Interview: Paul McCartney on His Life as a Bassist | Bacon's Archive

Paul McCartney (1965). Photo by: Express / Stringer, Getty Images.

Editor's note: This post is part of a series of unpublished interviews from the personal research archive of noted guitar writer Tony Bacon. These interviews will be appearing on Reverb in the coming months.

Stay tuned for more interviews from Bacon's Archive coming soon. For previous installments, take a look at Tony's interviews with Tom Petty and Chet Atkins, as well as a deeper look into the recording of Sgt. Pepper's.

I met Paul McCartney at his studio for this interview as part of my research for the first edition of The Bass Book. In November 1994, my co-author Barry Moorhouse and I found ourselves motoring a few hours out of London to the converted mill in East Sussex that houses Macca HQ.

There was no doubt where we were: an old map of Liverpool there on the wall, a yellow sticky here on the noticeboard with a note to ring George Martin, a big gold-painted double bass propped in the corner.

Paul walked in, shook hands, and took up the double bass, announcing that Linda had bought it for him as a present and that it used to belong to Elvis Presley’s bassman Bill Black. He then sang two verses of "Heartbreak Hotel" by way of getting acquainted. It was clear this was going to be a particularly enjoyable interview.

You met Elvis, didn’t you?

Elvis was the guy. He ended up a complete plonker, unfortunately—he turned in the end, wanted to become a Federal drug marshal. But I did love him in the early days, and yes, when we met him, that’s the period I remember. I don’t bother when you go into Vegas and the rhinestones and all that—it’s like he didn’t exist from then on for me.

The ‘50s Sun records are great.

Yeah. I heard them this summer—haven’t heard them for years—and I was blown away. I suddenly realized the last time I listened to this thoroughly was before The Beatles, before all that happened to me, and it just stripped it all away. It was like I was a kid playing snooker again and listening. It actually got me crying, pow. Really did it to me. And I could remember all the words, [sings] "Hold me close, hold me tight …" [from "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"].

Elvis Presley - "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You"

And my kids were like, Dad, you know all the words to this stuff? You better believe it. And I thought, Well, I once was a kid like this, before all The Beatles thing, and now you live with the whole legacy of The Beatles, and it’s great. You could do a lot worse. But you know what I mean? Just the idea of that was fantastic—I was 17 again. Not a bad feeling when you’re 52 [speaking in 1994]. Anyway, what do you want to talk about? I’m nattering on here.

I’d like to talk about you as a bass player, going back as far as we can. I apologize in advance for wanting to go back such a long way…

No, I’m happy to go back, as you just heard. People think, Oh, you’ve had so many questions about The Beatles you must be fed up. I love it. It was a great period of my life. I don’t mind. I’m proud of it. I think what it was, near the breakup of The Beatles, we didn’t want to hear about "Beatles" because it was painful. Now there’s enough time gone. But my bass-playing days go back to when Stuart was the bass player with his big Hofner.

You started out as a guitar player.

Yeah, I did. We all started together when we were kind of kids, early teens—I would have been about 15 or something. My dad bought me a trumpet for one of my birthdays, because a trumpet was kind of a heroic instrument at that time, "The Man With The Golden Arm" and all that. I liked it, and he’d been a trumpet player so he showed me a bit of trumpet.

People think oh, you’ve had so many questions about The Beatles you must be fed up. I love it! It was a great period of my life. I don’t mind. I’m proud of it."

But I realized I couldn’t sing with the trumpet, and I wanted to sing as well, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I traded it in for a guitar. He said fine—he was very understanding—an amateur musician himself. He had a little band called Jim Mac’s in the ‘20s. So I went down and got a Zenith guitar, which I’ve still got around somewhere, quite nice, and I learned on that.

What about your left-handedness?

I realized this when I got the Zenith home, that it was right-handed and I was left-handed. I didn’t know what you did about that—there were no rule books—nobody talked about being left-handed. So I tried it this way and I couldn’t get any rhythm because it was all the wrong hand doing it. And then I saw a picture of Slim Whitman in one of the music papers, and I just noticed, hang on, he’s got the guitar on the wrong way round. Oh. This is OK. And I found out he was left-handed, so I thought, that’s good, you can have it the other way round. Then I changed the strings round.

I never could change the nut—I was not a tech—so I would just change the strings round. The sixth string always had a fat hole, so the first string would have to go into it. We’d chop a little bit of a match off, stick that in there, and that would kind of lift the nut enough. And then you had to hollow out a bit of the nut to get the bass string in, because that kept slipping out.

