My spine is the bassline

Larry Graham
Larry Graham

A while back I had fun putting together a list of favourite guitar solos that was determinedly different to the usual sort of list of these things. Now here’s another such list, this time looking at basslines.

There’s an argument to be made for the electric bass guitar to have been one of defining inventions of the twentieth century, even more so than the electric guitar. The propulsive musical sound from the latter half of that century, the overpowering focus on rhythm, has been underpinned by the bass guitar. No other age has been so defined by its music as ours. Of course people have been dancing since the dawn of time, and rhythmical music has always made us dance. But amplification, combined with mass distribution, has turned music from background to foreground, from something occasionally sought out to something omnipresent.

It is the bass guitar, electrified, that has underpinned this domination of sound. The electric bass guitar was invented in the 1930s, but came into prominence with the introduction of the Fender Precision Bass in 1951. Its portability as well as its amplification ensured that it replaced the double bass as rock’n’roll emerged out of jazz, country, blues and swing. There were probably two stages to its subsequent evolution. The first was the establishment of the idea of the beat group with guitar (or two), bass and drums that the Beatles cemented and that everyone then copied.

The second stage was when the bass ceased to be buried in the mix and began to be heard as an instrument in its own right, which probably began in the late 1960s with Sly and the Family Stone and their bassist Larry Graham. Now there were no longer just songs, there were dance tracks, and that innovation gave us everything from disco to drum’n’bass. The rise of multi-track recording and the deconstruction/reconstruction of music pioneered by reggae producers in the 1970s, spreading thereafter to remixes and DJ culture of all kinds likewise has made the bassline that which defines the sounds of the times. Everything may get mixed up, but it is the bass that holds it all together. Our spine is the bassline.

And so to a favourite ten basslines. Not the top ten, which is an unnecessary exercise, but an interesting ten, I hope – a mixture of the inevitable and the unusual. I’m not interested in superhuman dexterity, still less in the deep horror that is the bass solo. What matters is a clear idea, ideally one that is simple yet original, and compels you to follow it, over and over again.

10. Shriekback, ‘All Lined Up’, bass guitarist Dave Allen (1983)

The title of this post comes from a bass-heavy number by this British band (formed in 1981 and still active), but my choice here is for another number from their 1983 album Care. With its punchy bassline overlaid with hypnotic chords and chanted chorus this sounds like they stumbled upon the terrific bass hook first and built the song around it. Bassist Dave Allen previously helped pioneer the post-punk sound, emplying funk-influenced bass and angular guitars with the Gang of Four.

9. Wings’, ‘Goodnight Tonight’, bass guitarist Paul McCartney (1979)

This is a perverse choice. Can there be a better example of a dreadful song with a brilliant bass part? It might have been kinder if Paul McCartney’s bassline for the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’ were to chosen, but the simple yet ingenious bass pattern he came up with here has such a surprise effect that it has to win out. It makes for such an extraordinary start to the song, one which could have taken it in any number of interesting directions. What a shame that it ended up taking the direction that it did.

8. Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)’, bass guitarist Larry Graham (1969)

As said, the electric bass found new prominence with Larry Graham’s playing with Sly and the Family Stone, and here is the model example. No longer hidden in the mix, here the bass lead the song, and in doing so points to a music no longer constrained by a beginning, middle and end, but which could conceivably go on for as long as the crowd could keep dancing. The inspiration for thousands of ‘slap and pop’ basslines that were to follow.

7. Young Marble Giants, ‘The Man Amplifier’, bass guitarist Philip Moxham

And now for something a little different. The Young Marble Giants (previously championed on these pages) are a trio from Wales, comprising singer, keywords, bass – and drum machine. Consequently Philip Moxham’s bass has needed to carry more of the song than in usually is the case, and his simple (almost naive) melodic basslines define their pared-down, wistful sound. Any number of theirs could have served, but this charming song makes their distinctive use of the bass particularly clear.

6. Talking Heads, ‘Once in a Lifetime’, bass guitarist Tina Weymouth

The cleverest of all basslines. Tina Weymouth’s artfully simple two-bar line, with the first four notes mirrored by the succeeding four, accompanied by synthesizer and polyrhythms, immediately startles the ear. It then further confounds as vocals and then chorus take the song in directions the opening has not prepared us for. A number that simultaneously makes you question what the bass is there for, and supplies the answer.

5. Delta 5, ‘Mind Your Own Business’, bass guitarists Ros Allen and Bethan Peters (1979)

This is a bit of a cheat, firstly because the bassline is rather close to Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’, and secondly because the Delta 5 had two bassists. But it’s also a brilliant inversion of what you expect a pop song to be, with basses to the fore, guitar scratching away in the background, chanted, almost tuneless vocals – all the classical elements of a song torn up and rebuilt into something else quite rivetting.

4. James Brown, ‘Funky President (People It’s Bad)’, bass guitarist Gordon Edwards (1974)

There has to be a James Brown number, and this much-sampled number gets the vote. It’s just the way Gordon Edwards ends the riff with those three notes climbing up. Irresistible in every sense.

3. Caravan, ‘Nothing at All’, bass guitarist Richard Sinclair (1972)

OK, so what are the doyens of the Canterbury scene doing on such a list? Caravan, who specialised in a light form of progressive rock with jazz and pop overtones, made a somewhat jazzier album in 1972 entitled Waterloo Lily, from which this stunning track comes. The art of the great bassline is coming up with a simple figure that nevertheless no one has quite thought of before now, and which won’t leave your head. This is a model example, with guitar and saxophones solos paying over the repeated bassline, fading out midway into a melodic middle section, before returning to a storming finale. And you have to dance to it.

2. Chic, ‘Good Times’, bass guitarist Bernard Edwards, 1979

Of course you have to have Bernard Edwards, whose fluid, innovative basslines combined with Nile Rodgers’ chopping guitar created the sophisticated Chic sound. ‘Good Times’ just about wins out over ‘Le Freak’ for its novelty – instantly danceable, let like no other bassline that had proceeded it. Everyone then wanted to play such a riff, and no one else quite could (Queen’s plodding imitation, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, being a particular wretched example).

1. The Observers, ‘One Train Load of Dub’, bass guitarist George “Fully” Fullwood (probably), 1974?

My top choice isn’t available on Spotify, though the original reggae number on which is it based is. That was ‘One Train Load of Collie‘ by Tommy McCook and the Observers (care of producer Niney the Observer, aka Winston Holness), which itself owed something to Al Green’s ‘Love and Happiness’. No matter about the antecedents. This dub version turns up the three-note bassline, overlaid by horns and the occasional passing train noise. The most elemental bass sound imaginable. Spine-shaking stuff (if you turn it up loud enough).

Alas, such a short list leaves out so many – Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn, James Jamerson, Holger Czukay, Stanley Clarke, Jah Wobble, Jack Bruce, Flea, Bootsy Collins, Lemmy … So below is a Spotify playlist of assorted favourite basslines. Some are eccentric choices, some you have to listen hard to pick out the bass at all, and there are some pointed omissions – plus my ignorance of most popular music since the early 80s is all too clear. But it would be the soundtrack to quite a good party.

A collection of great basslines…


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