23.4.14

MY ODD CONNECTION TO YES

The first time I saw Deep Purple was at the Plumpton Festival on the Sunday night of the August Bank Holiday, 1970, and they closed their set by setting fire to their amps, or at least Ritchie threw some lighter fuel over them, together with a match, and watched the fun. The stage crew quickly doused the flames but it was enough to cause an almighty row backstage, not least with Yes who were due to follow them.
         Setting aside the obvious, few groups remind me more of my years on Melody Maker than Yes, probably because of the enthusiasm of my colleague Chris Welch who did everything he could to boost their profile. Also, I had a slightly weird connection to them. In the summer of 1968, two years before I landed at MM, on holiday in London with my mate Chris Whincup, I watched Yes rehearsing in a basement beneath the Lucky Horseshoe, a restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue. This came about because a character called John Roberts, a wealthy paper manufacturer who lived in Settle, in north west Yorkshire, had advanced them £500 and wanted us to check up on his investment.
         Roberts was well known on what passed for a music scene in nearby Skipton where I was brought up. Assumed by locals to be gay because he preferred the company of young men to men or women of his own age, he was really more sociable than predatory. He befriended many aspiring local rock musicians and those fans like me for whom rock was becoming more than just something to dance to at a party. A keen jazz fan, he made frequent visits to London to visit Ronnie Scott’s Club, and it was in the nearby La Chasse club that he met Jon Anderson who in early 1968 was working there as a washer up. Anderson told Roberts he used to sing with an Accrington group called The Warriors – a band Roberts was evidently familiar with – and about his new band Yes which needed finance; hence the £500 loan and my mission to check them out.
         Accompanied by my mate Chris, we went to the Lucky Horseshoe on John Roberts’ behalf, but apart from Jon Anderson the group had no idea who we were. We watched a while and chatted, and simply thought they sounded better than any band we’d ever heard in Yorkshire... such long numbers and very complex. I played guitar myself in a local band up in Skipton in those days, but this was way out of my league. It was incredibly loud and smoky down there but they seemed very professional and they were all very polite and friendly towards us. We were, after all, pals with someone who'd given them £500, no mean sum in 1968. 
         Two years later I was watching Yes on stage at Plumpton, following on from Deep Purple’s firestorm. I was impressed and over the next year or so renewed my acquaintanceship with them, but as their albums became more and more convoluted they began to bore me. In truth I didn’t write much about Yes on MM as Chris Welch monopolised them but I had an interesting brush with them in New York in February, 1974, when they played two nights at Madison Square Garden. That week Melody Maker celebrated their American success with a front-page story stating that the gross takings from the two Garden shows would exceed $200,000. Their bass player Chris Squire was less than happy that MM had chosen to ‘reveal’ Yes’ earnings and at a pre-show party in their hospitality suite at the Warwick Hotel he berated me over the story. 
         I responded by pointing out that anyone with a calculator could work out what they were grossing each night, simply by multiplying the average ticket price by the number of seats, but Squire seemed to think that we had exposed some dark secret. He didn’t like the idea of fans knowing how much money they made but there really wasn’t any secret about it, and I thought it a bit rich coming from him as he always seemed to me to the most money-conscious member of the band. The others didn’t care about the story at all, and neither did Brian Lane, their manager. Rick Wakeman certainly didn’t care and he joined in the argument on my side.
         The party ended in disarray when Harvey Goldsmith, the London-based promoter who promoted Yes’ UK concerts and who was visiting them in New York, was thrown fully clothed into a bath tub. It was Rick who instigated that. Harvey was all dressed up, ready to go to the Garden when suddenly Rick and some of the others in the room picked him up and threw him into a bath full of cold water. He was furious... really angry. He was soaked and had to change his clothes. Personally – after the row I’d just had with him – I’d have preferred to see Chris Squire dumped in the bath.
         More significantly, in July that same year, I took Harvey to see Bruce Springsteen at the Bottom Line in NY. I’d been telling Harvey how great he was and this was the first time Harvey saw Bruce. He went on to promote his UK concerts for the next two decades, including some whoppers at Wembley Stadium. 