So you did your own technical work [laughs]. High precision [still laughing]—a very do-it-yourself affair. But it eventually worked, and it would hold all the strings, that was the main thing, because if you clouted it, it would just come off.

So that was the first thing. I used to play guitar. Then I met John and George round about the same time. George used to get on the bus. I was one-and-a-half years older than George, so he was the younger guy getting on the bus one stop after my stop. It was probably his haircut or something, I thought well, he’s a bit groovy. He had what we used to call a bit of a Tony Curtis, greased back, you know? So I’d think well, he’s probably all right to talk to.

We got chatting on the bus and he had an interest in guitars like I did, and music. Turned out he was going to try to make one, going to make a little solidbody Hawaiian, which was a good place to start. You didn’t have to get into the hollowbody or anything, which was very difficult. And he did that, and we kind of hung out and became good friends. He did that Hawaiian thing and it wasn’t bad. Real high action, of course.

Meanwhile I’d met John through another friend of mine, and he’d asked me to join The Quarrymen, which was the very first group. So I did that, and I kind of went in first of all as lead guitarist, really, because I wasn’t bad on guitar. And when I wasn’t on stage I was even better. But when I got up on stage at the very first gig I totally blew it. I had never experienced these things called nerves before.

Was this still with your Zenith?

This was still with the Zenith, yeah. Might have got a pickup on it by then… yes, I did, I got a little pickup and a little wire, bought the pickup separately, tried to gash it on there. But I was playing "Guitar Boogie" [sings riff] and I knew it fine off-stage, like I say, but on stage my fingers all went very stiff and then found themselves underneath the strings instead of on top of them.

So I vowed that night that it was the end of my career as the lead guitar player. I just thought I’ll lean back. So me and John kind of both did that around that same time, both became rhythm guitarists.

And I knew George, as I said, and we were kind of looking for a lead guitarist, so I got George in. So that meant there were three of us on guitar at that time, on and off—the nucleus of us was just three acoustic guitars.

We did a few auditions like that—and sometimes John wouldn’t even have his guitar. He had one of those "Guaranteed Not To Split" guitars that were advertised in the back of the Daily Mirror [newspaper]. That was his main claim to fame. So maybe it had split.

What guitar did you take with you to the band’s first gigs in Hamburg?

I bought a Rosetti Solid 7 [electric]. It was a terrible guitar. It was really just a good-looking piece of wood. It had a nice color or something, some paint job, but it was a disastrous guitar. Cheap. I bought that in Liverpool and took it out to Hamburg. My dad had a big thing against hire purchase, on the never-never as we called it, he’d lost money that way, and so he was very keen that you shouldn’t do that. So I had to buy something really cheap to persuade him that I could do it.

That fell apart when I got to Hamburg—the Rosetti—the sweat and the damp and the getting knocked around, falling over, and stuff.

Can you remember buying it?

Yes, in Hessy’s [music store in Liverpool]. It seemed nice at the time, but obviously, as I say, it didn’t perform very well, and eventually... because you couldn’t always get things, we were playing in a little club and there wasn’t immediately a music shop. You had to go into the town of Hamburg to get strings, new equipment.

We’d always go into Steinway’s, which is where John found first of all a [Hofner] Club 40—him and George got Club 40s [actually both acquired in Liverpool], which was one step up from where we’d been, and then John found a Rickenbacker, which was like boom. We’re there.

Because you couldn’t really get Rickenbackers in England. It was like the clothes thing in Hamburg—there were different clothes, so you’d buy up a few little outfits, come back to England, and it’d be like, Bloody hell! Where d’you get that? Oh [haughty voice], I’ve been abroad. We had some natty jackets with suede collars, and we came back with some bits of equipment. I didn’t really, until my guitar bust. I then turned to the piano—this is in Hamburg.

Stu Sutcliffe was on bass?

Stu was on bass. Stu had got a grant—he’d won a painting competition. The prize was 75 quid. We said to him, That’s exactly the price of a Hofner.

By some coincidence.

He said, I can’t, I can’t, it’s for painting—I’m supposed to buy paints and stuff. Well, Stu... We managed to persuade him over a cappuccino at the Casbah, Pete Best’s mum’s club, in West Derby. We’d kind of helped to make the club, a coffee bar—there were painted stripes on the wall and we’d painted a stripe each—everyone was doing that. It was a nice little hang out.

