Back when pop music was more or less in its infancy, there was a cliché attached to the business of playing the bass guitar: it was the default option of the worst guitarist in any place where three or more guitars gathered, to create a beat combo.
This was a belief that eluded me. My interest in the instrument was piqued due to an inability to identify its presence immediately in the context of the songs that provided my formative initiation into the world of pop. Being able to hear other components such as guitar, drums and vocals was fairly immediate but checking the credits on those early vinyl purchases suggested there was something further I should be looking out for?
Having said that, you’d be hard pushed to miss an individual like Steve Priest of The Sweet, with his odd-shaped Dan Electro, excessive make-up and Native American-style feathered headdress. Or for that matter, Slade’s Jim Lea who, it was quite apparent was one half of the team behind the hits. Only a fool would dismiss either as the poorest musician in any outfit.
Further investigation would confirm this, and reveal that Steve Priest had quite the singing voice, while Jim Lea’s compositional skills extended to writing some fantastically ornate bass lines to add to the mix; as well as having both violin and piano in his armoury. Witness if you will, ‘How Does It Feel?’, a high point in Slade’s already impressive back catalogue and a prog-pop classic that ranks as one of the stand out tracks of the whole ‘Glam’ period.
Anyway, after a period of propping one’s ears too close to the tinny speakers, attempting to decipher the low end rumblings of the mystery component, I set about the business of badgering my parents with a view to making a purchase; a purchase which was consolidated by a promise to pursue Double Bass lessons at school, and thereby counterbalancing an opposing view that a bass guitar wasn’t much cop on its own.
Purchase complete, and lessons installed, progress was nonetheless slow. No doubt, in part due to the lack of anything with which to fully latch on to, in terms of a musical affiliation. But I needn’t have despaired, for things were about to get interesting… very interesting: punk was about to happen.
1 Bruce Foxton
‘In the City’ constituted my first album purchase with regard to the punk rock phenomena – The Jam were not punk, strictly speaking, I know – based almost entirely on the look of the front cover; although in fairness it was drummer Rick Buckler’s glasses that held the most appeal.
Remember when we used to buy things on spec (no pun intended)? I’d already taken a similar approach to buying ‘God Save The Queen’ and was therefore exhilarated by the possibilities, posed by the Jam’s debut.
Needless to say, The Jam didn’t disappoint. Not only was it conceivable to hear what Bruce Foxton was doing within the context of the outfit – they were a three piece after all – I correctly ascribed the ability to do so, on the basis of his choice of instrument: a black Rickenbacker4001, according to the back cover.
Copping a feel, if not the actual licks, and applying the confidence-boosting DIY ethos of the punk movement, I decided I too was going to be heard, and further down the line, did precisely that in the context of a working men’s club band in which I inherited a place; executed on the requisite trebly-sounding black ‘Ricky copy’, naturally. This I did, much to the chagrin of my fellow band members who, if the truth be told, would have preferred something a little more subdued and ‘traditional’ in the bass department.
2 Jean-Jacques Burnel
Prior to that however, I had formed a punk band with a couple of classmates, and a more able guitar-wielding chap who was a year above us, at a time when a school year really made a difference.
Given that the guitar-wielding chap and I lived close by to each other, he set about the business of teaching me a variety of Stranglers’ bass lines, so that I might provide him with the more musically proficient accompaniment not attainable within the confines of our group. As a consequence, the Stranglers became my new favourite band.
Bless the Stranglers. More musically able than the punks they found themselves tarred with, they also delighted in winding the unwitting up, with their ‘near-the-knuckle’ lyrical content, alongside an all-pervasive air of violence largely manifest in their karate-kicking bass man: a threat made good on the two occasions I saw them play.
Nonetheless, Jean-Jacques became the very model of bass extroversion that I sought to emulate, out front and audible, and like Bruce Foxton, he was quite happy to step up to the mic when it came to handling a bit of lead vocal.
While there’s many a Stranglers track I could have showcased, here is one that feature’s a particularly prominent bass line (as well as a stripper when it came to the live show… different times etc…):
3 Chris Squire
So, having accelerated one’s musicality beyond the restrictions of punk rock, what does one do next, in order to expand the bass palette? Commit heresy, that’s what.
Despite the fact, a whole swathe of punk luminaries, had a declared a ‘Year Zero’ with regard to much of what had come before musically, it was obvious – given their respective ages – that many of them were all too familiar with that most taboo of musical entities: Prog Rock (something they were only able to admit later on, after the potential for a witch hunt had subsided).