22.4.14

DEEP PURPLE & Mischief With Ritchie

When I was asked to present an award at Classic Rock’s annual shindig at the Roundhouse in November, 2012, I found myself sat next to Amy Lord, daughter of Deep Purple’s keyboard player Jon, and her husband, and elsewhere on the table were other members of the Lord family, all there to watch Jon’s sister-in-law collect his posthumous award. Jon’s wife Vicki, it was explained to me, was too overcome to attend so it was left to Jackie, her twin and wife of Purple drummer Ian Paice, to do the honours.
          I was able to tell Amy that, in the early eighties when she was a toddler, I’d spent a night at their family’s house near Henley while researching my now out of print biography of Deep Purple. Her dad was a most generous host and I recall that he and Vicki took me to a Chinese restaurant in Henley where we were joined by Ian and Jackie. Afterwards, back at the house, Jon and I settled down to long interview that stretched way into the night, all punctuated by bottles of champagne from Jon’s wine cellar. Somewhere in amongst that interview was the revelation that one of the partners in the original management of the group had been jailed for receiving stolen goods, leading to the conclusion that the group’s first set of stage gear was bought from the proceeds of crime. It was almost dawn when I switched off my recorder and Jon stumbled over to the white grand piano in his living room and played a bit of Beethoven before we retired. Or was it Bach? Or Chopin?
          I’d travelled around with Deep Purple a lot in the seventies, wrote some complimentary reviews for MM when they were at their best, and came to like them as people. This was the Mark II band – Lord, Paice, Ritchie Blackmore, Ian Glover and Ian Gillan – which is generally regarded as the best. I lost touch with them when this line-up fragmented, so I didn’t witness the group’s decline. Then, in the early eighties, I wrote that book about the group and was pleasantly surprised that most of them (Blackmore was a notable exception) co-operated with me and were all remarkably candid about their relationships with each other and the reasons why the group came together and fell apart. I have had no dealings with them since that book came out, but I was given to understand that although most of them were happy with it, Blackmore was not. It’s his own fault. Had he co-operated then perhaps the book would have portrayed him in a manner more to his liking. When Omnibus published a biography of Ritchie by Jerry Bloom in 2006 there was some sabre rattling from his lawyers but nothing happened in the end, but it all points to the conclusion that he evidently doesn’t like books written about him.
          In the seventies I got on quite well with Ritchie Blackmore, and recall spending time with him socially, but he could be a bit of a moody old bugger, and one wrong word was enough to bring on a meltdown. I think he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he wasn’t spoken of in the same terms as other great British guitarists of the era, the Clapton-Beck-Page axis, and Harrison and Townshend, not to mention Hendrix, his great hero. It’s perfectly true that as far as technique and skills go, Blackmore was on a par with them all – barring Hendrix, of course – and he’d certainly paid his dues, taking lessons from ‘Big’ Jim Sullivan and playing with The Outlaws and Sutch’s Savages before The Beatles’ breakthrough in 1963. The problem was the manner in which he chose to employ those skills, the hard rock/heavy metal material that was unlikely to appeal to critics, with lyrics that didn’t really say very much, not to mention his subsequent drift into medieval folk music.
          I have no doubt that Blackmore considered himself a more skilled player than Pete Townshend, and he was probably right (certainly when The Who started out) but Pete could write great songs and this drew attention to him and his group while Blackmore was unknown (to the public, anyway). No doubt this pissed him off mightily. Later, with Purple, Blackmore became the second musician after Pete to abuse guitars on stage but to me this was just an act – the guitars he smashed were cheap replicas anyway – while with Pete it was more of an artistic statement and he didn’t give a toss about destroying expensive Gibsons and Fenders. 
          At the beginning of December 1972, I found myself in the US with Deep Purple, and on a (commercial) plane flight from Des Moines to Indianapolis sat next to Ritchie. At one point in the journey he produced from his hand luggage a pornographic magazine, a fearsomely offensive example of the genre with women doing obscene things with animals. Realising that it was of the same dimensions as the in-flight magazine published by Braniff Airways, Ritchie systematically substituted pages from one to the other, carefully replacing the staples before tucking the reconstructed flight brochure into the pocket provided at the rear of the seat in front of him. “Shame we won’t be here to see what happens when the next person picks that up,” he said when the mischief was complete.
          That wasn’t the only mischief I was caught up in with Ritchie. The following year I was in Paris with them and after the show he and I ended up at a club called the Rock’n’Roll Circus, allegedly the same place where Jim Morrison spent the last night of his life. Somehow Ritchie and I became attached to two Spanish girls and I opted to leave first, bringing one back to the hotel. Unfortunately the night porter, knowing I had but a single room, refused to allow her to enter, so after a bit of hanky-panky by the trees on the nearby Champs Elysees (it was a warm night) I headed back to the hotel alone, only to bump into Ritchie arriving back with his Spanish maiden. I explained to Ritchie what had happened to me and we agreed that he would distract the hall porter asking for his key while I rushed through the lobby with his girl, and we would meet on the first floor where I would ‘hand her over’. The plan seemed to work, but when I got to my room the phone rang. It was the porter. “Ou est la fille?” he demanded. “No idea mate.” Five minutes later there was a knock on my door. “Ou est la fille?” He came in and, of course, no girl was to be found. Desperate to get rid of him, I said, “Try Mr Coletta’s room,” John Coletta being DP’s manager. And off he went.
         Next morning Mr Coletta and his girlfriend were none too pleased to have been awoken from their slumbers in the double room they’d booked. But he never found out who was responsible. 