I remember when it opened we were sitting around a table—me, John, Stu, maybe George—and persuaded Stu to do this, which he did. So he bought the giant Hofner, again at Hessy’s or Rushworths in Liverpool. Those were the two, depending on who had it in stock. You had the little book, paying in each week, like a Christmas club or something.

The Hofner kind of dwarfed Stu a bit. 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?

Any of our mates could look at the group and spot it. Any of the good groups around—Kingsize Taylor & The Dominoes, The Big Three, Faron’s Flamingos—any of those guys who were in groups like us would just spot it: Bass player’s not much. There was no kidding people from Liverpool, or kids of that age. They don’t mess around. It was just: Lousy bass player, man. So that was always a little bit of a problem, you know?

We sometimes used to tell him to turn away when we were doing pictures, because he sometimes wasn’t in the same key we were in. We always used to look. I still do. That was one of the things we used to love about guys in the audience: The girls would look at us. The guys would look at the chords. You’d nudge each other—look, hey, this guy down here. He’d be looking deadly serious at you. You could see him copping all the chords.

So, Stu was suddenly there just because he could afford the bass, and none of us could. None of us wanted to be the bass player. It wasn’t the number one job. Nobody wanted to play bass, they wanted to be up front.

The bass player was normally a fat guy who stood at the back. 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.

And then Stu didn’t come back from one of the Hamburg trips.

That’s right, we were in Hamburg and Stu had fallen in love with this girl Astrid. Stu had his bass and he used to let me use it a little bit, upside down, if he wouldn’t come in one night to the club. And eventually he said, Well, I’m gonna stay here with Astrid and we’re gonna hitch up and stuff—I’m gonna stay here and paint.

So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me. I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it better be you then."

So it was like oh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned round and looked at me. 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, 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.

Did Stu keep hold of his own bass?

No, he lent me it for a week or so. 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. I liked its lightness. So I bought it, and I think it was only about 30 quid.

I’ve had a couple over the years. It’s actually very difficult to remember what they were. I’ve still got one [his second Hofner bass] which is from the Beatles days, one I actually use now on tour [speaking in 1994], and I’ve had some technical work done on that. Last year Mandolin Brothers in New York did some serious good work, actually put it in tune for the first time in its life, did a deadly serious job.

My man John [tech John Hammel] took it out—sort of sat there, like a pilgrimage almost—but this guy did it, and right up the top of the neck is in tune now. Usually the E could be in tune but the third fret G on the bass string was always a little bit sharp, so as soon as you went to the third fret it was a little bit sharp. I was using it on a big tour, so it was a bit embarrassing. I hadn’t used it for a long time for that reason, but I got it all sorted.

So now you were the bass player, with a Hofner of your own.

That was it. I had the bass. I was now the bass player in the group, and I kind of took it from there. We weren’t deadly serious, not very fussy, and we used to hope that the producer didn’t hear if you made a mistake.

Now you say, I must own up—it’s all so bloody righteous now—but then it was shhhh [puts finger to lips]. "If he doesn’t notice, it was all right." And often he didn’t. [Adopts posh George Martin-type accent.] "Marvelous boys, marvelous, good take."

I’m not gonna tell him if you don’t, you know? It was rough and ready, but then all the early records were anyway. That was the spirit, and they still sound good. There’s a lot of spirit to them. Emerging talent [laughs], raw energy! You can hear we were gonna get somewhere.

I believe you got your Rickenbacker bass on a Beatles U.S. tour in summer ’65.

We were getting quite famous—obviously once we got to America we were quite famous—and Mr. Rickenbacker kind of arrived and said, Paul, we have a bass. Oh, great! Freebie. Thank you very much.

That’s just about how I remember it, about as slimly as that. Very difficult to remember much off the Beatle tours, see, because when you weren’t playing you were off, and you were either being whisked around or having a party. Actually remembering it the morning after was difficult—to remember what you’d done—never mind 30 years after. I just remember them giving it to me. They invited us down to the factory, which I never made—I never got down there—it was a little bit out of LA, I think.

But I liked the instrument a lot, and the main thing for me was just playing it, that’s my thing. I’m not technical. I like getting hold of them, and my attention was on that, not on what serial number it is or who gave me it or when.

