20.4.14

PAUL & HIS BASSES

After the intros to the two guitar books I wrote this for the Beatles Bass book.

At the time when The Beatles were coming to terms with the idea that becoming professional musicians was a viable career option, the position of bass guitarist in the group was an issue that required urgent attention. In 1960, bass players in groups were generally given the role because they were the least proficient on regular guitars, it being assumed that playing an instrument with four strings was easier than playing one with six. The concept that a bass player could contribute to a group’s overall sound beyond simply plodding along to the beat while plucking the note that corresponded to the rhythm guitarist’s chord was not yet widely recognised outside of professional circles and, of course, many of those who took up the bass found it difficult to play and sing at the same time. So the bass players in the groups that spearheaded the beat boom were often not just the worst guitarists but also the worst singers as well.
         Paul McCartney changed all that. Not only did he become one of the most accomplished bass guitar players of his generation, adding a melodic depth to the Beatle’s music that was hitherto unthinkable in pop music, but he and John Lennon took on the lion’s share of the vocal duties too.
         The process by which Paul became The Beatles’ bass player was far from straightforward. In The Quarrymen Paul played regular guitar and he remained stubbornly attached to it as John’s school band developed in fits and starts into The Beatles. As the group became more proficient the issue of the bass vacancy became more crucial and John opted to solve the problem by inviting his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe to assume the role. Somewhat fortuitously, in January of 1960 Stuart won £65 in an art competition sponsored by the Liverpool pools millionaire Sir John Moores, and John persuaded Stuart to invest his winnings in a Hofner President bass guitar, and learn how to play it. At this point in their evolution The Beatles were known as Johnny & The Moondogs; John was in charge and brooked no dissent from Paul or George Harrison, both of whom were sceptical about Stuart’s musical abilities.
         So Stuart persevered with the bass despite having no natural skills. Indeed, so embarrassed was he at his own efforts that he was inclined to turn his back on the audience during the smattering of shows that The Beatles performed during the first half of the year, the highlight of which was the brief Scottish tour they undertook in May as the backing band for singer Johnny Gentle. Back in Liverpool they successfully auditioned for their first Hamburg season and, with Stuart on bass and the newly recruited Pete Best on drums, set off for Germany’s largest port in August. Though the rhythm section was certainly shaky, the three months they spent in Hamburg was a gruelling experience that involved playing for up to eight hours a night – but it would turn them into the band they became.
         Many regarded Stuart as the most physically attractive member of the group, but even after six months in the band he was still unable to play his bass well, preferring to pose with it and look moody in his leather jacket and sunglasses. This caused a good deal of friction in the group with Paul complaining to John, and both John and Paul complaining to Stuart. John was torn between friendship and his desire to make the group stronger. He knew that Paul was right and that The Beatles would never progress musically as long as Stuart remained. But at the same time he loyally defended his friend, even threatening to leave himself if Stuart was forced out.        
         “The problem with Stu was that he couldn’t play bass guitar,” Paul would say later. “We had to turn him away in photographs because he’d be doing F# and we'd be holding G. Stu and I had a fight once on stage in Hamburg but we were virtually holding each other up. We couldn’t move, couldn’t do it. The thing that concerned me was the music, and that we get on musically, and we didn’t. Same with Pete Best.”
When they returned to Liverpool around Christmas 1960 Stuart remained in Hamburg, now living at the home of his art student/photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. It seems Paul briefly assumed the bass duties at this point but George wasn’t impressed. He even wrote to Stuart in Hamburg urging him to return. “It’s no good with Paul playing bass,” he said. “We’ve decided, that is if he had some kind of bass and amp to play on!”
With Stuart still in Hamburg and John evidently committed to the group regardless, Pete Best contacted Chas Newby, the former rhythm guitarist with his group The Blackjacks, to play bass but Newby lasted only for a couple of gigs. Next John tried to get George to play bass but this met with a solid refusal and so Paul, who had been playing both rhythm guitar and piano, was finally deputed to take the job. He fashioned a bass out of his regular guitar, a Rosetti Solid 7 model, using three old piano strings. It was far from satisfactory, but it still sounded better than Stuart.
         In late February 1961, Stuart Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool to visit his parents but stayed for only a couple of weeks. It proved long enough to cause more dissension within The Beatles’ ranks, however, with John again insisting that despite his musical shortcomings, Stu should resume his former role as the group’s bass player. It wasn’t to be and when Stuart returned again to Germany he relinquished his role as a Beatle once and for all. So it was that Paul became The Beatles’ bass player, a position he would undertake with enormous distinction until the group disbanded in 1970.
         “None of us wanted to be the bass player,” McCartney admitted later. “It wasn’t the number one job… In our minds he [the bass player] was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be upfront singing, looking good, to pull the birds… I was a bit lumbered with it really.”
         Paul had already played bass on a few occasions when Stuart had cried off, using Stuart’s Hofner but playing it upside down because Paul was left handed. Indeed, it seems Paul’s versatility as a musician – he also tinkered on the piano, drums and trumpet – sealed his fate. He used the crudely modified Rosetti for the first three months of 1961, until the Beatles second visit to Hamburg where he would acquire the first of several Hofner 500/1 basses, generally known as the Violin bass.
         “I got my Hofner Violin bass at the Steinway shop in the town centre,” he says. “I remember going along and there was this bass which was quite cheap, it cost the German mark equivalent of £30 or so – my dad had always hammered into us never to get into debt because we weren’t that rich. John and George went easily into debt… They were prepared to use hire purchase credit, but it had been so battered into me I wouldn’t risk it. So I bought a cheap guitar. And once I bought it I fell in love with it.”