20.4.14

RINGO & HIS DRUMS

When The Beatles exploded into our consciousness it seemed for all the world that they were a pre-packaged miracle. Unlikely as it might sound today, when their disparate personalities are so familiar, so analysed, it was once impossible to tell them apart.  It was Saturday, January 19, 1963, and most of Britain was blanketed by a huge snowfall; and tea time, huddled around our black and white TV sets, was when those of us outside of Liverpool saw them for the first time ever, performing ‘Please Please Me’ on Thank Your Lucky Stars. They all looked alike, the same dark suits, the same Cuban-heeled boots, the same longish hair that hid their foreheads, the same cheeky grins. One played a guitar with a long neck that seemed to stick out the wrong way, creating a symmetry that other guitar-toting groups like The Shadows didn't have. The only one that looked vaguely different was the drummer and that was because he was the smallest, had the biggest nose and the saddest eyes, and when he played he shook his head from side to side so his fringe bobbed up and down like a floor mop, but as far as we were concerned they were a single united being with no history, only a present and, possibly, a future.
Not until much later did the truth emerge; that the position of drummer in the group remained in the balance until they recorded their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, in September the previous year. By contrast, two of the guitarists, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, had been playing together in groups since October 1957, with the third, George Harrison, joining them a few months later. The drummer, Ringo Starr, born Richard Starkey on 7 July 1940, might have been the oldest Beatle in years but in terms of Beatle experience he was far and away the youngest.
The circumstances that brought Ringo into the fold were devious and, in the eyes of their luckless former drummer Pete Best, downright shameful. Best had joined The Beatles in August 1960 on the eve of their first visit to Hamburg, sticking with them throughout that four month marathon, on through the whole of 1961 and the first half of 1962, a stint that saw two further arduous Hamburg trips and hundreds of shows around Liverpool, many of them at the Cavern Club. Best had succeeded a drummer called Tommy Moore who was considerably older than the others and whose sole claim to Beatle fame was accompanying them on an ill-fated tour of Scotland, backing singer Johnny Gentle, in May of 1960.
For all his hard work and enthusiasm, and the hours he put in, Pete Best somehow never fitted in, and in the early months of 1962 John, Paul and George began plotting his dismissal. Ringo, meanwhile was playing with another Liverpool outfit, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes, though his stint with them was characterised by occasional signs of restlessness, not least an abandoned plan to emigrate to Texas – he’d always been a lover of Westerns. Manager Brian Epstein was given the uncomfortable task of firing Best on 16 August, two days after John had phoned Ringo at Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Skegness and invited him to join. Ringo needed no encouragement and played his first official show as a Beatle on 18 August at Port Sunlight, near Birkenhead.
The changeover wasn’t accomplished without a certain amount of unpleasantness in Liverpool. Although the group was largely unknown outside of the Lancastrian port, there had been early, minor outbreaks of Beatlemania in their home town where a sizeable following, mostly female and certainly vocal, was attracted by Pete Best’s good looks and moody image. A frosty reception greeted The Beatles down at the Cavern after Ringo’s appointment, and George somehow received a black eye in one fracas.
It helped that Ringo was a fixture on the Liverpool and Hamburg scenes where The Beatles cut their teeth. It probably also helped that he was somehow more congenial than Pete Best, that he shared the same quirky sense of humour as John, Paul & George and could be relied upon to enliven the party with a well-timed droll comment. More importantly, he’d played a few shows with The Beatles before he became a member, deputising for Best when he was ill, so they knew he could cut it on stage.
It was touch and go whether he could cut it in the studio, however. After his first session with The Beatles at Abbey Road in September of 1962 producer George Martin took the precaution of hiring session drummer Andy White when they returned a week later, leaving Ringo to disconsolately shake a tambourine. In the event the version of ‘Love Me Do’ that was released in October did have Ringo on drums, though for reasons still unexplained The Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me featured the version with Andy White.
If this shook Ringo’s confidence it didn’t show, and the Best episode was quickly forgotten – not that fans outside Liverpool knew anything of it anyway. Ringo was certainly in his element when the group recorded their first album in February of 1963, the highlight of which was John’s all-out assault on ‘Twist And Shout’, with Ringo’s snare powering the group through what was, by a wide margin, the most frenzied piece of pop music ever recorded in the UK up to that time. 
When he became a Beatle Ringo was using a basic four piece Premier kit, a 20x17″ bass drum, a 16x16″ floor tom, a 12x8″ rack tom and a shallow white 14x4″ snare, together with one ride cymbal and a hi-hat. At first he had the initials ‘RS’ on the front of the bass drum, then added his full name. In early 1963 this was changed to The Beatles’ first logo in which the vertical line of the ‘B’ split at the top into two beetles’ antennae.