I put it all into the instrument. I became fond of that instrument and then used to use either of them, just to vary it a little bit, and round about the time of Sgt. Pepper, I definitely was using the Rickenbacker quite a lot.

Did you have to adapt to get used to the Rick? Presumably it felt quite large compared to the Hofner.

Quite heavy, yeah. I’m a tough guy [laughs], a rough tough cream-puff. It was heavier, yeah, but not that heavy. So you just got used to it. It was a slightly different style, and it stayed in tune better—that was the great thing. Because that had been a major problem with the Hofner. I liked everything about it, but it was embarrassing if you weren’t quite in tune for something, you know? You could have such an effect over the whole group. Normally you were sort of buried in mixes. It wasn’t until later that the bass and drums came up in the mix.

It seems to be around Rubber Soul that you start to hear the basslines a bit more.

That’s right, yeah.

And that coincided with the arrival of the Rickenbacker.

Yeah, it did. Also, it coincided with us being allowed in the control room. It was very much us-and-them in the beginning, where you just entered by the tradesman’s entrance, set your stuff up, did your session, and left by the tradesman’s entrance. We were hardly ever asked to come up to the control room. Maybe at the end of a session. [Adopts posh voice again.] "Would you like to come up and hear it, boys?" [Switches to young awed voice.] "Oh could we? Thank you, mister."

It was really like that?

Oh yes, very much so. Tradesman’s entrance. You never entered through the studio until years later. And engineers had to wear shirts and ties. No trousers [laughs]. And all the maintenance men had white coats, very BBC.

Someone once described Abbey Road then as the Ministry of Recording, as if it were a government institution.

Yeah, it was very like that. But it was not such a bad thing, in fact. Because it was so organized, and there was not really any element of laidback about it. There were just the three main sessions of the day—that was how everyone worked.

Can you remember when you first used the Rickenbacker?

In a word, no. We’d just show up at the sessions and me and John would show the guys how it went, and we’d just say, What are you gonna use then? And I might say, Ah, I’ll use the Ricky for this, but it could have easily swung any way.

I just wouldn’t remember what the first track was. The Ricky seemed a little heavier, not just literally heavier, but it played a little more solid than the Hofner. It sounded a little clearer.

You gave your Rickenbacker a psychedelic paint job. How long did that last?

That was around the time of Magical Mystery Tour, and then I took all that off.

Did you do that yourself?

Yeah, I got out the old aerosols. We did the cars, too. If you did the cars, you might as well do your guitars. It looked great, and it was just because we were tripping. That’s what it was, man. Look at your guitar and you’d trip even more.

Have a look at this magazine cover. [I show Paul a copy of Beat Instrumental magazine from January 1966.]

Cor, don’t we look gorgeous.

On that cover, you’ve got a capo on the Rickenbacker’s neck.

Yeah, I know. What am I doing there?

I was hoping you’d tell me.

I’ll do anything. The thing with the bass on a lot of this stuff was that you’ll try anything once. So, I’ll try a capo on a bass. I often do that on guitar when I’m writing a song, stick a capo on just so that it’s a different instrument to the one I normally play. Everything all goes up a little bit and goes more tinglier, and you get a song that reflects that.

So that may well have been that we’d written it on guitars in a certain key, so I only knew it in a certain key, maybe. I don’t know. Maybe to get a higher sound. 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.

We were very keen—unlike people now—we were keen that every track sounded different. We thought in singles, see? People now think in albums, in fact, they think in CDs [speaking in 1994]. We thought in singles, so when John and I wrote, we were always writing singles. So our albums, right up to Sgt. Pepper or something, were albums of singles. These were all the ones that could be pulled off for a single. It was like numbers going in a hat, and someone might pull your number out. Bit of a lottery really, Oh, I’m the single, great.

"Get Back," "Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane," whatever. So we were always thinking in terms of singles, and it would be very boring if all your singles sounded the same. It was like, The Supremes we always thought were a bit boring. It always sounded like the same song almost, or very near. They were trying to keep the Motown-Supremes sound.

Well, we always weren’t trying to keep the Beatles sound. We were always trying to move on. That was why we always did a lot of [slaps legs], that might be the drums, [hits the table], that might be the drums, or the kit might be the drums, or it was, "Don’t use your cymbals on this one," "No echo on this one," whatever. We were always trying to get a new sound on every single thing we did.

And the bass followed that idea as well?

Yeah, things like the capo, tuning it down, not using that bass but using this, trying to get more of a melodic sound instead of just using the root notes.

