In addition to playing the beating human heart on the Beatles’ glorious swan song Abbey Road, Paul McCartney’s bass provides melodic accompaniment, harmony, counterpoint, emphasis… and sometimes it just sings a little tune up and down the neck, the sort of thing a bass player can turn into needless showboating in rock and roll.
That’s not at all the case on “Something,” where McCartney runs, slides, and bounces through the guitar solo, a moment when a support player might conserve his musical energy…. McCartney totally goes for it, as he does on every song, Fender amps pushed into overdrive through Abbey Road Studio’s famous compressors.
Go on… put your LP on the Hi-Fi and listen to the way he swings on “Oh! Darling,” how he anchors “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” so heavily he almost makes Ringo’s bass drum redundant (but it isn’t), how he bounces through Ringo’s “Octopus’s Garden” with an exaggerated music hall lilt, then, in the bridge, obliquely turns the song into an almost fuzzed-out rocker.
Do I even need to mention “Come Together”….? Do we need to talk about Side 2?
“Ngl,” writes Reddit commenter karensellscoke on the site’s “Loudest and Most In-Tune Community of Bassists,” r/Bass. “I’ve been sleeping on Paul for a bit and calling him overrated and a ‘dad’ bassist but I think this may have changed my tune.”
By this, our commenter refers not to Abbey Road proper, but to the isolated bass tracks of the entire album, just above (with plenty of microphone bleed from the rest of the band). I don’t know what a dad bassist is, but I agree with the sentiment, “These are some well crafted basslines executed with personality.”
Paul plays with a feeling rarely heard on modern recordings. Much is due to his guitar-like playing style. Much is due to the absolutely distinctive tone he achieved on the instrument. And much is due to the technical limitations of recording at the time.
“The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial,” writes Justin Lancy at The Atlantic, “and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process.” No infinite number of takes as in our digital audio workstation times. Paradoxically, in the right hands, at least — most especially those of the white lab coat-clad technicians at Abbey Road — lower tech made for better recordings.
When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago… you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.
Do you hear McCartney’s mistakes? Surely he did. “It was because artists were stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them.” This explains why another r/Bass commenter found the isolated bass tracks “inspiringly sloppy…. There’s a great roughness that’s absent today.” Musical_bear describes being “blown away” on “Oh! Darling” by “how sloppy the isolated bass is…. Things I’ve never noticed before, like a random power chord starting verse 2 I think, and even some botched/missing notes completely… but it all somehow sits great in the final mix.” (Read legendary recording engineer Geoff Emerick’s track by track analysis of how he helped make all that happen here.)
We feel every note of McCartney’s playing, instead of just admiring its precision or whatever. “I listened to this entire thing in one sitting, just his bass,” writes a converted karensellscoke (recalling the adage that there are Beatles fans and there are people who just haven’t heard enough Beatles), “and loved it.”