It wasn’t long before Ringo decided he needed something better and he bought his first Ludwig kit from Drum City on Shaftesbury Avenue in April of 1963, accompanied by Brian Epstein. He chose a basic four-piece kit in oyster black pearl with a 20-inch bass drum, two cymbals and a hi-hat, and it was Epstein who suggested that a new logo should appear on the front of the bass drum. In the event the famous Beatles logo with the large ‘B’ and dropped ‘T’ was designed in the store and painted on the front by their own freelance sign writer.
Ringo was loyal to Ludwig. He was using a second Ludwig kit by the time the group played their first concerts in America in February 1964, and in May of the same year he was given his third kit by a grateful Ludwig whose sales had shot up as a result of Ringo’s patronage. Retaining the same finish as his first kit, this was a Super Classic kit with a 22x14″ bass drum, 13x9″ rack tom, 16x16″ floor tom and 15x5″ wood-shell snare. By the time of The Beatles 1965 US tour he was on his fourth kit, and henceforth he seems to have chopped and changed between the various kits he owned.
During the remainder of The Beatles’ career two further kits made an appearance, the first Ringo’s ‘giant kit’ in white pearl with a 28x14″ bass drum, and the second his gold Hollywood kit with twin rack toms which he used during the session for the ‘White Album’ and during the filming of Let It Be. It is widely believed that Ringo still owns most, if not all, the kits he used during his eight years as a Beatle.
Ringo’s playing style and technical ability have always been hotly debated. His drumming skills have inspired tremendous acclaim and terrible derision in almost equal measure, the latter occasionally at the hands of the rest of the band with John Lennon once famously smirking that Ringo “wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. It may well be true that the sheer variety of drum parts in The Beatles’ songs can be attributed to the rest of the band’s musical imagination and awareness rather than Ringo’s skills, but it would be churlish to suggest that any half-way competent drummer would be capable of such remarkable diversity. Paul McCartney was particularly forthright in his criticism – perhaps naturally, as the bass player – and was also the most clued-up Beatle in regards to American soul and R&B. There is a definite Motown-esque energy to the tom-tom roll introduction and triplet fills that drive ‘She Loves You’, and McCartney has revealed that the quasi-Latin feel to ‘I Feel Fine’ was inspired by Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’. However, it is testament to Ringo’s abilities that he was able to execute the ideas he was charged with and performed so successfully. This willingness to absorb the other’s concepts was a key part of why the dynamic of the group worked so well; a more independently-minded drummer might have found himself at odds with his bandmate’s collective musical ambition and have been unable to contribute so sympathetically. The result is a set of drum performances which are an intrinsic part of these great songs. For instance, the drums for ‘Ticket To Ride’ helped make it the strongest track The Beatles had recorded up to that point. The staggered tom-tom triplets of the initial verses were truly original, and the shift from this to more conventional patterns in the later verses gives a momentum that demonstrates how The Beatles’ musical sophistication and fast-developing mastery of song structure was embedded in Ringo’s parts. 
While Ringo’s drumming was never self-consciously flashy (he famously resisted playing the solo in ‘The End’ at the climax to Abbey Road, and relented only when it had been halved in length), many of The Beatles’ mid-period songs demonstrate how his role was not limited to that of a background time keeper. ‘She Said She Said’ is punctuated by (relatively) extravagant snare fills, never allowing the song to settle. ‘Rain’ – also a watershed for McCartney’s role as the other half of the Fabs’ rhythm section – was a favourite performance by Ringo and again is full of tom rolls and flourishes that match the song’s psychedelia perfectly.
The hi-hat fill and tom-tom rolls which kick off Lennon’s ‘Come Together’ show how Ringo’s particular feel could define a fairly simple pattern. Interestingly, Starr was born left-handed, but developed ambidextrous skills at a young age and always played a right-handed kit. This facilitated some unorthodox ideas, but also made some more conventional drum figures somewhat awkward; the result was Ringo’s personal, inimitable style. ‘Get Back’ would be unimaginable without Ringo’s underpinning snare shuffle; it’s B-side, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ features another idiosyncrasy in the 16th-note hi-hat pattern heard on the first beat only of each bar.
All this is interesting to compare with the performances on ‘Back In The USSR’ and ‘Dear Prudence’, where an unprecedented falling-out had led to Ringo’s temporary departure from the band, and McCartney played drums instead. Who knows how Ringo would have played these drum parts; there is perhaps a stiffness and straightness to some of McCartney’s comparatively undeveloped playing, but his avalanche of tom-toms at the end of ‘Prudence’ remains a definite standout Beatles drum moment.
A glance through the interviews he has given over the years gives the impression that Ringo Starr never believed that he was a great drummer, let alone a great singer, or a great anything else really. Yet, like his contemporaries Charlie Watts in The Rolling Stones and Keith Moon with The Who, he was unquestionably the perfect drummer for the group in which he played, steady and reliable with occasional touches of greatness that he modestly shrugs off with his trademark self-depreciation. In 1964 American Beatles fans mounted a campaign to elect Ringo for President. Well, he’d certainly have made a better fist of it than some I can think of…

