This is an extract from my book Paul McCartney: Playing The Great Beatles Basslines. It’s part of the section that covers McCartney’s golden Sgt Pepper period.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the best Beatles album McCartney made for consistently inventive basslines. Rubber Soul had promise, Revolver hit a lot of high marks, but Pepper does it virtually every time. On many of the Pepper songs, recorded from late 1966 into early 1967, it’s the bass that is the dominant instrument. That’s down to the way it’s played, precisely what McCartney plays, the sound of his bass, and the instrument’s prominence in the mix. Here’s a bass player saying with confidence: this is my style now. He’s aware he’s in control, that he can turn on his creativity whenever he needs it or feels like it. And very often the results are startling.
Both sides of the single the band released at the time, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ / ‘Penny Lane’, were originally intended for the album and were among the first things recorded for it. The bass on ‘Strawberry Fields’ is well played and functional, with a solid feel for phrasing and tone, filling a frequency area within a dense sound picture. ‘Penny Lane’, however, is a revelation. This is the new Sgt Pepper bass style! One of the most significant changes to McCartney’s recording method now was that he would very often tape the bass late in the song’s studio life. Delaying his commitment gave him time to compose an often ornate and always memorable bassline, free from the requirement to get it right from the start.
“I often used to record without the bass,” he recalls of the Pepper sessions, “which George [Harrison] particularly used to get narked at. Because he’d say oh, it doesn’t sound like a band. And I knew what he meant. But I’d written it on guitar [or piano] and I wanted to get the feel of how I’d written it, so I’d often say: ‘Do you mind if we don’t put the bass on? Pretend it’s there, and it’ll give me a chance to put in on after.’”
Engineer Geoff Emerick remembered that during the time they made Sgt Pepper he’d often stay behind in the evenings with McCartney after everyone else had left – McCartney lived nearby at the time – and they’d record the bass part for a song already on tape. Emerick would take McCartney’s bass amp, probably still the Fender Bassman or a Vox solid-state job, and move it out into the middle of Abbey Road’s big studio 2.
The engineer wanted to get more of the room sound around the bass, and would set up his preferred AKG C-12 microphone, sometimes as much as eight feet away from the speaker cabinet and often in ‘figure of eight’ format. This switched the mic’s response pattern so that it picked up as much from behind as in front, enhancing that room sound. Emerick would usually compress the bass, too, which as we’ve seen ‘squeezes’ the result so that the louder sounds are quieter and the quieter sounds louder, giving a smooth overall effect and bringing the bass guitar forward in the mix.
“You can hear on some of the Pepper tracks that there is a slightly different quality about the bass,” said Emerick. “The original 4-track machines were one-inch [tape], so every track was a quarter-inch wide and there was no noise. The quality of the bass on those numbers was outstanding.” He added: “To me, at that time, it was the ultimate bass sound. I couldn’t improve it.”
Emerick gave the bass another lift at the mixing stage. “When I was mixing – and [early Beatles engineer] Norman Smith taught me this – the last instrument you bring in is the bass. So through Pepper everything was mixed without hearing the bass. I used to bring everything to -2 on the VU meter and then bring the bass in and make it go to 0, so it meant the bass was 2dB louder than anything on the record. It was way out in front, the loudest thing on the record.”
Back to ‘Penny Lane’. There were days of sessions for the song, first of all recording McCartney’s multiple pianos, then vocals, then more piano, guitars, and vocals – and only then the bass and drums, followed by brass, woodwind, and bell overdubs and the famous solo trumpet. A number of ‘reductions’, or mixdowns, had to be made from one full 4-track to a single track of another so that all the necessary overdubs could be accommodated. The reborn Beatles, now a recording group only, were striding out into their new sound-world.
The bass playing on ‘Penny Lane’ is a classic McCartney conjunction: a beautiful, craftsmanlike job plus completely fresh ideas added along the way. It is a precursor of more good-taste basslines to come. Listen how he edges towards a counter-melody, contrasting the walking and non-walking sections.
But all that work to build up the instruments has made for a curious sound picture, the more peculiar the deeper you dig. Note the carefully deployed semitone trill on the bass, first at 0:10-0:17 and again later (for example at 0:59). And what about those double-stops at 0:42? Oddest of all, however, must be the bowed double-bass, audible (just) around 2:04. They brought in sessionman Frank Clarke to play this briefest of brief drop-ins. What on earth for? “They wanted me to play one note over and over, for hours,” complained an exasperated Clarke.
