“We turned into aggressive, crazy people during Wings”: Paul McCartney

The former Beatle talks about their recordings, his evolution as a bass player, his solo work and the Fab Four’s gear in this 1993 interview.

paul mccartney

Macca at Coachella 2009. Image: Kevin Mazur / MPL / WireImage for MPL

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This interview was originally published in our September 1993 issue.

In 1991, exactly 30 years after becoming a bass player through necessity, Paul McCartney was honoured with Rolling Stone magazine’s Best Bassist Of The Year award. It was a title bestowed on him almost habitually throughout the 60s and 70s… but in the 90s? McCartney typically shies away from such tributes. A few years ago, when asked if he ever had doubts about his playing, Macca replied: “Definitely. Often! Probably every time I’ve done a bass part.”

Yet McCartney’s contributions to the bass guitar – and of course, popular music – are truly outstanding. He is, of course, the man synonymous with the Höfner 500/1 Violin Bass and it was his recent songwriting collaborator, Elvis Costello, who encouraged Macca to bring his trademark instrument out of retirement when they were working on Costello’s Spike album. The one he now uses is the same one from the last Beatles tour, with the original setlist still Sellotaped to the side!

Originally a rhythm guitarist and occasional pianist, Paul assumed the role of bassist when Stuart Sutcliffe quit The Beatles in mid 1961 to pursue an art career. McCartney bought his first Höfner – a violin-shaped hollowbody instrument in a shaded brown finish, with pickups in the neck and middle positions and a 30-inch, short scale length – on one of The Beatles’ early trips to Hamburg.

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The Fab Four, circa 1963. Image: Fox Photos / Getty Images

“I’d gone out there with a red Rosetti Solid 7, which was a real crappy guitar, but looked quite good,” McCartney says. “Stuart Sutcliffe was leaving the band and he wanted to stay in Hamburg, so we had to have a bass player. So I got elected bass player, or lumbered as the case may be.

“I got my Violin Bass at the Steinway shop in the town centre. I remember going along and there was this bass which was quite cheap. It cost the German Mark equivalent of £30 or so – my dad had always hammered into us never to get into debt because we weren’t that rich.

“John and George went easily in debt and got beautiful guitars: John got a Club 40 and George had a Futurama – which is like a Fender copy – and then, later, Gretsches,” Paul recalls. “Then John got the Rickenbackers. They were prepared to use hire-purchase credit, but it had been so battered into me not to do that, I wouldn’t risk it. So I bought a cheap guitar. And once I bought it, I fell in love with it. That’s why I’m using it again now. For a light, dinky little bass, it has a very rich sound.”

Upside down

It’s surely one of the most recognisable instruments in rock and, with the dawn of Beatlemania, demand for the Violin Bass grew to the stage where the Höfner factory in Bubenreuth, Germany was unable to keep up. But while so many guitar and bass players of the 50s and 60s were influenced by other artists in their choice of instrument, Paul had little option.

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Image: Express / Express / Getty Images

“To tell you the truth, it was because I was left-handed. Every guitar I ever used had to be right-handed, because back then, they didn’t make special left-handers, so I used to turn them upside down. But the violin shape was symmetrical, so it didn’t look quite as stupid as some of the others did – for instance, when their cutaways were on the upside.

“I think that Höfner was one of the first companies with any decent instruments, not only the Violin Bass, but also their guitars. Obviously, my big influence was bass, but John and George had the guitars and, even though they weren’t as good as, say, Fenders or Gibsons, they had a great, distinctive sound. I like it a lot – you play a lot faster, very easily. Its main problem is in the inaccuracy of the tuning when you get up the neck a bit. We’ve done a little bit of work on it – more on the bridge and stuff, because of the tuning problems – but not a lot. It’s still basically original; it’s still the same instrument.”

Paul’s earliest bass amp was a Truvoice, but by the time of The Beatles’ EMI recording auditions in the summer of 1962, he’d switched to Vox amplification – a 60-watt T-60 piggyback bass amp with one 12-inch and one 15-inch speaker. In late 1963, Paul then picked up a newer version of the Höfner 500/1. It was essentially the same bass, but the centrally located pickup was now in the bridge position. Selmer, Höfner’s UK distributor, presented him with a gold-plated 500/1 in March 1964, when he was using a new Vox 100-watt bass amp with his T-60 speaker enclosure – his standard setup through to the end of 1965. Sadly, says Paul, the gold Höfner was “one of a few instruments stolen from us at the time”.