Guilelessly, I ignored the ban, seeking further bass enlightenment from friends’ older brothers, and sixth formers alike. It wasn’t too long before I found myself in the company of Chris Squire and Yes, he being the bass ‘Numero Uno’, in a field hardly devoid of capable musos.
Once again, we’re talking Rickenbacker-induced, trebly out-front bass-playing here but, this time, we’re also talking bass lines of a most intricate nature wedded to odd time signatures as well; along with the ‘no small business’ of contributing to the delicate vocal harmonies which are so much a feature of Yes’ music.
Given that it is impossible to isolate Chris Squire’s contribution to Yes from the music itself, I ended becoming something of a fan, and subsequently, I can never understand why somebody would want to criticise something as monumental as ‘Close to the Edge’.
Admittedly, the success of CTTE led Yes to travel beyond the edge into – arguably – excesses that didn’t stand-up to the same extent musically, but check out this glorious title track on the album of the same name. First and foremost, it’s a song! A song with all of the features of any song: verses, choruses, a middle section and various instrumental sections; a longer song but a song nonetheless.
Suitably influenced, I was now in a position to start adding top end frills and spills on my black ‘Ricky copy’ to the club gigs I was performing at. A bit galling for my bandmates no doubt, having to deal with the bass man soloing over the likes of ‘Feelings’ by Charles Aznavour but hilarious looking back.
Probably, one of the many reasons, I got the sack… I mean, it’s pretty much a given that there has to be at least one idiot in any band, and in the absence of such, I was obviously happy to volunteer.
4 Bernard Edwards
If checking out ‘Prog Rock’ constituted a form of heresy in relation to the punk rock manifesto, there was also something similarly transgressive about pledging anything in the form of allegiance to the late 70s Disco movement.
‘Disco Sucks’ went the middle class white rocker’ slogan du jour; a slur as much laced with racism as it was with snobbery, albeit a slogan that seemed to carry more racist weight in America than the UK, where disco was more the terrain of working class kids letting their hair down at the weekend.
Coalescing around the success of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, the form was purpose-built to feature extrovert bass lines allied to a straightforward drum pattern, and songs such as McFadden and Whitehead’s ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’, Narada Michael Walden’s ‘I Shoulda Loved Ya’, and The Whispers’ ‘And The Beat Goes On’ are fine examples of the genre.
The undisputed king of the ‘Disco Bass’ however, had to be Bernard Edwards who, in partnership with guitarist Nile Rodgers created some of the most memorable tunes in the history of popular music; let alone disco.
While it goes without saying that ‘Good Times’ is quite feasibly the best bass line ever written, I’m equally partial to his playing on more straight ahead stuff as well, like ‘Spacer’ by Sheila B. Devotion. As it stands, I’ve gone with ‘Everybody Dance’ featuring his self-styled ‘chucking’ technique… whatever that is?
5 Jaco Pastorius
Start getting a little flash in your approach to your instrument and sooner or later, someone is going to chuck the ‘J’ word into the equation which, in this instance, would more obviously suggest ‘Jazz’, but for a bass player, more equally, a man synonymous with the form: ‘Jaco’, as in Jaco Pastorius.
When people talk in terms of a single individual revolutionising the approach to a particular instrument, the list of greats suddenly gets smaller. To provide specific context – and to reiterate a cliché – what Jimi Hendrix is to the guitar, Jaco Pastorius is to the bass: pulling up the frets to create an entire new sound; incorporating harmonics and chord voicings as a means of providing a mid-range accompaniment; along with a tendency to create tremendous staccato-orientated sixteenth note funk grooves, and thereby fulfilling a more traditional bass role.
‘Larger than life’, and – as his career progressed – increasingly challenging to work with, largely due to what would now be more straightforwardly diagnosed as a bi-polar disorder, his life was tragically cut short during an altercation with a nightclub bouncer in his home state of Florida.
Nonetheless, he left a massive musical legacy, a whole load of copycats in his wake, and the awareness that there was a way of approaching the bass guitar as an instrument prior to his arrival, and an entirely different one after it.
There’s any number of Jaco pieces with which to indulge oneself, from his solo work, through to his tenure with ‘Jazz Fusion’ giants Weather Report and notable collaborations with the likes of Joni Mitchell. I’ve opted for ‘Punk Jazz’ from the Weather Report album ‘Mr Gone’ which – as a first purchase on my part – resonated to a greater extent than its more acclaimed predecessor ‘Heavy Weather’.
