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.
It could be very easily argued that without Motown America never gets around to full on desegregation (or if it does it takes a hell of a lot longer), as with their endless array of hits coupled with Curtis Mayfield in Chicago and Phil Spector in LA, white America had many of its racist preconceived notions forever undercut and turned on their face until nothing remained but an empty, hateful husk. From there little remained that couldn’t be demolished with the sudden togetherness that the music had birthed at regular clips just under three minutes at a time. That the music was so incredibly joyous in its often pained lyrics, made the clear humanity of black America seem as obvious as the songs seemed ready made for the dance floor.
In many of the pieces for this miniseries I’ve tried to show the steadiness of bass as the lead instrument, an almost oxymoronic idea; I’m implying that the bass is holding everything down and keeping the rhythm in order, while also saying that it’s what is the driver of the songs tonal message and flair. It’s easy to understand this concept, I suppose, if one considers the bass guitar as the electric guitar where it’s not out of the question for a rhythm guitar track to block out the structure while another player (or sometimes the same player at the same time) plays lead flourishes. Purely evolutionarily the bass guitar just didn’t evolve this way within the pop/rock medium, so sometimes it’s necessary to point out when exemplary examples exist. Not to overly restate the thesis of this quick series, but I feel it just a tad necessary to point out how unique some of these tracks are.
Take today’s example; the bass rumbles underneath, while also added driving menace to atmospherically color the sound. While there is a standard guitar part and break, that is higher in the mix, the song’s bass most closely replicates the atmosphere in the dark lyric. The guitar and organ part lifts something toward a degree of outright happiness or optimism, but the bass, when played with this bit of reverb, is able to tinge the entire song properly. The Inspiral Carpets are one of the great lost, forgotten British indie guitar bands, but as shown amply here, bassist Martyn Walsh shows just one reason why many feel they were special. Here’s another;
What chance for children against such tides?
Your mother did warn you from inside
Now you’re back on dry land,
curse the place where I stand
After Adam and the Ants split in March 1982, launching his solo career proved to be an exercise in not re-inventing the wheel; the first solo Adam Ant offering (also in 1982), Friend or Foe, wasn’t that much different musically or visually (and featured many members) than the work of his previous band, the Ants. It was still a platform for Adam Ant to offer up tribal, angular rhythms with a cloak of Native American modernism thrown in for good measure. It’d prove a winning formula for him into the early to mid-1980’s, but it’d really prove successful when Malcolm McLaren would rip it wholesale to form Bow Wow Wow around the equally seductive Annabella Lwin after the Sex Pistols had had enough of him. Primal urges where always in line with Ant’s image too, and that’d be carried over into his solo career as well; animalistic sex appeal drips from the wonderful rollick of ‘A Place in the Country’ as he shrieks that his ‘brains are still right there in his hip’, as the song implies yearning for more than a quiet life with family and mortgage. The title track, ‘Friend or Foe’ purports his gleeful sardonic menace wonderfully, and to many, it also has the quintessential Ant hit: ‘Goody Two Shoes’. But for me, it’s always been the slinky ‘Desperate, But Not Serious’ that has been the most memorable from that first solo LP.
The bass work is by none other than Adam Ant himself (yes, unbeknownst to many, he’s quite an interesting player on the instrument), and it unpins and drives the whole affair. Around it the rest of the band is able to flourish; the horns swell and deflate while the guitar sparkles both low or high in the mix depending on song composition need. At times Pirroni smothers his instrument over the chorus like he’s playing a cello or violin, while Ant instinctively knows when to pull back or proceed, the great gift afforded bass players that are also lead singers. I think it’s a great argument for his ability on the instrument, but wait, didn’t he also play bass on ‘Stand and Deliver’? Hmm, care for a redo?