That seems to get more noticeable around Rubber Soul time, and "Michelle" always strikes me as a good, melodic bassline, quite thought-out.

It actually was thought up on the spot. Yeah! Because you didn’t have much time, you had to think on your feet—that was the thing. I would never have played "Michelle" on bass until I had to record the bassline. Bass isn’t an instrument you sit around and sing to. I don’t, anyway. Because I was really a guitarist originally, even now I’ll just pull my Martin out, and I write on a Martin or a piano.

No, that was the first day, and we did the acoustics, showed the guys the chords and stuff, and then—in fact, I often used to record without the bass, which George [Harrison] particularly used to get narked at. He’d say, Oh, it doesn’t sound like a band. And I knew what he meant. But I’d written it on guitar 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 it on after.

And I’d play like the piano in "Lady Madonna" or something, because that was where the feel was. Rather than saying to John, Can I teach you this? Something like "Lady Madonna," he couldn’t have learned. Easy stuff he was very good at. On "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" John plays piano—that’s a great moment.

The Beatles - "Lady Madonna"

He came in—we were all rather sort of stale on it—I’d been rehearsing, and he was late, he came in. "What we doing, what we doing!" I says, "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and instead of him picking up his guitar, he went [sings intro and opening bars] and we all went fucking hell! I thought we were gonna hit the roof, and that became the total vibe of it all. And then I put the bass on after [sings bassline] and then double-tracked it with an acoustic guitar.

That’s a cool idea, an octave up from the bass, playing exactly the same. And acoustic. We used to drive the meters right into the red—in those days you could defeat machines. Nowadays they’re so bloody good they’re difficult to defeat. Even if you do that, the machine goes, I can handle it. With the old machines, they used to go, Aghhhhh! So you could make acoustics sound like electrics by overdriving the machines. Instead of [sings mild version of "Ob-La-Di" riff] it was [sings heavier version]. It toughens it up.

How about "Michelle"?

I remember that opening six-note phrase against the descending chords—that was like, oh, a great moment in my life. Because, as I say, you had to think on your feet, and I was just playing all the normal chords, whatever it was—I play those all pretty straight—but then it got to that little descending part.

I think I had enough musical experience after years of playing, and off of my dad—he felt music very well—so it was just in me. I just realized I could do that. It’s quite a well known trick, to do that. I’m sure jazz players have done that against a descending sequence, but wherever I got it from, the back of my brain somewhere said, Do that, it’s a bit cleverer for the arrangement, and it’ll really sound good on those descending chords.

You just ad-libbed it, you just came in. There was never any technical stuff. OK, shall we put a guitar solo on it, boys? Do some harmony? Nobody had a cup of tea and sat around and thought about it. You’d immediately walk over to the piano with George Martin and he’d say, "What was the melody you were singing, Paul? This would be a rather nice harmony."

We’d learn these complex things. [Sings] "If you wear red tonight…" from "Yes It Is." I remember that one, because John would sing the melody and we’d have harmony lines [sings wildly different line], all over the bloody place.

But it was great. You just had to learn this new tune. And then George would have another tune. Really quite cool. But we were just used to doing it, so the minute we all sang it together it was, Oh, oh, that’s good! And we’d sometimes stray to each other’s lines. But we had enough discipline, it was like yeah, we can do this.

And in the same way that you interweaved vocal tunes like that, you seemed to get into similar ideas for the basslines.

Yeah, as time went on, definitely bass, I started to think, Wow, you know? Once I realized 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 realize 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? 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.

You do that very much on Sgt. Pepper.

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 version through first few chords], it’d be like "Louie Louie" or something. Whereas I was going [sings "Lucy" bassline] just running through that. It’s only really a way of getting from C to F or whatever, but you get there in an interesting way. That became my thing, doing that.

"Rain" is one of my favorites.

I can’t remember the bassline to that [laughs]. There’s a big TV series, the Beatles story—it’s called Anthology [first broadcast in 1995, the year after this interview], that George, Ringo, and I have done a lot of interviews for. We tried to set some myths straight, tried to correct a few impressions and stuff. It’s very good, but the funniest thing is that we don’t always agree on the memories, because it’s 30 years ago. So it’s hilarious—and on camera.

