Monday, February 15, 2010

Entwistlean Logic - Bass Matters

Pino Paladino is amongst the greatest bassists who ever lived, of this, there is no debate.  In the same breath I add that I don't care for his work in the context of The Who. This comment is generally met either with a spirited defense of his efforts, or a stare that lets me know the person doesn't realize the Who even has a bass player, and that's when I realize that something has gone a bit funny.

I've repeatedly gone back and checked out clips, tapes, and such of many of The Who's performances, and by comparing a recent show to a tape from the Quadrophenia tour in 1973, I realized the difference.  The song was the bass driven epic, The Real Me.  In the new edition, Pino hits all the right notes, and generally does a fine job, but a terribly unexciting job.  I listen to the earlier John Entwistle fueled version, and I'm instantly engaged, the song demands that I anxiously accompany it on its path.  It's compelling.  It won't be ignored.  It can't be ignored.

John Entwistle's playing commanded to be heard, whether in the over the top manner of The Real Me, the barreling solos throughout My Generation, or his horn-like embellishments on Behind Blue Eyes.  His tone blasted through a mix like no other, sounding at times like a massive rhythm guitar, as on his amazing power chords that ring in the verses of Pinball Wizard, chords that are not even recognized by the casual listener as bass notes.  He took possession of Townshend's songs, made them his own, left an indelible stamp that turned rock songs into reasons for living.  Entwistle's talent made them larger than life in the grandest of fashions.

Every great band has a great bass player, and if you don't have a bass player, I'm not gonna much like your band, at least I haven't yet.  I hear The White Stripes, and yeah, I miss the bass to the point of distraction.  The Doors came close with Manzenerek  playing pretty decent bass on a Fender bass keyboard, but I always wanted to hear the songs with a proper bassist.  No, make that a great bassist.  The bass is the magic that marries european harmony to african rhythm and creates rock and roll.

Paul McCartney always talked about, "....the guy playing the bass" on the Motown stuff, and though he may not have known it was James Jamerson supplying those throbbing lines that made America dance, he knew that what Jamerson did was indispensable to the music.  Paul then proceeded to spend countless hours crafting bass lines that made Beatles tunes stand out from any others.  He spent a lot of time and energy creating parts that worked harmonically, rhythmically, and it shows in the results.  All too often I now hear radio ready rock in which the bassist merely apes the chords being played by the guitars, and it nearly drives me around the bend.

It's as if the whole ease of operation of digital recording has sped things up tothe point where musicians aren't taking the time to create parts, they just barrel through the song and pop it out.  I hear less craftsmanship on records now than I can ever remember.  I'll listen to any oldies station and be amazed at the care, skill, and craft being shown on even the most throw away old pop, rock, and soul stuff.  It stuns me to hear the differences in simple effort and ingenuity.

John Paul Jones created magic on every Led Zeppelin track in existence.  This speaks loudly of the fact that Jones was a trained orchestrator, and not just a failed guitarist.  It's worth noting that many of the best bassists come to the bass from other instruments.  Entwistle, Bruce, McCartney, Jones, Flea: each of these great bassists are skilled on other instruments, which means they know a little (or a lot) about how music is assembled.  Jack Bruce is a great pianist, Entwistle, an accomplished horn player, McCartney can make great music out of about anything, and this has a huge impact on the bass line these fellows laid down.

McCartney is as inventive a musician as has ever lived.  His bass lines never cease to amaze me, from the descending melody on Michelle, his fuzzy underpinnings in While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and the magnificent playing that accompanies George Harrison's Something.

Some of the greatest pop music of the 60s featured fantastically inventive bass lines from incredible players, such as James Jamerson and Bob Babbit's work on Motown, Duck Dunn on Stax stuff, and the unknown but brilliant Joe Osborne, whose great work I recognize every time I hear an oldie by The Grassroots.  How many bands today can you recognize by the bass lines, aside from Flea's always stellar work  with The Red Hot Chili Peppers?
One thing worth pointing out is that these fellows almost never played a repeating part throughout a tune. They always opt to vary notes, rhythms, and structures, and this creates interest that keeps you listening, and involved.  I can't stress this enough.  Repetitive parts makes for staid, and boring music, which I'm hearing a lot of these days.  Makes me howl with frustration is what it does.

This will be just the first in a serious of meditations on the art of the bass.  I haven't even touched on such topics as tone, note selection, and style.  More on this later.              

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