September 16, 2007

My Spine (Is The Bassline)...

by Chris Randall

During the interminable drive to Salem today to swap out my piece of shit Denon DVD player for another piece of shit Denon DVD player, I was rockin' my iPod and pondering on the fact that in the 80s, bass players had to work a lot harder than they do today. These days, if a pop song has anything other than the ol' Root On The Foot bassline, it's usually a synthesizer or sampler instead of an actual person playing.

I had made a Crandall's Super Sounds Of The Eighties playlist, and it had Japan's "Visions Of China" followed by Ian Dury's "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick," then English Beat's double-time version of "Tears Of A Clown," and I was struck by the shear number of bass notes contained in those three songs, in sum total about 9 minutes of music. There were probably more bass notes played in the Ian Dury track than in the entire Top 40 chart released last Tuesday.

I'll grant that Mick Karn is kind of a ringer; he could have been playing to some other song entirely. I've never been able to figure out what the fuck it is he's doing in any given Japan song (or any other band he's played in, for that matter); all I know is I generally like it. Imagine a Japan song with any other bass player, and you end up with a shit 80s outfit like China Crisis or something.

The master of the P-Bass, Norman Watt-Ray, from Ian Dury's band (and about 70 others) really has to move along, though. 16th note bass fiesta at a not-slow clip of 110bpm or so. I'd like to see some dude used to having his shit groove-quantized in PT try to pull that off for 3:43 in one take, and still front the beat like that.

(And please note that I'm perfectly aware that it's a P-Bass with a non-standard neck and J-Bass pickups. You don't need to post the inevitable and unnecessary correction, if you were planning on doing so.)

Or take Graham Maby, Joe Jackson's long-time bass player (since Look Sharp.) On the first three Joe Jackson records (before he got all post-punk on us) Graham has to carry the whole band; there's no guitar solos at all, and the guitar is mostly kind of discordant. The bass carries the melody for the most part in every song, _and_ he has to do the solos. "Got The Time," anyone?

There's no real reason to this line of thinking. It just sort of occurred to me that the bass was more of a front-row instrument in the 80s than it is now. Interesting when you think about it. Most people call it "synth pop" but really, it was "bass pop."



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Sep.16.2007 @ 10:29 PM
Bass was king in the eighties.

Not just 'synth' pop too - a major feature of 80's indie guitar bands like Echo & the Bunnymen, The Smiths, The Pixies even was their melodic basslines - The Cure, New Order, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Shriekback (of course) were bands whose bassists were (arguably) more responsible for the band's distinctive style than their guitartists.


Sep.16.2007 @ 10:32 PM
Oh, and staying on the "it was better in the good old days" vibe - can you imagine Ian Dury becoming a pop star these days? Way too much personality.

Sep.17.2007 @ 12:29 AM
Not the 80s, but almost: 1978's Can't Stand the Rezillos by the, err ... Rezillos, probably contains the finest collection of pop/punk basslines ever committed to vinyl. 16th note runs at 110 bpm - ha! child's play. Try it at 180 bpm!

Sep.17.2007 @ 1:25 AM
Chris Randall
More like 8th notes, and he's only playing the root of whatever chord progression they're (more or less) doing. Typical punk of the era. Which isn't to say that "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight" isn't in my Crandall's Heavy-Ass Playlist. Because it is.



Sep.17.2007 @ 2:39 AM
Yes but isn't Wolfgang Van Halen going to bring back the bass?



Sep.17.2007 @ 6:21 AM
I blame alt-rock and grunge, a whole generation taking the teenspirit bassline as word. Even the Pixies to an extent. Dumbing down the bass.

Mike Watt said it best in that he wanted to write songs that fell apart if you dropped the bassline.

Can we add Mark King/Level 42 to the 80s list? I'm not sure if I'm being ironic or not...


Sep.17.2007 @ 7:53 AM
John Taylor from Duran Duran has always been my favorite from the 80's. His bass work on Rio, Hungry Like the Wolf and Girls on Film are second to none. I don't think he ever got much credit but his bass really carried a lot of their songs.

Sep.17.2007 @ 8:53 AM
You know, I'd never really thought about it, but damn if you aren't right. From Gang of Four onwards, most music I was obsessed with in the 80s was just dominated by that round-wound, Ampeg bass pushed right out in front. Mission of Burma, Sorry, Basement 5, Big Black, PIL, even Minor Threat. And of course my favorite band of the era, Minutemen, were all but defined by Watt's playing. Not entirely the same thing you're referring to above, but a lot of it sounded like it was written on bass and the guitar was brought in afterwards. Kids in my scene actually started out on bass rather than just ending up there because they couldn't get a gig playing guitar. Now, if the bass isn't just mirroring the guitar part it's some dude with 5 or 6 strings and no sense of groove bleating all over the place.

Sep.17.2007 @ 9:14 AM
Mark King and Level 42 wouldn't be irony... it would be an appropriate homage. He did all that playin' AND sang! :)

Sep.17.2007 @ 9:55 AM
A Different Chris Randall
So post the playlist already!

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