(I am grateful to Music Sales senior editor Tom Farncombe for help with this and yesterday’s piece about Paul McCartney’s basses)

Further Reading:
The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions by Mark Lewisohn (Hamlyn/EMI 1998)
The Beatles Gear by Andy Babiuk (Backbeat, 2002)
Here There And Everywhere by Geoff Emerick (Gotham Books, 2007)

Revolution In The Head by Ian MacDonald (Vintage, 2008)

PAUL & HIS BASSES

After the intros to the two guitar books I wrote this for the Beatles Bass book.

At the time when The Beatles were coming to terms with the idea that becoming professional musicians was a viable career option, the position of bass guitarist in the group was an issue that required urgent attention. In 1960, bass players in groups were generally given the role because they were the least proficient on regular guitars, it being assumed that playing an instrument with four strings was easier than playing one with six. The concept that a bass player could contribute to a group’s overall sound beyond simply plodding along to the beat while plucking the note that corresponded to the rhythm guitarist’s chord was not yet widely recognised outside of professional circles and, of course, many of those who took up the bass found it difficult to play and sing at the same time. So the bass players in the groups that spearheaded the beat boom were often not just the worst guitarists but also the worst singers as well.
         Paul McCartney changed all that. Not only did he become one of the most accomplished bass guitar players of his generation, adding a melodic depth to the Beatle’s music that was hitherto unthinkable in pop music, but he and John Lennon took on the lion’s share of the vocal duties too.
         The process by which Paul became The Beatles’ bass player was far from straightforward. In The Quarrymen Paul played regular guitar and he remained stubbornly attached to it as John’s school band developed in fits and starts into The Beatles. As the group became more proficient the issue of the bass vacancy became more crucial and John opted to solve the problem by inviting his art school friend Stuart Sutcliffe to assume the role. Somewhat fortuitously, in January of 1960 Stuart won £65 in an art competition sponsored by the Liverpool pools millionaire Sir John Moores, and John persuaded Stuart to invest his winnings in a Hofner President bass guitar, and learn how to play it. At this point in their evolution The Beatles were known as Johnny & The Moondogs; John was in charge and brooked no dissent from Paul or George Harrison, both of whom were sceptical about Stuart’s musical abilities.
         So Stuart persevered with the bass despite having no natural skills. Indeed, so embarrassed was he at his own efforts that he was inclined to turn his back on the audience during the smattering of shows that The Beatles performed during the first half of the year, the highlight of which was the brief Scottish tour they undertook in May as the backing band for singer Johnny Gentle. Back in Liverpool they successfully auditioned for their first Hamburg season and, with Stuart on bass and the newly recruited Pete Best on drums, set off for Germany’s largest port in August. Though the rhythm section was certainly shaky, the three months they spent in Hamburg was a gruelling experience that involved playing for up to eight hours a night – but it would turn them into the band they became.
         Many regarded Stuart as the most physically attractive member of the group, but even after six months in the band he was still unable to play his bass well, preferring to pose with it and look moody in his leather jacket and sunglasses. This caused a good deal of friction in the group with Paul complaining to John, and both John and Paul complaining to Stuart. John was torn between friendship and his desire to make the group stronger. He knew that Paul was right and that The Beatles would never progress musically as long as Stuart remained. But at the same time he loyally defended his friend, even threatening to leave himself if Stuart was forced out.        
         “The problem with Stu was that he couldn’t play bass guitar,” Paul would say later. “We had to turn him away in photographs because he’d be doing F# and we'd be holding G. Stu and I had a fight once on stage in Hamburg but we were virtually holding each other up. We couldn’t move, couldn’t do it. The thing that concerned me was the music, and that we get on musically, and we didn’t. Same with Pete Best.”
When they returned to Liverpool around Christmas 1960 Stuart remained in Hamburg, now living at the home of his art student/photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. It seems Paul briefly assumed the bass duties at this point but George wasn’t impressed. He even wrote to Stuart in Hamburg urging him to return. “It’s no good with Paul playing bass,” he said. “We’ve decided, that is if he had some kind of bass and amp to play on!”
With Stuart still in Hamburg and John evidently committed to the group regardless, Pete Best contacted Chas Newby, the former rhythm guitarist with his group The Blackjacks, to play bass but Newby lasted only for a couple of gigs. Next John tried to get George to play bass but this met with a solid refusal and so Paul, who had been playing both rhythm guitar and piano, was finally deputed to take the job. He fashioned a bass out of his regular guitar, a Rosetti Solid 7 model, using three old piano strings. It was far from satisfactory, but it still sounded better than Stuart.
         In late February 1961, Stuart Sutcliffe returned to Liverpool to visit his parents but stayed for only a couple of weeks. It proved long enough to cause more dissension within The Beatles’ ranks, however, with John again insisting that despite his musical shortcomings, Stu should resume his former role as the group’s bass player. It wasn’t to be and when Stuart returned again to Germany he relinquished his role as a Beatle once and for all. So it was that Paul became The Beatles’ bass player, a position he would undertake with enormous distinction until the group disbanded in 1970.
         “None of us wanted to be the bass player,” McCartney admitted later. “It wasn’t the number one job… In our minds he [the bass player] was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. None of us wanted that. We wanted to be upfront singing, looking good, to pull the birds… I was a bit lumbered with it really.”
