I realize it won’t shock anyone to say that Paul McCartney in his heyday was a great songwriter. But listening to a few different songs recently made me realize that McCartney fails to get credit for his skill with the bass guitar. The Beatles could write songs, yes, and they could sing. But they wouldn’t have earned their reputation as one of the great all-time bands if they lacked genuine skill on their instruments, and McCartney is no exception.
McCartney’s father had a musical career largely playing show tunes and bouncy, playful big-band numbers, and McCartney has this sunny whimsy in his personality. I think Lennon grew to resent this side of McCartney — the side that led him to write songs like, “When I’m 64,” and “Penny Lane.” Lennon wanted “to rock” and saw songs like this as wimpy, soft, and (heaven forbid) “square.” Lennon of course had a playful side too (i.e., “I am the Walrus”) but used it to destroy conventionality (“I am the Walrus”), not to write fun sing-along numbers. Lennon loved to destroy — not always a bad thing.
But I’m convinced that McCartney’s whimsical side led him to take some risks with his bass playing at crucial moments. First off, we can note that he could play a generally solid and fluid bass line, with “Hey Jude” as a good example. You can actually hear the bass line in the version of the song on the Love album — listen around the 3:06 mark:
But I have two examples of his playful side coming out in his bass playing:
Here is “Dear Prudence,” where the bass carries the song, especially from the 1:04 mark onwards:
While The Social Network I got re-exposed to “Baby You’re a Rich Man” (the song gets used expertly right at the end of the movie). Especially in the chorus’ from about the half-way point of the song onwards, McCartney really unwinds the bass and spices up the song beautifully
The lesson perhaps for the Lennon’s of the world (more absolutist than most) is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps we could also say that certain skills or tendencies that annoy us in one way might have unexpected benefits in other ways.