When the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago announced that as part of their hosting Bowie Is, the David Bowie retrospective, they’d be offering area music acts to perform Bowie music (in this case, an entire album) in their Edlis Neeson Theater, November 11’s presentation of Low by Chicago post-punk noise quartet Disappears was, on paper, a perfect synthesis. Bowie’s Low is equal parts atmospheric and straight ahead Krautrock-influenced rock music, highly original for its time and in the subsequent years, incredibly influential. Disappears have much of its modern inventiveness born into their sound, and where differences existed, interesting solutions poised seemingly at the ready. I’d never heard Disappears tackle keyboard parts this much, or covers at all really for that matter, and now they’d have to do both, but you could just feel that the high profile nature of the gig that they’d offer an explosive original presentation.
The show was, in a word, fantastic. When, at the end of the show in the theater lobby, the band announced that if a gig poster was purchased and an email address given they’d offer a sound board bootleg of the performance, this idea grew in earnest. I’d want something to house the performance I’d be eventually given, and thought that it’d be an enjoyable personal project to create something to put it on the shelf in. Continue reading
The Four Mints were a wonderful Columbus, Ohio soul/funk four piece in the early Seventies bristling with hooks and irresistibly infectious instrumentation. A massive hit eluded them, and if it wasn’t for the wonderful Numero Group releasing their 1973 Gently Down Your Stream a few years ago they’d probably be totally forgotten today save a few Northern Soul fans (who loved their only almost hit ‘You’re My Desire’). For my money their ‘Too Far Gone’ is the highlight (and as long as I’m here I’d state it’s one of my favorite tracks ever) of that record; the vocals urge and wail, the drums compulsively drive forward (even when seeming to belie the songs actual subject matter), but it’s the bass (played probably by a Capsoul label session player so I’m unable to specify a name unfortunately), especially in the middle sections, that balances pulsing power with rollicking intricate fun. It bubbles and stretches everything; it’s fantastic.
The Numero Group release also features the track in its rehearsal state which is an interesting listen as well. The drums are a tad more rollicking, or at least appear so without the heavy bass track present in the polished studio version. The lyrics are more pained and raw, with adds to the exuberance of the liberation, but lack the punchy joy in the finished version. The finished version is so joyous in fact, I’ve argued that it ‘out happy’s’ the ecstatic contemporaries of the Four Mints, the Jackson 5, a band of yelping teenagers. That’s the wonder of American obscure Soul; grown men beating mere teenagers in exuberance! “Now I’m free, like a man should be…”
Buttressing yesterday’s post of the Swans masterful ‘A Little God in My Hands’, I thought it’d be fun to highlight the bass work in another track of what I call ‘angry white guy funk’ genre. This time it’s the Nine Inch Nail release ‘The Big Come Down’ off their arty, ambitious The Fragile from 1999. Contextualizing the album in this way I feel changes much of Reznor’s usual sonic palette and closed inwards aggression, blossoming it towards hew horizons and new audiences. I chose ‘The Big Come Down’ because it’s the most outwardly funky bass track, but in reality the entire album approaches bass in roundabout this manner. The album, when first presented, was seen as disjointed and meandering, but I’d argue the construction cohesion not only makes for a highly focused articulation, but also a remarkably fun one (you can dance to most of the songs on The Fragile). For this listener, it’s NIN’s masterpiece.
The Fragile package (wonderfully designed by David Carson) would have extensive credits—it’s a densely layered record in construction—but the bass guitar is only credited to one player throughout: the multi-talented Trent Reznor. This was somewhat of a surprise to me, even being a NIN fan for almost 20 years now, as he’s used great bass players in the studio and live since the bands rise to fame. The fact that the most expressive bass in their canon is delivered not by some glitterati hired gun, but by Reznor himself, only adds that much more respect for him in my mind. Great stuff.
After seeing the magnificent Swans live for a second time this past weekend, I was reminded that any collection on the importance of bass in a (pop) song should probably contain at least a passing reference to a band so indebted and embracing of the deep sonic qualities afforded by the four-string. They currently do a truly mesmerizingly funky ‘A Little God in My Hands’ live, often stretching its length twice (or three times) its above recorded studio version. As the song unfurls the band get more and more aggressive in its execution, taking an already angry piece of white guy funk to an altogether deeper, hypnotic nightmare state. Its bass both drives and descends the madness deeper and deeper, reaching the Swans to their ultimate original promised ethos: religious trance repetition hymns to humans in their pre-religious evolutionary state, when deities where merely the natural elements available to us to sustain life: art, air, food, shelter, water.