6 Louis Johnson
Now, if all of this wasn’t enough in terms of intimidation by virtuosity, a new phenomenon was boring its way into the lives of the hapless guitar shop assistant (albeit belatedly, in this particularly corner of the world): Slap Bass. And the role of the ‘worst guitarist in the band’ would never be the same again.
Here at last was a guaranteed, cast-iron, sure-fire method by which the previously unassuming low end merchant could step out from next to the drums and into the spotlight of the centre stage. So much so that, the rest of the band now had a battle on their hands controlling not only the excesses of the lead guitarist but those of the bass guitarist as well.
Fun to execute, and not nearly as vigorous as it appeared (once one had established that the left-hand played nearly as an important role as that of the right), slap bass could make a track in the 1980s, or – indeed – ruin one.
And it was all thanks to Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham who devised the method back in the 1960s as a means of adding extra percussion to accompany his mum, in the absence of a drummer. Little did he realise at the time, his innovation would give rise to bass tutors at Berklee College of Music having to teach to the accompaniment of a hall full of individuals operating akin to a massive ‘Typing Pool’; amongst a multiplicity of other side effects, ‘music-shop assistant ire’ amongst them.
So, if one is going to pursue such percussive matters, where to start? Well, the first thing to really grab my attention in relation to the ‘Slap Bass’ beast was the solo plum smack in the middle of ‘Stomp!’ courtesy of the Brothers Johnson; and that’s before we even factor in the already fantastic accompanying line sitting in the rest of the track.
Nicknamed ‘Thunder-Thumbs’, and one of the frontrunners in the whole of the ‘Slap Bass’ universe, on ‘Stomp!’, Louis Johnson demonstrates in solo form that which he’d previously consigned to creating the most excellent grooves with his older brother, such as on the magnificent ‘Get The Funk Out Ma Face’.
And if further non-slap proof should ever be required in relation to the man’s groove credentials , that’s him laying down one of the most famous bass lines in pop history: Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’.
7 Mark King
Fired by the possibilities, I’d pretty much reached a conclusion that a funky approach to playing the bass guitar was where it was at, and decided that a subscription to ‘Black Music’ magazine would therefore equally be where it was at.
Aside from discovering the delights of reggae into the bargain (Black Uhuru’s ‘Red’ is one such purchase, BM inspired me to make), I got to know a great deal more about the burgeoning Brit-Funk movement, in amongst which I developed a thing in particular for a band called Linx, featuring David Grant (better known nowadays, as a vocal coach and star of kids’ TV); or more specifically, in my case, the bass player Peter ‘Sketch’ Martin, who – to my ears – had something of the ‘Bernard Edwards’ about his playing.
However, the guy who ‘stole a march’ on everybody – by a significant margin – was Level 42’s Mark King. If we’d previously only got sneak previews of the ‘Slap Bass’ technique, Mark King put it right out there for all to see (and bear in mind, we’re talking a pre-internet age whereby such sightings were rare, and given that it was hard to discern the technique by listening alone, any visual was a bonus). And not only that, he was singing at the same time. A sickeningly capable individual.
It became quite the thing to malign Mark King later on – as the band hit the commercial heights – suggesting there was some sort of content over style thing going on (i.e. lots of notes, and little groove) but have a listen to the Level 42 debut album for starters, if you will, and there’s plenty on there, to suggest otherwise.
8 Mick Karn
Despite the ongoing funk immersion, if you’d have asked me at the time who my favourite band were, I’d have probably said ‘Talking Heads’. I’d kept up an ongoing commitment to the post-punk cause, despite having deviated from the rigour of the ethos, and as far as I was concerned, the arthouse leanings of David Byrne and co, were right up my proverbial.
They were also becoming very funk-orientated themselves, into the bargain, initially on the standout album – for me – ‘Fear of Music’, and ultimately, on the more ground breaking, ‘Remain in Light’.
And if artsy-funk was floating my boat, it was only a matter of time before late developers Japan were battling for equal billing on the ‘favourite band’ front as well; particularly as they possessed in Mick Karn, an astonishingly original and flamboyant fretless bass player.
Demonstrating all that the fretless bass had to offer in terms of slides, tone and vibrato, he also threw a few Eastern-type scale ideas into the mix, due – one assumes – to his Turkish-Cypriot heritage (as well as the abiding interest in all things Sino-Japanese that characterised the entire group). Live, he was also something of a front man – given David Sylvian’s obvious reluctance – moving geisha-like across the stage, whilst all the time never missing a beat.
