This is an extract from the interview that Barry and I did with Paul McCartney for The Bass Book. It took place at McCartney’s studio in Sussex, England: he walked in, picked up a double bass – which I noticed was painted gold – and announced that “my wife Linda” bought it for him as a present and that it used to belong to Elvis Presley’s bassman, Bill Black. He sang two verses of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ by way of getting acquainted.
TB: With The Beatles, you interweaved the voices when you all sang. In the same way, you seemed to get into that kind of idea for the basslines, too, the idea of making independent lines.
PM: Yeah, as time went on, definitely bass, I started to think wow, you know? Once I realised that you didn’t have to just play the root notes – if it was C, F, G then it was normally C, F, G that I played. But I started to realise that you could be pulling on that G, or just staying on the C when it went into F. And then I took it beyond that. I thought well, if you can do that, what else could you do? You might even be able to play notes that aren’t in the chord. I just started to experiment: what could you do?
TB: You wanted to experiment.
PM: It gets very much to where I am at the moment [reader: a reminder, this is at the end of 1994]. I’m writing some classical thing at the moment, and I’m amazed at what clashes you can do in music. Particularly classical: the minute strings get hold of it, it all sounds beautiful. You listen to Stravinsky or something and it’s all [sings grating, clashing sound], but when you hear it – it’s good fun, I’m getting into that at the moment. In fact, I was trying to write something wrong, and it’s actually almost impossible. So you think right, just sit on the bloody piano keys, that’ll be wrong. But it’s an interesting crunch. It depends what you’re writing: if you’re writing classical, that’s actually acceptable. OK, you do actually work out the notes, but it’s as if you’d done that. You put a lot of semitones together, and you just get a sort of orchestral noise.
TB: What’s that for?
PM: It’s a big orchestral piece I’m writing for EMI’s 100th recording anniversary, in 1997. So the question is, what were they recording in 1897? I don’t know, but apparently they were putting out the first wax discs or something.
TB: I’ve seen pictures of Sir Edward Elgar coming out of Abbey Road.
PM: That’s right, yeah. And [sings] oh for the wings, for the wings of a dove – that’s EMI, early recordings. So they’ve been going a long time, and that’s a great musical stretch, you know? But getting back to the bass, that’s what happened: well, maybe you can use different notes. Sevenths instead of the regular notes, or maybe even a little tune through the chords that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Maybe I can have an independent melody.
TB: That happens very much on Sgt Pepper.
PM: Yeah, that was really when I got into that. That was probably what ended up being my strongest thing on bass, the independent melodies. On ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ you could easily have had [sings root-note-type version through first few chords], it’d be like ‘Louie Louie’ or something. Whereas I was going [sings bassline], just running through that. It’s only really as way of getting from C to F, or whatever, but you get there in an interesting way. That became my thing, doing that.
TB: ‘Rain’ has always been one of my favourites.
PM: Yeah … I can’t remember the bassline to that.
TB: You were all over the place! So, in the early days it’s obvious that the bass was just something you had to put in the song, but were you beginning to think I’m a bass player in my own right?
PM: Yeah, from the word go, once I got over the fact that I was lumbered, I did get quite proud to be a bass player, got quite proud of the idea. Once you realised the control you had over the band … you were in control. They can’t go anywhere, man. Ha! Power! I then started to identify with other bass players, talk bass with the guys in the band. In fact, when we met Elvis he was trying to learn bass, so I was like: you’re trying to learn bass are you … son. Sit down, let me show you a few things. So I was very proud of being the bass player. But as it went on and got into that melodic thing, that was probably the peak of my interest.
TB: You were responsible for many people thinking of the bass as a much more acceptable instrument, compared to what you were saying about when you were ‘lumbered’ with it back around 1960.
PM: Yeah, it became a bit more skilful. I wouldn’t personally credit myself, but thanks for that. But part of it, I think James Jamerson, him and me, I’d share the credit there. I was nicking a lot off him. That was the thing, though, it did become a lot more funky instrument; it was becoming almost like a drum, the rhythmic possibilities. It was very exciting, that, and it also gave me something to like keep me interested. The danger with bass is that everybody else has got the interesting jobs and you’re just the last guy to get a part, and literally you get the root notes, two in a bar. But actually now I quite like that, I like the simplicity. Sort of country and western bass playing.
TB: It’s almost like you have to learn the complicated stuff in order …
PM: … to come back, that’s right, to come back to the nice simple stuff. But as I say, I became very proud to be the bass player in The Beatles. The other thing for me that was hard was because some of these parts were independent melodic parts, it became much more difficult to sing, it was like doing this [he pats his head and rubs his stomach]. So I had to put a little special effort into that, which made it very interesting. If you were singing: “She was just seventeen, and going [sings energetic bassline], it was like … I’ve got a friend just recently I saw the other day, and he’s learning stride piano, and he’s got to try and forget his left hand, it’s got to become automatic boogie-woogie, it’s got to play on its own – you can’t be looking at both of them. And that became the skill, I could just learn [sings Seventeen bassline], nicked from Chuck Berry, as I’m sure you know, ‘Talkin Bout You’. I’ve given him credit, though.
TB: It’s like drummers playing four different independent lines.
PM: It’s fantastic, and when you do classical music you do realise how good rock’n’roll is, and r’n’b and stuff. Because you tend to think of it as the poor brother to the cleverer classical … I don’t think of it that way at all. I was saying to someone, if you write classical percussion, you’ll write three or four parts, maybe, but as you say, the drummer is going cht-cht-cht-cht-cht-cht with one hand, donk-de-donk with one foot, sst-sst-sst-sst with the other foot, and then bup-be-bap with the other hand, and it’s very complicated, really. And then he might be singing or something as well: “Talking about boys, yeah yeah, boys.” Ha ha, we used to do girl songs, and Ringo used to do ‘Boys’, which a girl-group had done, The Shirelles I think, and they were singing about boys. And so he sang about boys! Maybe that’s why we got a gay audience, or something. But we didn’t even think about that, it was just a song. The beautiful innocence you had, that was the thing about it, we were just discovering it all, making it up as we went along – and there wasn’t an awful lot of time to think about it, which I think is always a good thing. The more time you’ve got to think about it, the more time you’ve got to worry. I kind of like just trusting your instincts and, right, you’re on: holy shit! Then you’re off.
From Tony Bacon’s interview with Paul McCartney, November 30 1994