(the bass is played here by Swans’ member Christopher Pravdica, who has been their full time bass player since 2010; other Pravdica highlights within the Swans are the rubble inducing “Oxygen’ and ‘Jim’; delicately masterful playing on the surface, but played with a volume and intensity that belies their simplicity)
Realizing now that doing 20 posts in 20 days, no matter the short length was never probably realistic. So I’ve decided to just do 20 in as few days as possible. With that decision in mind, I thought a track that implies just why frequent posting is so difficult would be a fun direction to go. Michael Jackson’s ‘Workin’ Both Day and Night’, the funk blast from Off the Wall is just the track to explain the difficulties of personal endeavors amidst the realities of day to day professional life.
Once Off the Wall received a Special Edition release several years ago, the outtake demo for ‘Workin’ Day and Night’ immediately became a prize for anyone interested (see below for that), especially in discussions where bass is concerned. In it, you hear the song deconstructed and rebuilt time and again around the deflated tire sounding bass as parts weave in and out, all the more prominent with the synth track largely absent save a few stylistic flourishes. It’s been said that it’s Jermaine Jackson on bass in the demo (which could maybe explain all the familiar family banter that begins the recording) and not Louis Johnson, the player on the final studio cut.
Either way, it’s a line to remember as it slinks underneath Michael’s pained cries of overwork. It’s a fun track, equal parts serious and playful as the lyric implies a genuine pain from employer overwork for his audience to latch onto, while also clearly stating that it’s about the labor he’s putting in to keep a rather high-maintenance lover fulfilled. But it’s the quick beat (wikipedia tells me it’s 128 BPM making it one of Michael’s most up tempo numbers) and Johnson’s thumb slamming parts that makes it one of Michael Jackson’s most beloved tracks. Generally relegated to his second tier, I’d take it over so many of his quintessential tracks, who needs ‘Thriller’ again, when you can have this rush?
Yes, missed Sunday and Monday. I’ll make those up with a three-part post tomorrow. Today, we’ll just have one post, in memory of yesterday’s passing of Lesley Gore. She’ll always be largely remembered as the woman who offered ‘You Don’t Own Me’ (and to a lesser extent, ‘It’s My Party’) to the world, the quintessential piece of pop-feminist 60’s subversion, and while that’d certainly be enough—pop music is filled with famous, long careers that don’t come close to the mere two-and-a-half wonderful minutes she does there—but, with the forlorn nature one feels in matters like this, I felt a more apropos selection is in order. So, I’ll let Lesley tell us how we should move on and remember her in tune. Coming from her debut album, 1963’s I’ll Cry If I Want To, ‘No More Tears (Left to Cry)’ is one of six songs on the 12 track record with ‘tears’ or ‘cry’ in the title, making it some sort of teenage bedroom melodrama for the ages. RIP.
The bass, as is typical in a good many of these songs, was performed by a session player, so I’m unable to track the exact identity down with the means that currently afford me. The orchestration in the song was conducted by Claus Ogerman and the track was produced by Quincy Jones. Though typical of the time, the bass is a nice rolling little thing, perfectly encompassing its era. It’ll be generic to some, but then if you slapped it into a song today it’d probably sound fresh, devoid of the throbbing repetitive cynicism of bass that is our Billboard Top 100.
Today’s pick, being our first selection on a weekend, seems like it should be the most spontaneously exuberant thus far. What is the weekend but a time to enjoy yourself? As such, you take a song with an extremely memorable bass part, played by one of the true originals of the instrument, and then you find a version that goes even farther.
The pick, almost obviously becomes Paul Simon’s ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ with the inimitable Bakithi Kumalo on bass. Not only does the original seem like a victory lap for Kumalo, the alternative version is him playing—and building upon his parts—without much formal band accompaniment. There’s enough vocal arrangement for the song to seem flushed out, but nothing works without Kumalo’s bristly, burping—commentators liken it to endless flatulence, which without the foul overtones seems apt several times—bass runs (and really that’s all this version of the song is). There’s a fluidity to everything here, even times when he’s clearly wrestling notes out and popping sudden explosive finger flicks. Everywhere are wonderful little flourishes; 0:35-0:38 is so wonderfully subdued, 1:15-1:30 is a spastic explosion that quickly rushes to a mournful close (1:32), I love the upturn at 1:42 to foreshadow Simon’s line, “he makes the sound of a wave” as if his bass is rising and cresting at sea, 3:17-3:20 is a rolling, tumbling close and we’ve more than a minute still left. For my ears it’s a definite highlight for the instrument in the form, seemingly nothing but a wanky show-off piece, but actually it’s executed as blues for the bass. You’re can’t really lob calls of ‘showing off’ when something is showing itself so bare. There’s honesty and sincerity in Kumalo’s work, and this is as great a showcase as any.
