Few can claim to have studied the works of Sir Paul McCartney to the same degree as Dutch musician Bart van Poppel.
Sitting down with the man is like opening a vault of Beatles insider knowledge, with all sorts of facts on instruments being switched midway through classic tracks and audiophile observations on how McCartney’s playing evolved throughout the years during his Beatles tenure.
In his group the Analogues, van Poppel performs in arguably the most tonally accurate Beatles tribute act around. Primarily focusing on the latter-day material which was never performed due to the group’s 1966 retirement from the stage, they invest in period-correct equipment to nail the stereoscopic magic of the original Fab Four.
“We don’t try to look like them, so the sound is all that matters,” says van Poppel, before soundcheck at London’s prestigious Palladium venue. “I see so many videos on YouTube where people are using the wrong bass or wrong strings. Information-wise, there’s a lot of bullshit on the 'net. You have to listen carefully to figure out what instruments were used for what parts [so] we went to hear the separate tracks for Abbey Road.
"I had my Rickenbacker, Hofner, Jazz Bass and Fender VI with me just to A/B everything. We learned that 80 per cent of the album was played on a Hofner bass, which McCartney switched to around 1966, for Revolver. Then there are songs like Golden Slumbers where it was George Harrison playing on a different bass - it was a very cut-and-paste time for them.”
For this tour, the bassist will be sticking mainly to his Rickenbackers and a Jazz bass, in accordance with his findings that no Hofners were used on the Beatles’ ninth opus. As he pointed out earlier, the Abbey Road dates later in the year will see the balance shift the other way.
“I love my Rickenbackers but actually prefer Hofners - they’re so cheap and plonky yet also the easiest for our front of house I have two 1965s packed away in our cases and another at home. Rickenbackers are much more difficult, they react differently in certain situations.
"I have a 1978 which I’ve upgraded to the pickups from McCartney’s 4001S. I’d love a 1965, but these instruments are hard to find and if you do, there’s a lot of money involved. I’m also using my sunburst C64 Rickenbacker, which was originally black, as well as this worn but lovely 1968 Jazz.”
With nothing but an Electro-Harmonix Bass Big Muff adding extra grit where needed, it’s a fairly direct signal flow into the Fender Bassman amplifier he hears as “a bit brighter” than the Vox heads used on previous tours. There are no blinking lights on stage - and rightly so - as the Analogues insist on being truly analogue.
“I only use overdrive on Back In The U.S.S.R.,” continues van Poppel. “It’s a heavy song - it actually has three basses on the record creating rhythmic layers. I think a lot of McCartney’s thinking came from him starting out as a guitar player. I tend to prefer the more guitar-istic bassists. Noel Redding was the same, as well as Ronnie Lane from the Small Faces.”
Although he hasn’t yet been granted an opportunity to meet the man himself, van Poppel was able to get footage of his band performing in front of McCartney through a mutual friend. The response was short and sweet, with Macca thanking them for their efforts, which he described as ‘very cool’.
As it turns out, Universal were also impressed, signing them up for a six-album deal that included a collection of their own, Beatles-inspired material. Ironically, the releases will come out through Decca, the label who famously refused to sign the originals after their audition in London on New Year’s Day, 1962 - essentially turning down the biggest sellers in music history.
“We are all nerds and pretty fanatical,” laughs the bassist and musical director, making light of their heated debates over what got used where and whose favourite song is better. He cites Getting Better as an example of McCartney at his inimitable best, noting how the parts plod slowly to begin with and eventually swing harder in between the guitars.
Then there’s the walking bassline in Lovely Rita (“If you make one mistake playing it, you’re totally screwed!”) and the phrasing on With A Little Help From My Friends (“Stunning note choices”).
What are the other secrets to the McCartney methodology, we wonder? The bandleader grins before warning us we could be here all day. The answer ultimately depends on the era in question, he shrugs.
“The White Album is probably the easiest to learn, while Abbey Road gets very difficult in places. On Sgt. Pepper, the basslines were really arranged. Paul played them after everything else had been recorded, replacing whatever was originally underneath.
"He was mainly using his Rickenbacker with dampers and flatwounds, which I use too. Like Paul, I play nearly all the songs with a pick - you can hear the attack on the records. His ideas became stranger over the years, there was a lot of sliding on the White Album and Abbey Road for songs like Dear Prudence and Come Together. That’s when his parts became busier, more instinctive and harder to follow. He was fiddling around in a very unique way, the parts kept changing as he played them.”
Admirably, the Analogues go the extra mile in their faithful recreations – performing exactly what was recorded, warts and all, with as much dedication to the wrong notes as the right ones. In his case, says the bassist, being note-perfect isn’t always strictly note-perfect.
“I love it that you can hear the mistakes, and my job is to copy them. My favourite is probably the one at the end of All You Need Is Love, and there’s also another famous moment in Norwegian Wood. I play keyboards in the band as well, like the intro for I Am The Walrus, and if you don’t play that mistake, well, it’s not the same song! Our mission is to make people feel as if they’re inside their favourite Beatles albums.”
Picking up his bass only moments later, launching into a soundcheck backed by a full supporting cast of musicians and screens of psychedelic 60s nostalgia, it appears to be mission accomplished.