         Paul had already played bass on a few occasions when Stuart had cried off, using Stuart’s Hofner but playing it upside down because Paul was left handed. Indeed, it seems Paul’s versatility as a musician – he also tinkered on the piano, drums and trumpet – sealed his fate. He used the crudely modified Rosetti for the first three months of 1961, until the Beatles second visit to Hamburg where he would acquire the first of several Hofner 500/1 basses, generally known as the Violin bass.
         “I got my Hofner Violin bass at the Steinway shop in the town centre,” he says. “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 into debt… They were prepared to use hire purchase credit, but it had been so battered into me I wouldn’t risk it. So I bought a cheap guitar. And once I bought it I fell in love with it.”
One reason why Paul chose the Violin bass was that it was symmetrical, which meant that it wouldn’t look odd if he had to play it upside down. In the event, in order to secure the sale, the shop went out of their way to procure a left-handed model for Paul. This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds because Hofner instruments were assembled in the nearby German town of Hagenau so it was relatively easy for the shop to arrange the manufacture and delivery of a left-handed model. Little were they to know how this small gesture would lead to the Violin bass becoming such an iconic instrument in rock and Beatles folklore.
         In some ways it is surprising that Paul stuck with the Violin bass while The Beatles became as popular as they did. Most bassists in the groups that found fame in the wake of The Beatles used far more expensive and solidly built instruments, usually Fender Precision or Jazz basses or Gibson SG or EB models. The Hofner 500/1 bass was certainly lightweight, with a very thin neck, but they can be fragile and not really up to the wear and tear inflicted on guitars by groups that tour regularly. Nevertheless Paul stuck with it both on the road and in the studio, acquiring a second one around October 1963. He was to have been given a third, gold-plated model, by Hofner in the spring of 1964 in exchange for allowing his name to be used in promotional material, but appears never to have used the instrument.
         The lightness of the Hofner, coupled with its short scale – 30’’ compared to the 34’’ scale of a Fender bass – was a likely influence on the playing style that McCartney was to develop. The instrument naturally facilitated the fluid melodic lines that would soon start to weave their way into the Beatles’ recordings.
         After the first wave of Beatlemania, John and George expanded their guitar collections considerably, often choosing Rickenbackers, much to the delight of the manufacturers. So it was that Paul, too, was offered a Rickenbacker 4001 bass in 1964, but he didn’t take up the offer until the summer of the following year. It was one of the first left-handed basses the company had made, and considerably sturdier than the Hofners he’d been using. Paul would use this same bass guitar in the studio for the remainder of The Beatles’ days together and into his solo career. While he continued to appear with the Hofner onstage, and on film, the Rickenbacker boasted much more stable intonation than the Violin basses and further encouraged the fluent, high register lines that can be heard on tracks such as ‘Rain’ and songs from the Sgt. Pepper album.
         The only other bass guitar used by The Beatles – not necessarily Paul – was a Fender VI that was given to them by the manufacturers during the sessions for the ‘White Album’. This was a six-string bass, with a body shape similar to a Fender Jaguar but with a longer neck. George can be seen playing in the promotional film for ‘Hey Jude’ with Paul on an upright piano and John on his sanded down Epiphone Casino. Paul, too would sand down his Rickenbacker 4001S bass, which he still owns.
         Despite his initial reluctance to take on the position of bassist in the band, McCartney was quick to appreciate the melodic potential of a bass line and also the instrument’s potential for directing a song’s harmony. ‘Michelle’ is underpinned by a particularly sophisticated display of voice-leading which fits the song’s Gallic jazz perfectly. The other songs from the Rubber Soul and Revolver era included in this collection demonstrate how McCartney’s playing was reaching maturity, notably in the funky octaves in ‘Taxman’ and the ostinato underpinning the harmony guitar riff in ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’.
         By the time that The Beatles had rejected the stage to focus purely on studio work, Paul’s playing took another leap forward. While early in the group’s career they played together in the studio, now Paul increasingly recorded his bass parts separately from the rest of the band. The bass line to ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is a prime example of a line conceived as an independent voice in the music; integral to the structure of the song, but existing as a layer of invention all on its own, from the opening chromatic descent in the verses to the arpeggios of the pre-chorus and eventual doubling of the guitar riff in the chorus.
         Later tracks would further demonstrate McCartney’s imagination and versatility as a bass player, from the swooping lines in ‘Dear Prudence’ to the wild glissandi right up the neck in ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’. Remastered versions of ‘Hey Jude’ reveal a hitherto largely unheard bass part that skips along majestically in a high register during the extended chorus while, at the other extreme, the bass is certainly a dominant, thrashing presence in his own ‘Helter Skelter’. Also, in the final two years of the group’s career when their personal relationships were coming under strain, McCartney seems to have delighted in providing lines of particular sensitivity and melodicism for songs written by his colleagues. His work on Lennon’s ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and Harrison’s ‘Something’ both stand up well against the work of McCartney’s Motown hero, James Jamerson, the consummate studio professional.
          There can be no question that Paul McCartney substantially elevated the role of bass player in pop music and although on stage nowadays he performs at the piano and on a left-handed Les Paul or Martin acoustic, it is the moment when he straps on his trademark Violin bass to perform a Beatles song that audiences roar in approval. No rock star alive or dead has ever become so decisively associated with his chosen instrument.