By his early 20s, Paul had become proficient on a number of instruments. It therefore comes as no surprise that he was the first Beatle to escape the restrictions of his allotted instrument to play lead guitar on a surprisingly high number of Fab tracks. In 1964, he bought a Sunburst Epiphone Casino fitted with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece. Both George and John followed suit shortly after.

Paul first used this guitar for the Ticket To Ride solo fills, the slide parts on Drive My Car and the manic Taxman solo, which gave more than a passing nod to Harrison’s growing fascination with all things Eastern. Paul refutes the suggestion that such displays of versatility may have aggravated his fellow Fabs. “If ever I had an idea for a solo, I’d just play it to them. The others were normally very supportive, so I just went for it! I liked Taxman just because of what it was. I was very inspired by Jimi Hendrix and it was really my first voyage into feedback. George was generally a little more restrained in his guitar playing, he wasn’t into heavy feedback. I don’t think George was too miffed. But when people say: ‘Great solo on Taxman,’ I don’t think he’s too pleased to have to say: ‘Well, that was Paul, actually!’. I didn’t really do much like that – just once or twice.”

Ricky to ride

Rubber Soul marked the beginning of a major turning point in Paul’s bass style. For many of the sessions, he took along his new Rickenbacker bass, a Fireglo 4001S which he had been offered the previous year, but turned down because of its weight. Paul took delivery of it between The Beatles’ 1965 Hollywood Bowl appearances, and his basslines started to take on a new personality, becoming more melodic, more complex yet more fluid than before, particularly on Nowhere Man.

“The Rickenbacker was very nice, it recorded better. It had a sort of fatter neck, and it was much more stable – didn’t go out of tune as easily. Also, it stayed in tune right up the neck; the Höfner had problems when you got right up near the top, so I hardly ever went up there. “Although some of the stuff in Paperback Writer is the Höfner, so it did actually stay in tune for that. But it was a little more difficult to work with, being a cheaper instrument. I guess you pay for that precision.”

George Harrison’s Think For Yourself was adorned with one of the first, if not the first, examples of fuzz bass – the searing rasp courtesy of a Gary Hurst/Vox Tone Bender fuzz box. Photographs from these sessions reveal that other off-the-wall bass experiments at this time included the use of a capo on at least one track. Although the Rickenbacker was beginning to come to the fore, Paul’s Höfner was still the only bass used onstage right up until The Beatles’ final concerts in 1966, when he used a variety of Vox amps, depending on the venue.

Bass boost

The mid 60s were formative years for Paul McCartney. His wider understanding of all manner of musical styles, prompted by the wisdom and encouragement of producer George Martin, led to a greater appreciation of what could be achieved with regular instrumentation, particularly the bass guitar. “On the early recordings, you didn’t really hear the bass that much, but I started changing style and became more melodic. Brian Wilson was a big influence – strange, really, because he’s not known as a bass man. God Only Knows was a great example. If you listen to Pet Sounds, there’s a very interesting bass – it’s nearly always offbeat…”

And did George Martin contribute to the composition of any of Paul’s basslines? “No, not really. I used to stay behind at the studio after the others had left and work out the bass parts for the following day’s session. I’ll never forget putting the bassline to Michelle, because it was a kind of Bizet thing. It really turned the song around. You could do that with bass, it was very exciting. The basslines on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and With A Little Help From My Friends were good, too. And yes, the bass became more important – we were listening to records in the discos that had more bass.”

George Martin’s engineer sidekick, Geoff Emerick, recalls how: “Paperback Writer was the first time the bass sound had been heard in all its excitement. For a start, Paul played a different bass, a Rickenbacker, then we boosted it even further by using a loudspeaker as a microphone. We positioned it directly in front of the bass speaker and the moving diaphragm of the second spacer made the electric current.”

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Paul and John hold on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show, where the Fab Four made their US TV debut. Image: Bettmann / Getty Images

Engineer Tony Clark had the task of cutting the Paperback Writer lacquer. He remembers how: “When I cut it, with all that bass, EMI were very worried about releasing a single like that, in case the stylus jumped!” Paul affirms how “EMI had very firm rules about that, which we always had to break. It wasn’t a wilful arrogance, we just felt we knew better. ‘What do you mean we can’t have bass? I was down the disco last night and I heard a record with that kind of bass!’. They’d say: ‘Well our rule book says…’ and we’d say: ‘They’re out of date, come on, let’s move!’… We were always pushing ahead – louder, further, longer, more, different!” The sessions which spawned Sgt. Pepper’s… in 1967 saw the studio floor at Abbey Road strewn with new, exotic instruments, some of which were prototypes given to the band to try out.

