Paul McCartney, Accidental Bassist Extraordinaire

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 Beatles 1960 Lineup
The Beatles’ lineup in 1960 (from left): John Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe

“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?”

Stuart Sutcliffe with Hofner
Stuart Sutcliffe with his 1959 Hofner 500/5 semi-hollow bass

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.”

Macca with Bass and Capo
Paul McCartney on the cover of Beat Instrumental magazine, with his Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a capo, together with George Martin and George Harrison

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.”

Macca Key Bass Guitars
Paul McCartney with his two signature bass guitars, a Hofner 500/1 violin bass and a Rickenbacker 4001S

“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.

Sources: Wikipedia, Reverb, YouTube

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Happy Birthday, Ringo

At 78, Sir Richard Starkey continues to rock

As a huge fan of The Beatles, I simply did not want to ignore that Ringo Starr turned 78 years today. Yes, when you think of the Fab Four, it’s fair to say John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison come to mind first due to their amazing songwriting and singing. And, yes, Ringo is no John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker (thank goodness, I don’t think The Beatles would have lasted very long with a volatile character like Baker, as much as a drum genius as he was!). But I also firmly believe The Beatles wouldn’t have been the same without Ringo. And, frankly, based on many accolades he has received from the likes of Dave Grohl, Jim Keltner, Steve Smith and others, Ringo certainly isn’t a shabby drummer!

In this post I don’t want to focus on recapping Ringo’s life, which I did on a couple of previous occasions, for example here. Instead, I’d like to celebrate his birthday in a way that is more fun than reading stuff: Seeing Sir Starkey in action, based on recent YouTube clips.

Let’s kick it off with a great rockabilly tune recorded by Carl Perkins in December 1956: Matchbox. Ringo shows us how it’s done at age 78 – sorry, he was actually only 77 years old at the time of that performance! Steve Lukather and Gregg Rolie are throwing in some nice guitar and keyboard solos!

It Don’t Come Easy was Ringo’s first single from April 1971, released following the breakup of The Beatles. It’s one of the few tunes Ringo doesn’t only sing but for which he also has sole writing credits, though he did have a little help from his friend and former band mate George!

Don’t Pass Me By is Ringo’s first solo composition and among the handful of tunes he got to sing while he was with The Beatles. According to Wikipedia, he first introduced the song to John, Paul and George after he had joined the band in 1962. Eventually, it was recorded during four separate sessions in June and July 1968 and appeared on The Beatles, aka The White Album, which came out in November that year. BTW, you just got to love Ringo’s good sense of humor when announcing the track. The German audience clearly enjoyed it!

Here’s another another fun tune: Boys! Written by Luther Dixon and Wes Farrell, and originally recorded by the Shirelles in November 1960, the song was first included by The Beatles on Please Please Me, their debut album from March 1963. I also dig the version that’s on the At The Hollywood Bowl live album, released in May 1977.

Of course, no Ringo playlist would be complete without With A Little Help From My Friends. Credited to Lennon and McCartney, the song appeared on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from May 1967 and was the only tune on that album, featuring Ringo on vocals. In the below clip, he surely did have a little help from some fabulous musicians. Like all of the other footage in this post, it shows Ringo during recent performances with his All Starr Band. Very fittingly, they’re also throwing in a little bit of Lennon’s Give Peace A Chance at the end.

In addition to the aforementioned Lukather (guitar, vocals) and Rolie (keyboards, vocals), the current lineup of the All Starr Band features Colin Hay (guitar, vocals), Graham Gouldman (bass, vocals), Warren Ham (percussion and saxophone) and Gregg Bissonette (drums).  Ringo and the band are currently on the road and are about to wrap up touring Europe. They will next bring their show to the U.S. starting Sep 1 in Tulsa, Olka. According to the current schedule, dates include New York (Sep 13), Boston (Sep 17) and Chicago (Sep 22), among others. The U.S. leg of the tour will wrap up in L.A. on Sep 29. Now, that’s another show that’s tempting to me!

Sources: Wikipedia, Ringo Starr official website, YouTube

My Playlist: Joe Cocker

Earlier this week, a post from fellow music blogger hotfox63 reminded me of Joe Cocker and made me go back and listen to some of his music, which I had not done in a long time. I’ve always liked the English singer for his distinct rough voice and excellent covers, especially With A Little Help From My Friends. Cocker truly made the tune his own; in fact, I prefer it over the original by The Beatles, and I say this as a huge fan of The Fab Four. From my rediscovery of Cocker it was only a small step to put together this post and playlist.

