It’s been a while since I started this look at why I learned to love the bass, but since it’s been stuck in my head a lot lately I will continue the theme by introducing John Paul Jones.
The legendary multi-instrumentalist from Led Zeppelin doesn’t need an introduction, so I won’t go into a lot of biographical stuff. That’s what Wikipedia’s for. Suffice it to say, JPJ has been pretty much my favourite bassist since the moment I heard him play. He has such a fantastic grasp on melody and rhythm and backs it up with some very impressive chops.
So, an isolated bass track of What is and What Should Never Be appeared on the net a little while back and it’s a stunning example of Mr. Jones’ genius. He manages to control this pretty, lilting line through the verses, then drives the chorus hard. Throughout he drifts around the pulse with such subtlety, adding small ornaments and improvised runs, it is a work of art.
There are too many other examples to choose from, although I am quite partial to his collaboration with Diamanda Galas, and Them Crooked Vultures has some tasty bass too.
So, John Paul Jones is a master of melodic rock bass, one of my all-time faves. But not the only one. I’ll share my thoughts and feelings about other bassists and I welcome discussion along the way.
I’ve been trying to think of a way that I can introduce an element of my own musicality to this blog, besides the earlier post I wrote on another blog. In particular, I want to talk about bass, and why I love it so much.
I’m going to refer to this love of mine as “bass”, rather than limiting myself to any one particular bass or bass-clef instrument, because in reality a great many different forms of bass have influenced my appreciation of the low notes.
So what’s likely to happen is I will put links to other people’s media and tell you why I love that particular bass part, musician or instrument. If you’ve managed to find your way to my blog because of an interest in fishing, then Hi there! As much as I do enjoy fishing I don’t know enough about it to write anything very meaningful on the topic.
For this first entry, which will be a little more lengthy than the ones I have planned for the future, I will begin by describing my earliest musical memories. In my family it’s common knowledge that the kind of music that first caught my imagination was what I described as “funny music”. At the tender age of what must have been very young (I don’t know exactly but by the way my elder sister giggles about it I’m thinking probably two or three years old) I was exposed to what I now understand to be Trad and Dixieland Jazz. I know what I loved about it; I loved the raucous, unbridled sounds of all those instruments playing what often seemed not only distinct, but unrelated parts together in a glorious cacophony. The shuffling drums, the noodling clarinets, the piercing trumpets and the occasional joyous vocal part. But most of all, it was the trombone that really caught my attention. The versatility of sounds it produced, especially muted, and the sliding between notes that gave the lines such fluidity and added a little element of sound that cut in over everything else. The trom part in the chorus of Tiger Rag, for example, still elicits some of the same frisson of joy I first experienced upon listening to it all those years ago. I had one cassette tape of funny music that I listened to for a good couple of decades before I had to admit defeat and accept that I couldn’t possibly repair it any more than I had already. It was called Trad, Dixieland and all that Jazz by the Adrian Ford Big Band. So the trombone was my first bass love, I suppose, even though in that early jazz it wasn’t limited to holding down the bottom end, as there was often a tuba or double bass to do that job. Even back then I was acutely aware of the walking bass lines that meandered through the murky lower frequencies of those songs, and now that I own and play a double bass I have an appreciation of just what a mammoth task it must have been to try and penetrate the huge sound being generated by the rest of the band.
My parents’ record collection was a mish-mash of music that didn’t stray too far into the 20th Century. I don’t remember all of it, but I do seem to recall musing one day that perhaps the most contemporary compositions were West Side Story and I’m sure there was an album by The Seekers in there too. I only listened to the Bernstein. I once asked my Mum what her favourite music was, and after giving it considerable thought she replied “Church music”. So there’s a hint. My Dad was into musical theatre. Lots of Gilbert and Sullivan. So funny music did the trick, along with listening to pop music on the radio (usually past my bedtime, with the volume at its lowest setting and my ear pressed up to the speaker). I will write a post later about how some of the records featuring various “classical” music performances also gave me a bass buzz.
The other source of bass inspiration came from television theme songs. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve narrowed the list of the most influential down to five. Here they are:
So, #5: The Sesame Street Pinball animation.
I know it’s technically not a theme song, but it featured often enough in classic Sesame Street and was influential enough on me to make the list. This version has the steel drum solo, which was amazing but I recall solos being taken on a variety of instruments during the middle section. But what a bass line! Funky and syncopated… I’ve since learned that these little interludes started in 1976 and that it’s in fact the Pointer Sisters on vocals. This link will refer you to a letter from Walt Kraemer, the composer, that was written in response to enquiries about this piece. Rumours abounded at one stage that it was the work of Herbie Hancock, or even Frank Zappa. Anyway, probably the oldest TV bass earworm for me.
This series had some great bass lines, and the theme tune is one of the best. It has some complexity to it, whilst sitting on the rhythm for most of the verse it’s then let free to explore its own little rhythmic melody before the chorus, with those disco-esque octave runs. I love it, quality music all the way through.
#3: Grange Hill
I loved this show as a kid, and its theme still stands out as being a really bass-heavy song. The actual melody is pretty sparse, and that almost sleazy doubled-up bass line grooves along very nicely indeed.
#2: The Goodies
Bill Oddie’s influence probably needs a post of its own. All I should say is “Needed, needed, Oh Goody that’s niiiice” and people in the know will get my meaning.
#1: Dr. Who
Undoubtedly a big part of the reason I also came to love electronic music, the theme to Dr. Who, in particular the renditions from the late 70s and early 80s, stands out as one of the truly triumphant bass lines. Properly creepy, too. The new Dr. Who (or Dr. Who Lite, as I like to think of it) theme just doesn’t do it justice. If your pants weren’t scared off by the opening credits you weren’t watching Dr. Who.
Honourable mention: Blake’s 7. Also really creepy, made excellent use of the brass contingent of the bass family.
Dishonourable mention: Seinfeld. Yes, I can play it. No, I won’t play it.
These three words seem to be something of a cliche these days, but nevertheless, I’m going to promote the band I play bass in. We’re called The Mersons, we recorded a demo earlier this year and after the singer and drummer finished meddling with it, it ended up sounding like this.