I just spotted a Rolling Stonepiece about Paul McCartney ending his Freshen Up tour at Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium last night, which includes some cool footage I simply couldn’t resist sharing. Not only does 77-year-old Sir Paul look in admirable shape, but he also got a little help from some great friends.
First up: Sir Richard Starkey, who just turned 79 years old. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m the first to emphasize that age doesn’t need to be a limiting factor when it comes to music and many other things. Still, you just can’t escape but feel amazed watching these two guys close to 50 years after the split-up of The Beatles: Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) and Helter Skelter. What a triumph!
But wait, there is more. A Paul McCartney show ain’t over until, well, the end. So here it is: Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End. Watch what happens at around 3 minutes and 48 seconds into the closing medley from Abbey Road. Undoubtedly, life’s been good for that audience last night. How friggin’ cool!
When it comes to Paul McCartney and his accomplishments, where do you even start? Co-founding member of The Beatles, which in my book was the greatest band of all time; a man who has written hundreds of songs, including timeless classics; multiple award-winning two-time inductee in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and great musician who after more than five decades is sill hungry to perform live are some of the highlights that come to mind. This post focuses on something folks outside musician circles may not fully appreciate: McCartney’s significance in pop and rock music as a bassist.
As frequent readers of the blog know, I used to play bass guitar in my late teens and early twenties. As such, the topic should be right up my alley, so what the heck took me so long to write about it? Frankly, I don’t really have a good answer. I included McCartney in a previous post about some of my favorite bassists, and of course I’ve also covered him on other occasions. Still, as one of my all-time music heroes, Macca and his remarkable bass playing certainly deserve more attention.
The interesting thing one may sometimes forget is that McCartney not only started out as a guitarist but did not have any initial intention to become a bassist. A long interview with Macca, which Tony Bacon conducted in November 1994 as part of his research for a book about the bass, provides some great insights. It was published by online music gear and news website Reverb in January 2018. I’m relying on this interview for quotes throughout the remainder of the post.
“The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back,” Macca told Bacon. [Note: This bassist was skinny, and while he has developed a little bit of the belly over the years, he’s far from fat. In fact, his dear wife still says he’s pretty handsome!😆] “In our minds it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be up front, singing, looking good. That was what we wanted, to pull the birds. There’s no other reason, basically.”
The above photo shows an early lineup of The Beatles. It must have been taken during the second half of 1960, after Pete Best had joined the band as a drummer. Stuart Sutcliffe, a friend of John Lennon from art school, had been added in January that year, after John and Paul had persuaded him to use prize money he had won for art to purchase a Hofner bass guitar. “So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could,” Macca said. Ouch…
“The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit,” Macca further pointed out. “He was a smallish guy. But it looked kind of heroic—he stood a certain way, he had shades, he looked the part—but he wasn’t that good a player. And that was the problem with me and Stu. It was always much reported that we didn’t get along. There were two reasons, really. One, I was very ambitious for the group, and I didn’t actually like anything that might hold us back. There’s enough stuff holding you back anyway, without someone in the group who’s not that good, you know?”
In July 1961, after The Beatles had returned from one of their engagements in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band to pursue painting. “So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me,” Macca recalled. “I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then. I don’t think you could have caught John doing it—I don’t think he would have done it. ‘No, you’re kidding. I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker.’ I didn’t have a guitar [at the time], see, so I couldn’t really say, ‘But I want to be a guitarist.’ They’d say, Well get a fucking guitar then—that might be a start! As I say, I’d been playing piano, which was on the stage, and that was quite good for me, gave me a lot of piano practice. I couldn’t really play but I learned. So I was quite glad to get back in the front line.”
Sutcliffe ended up lending McCartney his bass for a short time. “Eventually I saw a bass in the window of a shop in Hamburg, this violin-shaped bass, the Hofner. It was a good price, because my dad, as I say, had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never, but we were earning reasonable money.” And so McCartney essentially became the bassist of The Beatles by, well, accident. “That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there.” Well, he certainly did.
It’s fair to say that McCartney didn’t become a brilliant bassist overnight. He started out largely playing root notes, which probably wasn’t that much different from Sutcliffe. But McCartney liked to push himself forward by experimenting. “The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once,” he explained. “So, I’ll try a capo on a bass…I often used to tune ‘em down, too – tune the strings down a tone, so the E would become a D. You’d have to be careful how hard you hit them, but it was kind of interesting. I would just mess around with any experimental effects, just to try it.”
After The Beatles had stopped touring, the studio became a major enabler for experimentation. Advances in technology also allowed the separate recording of instruments. By the time of Sgt. Pepper, Macca would oftentimes record the bass part as one of the last tracks. This allowed him to hear all other instrumental parts and take the bass beyond it’s traditional role of timekeeper to becoming an additional melody-driving instrument. And this is where Macca’s true magic as a bassist happened. From a strictly technical standpoint, his playing is nothing extraordinary, which he himself has stated in various interviews I’ve read over the years.