As they had on ‘Rain’, The Beatles and their studio team used varispeeding on the bass (and some other instruments) on ‘Penny Lane’, giving a very slightly speeded-up result. They did it again, in the other direction, for the bass on ‘Lovely Rita’, with the released version ending up just sharp of E-flat. McCartney probably played the original part in E. And what a part! He goes back and forth between a triadic approach (using notes that form the chord) and a scalar approach (using notes from the parent scales). There’s a great sense of exuberance and fun as the bass constantly moves the song along. It’s clearly the principal melodic instrument here, a hallmark of so many Pepper songs. And before we leave ‘Rita’, have a listen to that wonderfully leftfield repeated phrase at the very end (from 2:12).
Can it get any better? On ‘Getting Better’ McCartney plays less overall than he might have done on a Revolver-era piece, although by the fourth and fifth choruses he’s subtly embellishing around the accents. But generally he recognises the different requirement here, and his arranger’s ear keeps him in check most of the time. He’s orchestrating the part, thinking carefully about the impact of what notes he should play, how he should shape them, and where precisely they should go. There’s a bottom-end clarity helped by Emerick’s late-night efforts with the middle-of-the-room amp and the compressor, and by the improved tone of the Rickenbacker. “Round about the time of Sgt Pepper I definitely was using the Rickenbacker quite a lot,” says McCartney.
A massive interval leap characterises the verse part of ‘Getting Better’ (two octaves, G-to-G, first heard at 0:08). This is about as big a jump as you can make on a four-string bass, and marks his increasing use of extreme range on the instrument, knowing that the Rick can handle it. More wonderful ideas stream from his bass on ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’. This is lead bass playing! But it’s not over-busy, nor is it extravagant for the sake of it. He works some tasteful licks around the vocal line, supporting and melodic in the verses, less colourful in the choruses. Again, you can tell that he’s spent a good deal of thought on his note choices and how and where to play them. Listen especially for that high fill at 0:46.
There’s nothing flash or self-conscious about the tasteful bassline for ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, a remarkable piece of bass work, especially the chorus groove, first heard from 0:51. ‘Lucy’ like most of this record’s songs had the bass recorded relatively late. It took only two days to record this one, which counted as quick for Pepper. The group recorded a basic track on the first day, with drums but without bass, and then on day two added varispeeded vocals. A composite of early takes released on Anthology 2 reveals the relatively complete yet bass-less picture. Only after all that was done was the carefully considered bass added, virtually the last piece of work to be recorded onto the multitrack tape.
“It was much better for me to work out the bass later, you know,” McCartney said as he chatted to producer George Martin about ‘Lucy’ in a film on the making of Sgt Pepper. “The good thing about doing it later is it allowed me to get melodic bass lines.” Martin agreed, saying: “All the bass lines were always very interesting,” to which McCartney replied: “On this album I think that [adding the bass later] was one of the reasons.”
With pieces like ‘Lucy’ McCartney created his own personal bass style. He’s not a jazz head, like James Jamerson at Motown, nor does he go mad like Jack Bruce or John Entwistle might have done with the same material. He was certainly aware of all those players, as ever listening widely and absorbing what was going on around him.
Jamerson was still doing remarkable things with his Fender Precision Bass. There are many classic bass parts in the Motown canon, not least Jamerson’s work on Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Was Made to Love Her’, ‘Reach Out’ by The Four Tops, and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ by The Supremes. Entwistle, at work in The Who, had come to fellow musicians’ notice at the end of 1965 with his astonishing bass breaks on ‘My Generation’, and was continuing to shake up the bass ground. Bruce defined a new style of rock bass playing on Cream’s extended live outings, a direction followed with relish by Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead and Jack Casady in Jefferson Airplane.
But McCartney had defined the bassman’s territory in the first place, and now he’d found his own distinctive voice, one with which he spoke loudly and clearly throughout Sgt Pepper. “It did become a lot more of a funky instrument,” he says of his bass playing in the late 1960s. “It was becoming almost like a drum, the rhythmic possibilities. It was very exciting, that. And I became very proud to be the bass player in The Beatles.”