As far as the selection is concerned, ‘Visions of China’ might have been a more obvious choice from the point-of-view of an up-front signature bass line, but I’m rather partial to the ‘The Art of Parties’ in its original funkified form, on which he still plays an absolute blinder.
9 Francis Rocco Prestia
And that was me for the time being. Having devoted most of the 80s to co-writing songs, I’d decided that the bass role was pretty much along the lines of supplying a funky accompaniment to a soul-orientated finish; the sort of thing in truth, for which ABC – more than any other 80s outfit, in my opinion – had already laid down the template.
However, as the 80s became the 90s, my interest in the bass guitar as an entity was renewed via a combination of joining a jazz class at Kingsway College in Camden, attending the Musician’s Academy above the Bass Centre in Wapping, and hanging around the fringes of the Rare Groove/Acid Jazz scene, centred to a large degree around Muswell Hill (for some reason); all in London, of course.
All of this served as means of investigating and absorbing new – or in many cases, old – sounds and styles… all of it amazing, but none more so – from the perspective of this particular bass player – than that of ‘Tower of Power’, and the extraordinary Francis Rocco Prestia.
Not only does ‘Rocco’ possess jaw-dropping capability when it comes to the continuous flurry of sixteenth notes that constitutes his technique, the fact that he allies it to the most astounding ‘pocket’ (‘tech speak’ denoting ability to provide a groove) is nothing short of breath-taking. It’s pretty much a given that Jaco Pastorius’ own approach to the ‘groove’ was inspired by the man.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to see him live, and even in a band that contains the level of musical accomplishment that ‘Tower of Power’ does, he still gets the most sustained response to the roll call at the end; to the point that you can detect a real measure of humility on his part, in relation to the sheer length and level of the adulation that is heaped upon him.
Here’s the signature piece:
10 James Jamerson
And finally, by way of coming full circle, I got around to the serious business of checking out the Godfather of modern bass playing, and the man to which pretty much any bass player worth his salt must defer: James Jamerson.
I’d always had a huge love of all things Motown – who doesn’t? – but never really taken enough time out, to investigate fully the stuff of which the grooves were made; such is the overall effect, it’s so easy to be distracted by the amazing performances, melodies and other parts of the arrangements anyway. Well, a certain 1989 publication entitled ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ altered all of that.
Up until that point, it had been possible to pick up on some of what Jamerson was doing but due to the recording technology of the time, much of it merged with everything else that was going on, and would take some serious wearing out of vinyl records or cassette tapes to catch the bass in great detail; not aided by his incredible ability to embellish lines as the song progressed.
Well, here at last was a means by which the hitherto hidden could now be revealed, in all of its magisterial finery. ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ not only provided a biography of the man, but also transcripts of his playing in painstaking and wholly accurate detail; all of which was executed to a high level of performance by some of the top players of the day.
Something of a tragic figure – he died in 1983, aged 47 due to complications related to alcoholism – James Jamerson has more latterly received the full recognition that eluded him in his lifetime i.e. as an individual, and not just as part of the ensemble. ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ is therefore a fitting tribute and a must-buy for all bass players.
There’s so many tracks one might have chosen by way of demonstrating Jamerson’s greatness, not least of which the likes of ‘(Reach Out), I’ll Be There’, ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ but I’ve opted for ‘I Was Made To Love Her’. It’s performed by Marcus Miller in the book, and provides a great demonstration of many of James Jamerson’s technical capabilities: sixteenth note flourishes; raked open strings and passing notes; as well as an occasional muted string. It’s a study in itself, and worth bearing in mind that it’s far from the hardest piece in the book to execute.
Honorary mentions go to: Stanley Clarke (first two ‘Return to Forever’ albums), Michael Dempsey (‘Club Country’ by the Associates? What’s going on there?), Larry Graham (place in history assured, thanks to the ‘slap’ technique but check out his work with ‘Sly and the Family Stone’ as well); Mike Kerr (Royal Blood fella and first bass player to make me sit up in a while); Phil Lynott (bass playing frontman and poetic champion composer); Charles Mingus (double-bass playing legend and writer of genius); Dee Dee Ramone (simplicity itself… but another wayward poet); and Norman Watt-Roy (all Blockheads output, but if he hadn’t created the definitive ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, somebody else would have had to).
Did I miss anybody? Over to you…