Sunday, 25 January 2009

Off on a Tangent, part 18 – Top 10 Basslines

In January/February’s edition of Bass Guitar Magazine (the mag of choice for supra bass nerds everywhere), there was a highly subjective countdown of the ‘40 Best Basslines Ever’. Just to give you a flavour, the most recent entry in the top 10 dated from 1980 (Queen: Another One Bites the Dust – not really my cup of sake, madam). So, to redress the balance, here’s my top 10 (which is also my attempt to win a Trace Elliot 715 combo - hmm, tasty. Send your top 10 to and you too could win, but first you got beat this lot – and to be honest, I don’t envy you that job):

Stars and Sons, Broken Social Scene (Charles Spearin) – the first rule of an addictive bassline: ensure that it’s an absolute joy to play. And this is.

Silentland, Material (Bill Laswell) – it’s amazing how little you can make a song out of. Silentland is all clattering, random percussion, a thin, reedy vocal and a busy, harmonic driven bassline that dominates over all else.

Dolores, Slab! (Bill Davies) – to slap or not to slap: that’s the question that has confronted bassists over the last three hundred years. Perhaps there’s something inherently naff about that bright, high in the mix, slappy sound that makes everything sound just too clean, too fresh (there’s no doubt that Mark King is an amazingly talented bassist, but you couldn’t pay me enough to stay in the same postcode as a Level 42 CD). Dolores by Slab! solves this problem with a twin stroke of genius – simply turn up the distortion and make it sound as dirty as you possibly can (coincidentally the criminally underrated Bill Davies is the son of Andrew Davies, the BBC’s adapter-in-chief, although trying to tie this fact into a big, dirty bass sound is probably doomed to failure; however, Slab! did star in an episode of Davis’s A Very Peculiar Practice – perhaps that counts?).

Debaser, Pixies (Kim Deal) – the thing I love about the Pixies is how uninflected their playing is – everything is played straight with no gruesome rock n’ roll flourishes and flashes of spandex so beloved of musicians who just love to show off. There’s no showing off here: four notes are all you need: fer chrissakes, this ain’t feckin’ jazz funk, y’know.

Buoy, Mick Karn (Mick Karn) – nothing screams the 1980s quite so much as the fretless bass, which probably hit its zenith with Mick Karn’s bass playing duties for Japan (when the band reformed as Rain Tree Crow in 1991, Karn’s bass was noticeable by its almost complete absence, allegedly mixed into near-silent oblivion by Sylvian himself). However, when treated with a modicum of restraint and looped backwards, it gives this song a warm, snug cadence. When Sylvian collected twenty years worth of recordings on the retrospective Everything and Nothing, this song shone out like a diamond – and it’s not even one of Dave’s.

Song 2, Blur (Alex James) – Blur’s finest two minutes, entirely driven by a big, dirty bass riff that elbows Graham Coxon’s ineffectual guitar out of its way and stomps all over this song with vicious abandon.

Pure, Siouxsie and the Banshees (Steve Severin) – Steve Severin has never been the most technically gifted of bassists, and most Top 10 lists would pass him by. But who cares? Listening to The Scream again recently, it’s scary to note just how contemporary it all sounds (incredibly, it’s 31 years old this year). Dark, stark and spiky, it’s an album of ideas, and that’s exactly where Severin sits in the scheme of things.

The Perfect Kiss, New Order (Peter Hook) – ignore Bernard Sumner’s amazingly daft lyrics (let’s face it, he’s no Ian Curtis) and concentrate on that bass: there are enough bass lines in this one song to keep a lesser band in business for at least three albums.

Tracy, Mogwai (Dominic Aitchison) – although the touchstone for this song appears to be Sonic Youth’s Providence, there’s no ear bleeding feedback and no 130dB of volume to contend with here. Tracy is essentially one long, lyrical bass line and nothing more.

Moon Over Marin, Dead Kennedys (Klaus Flouride) – you could be forgiven for thinking that most Dead Kennedy’s songs are 60 second 100 mph rants a la In God We Trust (which I love). However, they slow down and loosen up for this, the last track on Plastic Surgery Disasters – that bass sound is raw, loose and bottom heavy, and sounds great.


Adrian Reynolds said...

Damn, you've got me thinking with this one. Been running basslines through my head and trying to work out where they came from. Your list is good, but I'd add DJed by Tortoise, which comes across like a blissed out version of a Pixies bassline. Not sure of who the culprit is, Tortoise members having a tendency to play any instrument in front of them.

