Bass. Does it matter? You notice when it’s not there: witness Metallica’s famously bass-free album ‘…And Justice For All’, which has all the sonic warmth of a trapped wasp chewing its way out a flannel.
Then again, stripping out the bass can also prove a masterstroke: see Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’, or Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’. Klaxons made ironic reference to this seldom-used production trick when they covered the latter song, beefing it up with an outrageous splurge of filthy sub-bass.
Trouble is, playing bass is just not as glamorous, or aspirational, as playing lead guitar. You look at Johnny Marr, or John Squire, or Eddie Van Halen, and you think, yes, I’d kill to be able to play like that. Conversely, you observe the masters of the bassist’s art – people like Jaco Pastorius and Pino Palladino, with their liquid, fretless, floppy-fingered ways – and you think, hmm, perhaps I’ll leave it.
For the budding four-stringer, there exists a tipping point in expertise, a critical crossroads, beyond which lies only danger: specifically, the howling musical dead-zone that is slap bass. Practice too hard, and you may end up looking like this chap:
Furthermore, there’s something undignified about people who are really good at playing bass – a lingering whiff of gym lockers and sweaty socks. This is mostly the fault of Flea, whose shirtless, dick-swinging antics have implanted in millions of people the subconscious assumption that all bassists are perma-mugging, ‘I’m bonkers, me’, attention-seeking berks.
But that’s unfair. Many bassists exhibit charisma and poise. Generally, the matter is governed by Hook’s Law, which dictates that the lower you swing your instrument, the less of a muso bell-end you appear. Hence Nicky Wire: unspeakably cool. Mark King: not so much.
Some bass players, meanwhile, rank amongst the coolest musicians who have ever lived. Take James Jamerson, Motown’s in-house bassist who played on an estimated 95% of the label’s recordings between 1962 and 1968. A legendary boozer, he recorded the rangily lubricious bass line to Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On” while lying flat on his back, after a marathon drinking session.
Debauchery in itself is not cool (Jamerson’s alcohol addiction ultimately killed him), but insouciance, and effortless brilliance, is. In his own way, Jamerson was as ‘punk-rock’ as Sid Vicious. His armoury was minimal: two fingers, grubby strings (which he never changed), and a Fender Precision Bass with a warped neck. But with those tools he fashioned riffs that have made the world dance for the past half a century.
Indeed, ‘What’s Goin’ On’ is instructive here, since it marked the first time Jamerson was ever credited on a Motown release – which perhaps illustrates the bass player’s predicament through the ages. It doesn’t matter how good you get, you will always be less famous than the singer. And the guitarist. And the drummer. And this fact will haunt you until eventually drink yourself to death, penniless and alone.
But perhaps we can redress the balance now, by celebrating the men, and women, who best honour the bass player’s art. Let us pay our respects to the unsung craftsmen who construct the girders and rivets on which rock and roll stands. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it…