Interview for Reverb • November 1994

Paul McCartney on His Life as a Bassist

Interview of Paul McCartney
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Tony Bacon
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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”].

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.

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. 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.


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