Anyone who has shared space within my vicinity since I was around 14 years of age could tell you where a discussion on bass guitar players was going to land. I’ve been an avowed Who fanatic since then, seeing the best parts of my last two decades as a loyal disciple in the cult of Pete Townshend. John Entwistle would then have been my first idea of what a player on the instrument should be, and even if he isn’t my ideal now (my tastes have changed in what I expect and appreciate from the bass in recent years), he’d never be that far from whatever new track or player had emerged in my mind. I can’t see him any differently—he might just be the reason why the Who were the Who and why there wasn’t (and hasn’t been) a band totally like them; his singular talent infused with an ability to play lead and rhythm simultaneously (or quickly switch back and forth with an instinctive flare coupled with a taste not often known to players of his ability [anytime you hear a flash, showy solo on any instrument with endless unnecessary notes you’ll understand what I mean) letting Pete roam and create fury, or play measly rhythm leads as he danced around onstage. Keith Moon also relied on Entwistle’s rock solid time keeping, as he too couldn’t be bothered with anything but the ultra showmanship of the fastest drummer alive. Yes, without Entwistle, the great charms that made the Who totally unique and wonderful—they were brash, combustible, and erratic—would have completely fallen apart at the seems. If Entwistle wasn’t there to keep everything buttoned down, playing the traditional role of the drums (time keeping), guitar (leads and flourishes) and bass (additional rhythm support), the Who would have been a wild, incoherent cacophony, rather than a tightly orchestrated cacophony that worked against all odds. Continue reading
Over the previous 18 pieces there has been a strong attempt to highlight the unknown, or the unheralded in the realm of bass guitar. Not only is it an essential stance to take when discussing the instrument—it’s the most relegated piece of the standard guitar-bass-drums rock template, but also its performers, even the true masters, are generally players completely fine standing in the background, thumping around a groove. For every one bass player who preens and shucks, any fan of rock music can think of several dozen guitar players or lead singers who do the same, and often to much more obnoxious affect. With this being understood, how then could minorities hope to find notoriety in such a shadow? It might sound outlandish to ask now, but as rock and pop were making their first tentative baby steps, civil rights and the women’s movement were still almost 10 to 15 years away. Plus, to make matters worse, the industry was largely shrouded in anonymity, groups of session musicians known not by given name (when they were even cited at all) but rather terms like ‘the Wrecking Crew’ or, even more generic, the house band of insert label or studio here. Carol Kaye was one such bass player (and she played lead guitar too; most notably on the Crystals wonderful ‘Then He Kissed Me’), she of Spector’s Wall of Sound creating ‘Wrecking Crew’ fame (a term she supposedly didn’t like, and instead preferred the less violent ‘the Clique’), always lending a perfectly sympathetic line or hook to a chart-topping hit. Continue reading
By the time Booker T and his MGs got around to doing Melting Pot in 1971 little did they know that it’d be their last real ‘proper’ album and their last on Stax (1976’s Union Extended notwithstanding). It seems strange as it isn’t the usual sending off; it’s a return to all original material (their previous, McLemore Avenue was them reinterpreting the entire Beatles Abbey Road) and it’s very much the sound of a band tightening up, growing in intensity and striking out in new directions. This isn’t the usual winding down swan song that we’ve since grown accustomed to from major acts, but rather a ratcheted up, a reawakening. The record, and its influence (still endlessly sampled in hip hop) speak for itself, the band just sizzles through the eight originals, each striking in new, previously unexplored ways. Booker T and the MGs were always a remarkably innovative band, so it’s a testament to them that after almost 10 years something as fresh and exhilarating as Melting Point could have been offered.
On the topic of bass and Booker T and the MGs, not much additional needs to be said; Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, heavily influence by Motown’s James Jamerson, is one of the instruments true innovators. Here, on ‘Chicken Pox’ he seems to both have a hand in inventing speed funk, while also being the ever steady groove master he always was. They were an ‘artists band’, the sort that most artists respected and admired, and Dunn’s influence therein cannot be overstated; supreme taste embeds all over his work. As camouflaged in a groove as he is the driver of it, his stamp is everywhere. RIP.