19.4.14

THE BEATLES & THEIR GUITARS, Part 2

By the time The Beatles began recording sessions at Abbey Road in late 1966 for what would become Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band their instrumental palette had swelled to proportions unimaginable to the band that recorded Please Please Me back in 1963. Indeed, the music on Sgt Pepper represents a peak for The Beatles in terms of instrumental variety; the albums that followed, by and large, saw the group gradually return to basics, back to the guitars and drums they carted around Liverpool and Hamburg.
For Sgt Pepper George Martin was called upon to commission whole orchestras, to recreate fairground sound effects and to seek out a note whose pitch could be heard only by dogs. But whatever demands their soaring imagination placed on their long-suffering producer, the humble guitar remained at the foundations of their music. Photographs taken during the sessions show Paul using a newly acquired Fender Esquire (right handed – upside down) with his Epiphone Casino never far away, and for the increasingly complex bass parts he almost certainly turned to his Rickenbacker.
         George, meanwhile, was also using his Casino, and sometime around 1967 he opted to repaint his blue Stratocaster in psychedelic colours with a nod to Jamaica; red, green and yellow in various patterns with an Indian motif and adding the motto Be Bop A Lula. John, too, opted to redesign some of his guitars, spray-painting the back of his Epiphone, but for the most part during the Sgt Pepper sessions John played electric keyboard instruments mostly supplied by the studio.
         In February 1968 all of The Beatles headed off to Rishikesh in India to study meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a relaxing experience that allowed them plenty of time to work uninterrupted on songwriting. John and Paul brought along their Martin D-28s and, individually now, composed several of the songs that would appear on the ‘White Album’, as the double album The Beatles is generally known. Under the tuition of Donovan, another meditation guest at Rishikesh, John learned to play the ‘claw hammer’ finger style he utilises on ‘Dear Prudence’.
         Back in the UK, work started fitfully in May on the ‘White Album’ with the first version of John’s song ‘Revolution’ which was deemed too slow for a single. In the meantime, the trend for modifying guitars continued with all three guitar-playing Beatles taking their instruments to be sanded down in the belief that a natural finish produced a better tone. This process was applied to their Epiphones, John’s Gibson J-160E and Paul’s Rickenbacker bass.
         In between tracks for ‘The White Album’ the group also recorded the single, ‘Hey Jude’, featuring John on acoustic guitar and Paul, who added his bass part later, on piano. Not until the Love album release in 2005 could the virtuosity of Paul’s high-end bass work on this song – particularly on the fading chorus – be fully appreciated. ‘Hey Jude’, of course, was the perfect single for the group to launch their Apple label so ‘Revolution’ was consigned to the B-side, and a faster version was laid down with Paul on Rickenbacker bass and John playing his Epiphone Casino through a fuzz box.
During the ‘White album’ sessions George was presented with a dark red Gibson Les Paul by his friend Eric Clapton, the same instrument on which Clapton played the solo on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Clearly taken with it, George used this Les Paul for much of the rest of 1968 and into 1969, and can be seen playing it on the promo clip for ‘Revolution’, alongside John with his now blonde Casino and Paul on one of his old Hofner violin basses.
         It was round about this time that Paul somehow got it into his head that The Who were embarking on the heaviest rock music ever recorded and, not to be outdone, wrote and sang ‘Helter Skelter’, perhaps the most controversial Beatle song. Leaving aside the regrettable Charles Manson connection, ‘Helter Skelter’ is among the most rowdy, unrefined songs the group ever recorded, with wildly distorted guitars, John plucking a Fender VI six-string bass, and a false ending before a resumption that sounds not unlike The Who climaxing their stage act, with Ringo complaining loudly about the blisters on his fingers. In complete contrast ‘Blackbird’ features Paul solo, softly finger-picking his Martin D-28 with casual precision.
         John too had demonstrated his versatility by shifting gracefully from Yellow Submarine’s ‘Hey Bulldog’, another slice of heavy Beatle pie, to more sensitive work on the ‘White Album’ like ‘Dear Prudence’ and the double-entendre filled ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’. ‘Bulldog’, however, features John mainly on piano but George crunches in with the recurring ascending riff, and contributes a suitably heavy solo, on his Gibson SG.
         With the ‘White Album’ sessions concluded the group was in a state of disarray, uncertain about their future, and only Paul’s enthusiasm held them together. The sessions for what became Let It Be were fractious and unfulfilled and, ultimately, the tapes were shelved until after the release of Abbey Road, the last album The Beatles recorded together. Only two songs from the Let It Be sessions escaped early and were released as a single in April 1969, the toe-tapping rocker ‘Get Back’ for which Paul resurrected one of his Hofner violin basses – the set-list from the Beatles last concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park still taped to it – while John played the solo on his sanded down Epiphone and George strummed the chugging rhythm on his dark brown Telecaster, as he did on the single’s emotional roller-coaster B-side ‘Don’t Let Me Down’.
         Unusually, only John and Paul appear on ‘The Ballad Of John And Yoko’, John’s diary-like song about his eventful marriage and honeymoon. John plays acoustic and electric guitars, probably his Martin and Epiphone, while Paul plays bass on the Rickenbacker and, not for the first time, drums. The highlight of the B-side, ‘Old Brown Shoe’, is the rumbling bass riff on which Paul’s line is doubled up by George playing his Telecaster through a Leslie speaker.
         The Beatles convened as a group for the final time at Abbey Road during July and August 1969. For the most part Paul returned to his Rickenbacker for bass playing, and Martin and Casino when he played regular guitar, as did John, while George used his Les Paul and two Fenders. On ‘I Want You’, John’s cri de couer for Yoko, he and George overdubbed their electric guitars over and over again on the relentless, distorted arpeggio while John added the increasingly strident white noise on a Moog synthesiser.
         The Beatles’ swan song, at least in the UK, was the ‘Let It Be’ single, on which – surprisingly – John played bass on a Fender VI bass which Fender had given them around the time of the ‘White Album’ sessions, and George played his Telecaster. ‘Across The Universe’ was started back in early 1968 but had proved troublesome, and John was evidently unhappy with the way it turned out, initially offering it as a track on a charity album to benefit the World Wildlife Fund. In the end the song appeared on the Let It Be album, and features, predominantly, John strumming his Martin with George adding background touches on tamboura and sitar.
          In little under 15 years John, Paul and George had progressed from their earliest, poorly-made guitars on which they first learned to play to a vast arsenal of the very best American-made electric and acoustic guitars that money could buy. In many ways The Beatles lit the touch paper for the massive upsurge in guitar sales that occurred during the sixties and which, even today, makes the guitar the dominant instrument in all of rock music. The manufacturers of Fenders, Gibsons, Martins, Rickenbackers and the rest owe The Beatles a huge debt but the extraordinary music that the group produced was the product of their imaginations rather than the instruments on which it was performed. While they certainly couldn’t have made an album like Abbey Road with their Gallotone Champion, Zenith 17 and Egmond guitars, it takes more than simply great instruments to make music like The Beatles.

