Ahem. I’ve been informed that both “Drive My Car” and “Two Of Us” have bass played by George. My bad; should’ve checked. But then both do sound very like McCartney, so I imagine he told George what to play.
I haven’t written about the Beatles for a while, have I? 🙂 Must be time for another worship at the glorious temple that is the Beatle canon. Man, the Fabs are just endlessly playable, aren’t they? If you get a bit tired of one period, another will sound fresh and revitalising. And there’s always something new to savour and relish.
I’ve eulogised Macca in various pieces (like here and here), but let’s take a closer look at precisely why I rate him so highly as a bass player. (His song writing, arrangements and singing will have to wait for another day…)
(This list is by no means complete, nor is it in order!)
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
When you’re young, you usually hear about the Beatles because of Sgt Pepper, and the notoriety of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (“it’s about drugs, innit?”). I’m not so sure – while “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus” are clearly acid-inspired, there seems less direct drug inspiration in prime psychedelic-era Beatles than, say, an album like Incredible String Band’s contemporaneous The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. (Just check out a song like “Three Is A Green Crown“, which is incantatory). “Lucy” seems to me to be more about creating a sound world than re-creating the psychedelic experience. While it’s by no means one of the great songs, the bass-playing shows Macca’s exceptional creativity, and how much thought went into every part of every song. Musicologist Alan Pollack has helpfully annotated the sections:
- First verse: downbeats only;
- First bridge: every beat, largely with repeated notes;
- First refrain: running eighth notes in Baroque fashion;
- Second verse: downbeats only, again;
- Second bridge: every beat, with more in the way of arpeggio outlines;
- Second refrain: running eighth notes, again;
- Third verse: more active and in a less regimented manner than previously;
- Outro: more running eighth notes, this time with arpeggios as well as melodic runs.
What this means for the song is that McCartney’s bass provides an amazing complement to the tune: the refrain (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds! / Ah…“) in particular finds Macca running up and down the fretboard in excited (and exciting) freedom, as the song exults in glorious colour. The arpeggios in the outro (most easily heard at 3.08) similarly add to the sense of overwhelming colour and creativity. (That, and everything being put through a Leslie).
With its distorted (by George) count-in intro (though you can hear the real in-time one from Macca), “Taxman” was taken to inaugurate The Beatles 2.0. While Rubber Soul was an enriching and a broadening, Revolver is an astonishing expansion of the imagination, a spiritual and moral enlightening. Yes, really. With its songs going from death and taxes to a shattering encounter with the mystical, Revolver‘s trajectory is a stunning example of transcendence beyond the earthly. (Yes, really).
“Taxman” opens the album in monochrome. (It will end in dazzling colour). Macca’s bass line drives the song, its thick, thudding sound remaining more active than the guitars, which slash across it. Played prominent (bum-de-bum-bum-bum) in a well-mixed broth (guitars, drums and bass all have room to be heard separately), it is the
first second Beatle song to have the bass as lead instrument (“Rain” was released two months prior, as the b-side to “Paperback Writer”). It is both almost funkily rhythmical and melodically captivating – so much so that The Jam could steal it for their song “Start” and get to #1… fourteen years later!
This is all about bass tone and sound. Though some bass players have a distinctive style (such as Lemmy, Peter Hook or Kim Gordon), in general I prefer the warm, supple, resonant bass sound. It’s just delicious. “Sun King”, though essentially just a mood/atmosphere piece, is a masterclass of bass tone – just admire how warm and rich that sound is. (Though Macca is known for his Hofner “violin” bass, in the recording studio he generally used a Rickenbacker as it allowed greater fluidity). Notable, too, that the bass leads the initial melody: though it’s a Lennon song, Macca frequently embellished Lennon’s sparse tunes with remarkable invention. “Sun King” is a wonderful example of the endless pleasure of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.
Two Of Us
It’s fascinating that most of the best McCartney bass lines are for Lennon songs. Here, though, is one of Macca’s own, a song about his random driving trips with Linda but seems to also act as a lament for a simpler time with Lennon . The song is played with lovely accoustics (though you can hear it emerge through different versions in the Let It Be film – one is a fast, electric version with Lennon and McCartney up close and sharing one microphone – magnetism and sparks fly off them), with numerous exceptional bass parts. During the verse Macca plays a chunky, inflexive line, which is terrific, but he also adds numerous leading moments. Check out the rising scale (at 1.24, the start of the chorus: “You and I have memories…“). Bloody terrific. Note, too, how at the start of each verse (0.04-0.08, 0.43-0.48 for example), the bass line splays all over the guitar, lilting up and down. These kinds of loving detail is precisely what elevates a decent song to a great one. (The vocal melodies are also magnificent).
Drive My Car
The early Beatle songs, like all records of their time, lacked much bass timbre: engineers and producers feared making the needle skip across the record if there was too much vibration. McCartney, perhaps through ego (the kind of thing that made Metallica fuck up the production of …And Justice For All) but hopefully through an awareness that an increased frequency reproduction enriched the listening experience, strove to increase the prominence of his bass on Beatle recordings. We can thank him and the always experimenting George Martin for inaugurating the richer sounds found from the mid-1960s. The Xmas 1965 LP Rubber Soul was the first to demonstrate the Beatles’ broader sound world. Taking their cue from the soul and Rn’B world of James Brown, Stax, Ray Charles, yet filtering it through their own pop sensibility and ironic, Liverpudlian take on the outside world, Rubber Soul was perhaps the first outstanding leap of their musical career. (Incredible that there would be numerous others!)
While the guitars that open the first song “Drive My Car” are trebly and twangy, the bass is suddenly front and centre, and coalesces into a marvellous drum n’ bass arrangement with Ringo. For the first time I think, the rhythm is driving (as it were) the tune. Dig how it ends each line in the verse with the “dun-de-de-de-dun” bit, and how this pops up at the end of the chorus. From now on, Macca’s bass would be one of the most prominent weapons in the Beatle arsenal.
I’ve Got A Feeling
This is a fine example of where Let It Be… Naked is preferable to the Spectorised Let It Be. It’s not just that the orchestration which Spector trowelled on is absent: the individual instruments stand out in stark clarity, as can be immediately heard on the introductory electric piano, while the first harmonised “Oh yeah!” has so much more punch and colour. But what is most memorable here is the sound of Macca’s bass throughout the verses – it’s practically hypnotic, it’s so rich with that fizzy, fuzzy, warm, electric bass sound. You can just about feel the thick bass strings vibrating, the electrons getting tickled and buzzing though the amp. The instrumental break, too, is an utter delight, as Macca plays off the beat (from 2.34, and repeated at 3.08). It is simply magnificent.