Well done on Laswell, creator of many a memorable bassline -- I've got oodles of CDs he's produced and/or played on. But what of his sometime collaborator Jah Wobble? Perpetrator of everything from the bassline on Gary Clail's Beef, and with memorable contributions to offerings by The Orb, The Shamen, and Primal Scream, his best work is on his lesser known solo albums, which tend to be very good indeed.

Then there are Tony Levin and Trey Gunn, who've been in charge of the low end with King Crimson. For bass enthusiasts, Elephant Talk and Sleepless are just two memorable 80s tracks, and there's plenty more deep goodness more recently.

Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads deserves a place for the hook of Psycho Killer alone, and there are other good basslines in the T.H. songbook.

If we're allowed to dip into jazz, and double bass, then Dave Holland surely merits a mention. If you insist on electric bass though, Fred Thelonious Baker is pretty much the governor, albeit a little-known one -- see YouTube for some jawdropping examples of his bass and acoustic guitar virtuosity.

And for sheer thrill power, there's Lemmy, riffing it up with Hawkwind and Motorhead.

Anyway. Point made: I'm a bass geek, too. I'm too embarrassed to go into my knowledge of Geddy Lee's track record, so let's leave it there, OK?

Chip Smith said...

An excellent list there, Adrian, which is scarily similar to a lot of stuff I have...

I love the first Tortoise album but it didn't really come across to me as bass player's thing - just me, I suppose (and the second cut Glass Museum is better I think ;-)) I never could get my head round the follow up album, Standards, so that's where my interest peaked.

Talking about Laswell/Wobble, they both play on a Solaris record, which is on Wobble's label - unfortunately, it's not Laswell on bass! That said, I saw Harold Budd a few years back and Wobble was playing bass for him then - you wouldn't think it with Mr Budd's reputation for ambient noodling, but it rocked - and it was all down to Mr Wobble.

Tony Levin and Trey Gunn - of course! Both Chapman stick users as well, which has got to be the horribly complicated thing I've ever seen (the Stick website features some remarkable playing).

The best Talking Heads basslines I think are on Remain in Light, the album that Eno produced (and where everyone fell out with each other apparently).

Don't know too much about jazz, as I get scared by incessant noodling, but I'm trying to give Jaco P a listen at the moment.

There was tons more I could have chosen - there's a great bassist called Kev Hopper, used to play for a band called Stump (heroes of mine): Beefheart through a blender is the best way way I can describe them. Paul Raven from Killing Joke? Very underrated (and now sadly RIP). Simon Raymonde? Mani's playing on Primal Scream's Exterminator (the whole album is nothing more than three notes)? Far too many to choose from! Perhaps another list might mop things up...

Jon Peacey said...

I'm never quite sure what 'they' mean when they say best bass-line, riff, guitar solo, etc. but a couple I rather like (even though I'm sure they're not too technically accomplished) are PiL's Death Disco and Careering; Fields Of The Nephilim's Psychonaut and Siouxsie and the Banshees' Eve White/ Eve Black.

Hope that doesn't make me sound like too much of a dingbat.

Chip Smith said...

Nothing worng with PiL and Siouxise, of course, although I do have to question thw wisdom regarding your FONL choice ;-)

I don't really care if a bass line/riff/whatever is technically accomplished or not, it really doesn't matter to me. Steve Severin is surely evidence of that! That said, I love the bass line to Jigsaw Feeling - hardly virtuoso stuff, but just think where'd we'd be if it was: watching Rick Wakeman's Camelot on Ice, I suspect! Saints preserve us.

Like you, I don't really enjoy lists that espouse the 'best' of a certain thing, which is why as soon as I see one, I have to produce my own. ;-)

Oli said...

No Future Sound of London? Scandalous.

Chip Smith said...

The only FSOL I've got is a remix they did for Sylvian/Fripp - which is OK. Lots of stuff that could've gone in there - I feel another list brewing (if only as an antidote to the previous list).

Jon Peacey said...

I have a healthy suspicion of some best of lists. Some seem so terribly arbitrary.

The Neph track I'm specifically thinking of is
this one from around 1 minute in. (Though the uninitiated should approach with caution!)

I've always assumed it's slap bass (but I've never worked out how to do that so I'm not sure) and attempting it picked is nigh-on impossible (for me at any rate).

A bass-line I recall as being very taken with is BRMC's In Like The Rose. Right cracking it is.

(My bass-playing, like my guitar-playing, can best be described as 'enthusiastic'... but not for public consumption!)