The Beatles - "Rain"

There’s one bit, Ringo’s telling a story, and he says, "At that point George had a sore throat." The camera pans to George, George says, "I thought it was Paul," and the camera pans to me and I say, "Well, I know it was John." And I’ve worked it out since: If Ringo thought it was George, it wasn’t Ringo. If George thought it was me, it wasn’t George. And I thought, it was John, so it wasn’t me. It must have been John—he was the only one left!

But this is funny, for the definitive bloody thing on The Beatles. It’s great, you’ve just got to laugh. It’s so fucking human, so real. We forget—who cares? We did some great stuff. Exact analysis was never our bag. And it obviously still isn’t.

Anyway, in the early days of The Beatles it seems the bass was something you just had to put in a song, whereas later you began to think, well, I’m a bass player in my own right.

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 realized the control you had over the band, as we talked about earlier, 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, you asked about meeting Elvis, and when we met him 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.

You were always seen on stage with the Hofner with The Beatles, and yet you virtually always used the Rickenbacker on stage with Wings. Why was that?

I’m not sure. Maybe a combination of things. I knew I was known for the violin shape. It’s like Charlie Chaplin, you know? The little walking cane, the mustache, and a bowler hat, and he’s Charlie. If he comes on with a bandanna and he’s shaved and he’s on a bike, it’s like, Who’s that? So I think there may have been an element of that was what I looked like, kind of a trademark.

Also it was very light and I’d always played it live, so I might have been playing safe a bit, just using the instrument I’d always used. Later I became more used to the Ricky, and with Wings I started to play with that on stage.

I thought it seemed like a conscious thing as far as live work was concerned: Beatles is Hofner, Wings is Rickenbacker.

Well yes, changing bands gives you a freedom, obviously.

And you had the choice to hire who you liked, but you chose to stay as the bass player.

I always approach a tour by thinking as if I’m not there. Well, this geezer McCartney’s going on tour, what would I like to see him do? Well, I’d like to see him play bass—he’s good on that old bass. So I’d think, I must play bass. The man in the audience, the girl in the audience, would expect me to play bass.

I’d probably want him to do "Yesterday," so we’ll sling that in somewhere. Early Wings I didn’t, I’d had enough of that, but now I would do it because I think, It goes down well. I’m an entertainer, guys, and if it goes down well, that’s it. I’m the opposite of Bob Dylan. I know G.E. Smith, who played with him, and he told me they’d say, "Oh, Bob, ‘Tambourine Man’ went down great tonight, fantastic."

And that meant he wouldn’t do it. He’d knock it out the next night. A perverse thing, I don’t know. To me I’m... less complex than that. If it went down well, I leave it in. But with Wings, yeah, I’d feel that I didn’t have to play the Hofner any more, because that was The Beatles and it sort of ended with that period. I don’t know if I was thinking that deeply in Wings.

Were Wings underrated?

The Beatles was the best band in the world. It’s difficult to follow that. It’s like following God. Very difficult, unless you’re Buddha. Anything Wings did had to be viewed in the light of The Beatles. And the comparisons were always very harsh."

Yeah, they are, completely, yeah. Number one, The Beatles was the best band in the world. It’s difficult to follow that. It’s like following God. Very difficult, unless you’re Buddha. Anything Wings did had to be viewed in the light of The Beatles. And the comparisons were always very harsh. Denny Laine wasn’t John Lennon. Henry McCullough wasn’t George Harrison. That was inevitable.

The interesting thing is that, looking back on some of the work, some of the stuff, it’s better than you think it was, but because it got such harsh criticism… from me. The critics gave us a hard run, but I was particularly hard on us. I remember looking at a book, there was an album we did, I think it was Back To The Egg, which didn’t do well, and I remember thinking, God, complete disaster.

Years later, I remember looking at it with Bowie in this old book—one of these who-did-what Hit Parade books, looking it up—and it was like number eight in America. And I thought, most people would give their right bloody arms to be number eight. But eight, and I wasn’t satisfied, The Beatles had been number one. This is all right, keeps you going. But yes, a lot of the stuff is underrated, because of that.

The truth of the matter is that I had The Beatles and then had another bite of the cherry through Wings, and a lot of what we did, because the industry was growing, we would eventually outsell The Beatles in a number of cases. Something like "Mull Of Kintyre"—The Beatles never sold that many singles. And three years ago I played to more people than The Beatles ever played to.