Bass-wise, Paul stuck to his Rickenbacker, now painted in a swirling psychedelic design, and used both his Casino and a new Sunburst Fender Esquire – through a Selmer amp – for guitar parts, the latter for his powerful Good Morning Good Morning solo.

Paul’s Epiphone Casino is one of several guitars he has salvaged over the years, and he still finds use for it today. As one can imagine, a vast number of guitars and basses have floated in Paul’s direction since The Beatles, but unlike some of his contemporaries, he is not one to flaunt his collection. He prefers to keep his working instruments to a bare minimum, keeping the rest safely in storage.

Towards the end of the Fab Four’s career, the productions were becoming simpler, less effects-oriented and at times, completely live. It was not unusual for the other Beatles to pick up the bass duties – often using either a Sunburst Fender Jazz or six-string Fender Bass VI with a Fender Bassman amp – while Paul played either guitar, piano or drums, such as on Back In The U.S.S.R. and Let It Be. In 1969, McCartney returned to his Höfner for the Let It Be film cameras, reminding us of its distinctive bottom end. “I noticed a clip of me in the Let It Be rooftop sequence, and you know you play differently when the instrument itself isn’t heavy. You’re tempted to play more melodic riffs and more kind of ‘guitar’ parts, really. I think its tone, for a little lightweight bass, is incredible, because it really sounds like a string bass sometimes.”

Recorded between February and August 1969, the band’s penultimate release before their split, Abbey Road, featured a welcome return to the melodic McCartney basslines of Rubber Soul and Revolver. His runs on Something and Sun King often resembled woolly, low-register guitar solos, achieved through careful use of the Rickenbacker’s string mutes. Old Brown Shoe, the Harrison number recorded in the early stages of those sessions, was treated with similar McCartney enthusiasm, his bubbling riff double-tracked note-perfectly with George’s Leslie-d guitar. However, the band’s signing-off piece, The End, was equally significant for its spectacular lead guitar triumvirate, on which Paul used his Casino to battle with Lennon’s Gibson ES-335 and Harrison’s rosewood Telecaster.

Life after Höfner

After the untidy break-up of The Beatles, and throughout most of the Wings period, Paul continued to play the same Rickenbacker 4001S bass used on many of the post-1965 Beatles recordings. The main exceptions being his employment of a Fender Jazz bass for some of the 1973 Band On The Run sessions in Lagos, and a one-off left-handed Yamaha for Wings’ final album Back To The Egg in 1979.

The latter included the mammoth Rockestra Theme – a pre-Live Aid gathering of rock luminaries which saw McCartney compete for bass space with Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, the Faces’ Ronnie Lane and Bruce Thomas of The Attractions. Further instrument diversions in the 70s included the original stand-up bass belonging to Bill Black (Elvis Presley’s bass player), which wife Linda bought as a present for Paul in the mid-to-late-70s. He returned the gesture by playing it on her own Wings rock ’n’ roll number, Cook Of The House.

It is interesting to note that while Paul stuck mainly to Vox amplification in the 60s, his 70s bass rigs changed regularly, from tour to tour. John Hammel, McCartney’s personal assistant since The Beatles split, reliably confirmed: “When Wings started touring in ’72 and ’73, Paul was using an Acoustic 360 bass rig and Vox amps for guitar. But the ’75/’76 world tour was another matter. He had a pretty sizeable rig there, with two Crown 300A amps and an Audio Master preamp, and these drove a set of JBL speakers, a Roy Clare 2×12 midrange bin and JBL horns. Later, for the last UK tour in 1979, Paul switched to using 120-watt Fender Bassmans and three 4×12 cabinets with angled speakers. Back then, he was also playing the occasional number on his Casino through Vox AC30s, and he’s back to using them again on the current tour.”

A live recreation of the aforementioned Rockestra Theme at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in December ’79 signified his last stage appearance with Wings.

