Recently I stumbled across this article about Paul McCartney, the bass player. It’s based on an interview of McCartney that occurred in November 1994, conducted as part of the research for a publication called The Bass Book. The interview — which focuses on how McCartney became a bass player, the instruments he used, including the famous violin-shaped Hofner, and other musicianship basics — wasn’t published until this year.
It’s a fascinating read, and it highlights a point that often gets overlooked: the incredible musical talent that was packed into the four people who made up the Beatles. Sometimes the band’s legendary, overwhelming celebrity overshadows the fact that they were all brilliant musicians. I’ve written before about Ringo Starr’s exceptional drumming, and the underappreciated contribution he made to the underpinnings of the Beatles’s greatest songs. Paul McCartney’s bass playing was no less phenomenal. Together, McCartney and Starr gave the Beatles the greatest rhythm section in rock music history. (And don’t let anybody dismiss George Harrison’s lead guitar work, or John Lennon’s rhythm guitar efforts, either — they’re equally outstanding.)
McCartney’s bass role in the Beatles was foisted upon him — somebody had to slug along on the bass after Stu Sutcliffe left the band — but he took to it like a duck to water and showed amazing creativity in devising bass lines for the band’s songs. Listen, for example, to songs like Come Together or Something from the Abbey Road album (a song that also shows McCartney’s extraordinary gift for background vocals) and focus in on the bass playing. You’ll come away shaking your head at the creativity McCartney shows, and thinking about how his playing just blows away the work of most bass players. McCartney somehow devised bass lines that faithfully anchored the rhythm of the songs, but also advanced them musically — which is not a common ability. And his bass skills didn’t end when the Beatles broke up, either. Mrs. Vandebilt from Wings’ Band on the Run album also showcases McCartney’s bass capabilities and drives a song that irresistibly forces you to move with the beat.
We’ve heard recently about who’s a genius, and who isn’t. Paul McCartney’s bass playing shows genius. When you combine it with his songwriting ability, his singing ability, his guitar work, and his piano playing . . . well, it demonstrates what real genius is.