When after the breakup of The Beatles Macca formed Wings, many things changed, including his bass playing. Not only did he now consistently use his Rickenbacker 4001S he had been given by Mr. Rickenbacker himself as a freebie during The Beatles’ 1965 U.S. tour, but his playing became more traditional again. Asked about it, he said, “I think it was OK, but I think I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt. Pepper and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something.”
“See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this,” he went on. “We didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache – that’s difficult. In The Beatles, I’d been free of all of that. We had a manager, we had three other great guys.” Macca also could have added that unlike The Beatles in their later stage, Wings was not set up as a studio band.
Asked about his influences for the bass, McCartney said, “Mainly as time went on it was Motown, James Jamerson—who became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. James was very melodic, and that got me more interested. Actually he and Brian Wilson [from The Beach Boys] were my two biggest influences: James just because he was so good and melodic. Brian because he went to very unusual places. Brian would use, if you were playing in C, he might stay on the G a lot just to hold it all back, and I started to realize the power you had within the band.”
I’d like to wrap up this post by highlighting some of McCartney’s great basslines during his time with The Beatles. I apologize to the non-musicians, who may find the following clips a bit geeky. I think the best way to hear Macca in action, especially on a computer or other non hi-fi device, is to listen to his isolated bass parts. First up: Rain, the B-side from the non-album single Paperback Writer, released in May 1966. The song was written by Lennon and, as usually, credited to Lennon-McCartney. This is quite a busy bassline that provides a nice complementary melody to the tune. Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip with the original isolated part, I’m relying on a chap called Norby Hofner, who does a pretty decent job.
With A Little Help From My Friends from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an example of a melodic bassline where McCartney nicely varies between sparing and busy playing. The tune wasn’t only credited to Lennon-McCartney but was also written collaboratively.
Another great example of a busy Macca bassline is Hey Bulldog, a song off the Yellow Submarine album, primarily written by Lennon and again credited to Lennon-McCartney. I dig how the bass is pushing the tune forward.
The last bassline I’d like to call out is one of my all-time favorites by Macca: Something. Should I ever go back to playing the bass, this would be on top of my list to learn. This bass part represents such great melodic playing that one can easily enjoy listening to it all by itself. I also think that Something, which appeared on Abbey Road, is one of George Harrison’s best compositions.
The Beatles’ White Album and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Electric Ladyland are celebrated with major reissues
Today could be a first, or in case I’m wrong, it’s safe to say this doesn’t happen often: Two major reissues of albums by iconic music artists appearing the same day. The White Album by The Beatles and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience are now officially out. Other than what’s currently available in Apple Music I don’t have access to any of the actual special releases at this time, yet I’d feel remiss not write about these special editions.
While the White Album isn’t my favorite Beatles album and I tend to agree with those who say they should have put the strongest songs on one record rather than releasing a double album, The Beatles remain my all-time favorite band. That’s likely not going to change. Moreover, based on what I’ve read and heard, this reissue definitely features material that intrigues me. As for Jimi Hendrix, Electric Ladyland would be my no. one album choice overall, even though it doesn’t include my two favorite Hendrix tunes: Purple Haze and Hey Joe.
The White Album reissue is available in four configurations: A Super Deluxe 7-disc set (on the left in above picture) featuring 50 mostly previously unreleased recordings all newly mixed with 5.1 surround audio as well as the so-called Esher Demos; a deluxe 4-LP edition; a 2-LP issue (pictured above in the middle); and a deluxe 3-CD set (on the right in the above image). The remixed original tracks, the Esher Demos and additional takes are also available on iTunes/Apple Music and other digital and streaming services.
Similar to last year’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band anniversary edition, Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer George Martin, worked together with mix engineer Sam Okell. They newly mixed the album’s 30 original tracks in stereo and 5.1 surround audio, together with 27 early acoustic demos and 50 session takes, most of which weren’t released in any form previously. While I have no doubt the sound is fantastic and superior to previous recordings, for the most part I can’t hear the differences. That’s largely because the streaming versions are lower quality than the CDs or vinyl records. And, yes, part of it may also be explained by some hearing loss I can’t deny! Here’s a cool lyric video of the 2018 mix of Back In The U.S.S.R.
Given the above mentioned sound quality constraints, what’s more intriguing to me, are the additional demo and session tracks, particularly the Esher Demos that were recorded in May 1968 at George Harrison’s bungalow in Esher located to the southwest of London. These are early and unplugged versions of most of the original album tracks, along with a few additional songs that didn’t make the album.
