Your Lying Eyes

Dedicated to uncovering the truth that stands naked before your lying eyes.

E-mail Me

Twitter: yourlyingeyes

25 May 2010


Amusing, if sparsely updated, blog I stumbled upon: Paul McCartney Can't Play Piano. While the author insists it's tongue-in-cheek, he makes some convincing arguments.

Every once in a while you might catch the PBS Great Performances "PAUL MCCARTNEY: CHAOS AND CREATION AT ABBEY ROAD" wherein Sir Paul plays around with various musical toys at Abbey Road studios to reminisce with a captive audience. What's striking about the performance is what a genuinely mediocre multi-musician he is. The only instrument he seems really comfortable playing is the bass, which he plays very well. While during the show he has opportunities to vamp a bit on the other instruments he plays before the crowd, he really can't pull off any improvisational turns. That's nothing unusual - Irving Berlin could famously only play in F# - i.e., only the black keys of a piano (according to this blog, Macca can only play the white keys and usually in C) Cole Porter, on the other hand, a more sophisticated composer than either, was quite competent on the instrument, as you can hear in this awesome rendition of "You're the Top" - though Sir Paul might be just a slightly better singer.

The typical rock musician is nothing special - and particularly back in the 60's, top-notch musicians weren't typically in rock groups - they'd be session musicians, making good money on a steady basis. Very few hits were heard on the radio that weren't manned by professional studio musicians. It's remarkable how good the Beatles' records sounded given that they rarely used studio musicians other than on specialty instruments.


Anonymous Sully said...

I don't believe Paul (or John Lennon) could read music either (and resisted any attempts to learn since they appeared to do pretty well without it).

I'm sure someone will correct me if I am mistaken.

May 25, 2010 10:26 PM  
Blogger ziel said...


In fact, Paul came up with the melody of Golden Slumbers while sitting at the piano at his sister's house "reading" the sheet music for the folk song, which he was unfamiliar with. He could only read the words, so he made up his own tune to go with it. Playing only on two fingers, of course:)

May 25, 2010 11:10 PM  
Blogger Brent Lane said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

May 26, 2010 5:50 PM  
Blogger Brent Lane said...

I seem to recall a 70's-era rock critic (perhaps it was Lester Bangs) who noted that Sir Paul "could play more instruments badly than anyone this side of Stevie Wonder."

I am also reminded of the great scene in the seminal rock-and-roll group documentary, The Who's The Kids Are Alright, wherein a mid-to-late 60s-era TV interviewer asks Pete Townshend what he thinks of the musical abilities of The Beatles.

He replies "It's funny, we were just listening to one of their records in the studio, and it was one of those where all the instruments were on one side of the mix so you could hear them without the vocals. . ." His voice trails off for a moment, then he continues, almost apologetically: ". . .and they were flippin' lousy."

May 26, 2010 5:51 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

For a laugh, listen to the electric organ track on "Mr. Moonlight." (I presume it's Paul playing.)

On the other hand, when one of his Wings songs from the 1970s comes on the radio, turn the treble all the way down and the bass all the way up. You won't miss much, and his bass playing is exceptional.

May 27, 2010 12:35 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

Great, now I'm going to have THAT song running thru my head all day.

By the way, according to Lewisohon, it was indeed Paul on the Hammond in Mr. Moonlight.

May 27, 2010 8:19 AM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

A couple of things:

- John and Paul were at their best when they were simultaneously cooperating and competing. A lot of the songs that are pure Paul are from times when the relationship had broken down too much for cooperation.

- What they were really good at was coming up with novel sounds.

Compare the Beatles to the band they named themselves in honor of: Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Buddy Holly, among others, had shown that you didn't need a big band to make a loud noise that the kids could dance to. You just needed electric amplification. So, that meant you could form a band with your buddies from school and have a career with your mates -- the ideal of every English adolescent male.

The problem was the range of the tonal palette was severely limited with a small band. Traditionally, composers who had wanted wider ranges of sounds, such as Berlioz and Stravinsky, had demanded ever bigger orchestras. But that was expensive.

What the Beatles figured out was that if you just holed up in the studio long enough, you could layer any sounds you wanted onto a recording. This idea had been around for awhile -- e.g., the Chipmunks novelty records weren't possible without multitrack recording.

But how do you reproduce, say, the last chord in "A Day in the Life" live on stage when you tour? And here the Beatles benefited from all those screaming teenyboppers who made it absurd for them to perform live. The answer turned out to be: you don't. In fact, you don't even perform live anymore.

May 28, 2010 2:33 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

What the Beatles figured out was that if you just holed up in the studio long enough, you could layer any sounds you wanted onto a recording.

That was a luxury, though, that probably only they had. Lewisohn relates a discussion Eric Clapton had when he visited Abbey Road to record his solo for WMGGW. He noted that Cream would practice their songs and perfect them ahead of time then go into the studio to record, while the Beatles worked out their songs in the studio. Duh!

The Beatles had the run of Abbey Road Studio 2 - they weren't charged for studio time. EMI just ate the cost, knowing they would reap profits unimaginable with any other studio investment.

In contrast, Brian Wilson's approach to Pet Sounds was to record one song per day using the best sessions musicians in L.A., basically recording one live take-after-take until he had the best version, maybe doing a few splices if the song broke cleanly, with very little overdubbing. Then he'd bring the boys in later to record the vocal track - again live, with little overdubbing. (I believe "That's Not Me" was the only song on the album played by band members).

That had to cost Capitol Records a fortune, so Capitol understandably was a little upset upon hearing it that it probably wouldn't be a smash hit.

The answer turned out to be: you don't. In fact, you don't even perform live anymore.

Again, only the Beatles could pull this off - making money only off of record and song royalties.

I wonder when studio equipment and time became cheap enough to afford other groups the luxury to pull off the same trick. For example, The Who - or did Pete Townsend just work out all the parts in his home studio ahead of time then just bring the finished ideas to the recording studio to get them recorded on state-of-the-art equipment? I.e., did it get cheap enough for big artists to afford their own home studio set up at the turn of the decade, which allowed other groups the luxury of perfecting their records' sound?

Nowadays there are obviously still big-time recording studios, but how much better does the finished product sound (especially when played on an iPod) than can be achieved with a few thousand dollars of equipment and ProTools?

May 28, 2010 3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting comment re the use of studio musicians for "most" rock records played on the radio in the 60's...I have heard that the Byrds', e.g., recordings were made with studio musicians...any other examples?
One prominent exception, judging from the terrible sound of their studio work, would be Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company.

July 10, 2010 12:24 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

"One prominent exception, judging from the terrible sound of their studio work, would be Janis Joplin's Big Brother and the Holding Company."

I think as the late 60's developed, and 'progressive rock' began to take root, many of these groups played on their records, perhaps supplemented by studio musicians. The Doors, for example, were a mix of their own playing and studio musicians as needed. I'm sure the Dead played their own instruments. Even with the Byrds, it's probably McGuinn's own jangly 12-string we're hearing.

My understanding is that the studio musicians (look up the "Wrecking Crew") were used for potential hits. They tended to be used to lay down the rhythm track because it was hard for these young guys in new groups who hadn't been playing very long to really command the beat well enough to sound real tight on a record, particularly the drums and bass.

July 11, 2010 9:54 PM  
Anonymous buy generic cialis said...

Interesting. I didn't know that and this blog is one of the best in this category but why you are talking about the Beatles? they were the best band it doesn't matters if Paul couldn't play the piano, he did an amazing career.

May 19, 2011 10:49 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home