Unfairly maligned as Blur’s third most interesting member, Alex James’ trademark bass has been (ahem) instrumental in the boys’ finest moments. As he turns 49 (November 21), lets have a look back at his career highlights.
10 Chinese Bombs
US hardcore isn’t the first influence that comes to mind when you think of mid-late ‘90s Blur, but ‘Chinese Bombs’ is an amphetamine blast so frenetic and barbarous it’d slot nicely alongside the SST Records catalogue. James’ bass darts and clatters like a toddler on Red Bull, before joining the rest of the song in an exhausted face-slam at the 80-second mark.
9 My Terracotta Heart
There’s a mournful, languid tone to James’ bass on this ‘The Magic Whip’ highlight. It’s played with a wooziness that faintly evokes sixties jazz, striking blue notes that haunt before meandering wistfully up the fretboard. If the song broke your heart, you know who to send the medical bills.
8 Brothers and Sisters
James’ bassline slithers nimbly through ‘Brothers and Sisters’, a song whose heatwave atmospherics and jingle-jangle percussion conjure a Moroccan street market. In less capable hands it’d throw the song off-balance, but James taps into a tasteful kind of flamboyance.
7 Theme from Retro
It’s sometimes said that the mark of a good bassline is that you don’t know it’s there. Not so with ‘Theme from Retro’, a spaceman cyber-ballad in urgent need of James’ melodic anchorage. As menacing synths and pedal effects swirl, the bassline leads you through the dark like a parent’s hand in the world’s freakiest house of horrors.
Striking his masterful balance between classy elegance and ostentation, James’ bass on this ’97 single turns itself inside-out at every turn, knocking Damon’s heroin ballad beautifully off-balance without distracting from that delicate melody.
5 There’s No Other Way
Even in 1991, James was sick of the bassist’s subservient role bashing out root notes for the real artists, and this is a statement of intent. It’s all about playing off Coxon’s iconic riff, bass soaring out the park before sliding effortlessly back in line for the chord change.
4 Colin Zeal
James’ bass runs riot like a dog off the leash on ‘Colin Zeal’, scurrying through shanty guitar jabs and barked vocals before pulling some impressively acrobatic shapes in the chorus. Madcap brilliance.
3 Song 2
‘Song 2’’s avalanche of a chorus is actually played on two distorted bass guitars, so given the entry requirements for this list it’s sort of cheating, but we’ll let it off. ‘Song 2’ is a textbook example of Pixies’ quiet-LOUD-quiet ethos, and it serves as testament to the shattering effect bass guitars can have on a rock song. Look sharp, Royal Blood.
2 Entertain Me
Wobbly as a ‘90s A&R at the Brit Awards, ‘Entertain Me’’s loopy bassline has an absolute ball as industrial noise swarms and clanks in the background. Proof positive that while guitarists get the glory, bassists have all the fun.
1 Girls & Boys
Catchy and iconic, James’ bassline is essentially ‘the bit you remember’ from Blur’s Britpop-defining single, tangled up as it is in the song’s infectious back-and-forth chorus. It’s as arrogant as the trademark cigarette dangling from the bassist’s lips, strutting and popping in a 16-bar loop through verse and chorus, but that’s precisely why you love it.