One reason why Paul chose the Violin bass was that it was symmetrical, which meant that it wouldn’t look odd if he had to play it upside down. In the event, in order to secure the sale, the shop went out of their way to procure a left-handed model for Paul. This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds because Hofner instruments were assembled in the nearby German town of Hagenau so it was relatively easy for the shop to arrange the manufacture and delivery of a left-handed model. Little were they to know how this small gesture would lead to the Violin bass becoming such an iconic instrument in rock and Beatles folklore.
         In some ways it is surprising that Paul stuck with the Violin bass while The Beatles became as popular as they did. Most bassists in the groups that found fame in the wake of The Beatles used far more expensive and solidly built instruments, usually Fender Precision or Jazz basses or Gibson SG or EB models. The Hofner 500/1 bass was certainly lightweight, with a very thin neck, but they can be fragile and not really up to the wear and tear inflicted on guitars by groups that tour regularly. Nevertheless Paul stuck with it both on the road and in the studio, acquiring a second one around October 1963. He was to have been given a third, gold-plated model, by Hofner in the spring of 1964 in exchange for allowing his name to be used in promotional material, but appears never to have used the instrument.
         The lightness of the Hofner, coupled with its short scale – 30’’ compared to the 34’’ scale of a Fender bass – was a likely influence on the playing style that McCartney was to develop. The instrument naturally facilitated the fluid melodic lines that would soon start to weave their way into the Beatles’ recordings.
         After the first wave of Beatlemania, John and George expanded their guitar collections considerably, often choosing Rickenbackers, much to the delight of the manufacturers. So it was that Paul, too, was offered a Rickenbacker 4001 bass in 1964, but he didn’t take up the offer until the summer of the following year. It was one of the first left-handed basses the company had made, and considerably sturdier than the Hofners he’d been using. Paul would use this same bass guitar in the studio for the remainder of The Beatles’ days together and into his solo career. While he continued to appear with the Hofner onstage, and on film, the Rickenbacker boasted much more stable intonation than the Violin basses and further encouraged the fluent, high register lines that can be heard on tracks such as ‘Rain’ and songs from the Sgt. Pepper album.
         The only other bass guitar used by The Beatles – not necessarily Paul – was a Fender VI that was given to them by the manufacturers during the sessions for the ‘White Album’. This was a six-string bass, with a body shape similar to a Fender Jaguar but with a longer neck. George can be seen playing in the promotional film for ‘Hey Jude’ with Paul on an upright piano and John on his sanded down Epiphone Casino. Paul, too would sand down his Rickenbacker 4001S bass, which he still owns.
         Despite his initial reluctance to take on the position of bassist in the band, McCartney was quick to appreciate the melodic potential of a bass line and also the instrument’s potential for directing a song’s harmony. ‘Michelle’ is underpinned by a particularly sophisticated display of voice-leading which fits the song’s Gallic jazz perfectly. The other songs from the Rubber Soul and Revolver era included in this collection demonstrate how McCartney’s playing was reaching maturity, notably in the funky octaves in ‘Taxman’ and the ostinato underpinning the harmony guitar riff in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’.
         By the time that The Beatles had rejected the stage to focus purely on studio work, Paul’s playing took another leap forward. While early in the group’s career they played together in the studio, now Paul increasingly recorded his bass parts separately from the rest of the band. The bass line to ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is a prime example of a line conceived as an independent voice in the music; integral to the structure of the song, but existing as a layer of invention all on its own, from the opening chromatic descent in the verses to the arpeggios of the pre-chorus and eventual doubling of the guitar riff in the chorus.
         Later tracks would further demonstrate McCartney’s imagination and versatility as a bass player, from the swooping lines in ‘Dear Prudence’ to the wild glissandi right up the neck in ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. Remastered versions of ‘Hey Jude’ reveal a hitherto largely unheard bass part that skips along majestically in a high register during the extended chorus while, at the other extreme, the bass is certainly a dominant, thrashing presence in his own ‘Helter Skelter’. Also, in the final two years of the group’s career when their personal relationships were coming under strain, McCartney seems to have delighted in providing lines of particular sensitivity and melodicism for songs written by his colleagues. His work on Lennon’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and Harrison’s ‘Something’ both stand up well against the work of McCartney’s Motown hero, James Jamerson, the consummate studio professional.
          There can be no question that Paul McCartney substantially elevated the role of bass player in pop music and although on stage nowadays he performs at the piano and on a left-handed Les Paul or Martin acoustic, it is the moment when he straps on his trademark Violin bass to perform a Beatles song that audiences roar in approval. No rock star alive or dead has ever become so decisively associated with his chosen instrument.

4 comments:

  1. And I think it's Elvis Costello we have to thank for McCartney returning to his iconic Hofner during the superb "Flowers In The Dirt" sessions, c.1987.

    PS: There's an excellent acetate version of I Want You She's So Heavy with McCartney on vocals and bass, whilst Lennon concentrates on really good lead guitar.

    I Want You She's So Heavy acetate.

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  2. Yes, excellent. Thanks for that Ian.

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  3. From what I remember, Paul started developing and recording his bass lines separate from the band during the Pepper sessions....which goes back to being influenced by Pet Sounds. Paul was just in awe of the bass lines that Carol Kaye plays and how they would weave through the songs effortlessly.

    The recording of "Paperback Writer" *might* be the first appearance of the Rickenbacker. I do know that George Martin reversed a speaker into a huge micrphone diaphram to record the bass amp for that track.

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  4. You might be eligible to receive a Apple iPhone 7.

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