Since we’re in the last four selections I figured why not start selecting the songs I most readily think about when I think about bass guitar. I’ll drop the slight continued steam of consciousness that the previous posts where sort of linking themselves to one another, and just offer a few random picks where the bass work will speak for itself.
The first one I want to talk about is from The Boo Radleys’ widely far reaching 12” Lazarus EP coming from the same sessions that resulted in their August 1993 masterpiece release, Giant Steps. The extended ‘Lazarus’ on the EP preceded the slightly shorter version that appears on Giant Steps’ side two by a few weeks and showed the band moving in titanically new avenues. In the extended version the song is a varied kaleidoscope of genre, moving as adept at dub reggae bass as it is to shimmering shoe-gaze infected BritPop. It was the sound of the band at that exact moment; willing to try anything and miraculously pull it all off, for in a brief time period in 1993 the Boo Radley’s were perhaps the greatest band in the world. Continue reading
Since my last two picks were examples of the British bass boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s (with the last entry specifically articulating a few theories as to why this boom came into being) I thought that today’s pick should be something showing more the exact influence that Motown had on the bass sound of the era.
The Jackson 5’s ‘Darling Dear’, featuring the superlative work on bass by James Jamerson, was my prototype bass sound of Motown pick, and when put before the Au Pairs and Jah Wobble you see that though influenced, the British kids interpreted bass in a much more antsy, angular way (I’d think it’d be explained in an obvious evolution; in American one slides when they danced to pop music, while in Britain in the late 70’s everyone was doing the pogo. Bass should pop and burst if pogo is what everyone is doing, while it should meander and slide if everyone is going to slink around). This isn’t to say that it was all this way, and today’s pick is meant to show a British track from the era with fluid Motown-like bass. Continue reading
The late 1970’s and into the early 1980’s Britain saw a remarkable rise in the range of fluid, innovative bass players inhabiting their music scene. Several ideas exist to explain the phenomenon; some say the rise of Northern Soul in the early 70s influenced an entire generation in their formative years to see the instrument as a vital shaper to song construction, while also providing a view of how another culture (black America) saw the instrument (funky and soulful and as much a lead instrument as the guitar). For others it was a similar idea, with Jamaican dub and rasta culture being supplanted for Northern Soul. Inner cities of Britain had large Jamaican communities where dub and rasta emanated daily, filling anyone within earshot with deep, shaking grooves. Then, there is the homegrown influence: everyone’s lovable Beatle, Paul McCartney, had made the instrument seem as cool and worthwhile as any other (here the Who’s John Entwistle probably deserves a nod as well). Whatever the reason you believe (and in reality it’s probably a combination of all of these), the punk movement and the post-movement was packed with deep sounds, from Medium Medium to Gang of Four, the Au Pairs to Joy Division and the Slits, to Delta 5, the Jam and the Clash, (and on and on) the bass guitar stamped the era as much as any singular sound, perhaps in retrospect changing the preconceived notion that the time was embedded with throbbing bass as much as yelping, howling anger. Continue reading
I’ve long said that my personal favorite era of pop music is England from 1977 to 1984 or so. While most would immediately cite the boom that was 1963-67, and that was certainly a fertile ground for much dynamic invention, I’ve always liked where the form went in the later era. It seemed that pop music was nothing but dead ends by the late 70’s and yet miraculously by the middle of the next decade there seemed to be countless new avenues and directions to go (and indeed it did). The inventiveness of dozens of major and minor bands broke so much ground at a time when moving the form an inch was akin to a mile (whereas the artists in 1963 saw a mile to be just about a mile) that 30 years later there is still countless records ripe for discovery.
While I wouldn’t say that today’s pick is anything that obscure—though they aren’t where they should be in fans memories—regardless, I wanted to say more that in my favorite era this band produced two stellar records that I turn to as much as any when I’ve nothing readily in my mind to listen to.