“Being my first band after The Beatles, Wings was always going to be a tough cookie. I don’t think any band would have felt quite up to it. Once or twice, you know, we had a few arguments and stuff, like: ‘I don’t like the way you do that’ and… ooh, friction! Jimmy McCulloch was a great guy, a great little player, but such an erratic personality, if you want
to put it nicely. Whenever we did have an argument, it was amplified because they were all so insecure. Inevitably, there were quite a few line-ups! It was all a bit crazy, in a kind of ‘Spinal Tap’ way for me. For some reason, we turned into aggressive, crazy people during Wings.”

Indeed, the only other constant member of Wings was Paul’s wife Linda, who now qualifies as Macca’s longest standing musical collaborator. “I could have had Eric Clapton in the band,” he reveals. “He’s told me since that if I’d asked him he would have joined me immediately, but I wanted Linda, because I wanted to be with her. That’s the way it was in the old days. You didn’t have fantastically trained musicians around you, you just had a bunch of guys you wanted to hang out with. I know there’s that thing that Mick Jagger said about ‘I wouldn’t have my old lady on stage’, but she’s there, Mick, because I want her to be. That’s why. I don’t have to let Mick Jagger tell me what I can and cannot do.”

Old faithful

Following Wings’ demise, McCartney found himself without a regular band for almost a full decade, leaning on the support of George Martin, Ringo Starr, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, 10cc’s Eric Stewart and, surprisingly, jazz-bass legend Stanley Clarke, to help him in the studio.

While McCartney was inevitably crafting good tunes, the majority of his albums from this period lacked continuity. His bass playing, however, though generally not as upfront as before, was still as impeccable as ever. Studio-based throughout the 80s, Paul returned to his faithful old Rickenbacker, occasionally using a fretless model as well as Fenders. Still preferring the plectrum to the naked thumb or finger, his riffs were finding a new voice – grittier, smoother, but every bit as structured as his previous work.

He still had not returned to the musical stage in earnest since 1979. “The simple reason was that I didn’t have a band,” Paul explains. “I was much more nervous about playing the Prince’s Trust concert than Live Aid. I only had half an hour to get the songs together with Elton and the rest of ’em before the doors opened. I remember Tina Turner sitting in the front row, watching me rehearse all these old numbers and it started me thinking about getting another regular band together. I’d pinpoint that night as the one that broke my stage fright – one that turned me around.”

So in 1989, after much friendly jamming and veiled auditioning, Paul announced the line-up of his new band: guitarists Robbie McIntosh and Hamish Stuart, keyboard player Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens, Linda on keyboards and drummer Chris Whitten (now replaced by Blair Cunningham).

Flowers In The Dirt, the album which heralded this apparent renaissance, was notable in the bass department for the appearance of Paul’s customised five-string Wal bass. “Trevor Horn, who produced some of the tracks, came into the studio one day with his Wal bass – I liked the feel of it and I just had to have one. So I was using it quite often until this tour.”

Here today

Popular opinion has it that the McCartney output since the advent of this new band has been his best since The Beatles. Then again, Paul has joked that: “I’m the poor bastard who always has to compete with The Beatles!”. Certainly, songs like the thunderous C’mon People, Get Out Of My Way and Mistress And Maid have a clearer direction, and two years on the road helped inspire the more spontaneous approach to Off The Ground.

And with his world tour touching down in Britain this month, it’s reassuring to hear that McCartney still has a refreshing philosophy for playing live. “If you can play your stuff in a pub, then you’re a good band.” At the time of writing, Paul is busy at his private East Sussex studio, mixing tapes from recent Australasian and US concerts for a forthcoming live album. With the (heavy) Wal now relegated to the subs’ bench, Paul’s faithful Höfner has once again become his mainstay, as he turns full circle in this 30th-anniversary year of Beatlemania. So what keeps him on the road?

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Paul at a sold-out show in California in 2016. Image: MJ Kim / MPL Communications via Getty Images

“It’s the audience, because when you write and produce a record, you do it in isolation – you even hear it on the radio in isolation. But when you get out in front of a crowd and they like something, it’s very obvious, because they’ll cheer or clap or weep or smile. You get the feedback and that’s the payoff. They say that showbiz people like applause, but I think everyone does. It’s like your boss saying: ‘That’s great, that’s fantastic.’ It’s an affirmation that you’re okay.

“The only thing that’s ever motivated me – ever – has been a love of the music… The only difference between the audiences then and now is that they dress differently. But it’s still pretty crazy. The crowds seem to behave like their mothers and fathers did in the 60s – and I still love ’em!”

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