Veteran Brooklyn bassist/singer-songwriter John Montagna, who has held it down for The Turtles, Alan Parsons Live Project, and Todd Rundgren, and is a contributor to Bass Magazine, offered to give us an inside look at his sessions for RAM ON, the just-released all-star 50th Anniversary tribute record to Paul and Linda McCartney’s seminal 1971 album, Ram:
It was a quiet evening in December when I got a Facebook message at my home studio workstation from my friend Fernando Perdomo, the superb guitarist and producer who has worked with Beck, Fiona Apple, Emitt Rhodes, and many others. Fernando and I share an obsession with all things McCartney-related, so no explanation was needed when he wrote, “Hey man… happening in my studio now…” and attached a short iPhone video of original Wings drummer Denny Seiwell cutting drum tracks.
I was naturally thrilled at my friend’s opportunity to work with Seiwell, now a well-respected L.A. session drummer, clinician, and recording artist in his own right with the Denny Seiwell Trio. But then Fernando dropped the bomb on me: “We’re re-recording the Ram album for the 50th anniversary… know any bass players?”
Now, I’ve worked with ex-Wings before—tour dates with guitarist Denny Laine, local shows with New York City-based drummer Steve Holley—and every iteration of McCartney’s post-Beatles band had its own brand of musical magic. But Seiwell powered the very first lineup of Wings [1971-1973], the group that famously drove a pair of camper vans up the motorway, punk rock-style, playing surprise gigs in university auditoriums! They were raw and funky, and I’ve always loved the way Macca’s fat bass lines blended with Seiwell’s power and finesse behind the kit.
That unique musical relationship was forged in the studios of New York City during the sessions for Ram, Macca’s second solo LP. Seiwell anchored a core group that included New York City studio guitar legends David Spinozza and the late Hugh McCracken. When Fernando told me that his Ram project would also include the 1971 single, “Another Day,” and that Seiwell had tapped his old pal Spinozza to reprise his famous guitar lines, I was doubly enthused about exalting Macca’s legendary music and representing my hometown alongside Big Apple studio royalty!
Replying in the affirmative, I sent Fernando a photo of my trusty Rickenbacker 4001—always on a guitar stand within arm’s reach—with the caption “Ready to go!” The next day he sent over a pair of AIFFs of reference mixes with drums, guitars, and vocals. Rather than copying the original tracks note-for-note, the mission was to capture the spirit of these beloved songs with lively performances rooted in the present day.
I anticipated the usual challenges of remote rhythm section tracking: Without the real-time give and take of being in the room with Seiwell, I would be adjusting to a pre-existing groove. But my two songs were also at opposite ends of the musical spectrum: Whereas “Another Day” is a precise, through-composed and tightly-arranged gem of McCartney confection, “Smile Away”—Ram’s side one closer—is a raucous three-chord rocker dominated by greasy fuzz bass!
I figured I’d get “Smile Away” out of the way first, thinking that I could knock out its loosey-goosey shuffle groove quickly. Per Fernando’s request I split the Rick’s signal to two separate tracks– one for fuzz, courtesy of my Tech 21 VT Bass pedal, and one clean– and off I went. As I happily jammed along with the track I thought to myself, “Yeaahh! Fuckin’ Ram, alriiiight!” as visions of New York’s CBS Studios circa 1971 danced in my head. Unfortunately, listening back revealed the harsh truth: I was going for “raw, like the Faces,” but instead I sounded “sloppy, like a drunk Rock N Roll Fantasy Camper.” Humbled but undaunted, I spent a few more takes focusing on the sweet spots in Denny’s groove, as well as the awesome crunchy rhythm guitars from Fernando, Elton John legend Davey Johnstone, and the Babys’ Joey Sykes, and soon enough “Smile Away” was dead in the pocket.
Moving on to “Another Day,” I was careful: Even though I’ve known the song my entire life, the “Smile Away” first-take fiasco reminded me never to take familiar material for granted! This time I mapped out a quick chart, but also listened for any subtle differences I noticed in the new track. The original “Another Day” bass line is vintage McCartney, a master class in countermelodies that always support the groove and never obstruct the vocal. But I later found out that the bass was overdubbed last, and that Macca’s bold choices were actually defined by what Seiwell, McCracken, and Spinozza had already played.
“On Ram, I never heard Paul’s bass playing,” Seiwell told me when we chatted after our tracks were done. “He played guitar, piano, or vocal throughout the tracking dates. How I heard and felt his music [and] what I played on the bass drum dictated what he was gonna do on the bass.” Apart from catching a few necessary motifs—like the dramatic E minor arpeggio right before each bridge—I once again concentrated on locking in with Seiwell, as well as the beautiful wall of Badfinger-esque acoustic strumming from Fernando, Chris Alvy, Adrian Bourgeois, and Emeen Zarookian. The temptation to evoke Macca’s melodic razzle-dazzle was hard to resist, but I picked my spots carefully. Anytime I got too fancy the groove would immediately fall apart—a convenient side effect of remote recording!
Once my tracks were done I sent them off to Fernando, who worked his sonic magic putting it all together along with performances from dozens of stellar musicians. They include trumpet legend Marvin Stamm reprising his iconic flugelhorn line on “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” Jellyfish guitarist/vocalist Eric Dover, Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago, Carnie Wilson, percussionist Billy Amendola, and a fierce army of bassists including Derek Frank, Jennifer Jo Oberle, Dan Rothchild, and the one and only Will Lee. Despite our vastly different backgrounds and career trajectories, we are all united in our love for Paul McCartney and the Ram LP.
As many of us find ourselves facing an unknown creative future in this perilous moment for our industry, it’s appropriate that we’ve joined forces to celebrate an album that marked a similar moment for its creator half a century ago, when Macca boldly embraced the challenge of reinventing his music and artistry. My thanks to Fernando and Denny for inviting me aboard, to my fellow musicians for sharing their tremendous talents, and to Sir Paul McCartney for his timeless music. May we all RAM ON!
Bass: 1979 Rickenbacker 4001 with 2-year-old Rotosound 77 Monel Flatwounds (.045-.105)
Amp: Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head, direct out
Fuzz Box: Tech 21 VT Bass pedal
Plectrum: Clayton Acetal Rounded Triangle, 1.00mm
Interface: Focusrite Scarlett 2i2
Software: Logic Pro X
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For more on RAM ON: Click Here
Purchase the album: Here