Two of the tunes that weren’t included on the White Album, Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam, ended up on Abbey Road. Not Guilty, a Harrison composition, was eventually released on his eponymous studio album from February 1979, his eighth studio record. And then there’s John Lennon’sChild Of Nature, which became Jealous Guy and was included on Lennon’s second solo album Imagine from September 1971 – admittedly stuff that is likely to primarily excite Beatles fans like myself.
Two things are very striking to me about these Esher Demos. The amount of writing was just remarkable during a time when tensions among The Beatles were increasing, which even led to Ringo Starr’s temporary departure. But despite their differences, somehow these guys were still able to engage as a band. They even has some fun, as background chatter on some of these home recordings suggests. Here’s the Esher Demo of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. While it’s clearly not my favorite Beatles tune, does this sound to you like a band in distress?
The Electric Ladyland Deluxe 50th Anniversary Box Set comes in two formats: 3-CD/one Blu-ray or 6-LP/one Blue-ray. It features a newly remastered Electric Ladyland album; Electric Ladyland: The Early Takes (unreleased demos); Live At The Hollywood Bowl 9/14/68 (unreleased concert); the previously released documentary about the making of the album At Last … The Beginning with 40 minutes of new footage; 5.1 surround sound mix of Electric Ladyland album; Linda McCartney’s original cover photo as chosen by Jimi Hendrix but rejected by the record company; a 48-page book featuring unpublished photos; and new essays by Rolling Stone’sDavid Fricke and Hendrix biographer John McDermott.
CD mastering and the 5.1 surround sound mix were done by Eddie Kramer, sound engineer on all Hendrix albums released during his lifetime. Vinyl mastering was done by Bernie Grundman, who has mastered albums, such as Aja (Steely Dan), Thriller (Michael Jackson) and various Prince records.
Similar to Abbey Road, which couldn’t have been more different from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Electric Ladyland marked a significant change for Jimi Hendrix. Unlike the first two albums by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, where producer Chas Chandler tightly managed the recording process, Hendrix was fully in charge on Electric Ladyland. Recording sessions were no longer determined by Chandler’s tight organization and time management, but by Hendrix’s unconstrained perfectionism. Hendrix also repeatedly invited friends and guests to join him in the studio, such Brian Jones (still with The Rolling Stones at the time), Steve Winwood and Al Kooper. This created oftentimes chaotic recording conditions, which eventually led to Chandler to walk out on Hendrix.
Except for some tracks from the documentary At Last … The Beginning, currently, nothing else from the Electric Ladyland reissue is available on iTunes or Apple Music. I suspect it is similar for other digital or streaming platforms. That’s unfortunate and I assume done by design to encourage purchases of the actual box set. Probably for the same reason, I also couldn’t find any YouTube clips of songs from the reissue. The CD version currently sells for $42.39 on Amazon, while the vinyl configuration is going for $98.39. Here’s a fun clip of Eddie Kramer talking about Electric Ladyland and the new box set.
Macca recently released his 18th solo album Egypt Station and is gearing up for new international tour
Paul McCartney has been pretty busy since June, promoting his new solo album and upcoming Freshen Up Tour. Things peaked with the release of Egypt Station last Friday and a ‘secret’ concert that evening at New York City’s Grand Central Station, which was live-streamed on his YouTube channel.
It all started with the June 10 reboot of Macca’s Instagram page and the subsequent posting of photos over the following days, showing music gear (some with, others without him) and cryptic symbols, clearly suggesting something was up. The title Egypt Station was revealed on Facebook on June 18, Macca’s 76th birthday. The next day saw the official announcement of the first two tracks to be released as a double-A single on June 20. That day, the album’s September 7th release date was unveiled.
On July 3rd, the first dates for the Freshen UpTour in Canada were announced. Numerous additional dates have since been revealed, including in Europe, Japan and the U.S. The latter concerts start in May 2019. Leading up to the album’s launch, Macca also appeared on Howard Stern and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon last Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Calling all of this an elaborate PR campaign is an understatement!
Egypt Station shares its title with one of Macca’s paintings. In a June 20 announcement, he said, “I liked the words ‘Egypt Station.’ It reminded me of the ‘album’ albums we used to make… ‘Egypt Station’ starts off at the station on the first song and then each song is like a different station. So it gave us some idea to base all the songs around that. I think of it as a dream location that the music emanates from.”
Macca’s productivity and energy is remarkable. Egypt Station is his first full album since New from October 2013. In addition to these two pop records, Macca has released two other very different types of records over the past 10 years: his fifth classical album Ocean’s Kingdom (October 2011) and Electric Arguments (November 2008), his third experimental record with The Fireman, a duo he formed in the early ’90s with English record producer and musician Martin Glover, artistically known as Youth. There is also Macca’s collaboration with Kanye West and Rihanna, which resulted in the single FourFiveSeconds in January 2015. Oh, and in-between all these activities, he has been touring frequently.