Wings - "Mull Of Kintyre"

We hold the record [speaking in 1994]—he said modestly—at Rio de Janeiro, 184,000 people. We never played to anything like that with The Beatles. The industry wasn’t big enough. We could have, had it been big enough. So, you know, there’s a lot to be said for the period after The Beatles, really, and it was a longer time—which was strange when I realized that Wings had been going as long as The Beatles had.

How do you view that Wings period for you as a bass player?

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...

See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that, the this. 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.

We went on this recent tour—I’m 52 years old, and we’d be doing two hours. With The Beatles, we did about 25 minutes if you were lucky, and I only did about 10 minutes, because John’d do 10, George’d do a bit, Ringo’d do a song, and you’d be off. And you’d do it quicker if you were annoyed—you’d be off in 20 minutes. If you think about it, I was 20 or so then, and I was doing maybe 15 minutes. It’s incredible that I can even handle two hours. But life goes on, there it is. I’m still at it.

But I think there was like a prize period when I was playing my best bass, and I think after that I had so much to do that I wasn’t free to just do the bass. I could concentrate everything on writing the song, singing harmony with John, or playing the bass, pretty much my role, or maybe playing a bit of piano or guitar or something. Other than that I really didn’t have much to do, so you could put all your energy into that.

And I think after that I sidelined the role of bass, a bit, in favor of the role of frontman. It was not really my favorite thing to do, but there was really nothing else to do. The only alternative was to give up music, that I saw.

People wouldn’t have expected you to be behind a singer.

No, that’s what I mean. I know Ringo and I used to talk about it, still do occasionally, that our real dream is to be in the back of a very dark club with shades on playing bass and drums and having about three or four other people doing the show, and we just want to be not noticed and just play music, man. If you think about it, that’s what we all went into music for—it wasn’t really to be a star, I think. It was to be part of a group. It was to be musicians. That was the thing.

We never really thought of ourselves as pop stars, The Beatles. We were musicians. John and I were bonafide writers, and you think: Lennon & McCartney, Rodgers & Hammerstein, that’s what we thought of ourselves as. In fact, it’s been borne out, that’s kind of how we’ll be remembered in the 20th century.

But the band, we were more interested in the guys in the audience, like I said earlier on, because they were more interested in the music, they didn’t come to have a look at your legs. The girls sort of looked at your face and your legs and your bum and screamed.

The guys [serious voice] were much more sensible, went along with our way of thinking, you know? They don’t scream, they just look at the chords—that’s how it should be done. We’ve always retained an element of that, the craftsmen, and that’s really what I enjoy. I enjoy the craft of it, and I don’t really like... and that’s probably what ruined The Beatles, actually.

You were responsible for many musicians in the later ‘60s starting to accept the bass in a new way, compared to what you were saying about being "lumbered" with it around 1960.

It became a bit more skillful, yeah. 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. Funnily enough, I’d always liked bass. My dad, as I say, was a musician and I remember he would give me little sort of lessons, not actual sit-down lessons, but when there was something on the radio, he’d say hear that low? That’s the bass. I remember him actually pointing out what a bass was, and he’d do little lessons in harmony [sings a line and then thirds above].

So when I came to The Beatles I had a little bit of musical knowledge through him, but very amateur. And I started listening to other bass players. 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 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.

Not actually vengeful power, just that you could actually... even though the whole band is going in A [sings single notes] you could go in E [sings surging single bass note], and they’d go, Let us off the hook! And you’re actually in control then, an amazing thing. So I sussed that and got particularly interested in playing the bass.

It did become a lot more of a funky instrument. It was becoming almost like a drum, the rhythmic possibilities. It was very exciting, that, and it also gave me something to 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.

It’s almost like you have to learn the complicated stuff in order—

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."

—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 [pats head and rubs stomach]. So I had to put a little special effort into that, which made it very interesting.

It’s like drummers playing four different independent lines.

It’s fantastic, and when you do classical music you do realize how good rock’n’roll is, how good R&B and stuff is. 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 rock 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. It’s very complicated, really. And then he might be singing as well: "Talking about boys, yeah yeah, boys."

Ringo used to do "Boys" [laughs], which a girl-group had done—The Shirelles I think—and they were singing about boys. And so he sang about boys! 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. Right, you’re on. Holy shit! Then you’re off.

About the Author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include The Ultimate Guitar Book, The Bass Book, and Paul McCartney: Bassmaster, and he edited the various editions of Beatles Gear. His latest book is Electric Guitars: Design And Invention (Backbeat). Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at

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