Tim Fletcher looks at how Paul McCartney became the bass player in The Beatles, a role he didn’t really want…
By 1959, the three remaining members of The Quarrymen, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison were gelling as a live band, but their three-guitar lineup needed some extra drive to enable them to sound like the US rock n roll bands they aspired to emulate. Unable to find a permanent drummer, they settled for the next best thing; a bass player.
Stuart Sutcliffe had become a friend of John Lennon’s when they were both studying at The Liverpool College of Art. He was a talented artist, and in November 1959, Stuart sold one of his paintings at an art exhibition. In January 1960, Lennon persuaded him to use the £65 he’d raised to buy a Hofner President bass at Hessey’s music shop in Liverpool and the band expanded to become a quartet.
Sutcliffe wasn’t a natural musician and struggled to learn the instrument. George Harrison was later to comment that, “It was better to have a bass guitarist who couldn’t play than not to have a bass guitarist at all”. The band played a few gigs around the local area, and in May 1960, they caught the attention of local venue owner Larry Williams. He started to book them gigs under various names, including Long John and The Silver Beetles, The Silver Beetles, and then The Silver Beatles.
In late August 1960, through Williams, the band had been hired by Bruno Koschmider to play a residency at his club in Hamburg, Germany.
They hurriedly recruited drummer Pete Best from another Liverpool group, The Blackjacks, to complete the band. On their long drive to Hamburg they decided to drop the ‘Silver’ from their name and simply be known as ‘The Beatles’.
Playing at The Kaiserkeller was a gruelling, as the band were required to play four sets a night. Although they were worked hard, it helped to improve the band. John Lennon recalled that “We had to play for hours and hours on end. Every song lasted twenty minutes and had twenty solos in it. That’s what improved the playing.”
By October the band was becoming unhappy with their pay and living arrangements and had left the Kaiserkeller to work at the rival Top Ten Club. Koschmider was very angry about this and reported McCartney and Best for damage to their room, and Harrison for working underage. The three were deported from Germany at the end of November. Lennon briefly stayed on, but by early December, the core of the group was back in Liverpool. Sutcliffe stayed in Germany with his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr and told the other band members that he was leaving the group.
They quickly picked up bookings, and with Sutcliffe absent, the band needed to find a bass player. Pete Best suggested that Chas Newby, his former bandmate in The Blackjacks, might be happy to stand in, as he was on a Christmas break from college. His first show with The Beatles was at The Casbah Club (owned by Best’s mother, Mona) on the 17th December. He stayed on for three more gigs, the last of which was back at the Casbah on New Year’s Eve. Lennon was impressed enough to ask Newby to return with the band to Germany, but he declined as he wished to complete his chemistry course.
For their next show, at Litherland Town Hall on the 5th of January 1961, McCartney played his first gig as The Beatles’ bass player.
He turned his Rosetti Solid 7 electric guitar into a bass, using three piano strings, and he played it like this on at least twenty shows. Sutcliffe returned in late January, in order to attend an interview for a teacher training course at The Liverpool College of Art, but he was unsuccessful. He was invited to return to the band, and on the 9th of February, with McCartney back on guitar, they played the first of many gigs at The Cavern Club. Their Liverpool fanbase widened significantly during this period, but by the end of March the band found themselves back on the road to Hamburg. Peter Eckhorn, manager of the Top Ten Club, had smoothed out The Beatles’ work permit issues with the local authorities and hired them for another residency.
After a few weeks in Germany, McCartney’s Rosetti guitar broke irreparably, and he found himself relegated to the piano. Sutcliffe soon began spending more time with Astrid. Tired of the relentless gigging, and feeling unfulfilled by the music, he sometimes turned up late for rehearsals, or didn’t appear at all. His apparent lack of commitment began to grate on the other band members. This erupted in an onstage confrontation with Paul McCartney, and by the end of their residency at The Top Ten, Sutcliffe decided to leave the band. Astrid encouraged him to return to his art studies and he enrolled at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts.
Having stood in as bass player at their gigs earlier in the year, McCartney was the obvious choice to replace Sutcliffe.
However, he wasn’t overly keen to take it on permanently: “Bass was the thing that the fat boys got lumbered with and were asked to stand at the back and play…So I definitely didn’t want to do it, but Stuart left, and I got lumbered with it. Later I was quite happy”. He initially borrowed Sutcliffe’s bass, but as McCartney was left-handed (and Sutcliffe had asked him not to change the strings around) he had to play it upside down until he had saved enough money to buy his own instrument.
McCartney recalls visiting the Steinway-Haus music shop on the nearby Colonnaden: “I remember going along there, and there was this bass which was quite cheap. I couldn’t afford a Fender. Fenders even then seemed to be about £100. All I could really afford was about £30 . . . so for about £30 I found this Hofner (500/1) violin bass. And to me it seemed like, because I was left-handed, it looked less daft because it was symmetrical. Didn’t look as bad as a cutaway which was the wrong way.”
When the band returned to Liverpool, their fame began to grow, and they soon began to establish themselves as a successful band both in Great Britain and overseas. Although Hofner gave McCartney another 500/1 in 1963 as part of a promotional deal, he continued to use his original 1961 version as a back-up bass on Beatles tours until it was stolen from Abbey Road studios in late 1969.
As an initially reluctant bass player, McCartney soon became more proficient and grew to love the instrument. He later recalled: “When we met Elvis, he was trying to learn bass, so I was like ‘You’re trying to learn bass, are you son? Sit down, let me show you a few things’ So I was very proud of being the bass player”.