Consider, please, the following famous quote:
“Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.”
Let’s cut to the chase here. I think there’s a good chance the above was written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. I have no proof. There is no great statement at the end of this article revealing all. This is all just musings… and possibly a first step in finding out for sure.
Firstly, let’s be very clear on who didn’t say the above. It’s a quote very commonly attributed to John Lennon or Paul McCartney themselves. In fact, it was originally… a Jasper Carrott joke. For proof of this, we need to turn to Mark Lewisohn’s biography The Beatles – All These Years – Extended Special Edition: Volume One – specifically, Chapter 34, Footnote 109. (What Lewisohn doesn’t know about the Beatles isn’t worth knowing.)
“The most widely quoted Lennon line about Ringo’s drumming (‘He wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles’) was never said by him – it was an early 1980s gag by British comedian Jasper Carrott, as confirmed in an email to the author, 13 April 2012.”
“Last week was Jewish Book Week. And one of my jobs was to appear in conversation with the Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn. I have admired Mark since I was a teenager and discovered that he was “Beatles Brain of Britain”. He did not disappoint. He does know everything about the Beatles. Indeed he told me that my recall was faulty and that he had, in fact, been “Beatle Brain of Europe”.
Anyway, a theme of his ground-breaking new biography of the group is the importance of Ringo. Far from being the weak link, Ringo was the anointed one, the Beatle whom the others picked. And, as Mark reasonably points out, can anyone name a Beatles song on which the drumming is bad?
He told the audience that he had always been puzzled by the famous Lennon quote: “Ringo isn’t the best drummer in the world. He isn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles.” Mark knows pretty much every Beatles quote and can’t find any record of Lennon saying that. John also didn’t think that, and was always honest about what he thought.
So Mark decided he had to hunt down the origin of the insult. He did. To a joke made by Jasper Carrott in 1983. Lennon never said it.”
Two additional things arise from that piece. Firstly: it dates the joke to 1983. Secondly, it states the gag was “made by Jasper Carrott”, rather than – as the footnote states – “by Jasper Carrott”. I think we can forgive a little imprecision here. Maybe the joke was written by Jasper Carrott himself… or maybe it was by one of the many writers who worked with him.
You can see where I’m going with this one. Let’s turn to Carrott’s Lib – a live sketch show starring Jasper Carrott, broadcast between 1982-83. A quick glance at the writing credits reveals names such as Kim Fuller, Ian Hislop, Tony Sarchet, Neil Shand, Bob Sinfield… and a certain Rob Grant & Doug Naylor. (It also featured Nick Wilton, had music by Peter Brewis, and was produced by Paul Jackson – all names associated with Son of Cliché or Red Dwarf.)
Now you may be wondering: why have I grabbed onto Rob and Doug’s names here? Couldn’t the gag have been written by anyone who worked with Carrott during that era? Answer: yes, of course. I bring up Carrott’s Lib there, but only as a potential source of the joke, and an example of the writers who were working with Carrott at that point – but as of yet, I haven’t even found a clip of Carrott even saying the joke, let alone anything else.
I want to bring up two pieces of circumstantial evidence, however. Firstly, from the Red Dwarf episode Parallel Universe, broadcast 11th October 1988:
LISTER: So hang on. This is another Red Dwarf, with another Rimmer and Lister on board?
RIMMER: Will they be be exactly the same as us?
HOLLY: No, there will be differences. This is parallel universe, innit?
RIMMER: What do you mean?
HOLLY: Well, for instance, in this universe, it could be that Hitler won the Second World War. It could be something even more incredible, like perhaps Ringo was a really good drummer.
Possibly more interesting however, is this sketch from the very first episode of Son of Cliché, broadcast 23rd August – ooh, look, 1983:
ANNOUNCER 1: This week in Son of Cliché magazine: a world exclusive!
ANNOUNCER 2: The man who was nearly a Beatle!
ANNOUNCER 3: He knew them all, and could have been one of the group.
ANNOUNCER 1: But, for an ironic twist of fate, he could have been one of the fabulous Beatles!
ANNOUNCER 3: Read his heart-wrenching story…
ANNOUNCER 2: …in Son of Cliché this week…
ANNOUNCER 1: …I was nearly a Beatle – by Ringo Starr.
In other words: Rob and Doug had a penchant for Ringo jokes.
Again, it’s important to note that this isn’t proof of anything. When a group of writers work together, they bounce off and inspire each other in all sorts of ways. And it’s not like Grant Naylor had exclusivity on taking the piss out of Ringo. All we know for sure is that Jasper Carrott or one of the writers who worked with him came up with the line which opens this article.
Wouldn’t it be awfully fun if it turned out Rob and Doug did write a joke which ended up endlessly attributed to Lennon or McCartney, though?
UPDATE (23/06/15): So, we have the following tweet from Doug Naylor:
— Doug Naylor (@DougRDNaylor) June 18, 2015
Which is all very well – although “Ringo rocks!” is a bit of an odd thing to say in this context, when there are definitely Ringo jokes in Red Dwarf and Son of Cliché written by Grant Naylor.
There is, however, another path which has come to light in order to track this joke down. As noted in our comments by hpengwyn and on Twitter by catvincent, there is a strong possibility the joke was originally from Radio 4 series The Burkiss Way. Which involves me listening to every single one of the 47 episodes of the show to try and track it down.
I’ll see you in the spring.