I managed to write five paragraphs without saying a bloody word about the new record. So what’s the verdict? While I prefer Macca’s 1973 Wings album Band On The Run and his fourth solo release Tug Of War from 1982 and his voice is showing some signs of aging, I am impressed with Egypt Station – of course, as a huge Beatles fan, this is a completely unbiased statement!😀
One of the things I find remarkable about the record is the variety of material ranging from piano-driven ballads, acoustic guitar-focused songs, some pop rockers to even some ambient music. In addition, two of the tunes clock in well over six minutes. One has distinct parts a la Band On The Run, while the second track is a suite of three songs, a concept reminiscent of Abbey Road. Time for some clips!
Here’s the first track Opening Station, an ambient instrumental. All except two tracks on Egypt Station were written by Macca. “When we decided we were gonna call the album ‘Egypt Station’, I liked the idea of making a montage of sounds that were sort of like a station,” he explains in an audio clip on his website. “So we found one station, then we added another to it – the sound effects of real stations. And then we started to add some noises we made up to make it like a dreamscape, so the idea being this kind of dream location, which where all this music was gonna emanate from.”
Immediately following Opening Station it’s on to signature McCartney with the piano-driven I Don’t Know, one of the tracks that also appeared separately ahead of the album. It’s about people having a difficult day, wondering what it is they’re doing wrong. Notes Macca: “Sometimes that’s a good way to write a song, ’cause you’re coming from your soul. We often used to say that writing a song was like talking to a psychiatrist or therapist or something, ’cause you’re saying it, but you’re saying it in a song rather than in a room to a specialist.”
Happy With You is one of the album’s acoustic guitar-focused songs. Noting there were days when he had a lot of free time and would lay around doing nothing and getting “a bit stoned,” Macca explains, “It’s a song about growing up. There’s a period in your life, in some people’s lives, when they’re not being as productive or not being as organized or disciplined as they may later turn out to be.”
One of the rock-oriented songs on the album is Who Cares. Macca says he basically wrote the tune to show compassion to younger people all over the world who get picked on by others.
Things get political without naming names on Despite Repeated Warnings, which Macca co-wrote with OneRepublic lead vocalist Ryan Tedder. “I thought I’ll do a kind of song where I use symbolism,” Mecca points out. “And so the person that is symbolic of certain politicians or people who argue climate change is a hoax, and we know a few…So I thought, ‘okay, it’s a sea captain’, and he’s steering the boat, and he’s gonna go towards the iceberg. But he’s been warned, but he’s going, ’cause he thinks he’s right, and he thinks they’re all making to much of it and the usual arguments.” The 6:57-minute song has various distinct parts and, as such, is a bit reminiscent of Band On The Run.
The last track I’d like to call out is a 6:22-minute three-song suite that closes the album: Hunt You Down/Naked/C-Link. It starts with a rocker, Hunt You Down, links to another “simple song” called Naked, and finally blends into to C-Link, a bluesy instrumental featuring Macca on electric guitar. About the latter he notes, “it’s just me really enjoying playing electric guitar…people often say, ‘why do you still do it?’ I say, ‘coz I love it, I love this thing.’ And I’m still thrilled with having the privilege of being able to go up to an amp, turn it on, get my guitar, plug it in, and play it very loud. Just, it’s a thrill, you know, and it’s never stopped being a thrill…” This commentary very much feels like it comes from Macca’s heart. You can also feel it when you see him during live performances!
Egypt Station appears on Capitol Records and was mostly produced by Greg Kurstin, who has worked with artists like Beck, Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Foo Fighters. Two tracks, Fuh You and bonus track Nothing For Free, were co-produced by Tedder and Zach Skelton. In addition to OneRepublic, Tedder has written and produced for U2, Adele, Beyoncé, Maroon 5, Taylor Swift and many other “hot” contemporary artists. Fortunately, Egypt Station’s sound isn’t too contemporary!
Macca’s Freshen Up Tour kicks off on September 17 in Québec City, followed by shows in Montréal (September 20), Winnipeg (September 28) and Edmonton (September 30), before leading to Japan in late October and Europe thereafter. Currently announced U.S. dates start in New Orleans on May 23, 2019, and also include Raleigh, N.C. (May 27); Greenville, SC (May 30); and Lexington, Ky. (June 1), among others. This year, Macca is also scheduled to perform at Austin City Limits on October 5 and 12.
It’s safe to assume additional U.S. dates will be announced. I’ve been fortunate to see Paul McCartney live twice. Both shows were fantastic and will always stay in my memory. If his Freshen Up Tour comes within reasonable driving distance from my house, I will likely see him a third time!
Sources: Wikipedia, Paul McCartney website and Facebook page, YouTube