Saturday, 30 June 2012

Ace Of Bass - 20 top bass driven tunes

     It's always the lead guitarists who get all the muso-glory. Drummer get the jokes made about them, singers do the interviews and bassists? Well bassists are like the invisible man of the band. Here's a list of 20 songs to partly redress the balance. They may not all be bass licks by musical virtuosos, but the song wouldn't be the same with a lesser bassline.

1) Buzzcocks - "Whatever Happened To?"
How's this for a bass intro? The instrument really came into its own with punk, since the limited musical abilities of the early punkers meant that the primitive sounds just merged into a noisy squall. But solo bass intros allowed some separation out at the beginning of the song and there were many punk bassists who suddenly stepped more into the limelight than in previous musical eras.

2) The Stranglers - "Nice'N'Sleazy"
This was the band who maybe made me really fall in love with the instrument. Jean-Jacques Burnel's bass was just so dirty sounding, as befit their lyrics. Yeah there were persistent rumours that he couldn't actually play and the keyboardist Dave Greenfield was actually playing the riffs, but Burnel was a classically trained musician so I don't buy it. The lowest of low-end bass!


3) Wire - "Like a Heartbeat"
Wire were always more arty purveyors of punk rock, musically stripped down. the bass pulse as a heartbeat, what could be simpler than that? Stunningly effective. Suddenly it was the upfront bass sound that people could dance to, just like in reggae. 


4) Talking Heads - "Psychokiller"
Meanwhile, over in New York where New Wave preceded punk unlike in Britain, there were some accomplished musicians showing a punk attitude but with musical virtuosity to boot. If I wanted to look like JJ Burnel, I wanted Tina Weymouth to be my girlfriend. Quite simply a psychokiller of a bass intro.


5) Pere Ubu - "Heart Of Darkness"
And just to emphasise New York's primacy of the accomplished New Wave sond, comes Pere Ubu and another paranoia-suffused bass intro. Both these tracks have the bass as the more primary instrument and don't they sound all the better for it? New York in the early 80s must have been one messed up city.

6) Public Image Ltd - "Poptones"
The brief flare that was punk rock was quickly replaced by New Wave in Britain with similar values to those in the US. Arch musical experimentalists PIL had the musical genius that is Jah Wobble on bass, heavily influenced as his name suggests by bass-heavy dub reggae. A bass sound that is both dense and fragile at the same time. Outstanding.     

7) The Ruts - "Love In Vein"
Part of punk and New Wave was a formal link up and experimentation with reggae and reggae musicians. Ruts were out and out punk but had very close local ties to roots reggae band Misty and the two shared many bills on the Rock Against Racism tour. Here the crossover is clear in one of the most achingly sad and beautiful songs by a punk band.

8) The Jam - "Funeral Pyre"
By now punk had gone all mainstream and bands like the Jam were having regular singles in the Top 10 of the charts. This song is unusually heavy and free-form for what was a tight threesome and everyone normally remembers the drum solo closing out the song, but actually bassist Bruce Foxton was also allowed off his tight leash to twiddle and thump away. Powerpop.
9) The Cure - "A Forest"
The Cure were never punk. A bit low-fi pop on their debut album and soon to move into stadium Goth. But in between was their second melancholy album and this track showing a bass also driving a song, but without the bluster and pose of songs with harder edge. The sound of a higher end bass. Who'd be a bassists though? The Cure's Laurence Tolhurst went to Court to sue over lack of royalties saying he contributed ineffably to the Cure sound. He lost.

10) Dead Kennedys - "We Got a Bigger Problem Now"
Hopping back over the pond and New Wave had taken the reverse journey and morphed into punk, thrash and hardcore. Progenitors of that were San Fransisco's Dead Kennedys with Klaus Flouride on bass. Here he has a little lounge music lick to satirise the right wing's music of choice. This song was a reworking of their earlier hit "California Uber Alles" written about the right-wing Governor Jerry Brown. But with californian Ronald reagan ascending to the Whitehouse, the US did as they say, have a bigger problem than that now... The West coast can do its own rather nice line in paranoia too.