Realizing this morning that it was National Radio Day, it seemed only fitting that a song about the radio be the choice today. There are countless examples; the Clash ‘Radio Clash’ from Super Black Market Clash certainly fits into any exemplary bass examples run down, and Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’ has some nice driving bass runs too. The Ramones’ ‘Do You Remember Rock N’ Roll Radio?’ features mostly traditional Ramones’ stylings in the area (Spector always preferred bass drums to bass guitars) and Refused’s ‘New Noise’ (a wonderful driving track about taking radio back for the masses) were considered too; but in the end, it just seemed too obvious—especially when considering the bass guitar: Joy Divisions’ remarkable ‘Transmission’.
Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division and New Order has always had a special place in the hearts of fans, and considered what New Order was (a band where the bass guitar was really the lead instrument) and what they eventually became (one of the biggest bands in the world) his style and wonderfully catchy runs could be considered as important as any. Listening to them now, it’s remarkable how elementary many of these lines are. Seemingly intricate and massive, he often spends minutes alternating between two notes. ‘Transmission’ is a perfect example, it’s a beginners line, Hook often commented just how boring it was to play life, but then that’s the point isn’t it? There’s a dreaded monotony to much of his work, the bubbling anxiety that so gets under your skin and agitates just enough for Curtis and Company to fully thrash and rip open to which we’re left with a smoldering wreckage and the bass just keeps going and going and going. Taking us to the destruction and egging it along then, offering us our only lifeline. He’s still giving it out.
Given that a bass part is the fulcrum onto which any pop songs rests upon, it’s obvious that its tone largely implicates the atmosphere for a song. When it’s bubbly and upbeat the song can be shrouded in joyous dancing, or as in the example of the first selection (the Style Council’s ‘Come to Milton Keynes’) the poppy dance quality is set as a marked irony to the sharp politics of the lyrics. Conversely, as in today’s example, the slithering bassline can add an aura of menace to the proceedings, a threat of very defined anxiety.
The Lords of the New Church were one of the original punk movements first (and most successful) supergroups; featuring Stiv Bators on lead vocals (formerly of the Dead Boys), Brian James on guitar (formerly of the Damned), Nick Turner (the Barracudas), and, our focus here, Dave Tregunna on bass (formerly of Sham 69), they carried a cache into the 1980’s that afforded them a bit more studio polish than many of their contemporaries ever saw, and for that matter, more than pretty much any of their members’ previous acts. Their sound was steeped in gothic styles and slashing post-punk angular rock, resulted in a bass sound that is a fluid melodrama in steeped dark tones. ‘Open Your Eyes’ is as memorable as any they did, a song built around the rising fluidity of Tregunna’s line. The song itself is a great piece of political ideology, and Tregunna saves his best bits for the songs crescendo. At around 2:08, Stiv Bators holds the last bits of his vocal line, while Brian James begins ringing several piercing chords from his guitar. By all impressions it’s the beginning of his solo in earnest, but as quickly as it came it leaves for an altogether different solo; a saxophone begins wailing and Tregunna’s bass flies in in accompaniment. It takes the bursting lead fully within ten seconds (2:19 or so) and pulses for the next several passages.
It’s one of my favorite bass passages in the history of the form, a small movement in a great song, perhaps it deserved an entire track unto itself, but as it stands, sitting near the tale end of one of their greatest tracks (‘When the Blood Runs Cold’ is its competition), it remains somewhere neatly in the annals of bass performance.
Today’s entry (and I must start with an apology: I missed yesterday so I’ll offer two selections today to get back on schedule) is as straight forward a pick to highlight the role the bass player performs in the rock era that I can think of. But once listened to, you realize that the sound is anything but straight forward. The groove, when nailed down this tight, is repetitive but it’s also on which everything can be built and under which everything plays in accordance to. In short, it’s both the most base level rhythm device in the background, while strangely, simultaneously being the lead driving force. To use an analogy, it’s both the cars engine, the enigmatic driver behind the wheel, and the showy curves that draw the flashbulbs at the auto show.
As such, great players are often unknown people, known only by avid aficionados or other bass players, but also people with extensive careers and highly signature artistic styles. Of the type few can claim the career of the great Jerry Jemmott. His trademark work was as a Kingpin in King Curtis’ Kingpins, forever finding his groove next to equally legendary Bernard ‘Purty Boy’ Purdie’s ‘fat back’ drums, but countless session work outlines his much copied and referenced style.
Nothing additional really needs to be said, a listen is all that is necessary. The studio single (above) is great, but live (below) the band locked into a groove for the ages. It’s bass as the unstoppable force; bubbling and sliding, provoking and exhilarating. After listening to this track countless times over the years, perhaps the immediate thought I conjure is how can that just be half a teaspoon? Certainly seems at least the entire box.