Monday, June 18, 2012

Paul McCartney’s Ten Greatest Bass Performances!

Paul McCartney is a songwriter and singer of such astounding gifts that it is sometimes easy to overlook what a spectacular bass player he is too. As he turns 70 today, Psychobabble looks back on ten of the greatest four-string performances he contributed to his first band’s body of work.

1. “Think for Yourself” (1965)

Originally positioned on guitar, Paul McCartney took the role of Beatle bassist when Stuart Sutcliffe resigned in 1961. Though he wasn’t trained on the instrument, his innate sense of melody was present in his work from the words “One, two, three, FAH!” which launched The Beatles’ debut album. McCartney’s early bass work could be quite impressive, especially since he played the Chuck Berry-inspired lines of “I Saw Her Standing There” and the swinging walking pattern of “All My Loving” while singing in perfect pitch. No easy feat. His bass work did not really reach new plateaus until he ditched his hollow Höfner 500/1 for the heavier but more distinct Rickenbacker 4001S. The instrument’s weight may have been the reason Paul passed on the bass when Francis C. Hall of Rickenbacker showed him the model in 1964. The following year, Hall gave his axe another pitch and McCartney bit, possibly because it was now free of charge.

As he continued using the lightweight Höfner on stage to ensure maximum mop-top shaking, McCartney started experimenting with the Rickenbacker in the studio while recording Rubber Soul. There is quite a bit of debate regarding which tracks featured the Höfner and which featured the Rick. It is possible that Paul dubbed both instruments onto George Harrison’s “Think for Yourself”. The track features a standard bassline shadowed by one run through a fuzz box (again, the box is a matter of debate with some insisting that Abbey Road technicians had developed their own pedal and some contending that Paul used a proto-type of the Vox Tonebender). It is quite possible that Paul used the Höfner for the clean, barely detectable line and the Rickenbacker for the more trebly fuzz parts. Some sources claim the fuzz bass is actually a standard six-string Epiphone Casino, but it is unlikely such a guitar could reach the low tones he achieves on “Think for Yourself”. No matter the specifics of its recording, “Think for Yourself” sports a striking bassline that eases the listener through George’s tart chord changes with its uncommon melodic sense.

2. “Rain” (1966)

By the Revolver sessions, Paul had transitioned to the Rickenbacker on nearly every track (he reverted to the Höfner to achieve a soft snore on “I’m Only Sleeping”). Further bass innovation was present in the way the instrument was recorded. New engineer Geoff Emerick schemed to give Paul’s instrument extra push by capturing it through a bass speaker rewired to function as a microphone. The wacky plan was put to the test while cutting the “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” single. It worked, and for the first time, McCartney’s playing really leaps off the vinyl. On both tracks he played almost exclusively at the tippy-top of his bass’ neck, and the high-end notes further distinguished his playing. His work on both tracks is stunning, but its particularly vibrant on “Rain” where he mimics Ringo’s unusually active drumming with acrobatic octave jumps and sudden drizzly garnishes.

3. “Taxman” (1966)

Paul’s inclination toward octave-leaps drives another great George cut. With heavy R&B undertones, McCartney lays down his funkiest rhythm, both lurching and infectiously danceable. We’re all familiar with that iconic line, which has been copied many, many times, but take a fresh listen to the third verse in which he abandons it to discharge fluttering slides up neck.

4. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (1967)

During the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sessions McCartney’s bass was captured in new ways. He learned he could get his cleanest and most distinct sound by bypassing amplifiers completely to inject his instrument into the soundboard directly. With his bass so complimentarily highlighted, and his skills and imagination growing by bounds during the Revolver sessions, he really outdid himself on Pepper’s. Nearly any track could be selected as ample evidence of his four-string prowess. The best example of his great taste and sense of drama may be “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The track begins with rudimentary quarter notes defining each chord change. As it progresses, he embellishes the verses little by little. On the choruses, he cuts loose for a rising line that heightens the exhilaration of Lennon’s cries. On the fade he loses all abandon to rush to the very top of his bass neck to toss off exciting eighth-note ripples.

5. “Hey Bulldog” (1968)

Somewhere between inventiveness and just plain showing off lies “Hey Bulldog”. The harmonic simplicity and expansive rhythm of Lennon’s underrated tune allows McCartney a wide playing field to get goofy on his bass. At times he defers to the track’s central bluesy riff. For the most part he swoops and swings in direct response to Lennon’s acid shrieking. It is a most invigorating dialogue.

6. “Dear Prudence” (1968)

With inter-band tensions at a new height during the “White Album” sessions, Ringo flew the coop to leave kit duties to Paul on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Dear Prudence”. The slight stiffness of the novice drummer’s beat is alleviated by the free swing of his bassline. Paul lassos a backing track comprising numerous guitar overdubs, keeping the glorious overproduction grounded and the melody to the fore.

7. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” (1968)

More rhythmically helter skelter than “Helter Skelter”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” ensured that The Beatles’ rhythm section would have their work cut out for them. When the track begins, it is almost impossible to locate the downbeat. Somehow, Ringo and Paul do it, and by the second verse, everything seems to have fallen into place. But the track keeps building, growing more and more frenzied, approaching its climax when all guitars drop out for cacophonous shouts of “Come on!” Then McCartney howls “Fuck that!” by suddenly thumping out a chromatic run that ushers the whole band back in one grand stroke. Even when taking the backseat on a Lennon track, he couldn’t keep himself from leading the band.

8. “Come Together” (1969)

Paul’s most magnetically lazy bassline since “I’m Only Sleeping” yawns out of track one on the last L.P. The Beatles recorded. On “Come Together” he unleashes all his signatures: octave jumps, punchy string hammers and slides, emphatic palm muting, flashes of chording, moments of pulsing simplicity, and off-hand melodic flourishes. The constant movement of his bass work creates an ear catching counterpoint to Lennon’s somnolent vocal.

9. “Something” (1969)

Everyone was pretty floored when George Harrison unveiled “Something”. The dark horse had been writing songs almost in the same league as his more prolific partners since Revolver. Now he seemed as though he might surpass them, and as a solo artist, he would soon do just that with All Things Must Pass. But first, The Beatles would have their way with his masterful ballad. “Something” is so melodic that it hardly seems to need such a busy bassline. Yet Paul’s work is never distracting. Along with Ringo’s airy drumming, it creates a breathtaking sense of space. Then with typical McCartney-esque drama, it rises and falls all over the place during the final verse, woozy from the song’s grand romanticism.

10. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” (1969)

With Paul McCartney pinning down the bass, there was no way an eight-minute song containing just six words could ever be boring. The guys run through the repetitions, sometimes as straight heavy blues, sometimes as Latin swing. Through it all, Paul treats the neck of his bass like a playground, reserving what may be his most marvelously conceived line of all for the halting sections leading into the “She’s so heavy” choruses. For the seemingly endless vamp that ends the track, he goes bonkers, rolling Bo Diddley runs all over the place. The only way to put an end to the madness is a sudden cold stop.

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