Cocker was born as John Robert Cocker on May 20, 1944 in the old British steel town of Sheffield, England. While growing up there, his key musical influences were Ray Charles and “skiffle king” Lonnie Donegan. At the age of 16, Cocker co-founded his first band The Cavaliers, together with three friends. Following the group’s break-up, he adopted the stage name Vance Arnold and performed with a new band called Vance Arnold and the Avengers. They mostly played at local pubs in Sheffield, focusing on Chuck Berry and Ray Charles tunes. In 1963, the band opened for The Rolling Stones at Sheffield City Hall.

Joe Cocker_I'll Cry Instead

In 1964, Cocker got his first record contract with Decca and released his debut single, a cover of The Beatles song I’ll Cry Instead. One of the backing musicians on that recording was a then 20-year-old session guitarist called Jimmy Page. Despite vigorous promotion by Decca, the single was a flop. After the setback, Cocker dropped his stage name and formed Joe Cocker’s Blues Band. The group was short-lived and Cocker took a one-year hiatus from music. In 1966, he re-emerged and together with session musician Chris Stainton formed The Grease Band. That group came to the attention of producer Denny Cordell.

Cordell, who worked with Procol Harum and The Moody Blues, among others, secured Cocker a residency at London’s Marquee Club, where he performed with a revamped lineup of The Grease Band. Cocker’s breakthrough came in October 1968 when he released his cover of With A Little Help From My Friends. Among others, the recording featured Procul Harum drummer B.J. Wilson, session keyboarder Tommy Eyre and guitar work from Page. The tune hit no. 1 on the UK Singles Chart on November 9, 1968.

Joe Cocker at Woodstock

With A Little Help From My Friends also became the title track of Cocker’s debut album, which appeared in May 1969, three months prior to his acclaimed performance at Woodstock. Over a 40-year-plus recording career, he went on to release 21 additional studio records. Cocker’s discography also includes 11 live albums and numerous compilations. On December 22, 2014, he passed away from lung cancer at the age of 70. Time to get to some music!

Kicking off this playlist is Cocker’s first single I’ll Cry Instead. I just totally dig this cover, especially the double bass, and similar to With A Little Help From My Friends like it better than the original.

Next up: The mesmerizing performance of With A Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock.

She Came In Through The Bathroom Window is another excellent Beatles cover. Cocker recorded it on his sophomore album Joe Jocker! which appeared in November 1969.

In August 1974, Cocker released his forth studio album I Can Stand A Little Rain. It was produced by Jim Price, who had previously been a trumpet player in Cocker’s touring band. Here is I Get Mad, a co-write by Cocker and Price with a nice soul grove. I Can Stand A Little Rain became Cocker’s highest-charting album of the 70s in the U.S., peaking at no. 11 on the Billboard 200.

By 1976, Cocker was highly indebted and struggling with alcoholism. In April that year, he released Stingray, his final album for A&M Records. It includes the excellent slow blues Catfish, which was co-written by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy.

Next up: Seven Days, another outstanding cover of a Dylan tune, appearing on Sheffield Steel. Cocker’s eighth studio album from May 1982 is a gem in his catalog. Here’s a nice live version of the track, captured during an August 1993 show in Germany, which I recall watching on TV at the time.

In April 1986, Cocker’s 10th studio album Cocker appeared. Fueled by the hit singles You Can Leave Your Hat On and Don’t You Love Me Anymore, it became a major success.  Here is You Can Leave Your Hat On, which was written by Randy Newman and initially became popular after its use in the steamy motion picture 9 1/2 Weeks. I love the horns and honky tonk style piano in this tune.

Have A Little Faith In Me is the title track of Cocker’s 14th studio album released in September 1994. This beautiful tune was written by John Hiatt. The gospel choir is one of the song’s outstanding features.

Cocker’s 17th studio album No Ordinary World appeared in Europe and the U.S. in September 1999 and August 2000, respectively. One of standouts is a great version of the Leonard Cohen tune First We Take Manhattan. Originally, the song was recorded by Jennifer Warnes on her 1986 Cohen tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat. In July 1982, Cocker and Warnes had recorded the chart-topping ballad Up Where We Belong, which was part of the soundtrack to the film An Officer And A Gentleman.

I’d like to conclude this playlist with the title track from Cocker’s 18th studio album Respect Yourself released in July 2002. The song was co-written by Stax recording artists Luther Ingram and Stax house songwriter Mack Rice, and first recorded by The Staple Singers in 1971. Here is a great live version of Cocker’s rendition during a 2002 concert in Germany.

Cocker was ranked at no. 97 on Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. “He brought Ray Charles to the mix as an influence on rock & roll,” said Steve Van Zandt in the accompanying narrative.

Sources: Wikipedia, Rolling Stone, YouTube