11) Minutemen - "Anchor"
But US punk wasn't all thrash. The Minutemen were a trio whose musical abilities allowed them to include folk and jazz elements to their tightly blended mix. Guitar and bass alternated duties as leading songs and the band introduced Mike Watt, bass guitarist supreme upon the world.

12) World Domination Enterprises - "Asbestos Lead Asbestos"
If lead guitars can carry you along highways or out into space, the bass nearly always roots you back into the urban city. Here World Dom with their dub reggae penchant utterly nail the grime of their West London roots. Guitars are wielded like axes or played over the heart and chest, or even teasing over their sex, but bass guitars are always low-slung, closer to the ground. And of course they have a longer fretboard, to keep other people further at arms length...


13) Gang Of Four - "To Hell With Poverty"
The funk is introduced to New Wave. George Clinton and other funk bands were perhaps the only other precursors of punk who might bring the bass into the foreground. Since Gang Of Four's guitar sound was so choppy and intermittent, they needed a bass sound to carry the weight of some songs and fill in the gaps.

14) Beastie Boys - "Gratitude"
Hip hop could sample any sound it wanted. Yet when the Beastie Boys went back to their live instruments and punky roots, they brought delicious distortion to their bass sound. Ramp it up! RIP Adam MCA Yauch.

15) Birthday Party - "Mutiny In Heaven"
Punk, New Wave, Goth, what did any of it mean anymore by the mid-80s? There was a flowering of indie bands each pursuing their own underground tracks. The Birthday Party from Australia were one such blossoming that couldn't really be pigeonholed. But bassist Tracy Pew with his cowboy hat and biker fashion, sadly now dead from his grand mal seizures, was always driving the band forward with their off beat drum section, sometimes one drummer, sometimes two which he had to compete with as well as compliment. A bass rumble truly to soundtrack the rhythms of Hell!

16) Gun Club - "Sexbeat"
Psychobilly (UK) or swamp blues (US) was creative another offshoot and here the bass truly lends a quality of swampy sludge even as it drives the blues throb along in its train-driving manner.

17) Jesus And Mary Chain - "Sidewalking"
Meanwhile from Scotland, a band who wanted to be the surfer punks, the Beach Boys with a lot of reverb on top. I kind of liked their schtick, but the bass was always prominent among the feedback squall of the lead. It had to be, to keep it all together.

18) Cop Shoot Cop - "Shine On Elisabeth"
Two basses no guitars, this is a no brainer. 1 hi-end bass, one low-end bass, a heavnely heavy duty throbbing racket. This is my bass nirvana I think (the Buddhist ideal highest state of non-being, not Kurt Cobain's outfit).

19) Thee Johns - "White Boy Engineer"
There was a fashion for rock bands having drum machines instead of live drummers which definitely changed the vibe. Drum machines always sounded a bit tinny and brittle, so the bassist had to inject the weight into the musical grooves to compensate.

20) White Denim - "Let's Talk About It"
And so to the present day. I don't much about this band but we seem to be still where we were with permission for the bass sometimes to grab the glory in a song. Even with a geeky looking guy on bass like this one! Thanks for listening


James Everington said...

What no Debaser..!

Good choices though.

Sulci Collective said...

Funnily enough James, that was the Pixies track I had lined up for this chart, but then it fell victim to me capping it at 20.

Adam B said...

I'll drop in U2's '40' and Muse - Hysteria.
If you want alternative bass sounds, check out Victor Wooten's version of Amazing Grace
or the solo work of UK bassist Steve Lawson

Katherine Hajer said...

That's a hella great list, and I think you could have easily kept going to 50 and still not run out of fantastic examples. I would have added in "The Last Splash" by The Breeders, but of course one could keep going at this for days.