18.4.14

THE BEATLES & THEIR GUITARS, Part 1


A couple of years ago I was asked to write introductions to four Beatles sheet music books aimed at guitarists and decided to talk about about the instruments they used. The ‘guitar’ book was in two parts, one dealing with the period up to and including 1966, the second 1967 onwards. Then there was a bass book and finally a drum book. This is the first ‘guitar’ intro, which will be followed by the other three over the next few days.

First and foremost The Beatles was a band of guitarists. As a teenager John Lennon picked up the guitar because Elvis played one, and he learned a few rudimentary chords to front his skiffle group The Quarrymen. John invited Paul McCartney to join because Paul was more advanced on the guitar than him and knew how to tune the instrument properly. George Harrison arrived several months later because Paul, and eventually John, both recognised his superior guitar skills. The drums – and the band went through several drummers before Ringo arrived – seem in hindsight to have been an afterthought or at least a perpetual problem, just as they are with most bands of beginners.
         John, Paul and George taught themselves to play. John might have picked up a banjo chord or two from his mother Julia, Paul probably inherited some musical talent from his father, who played trumpet in a Liverpool jazz band, and George had a lesson or two from an older player, but when they got together they learned to forge their own style, expanding the guitar’s rock vocabulary as they did so. Countless hours of honing their craft in Liverpool and Hamburg, much of it in front of demanding audiences, led to an instrumental fluency that not only matched their rivals but bred in them an instinctive sense of musical communication. Once they’d mastered these skills they were ready to take on the world.
         John was a rhythm guitarist, one of the best ever. His speciality was not so much his encyclopaedic knowledge of chords, some of them his own invention, but his immaculate timing and a fearsomely powerful right hand strumming action that powered the group, the engine that propelled it forward. Paul learned to play a regular guitar first but took over on bass at the beginning of 1961 and, probably because he knew his way around a piano, became one of the most inventive, melodic bassists of his generation, the group’s harmonic core. George, a rockabilly fanatic, was simply in love with his instrument from the word go and determined to master every style he could, and to use his skills on any other fretted instrument he encountered, not least the sitar. He was the group’s instrumental backbone.
         In the mid-fifties, when John, Paul and George first decided to learn to play guitar, the choice of instruments was very limited. Guitars were a novelty then and those that were available to British schoolboys were cheap and badly made, with poor actions and inaccurate fretting. Because of import restrictions, well constructed American models – Fenders, Gibsons and Gretsches – had yet to arrive in the UK so the three future Beatles split their fingertips on poor quality guitars bought for them by mums and dads who knew no better. This was not necessarily a bad thing: learning on an inferior instrument demands a greater degree of dedication and perseverance than learning on a quality guitar, and makes the eventual upgrade that much more satisfying.
         Accordingly, John’s first guitar was a Gallotone Champion which was bought for him by Julia through mail-order, and which he is seen playing in the now famous photograph of The Quarrymen at the Woolton Church Fete on July 6, 1957, the day he met Paul. His future partner’s first guitar was a Zenith 17 which, because he was left-handed, Paul would have had to restring and play upside down, with the scratch plate above the soundhole and not below. Both subsequently acquired Hofner Club 40s, superior certainly and better looking but still far from ideal. George’s first guitar, meanwhile, was a second-hand Dutch-made Egmond but by the time he joined the Quarrymen he’d graduated to a Hofner President.
         It wasn’t until the Beatles went to Hamburg in 1960 that they equipped themselves with anything approaching professional instruments. John went for a Rickenbacker 325, a short-scale solid body, and Paul’s first bass, after the Hofner he inherited from Stuart Sutcliffe, was the famous violin bass, also made by Hofner, the first of many similar models he would own. George’s first electric guitar was a Futurama III, an inferior Stratocaster copy made in Czechoslovakia by Resonet, but in 1961 he got his first Gretsch, a Duo Jet and, in 1963, a Country Gentleman designed for Gretsch by the country guitarist Chet Atkins. By now both John and George had also acquired Gibson J-160E acoustic guitars with single electric pickups at the base of the fretboard, which they are seen playing in early photos and TV appearances.
         John had also taught himself to play the harmonica, an instrument he first picked up when he was 12. He can be heard playing it, in intros that establish the melody line, on The Beatles’ first three singles ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘From Me To You’, though from this point on it’s guitars to the fore, as it was for most of the songs on their debut album. Remarkably, ten of the 14 songs on Please Please Me were recorded at EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London, in one day February 11, 1963 and for the two most upbeat songs on the record, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist And Shout’, it’s likely that John and George used the Rickenbacker 325 and Gretsch Duo Jet respectively. ‘Twist And Shout’ was the final song to be recorded that day, at 10 in the evening, and some reports have John – grappling with a cold and his voice raw from the day’s efforts – stripped to the waist to belt out what was, at the time, the most frenzied piece of pop music recorded this side of the Atlantic.
         After a break for touring The Beatles reconvened at Abbey Road on 1 July to record ‘She Loves You’, the song most associated with that chaotic summer of Beatlemania. A photograph taken in the back yard at Abbey Road that day shows John with his Gibson acoustic and George with a new Gretsch Country Gentleman, a double cutaway model, on which he would have played the song’s descending arpeggios.
         The sessions for The Beatles’ second album were spread out during the summer and autumn of 1963 but, all the same, only seven days from their hectic schedule were set aside for recording the songs. By now George was using his Country Gentleman in the studio for solos and fills, and for rhythm John alternated between his Gibson acoustic and the Rickenbacker which he used for the fast-paced, dense rhythm track on ‘All My Loving’. The final single of 1963, the one that broke them in America, was ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, on which the instrumentation was probably the same as ‘She Loves You’ and, indeed, ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’.
         The Beatles’ third album, A Hard Day’s Night, was the first on which all the songs were group compositions and by this time George had bought his Rickenbacker 360-12, the 12-string with the jangly tone that was to inspire Roger McGuinn’s Byrds, and which can be heard on the title track and ‘You Can’t Do That’. In the studio George was also using a José Ramírez Spanish guitar, as heard on ‘And I Love Her’.
         For ‘I Feel Fine’ both John and George doubled up on the tricky riff, with John using the Gibson acoustic which was prone to feedback, hence the iconic burst of electronic whine at the beginning of the record. It wasn’t until they learned something about studio techniques that The Beatles realized a song could fade out at the end instead of coming to a natural climax, and for ‘Eight Days A Week’ they reversed the effect, fading in at the beginning with George’s chiming Rickenbacker and John’s acoustic Gibson playing in unison.
         In 1965 The Beatles expanded their guitar collections considerably, with John, Paul and George all buying – or more likely being given – Epiphone Casinos, and Paul adding a Rickenbacker 400IS bass to his array of Hofners. John and George also got sonic blue Fender Strats – John played his on ‘Ticket To Ride’ – and George added a Tennessean to his collection of Gretsches. Paul also acquired an Epiphone Texan acoustic for writing in the studio and performing ‘Yesterday’ live.
         As a result of all these acquisitions it becomes increasingly difficult to state accurately what instruments were played on what songs, especially as Paul was inclined to play the odd guitar part himself as well as bass. George had bought his first sitar in time for the sessions for Rubber Soul, and can be heard playing it on ‘Norwegian Wood’. During 1966 he acquired a Gibson SG Standard and can be seen playing it in the promotional films for ‘Paperback Writer’ and ‘Rain’, both of which were shot at Abbey Road.
         Photographs taken by Robert Freeman in Studio 2 at Abbey Road during the Revolver sessions show all manner of guitars racked up behind the group. The more successful they became the more they were inclined to experiment, and more instruments were used. Sooner or later – like all superstar rock musicians – they were given guitars as presents by other musicians, though the evidence suggests they didn’t give many away themselves. Those they did have become extremely desirable collectors’ items which fetch astronomical sums at auctions of rock and roll memorabilia.