It’s amazing to think that we’re celebrating 50th birthdays of The Beatles’ legendary music, but time’s an unstoppable force, and here we are. Now, it’s time for “Paperback Writer”, released on May 30th, 1966. It happens to be the last song The Beatles released that they played in concert (not counting their 1969 rooftop gig), but its most enduring importance to the band’s catalog is the way it brought the bass to the forefront of The Beatles’ sound like none of their other songs had to that point.
Paul McCartney’s bass playing was probably his tertiary contribution to The Beatles, after his songwriting and his singing, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t just as revolutionary. Throughout the 1960s and earlier, the bass was mostly viewed as a rhythm instrument, a bridge between the drums and the guitars intended to provide some low-end sound to flesh out chords and simultaneously emphasize the beat. Aside from the occasional solo (think The Who’s “My Generation”, which arrived in 1965), it remained in the background. McCartney, one of the world’s preeminent writers of melody and most innovative musical minds, wasn’t content to let the bass take a backseat on every Beatles song, particularly as the band’s career advanced.
Photo by Jim Bennett
The bass sound on “Paperback Writer” was actually John Lennon’s idea, yet another example of the astounding creative dynamic he and McCartney shared. Lennon had heard a booming bass sound on a Wilson Pickett record and thought it would be cool to replicate. Together with their legendary studio engineer Geoff Emerick, the band rigged up a way to use a loudspeaker as a microphone and, with Paul using a Rickenbacker instead of his iconic Hofner, boosted the volume higher than anyone had done before. The result: Paul’s bass line, showcasing his mixture of melodic and rhythmic capabilities on the instrument, drives the song.
In honor of “Paperback Writer”, and in honor of its bass line, we’ve ranked McCartney’s top 10 bass contributions to The Beatles’ catalog.