If I could play an instrument, it would definitely be bass guitar. There’s just something fantastic about the deep, rich tones, and its function of outlining the melody and propelling the beat is one that appeals to me: not so flashy, but intrinsic to the music. I’ve said before that Paul McCartney is my bass-playing hero (the acclaim of Jack Bruce I just don’t quite get), but my self-image-as-musician leans more towards Peter Hook, in his Joy Division days. Played loud, with a wonderful sonorousness and a gravity and seriousness which is rare in the bass world (top bassists tend towards getting funky, with syncopation and inflection), Hook somehow encapsulates much that I find admirable in musicianship. His bass line in “Transmission” (a song memorably described as “a cold blue laser light of power”) is just fantastic – fluid yet chilly, supple yet muscular, prominent yet not flashy, propulsive yet melodic.
Paul McCartney, as in so many areas, doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves. Paul the balladeer, Paul the sap, play-it-safe Paul, Paul the crap Beatle – bullshit. Paul was – is – an incredible musician, and the development of his bass playing over the course of the Beatle canon is an amazing journey. I would argue that his apotheosis is in “Rain”, the B-side (the fucking B-side! One of the finest songs ever, confined to a B-side! It’s not even on 62-66, thought it gets an outing on Past Masters vol. 2) to “Paperback Writer”. While “Rain” is very much a John song (Lennon’s singing sets the stage for everything Liam Gallagher has ever done in his entire life), Macca’s bass is probably the most prominent ingredient of an incredibly heady mix, with some dazzling syncopation and interplay with Ringo; it’s probably also Ringo’s finest hour – whoever tells you Ringo can’t drum, punch them in the face. Twice.
Though punk, of course, was avowedly back-to-basics, post-punk opened up many fascinating possibilities. Bands like Gang Of Four, Public Image, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Fall, The Cure, Joy Division of course, Wire, even Throbbing Gristle – the sense of a door opening for experimentation is unmistakable. Nowadays more often cited simply as an influence of Franz Ferdinand, Gang Of Four were one of the most interesting post-punk bands, even if their influence was short-lived. (I’d much rather listen to them than The Cure, who seem to me to rip off early PiL and Siouxsie). The song “Ether” opens their seminal album Entertainment, and the bass playing on it is military-precise, yet oddly funky – in a very white-guy sense.
Some hate The Stranglers, and with good reason, but I rather relish their ferocious belligerence and caustic sexism. Let’s just enjoy the famous bassline to “Peaches” and not think too hard about what they’re saying 🙂
Jah Wobble has maybe the single best bass sound in rock music. His time in Public Image Limited was short, but coincided with nearly all their best work. Relish the epic depth, the moronic simplicity!
But this one is amazing, too. Great playing, without being wanky: just serving the song.
Reggae, of course, is based on riddim, with bass very much to the fore. Aston Barret, bassist in the Wailers, created many brilliantly simple bass lines. “Stir It Up” is a lovely example of getting three notes and playing them just right.
While the deep groove of “Natural Mystic” is more like dub: smoky and mysterious; perfect for the song.
Other quality bass lines –
Herbie Flowers in Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”
Paul Simonon in The Clash’s “The Guns Of Brixton”
Geezer Butler in Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”
Captain Sensible in The Damned’s “I Feel Alright”
John Entwhilstle in The Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”
Andy Rourke in The Smiths’ “This Charming Man”
Adam Clayton in U2’s “Silver And Gold”
John Deacon in “Dragon Attack” and “Another One Bites The Dust” (consecutive songs on The Game, no less!)
Reni in The Stone Roses’ “Made Of Stone”
Feel free to suggest more!