antecedents. “People don’t realize his background,” Scott said. “He was into country music and blues and [stuff], like the rest of them. That swung high-hit hat pattern didn’t come out of nowhere.”

I survived my Beatles gig, even the fiendishly tricky “Eight Days a Week.” That’s the good thing about music as opposed to, say, brain surgery: Nobody dies if you get it wrong.

The bells!

I was going to say that the same could be said of change ringing, but then I remembered the warning sign I saw Saturday in the bell tower of Washington National Cathedral: “A standing bell is like a loaded gun. It only takes one jerk to kill you.”

The cathedral’s 10 bells are big, with the largest weighing more than 3,500 pounds. If you’re next to a bell when it flips over on its wheeled axle, you can be squished. That’s why I stood well back and wore hearing protection as the bells came to life. Below the bell room, change ringers were pulling on ropes in a prescribed order to create that distinctive cascade of sound. I hesitate to call it music. It’s more like audible math. When it’s done right, the pattern is called a peal, a process that can last up to three hours.

The eyes and ears of the change ringing community have been focused on the cathedral this weekend, site of the annual general meeting of the North American Guild of Change Ringers. The Washington Ringing Society has been hosting about 50 ringers from the United States and Canada, as well as some visitors from the United Kingdom. Ringers relish the opportunity to try their hands at new bells. The cathedral’s bells — the largest in North America — are known to “go well,” in the parlance.

Beth Sinclair was my guide as we scurried up and down the cathedral’s central tower, taking in the stunning views whenever possible. She’s been ringing since 1978, when she was a student at National Cathedral School. (The girls at NCS can still learn to ring the bells.) In her day job, Beth works with statistics. A lot of numbers types are drawn to change ringing, she said. “If you’re a math hater, you’re going to look at this and it doesn’t even exist to you,” she said.

But when a peal is perfect — smooth, not choppy, the sound of each bell slotting perfectly into its place — there’s the same sort of satisfaction as beholding the sublime Fibonacci curve in the shell of a nautilus.

The cathedral’s bells are featured this week on the BBC Radio 4 program “Bells on Sunday.” To hear them, go to www.bbc.co.uk/radio4 and search “bells” under the “Programmes” tab.

And to watch a video of my visit to the cathedral, go to http://wapo.st/cathedralbells.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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