Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bits on Bass for The Wire's Low End Theories issue (July 2012)

by Simon Reynolds

John Entwistle / The Who, “My Generation” (Brunswick single, 1965)

Rock ‘n’ roll had triggered violence before, but up until The Who it had never really represented violence musically or enacted it onstage.  Think of words like “mayhem” and “destruction” in connection with that band and the first things that spring to mind are Keith Moon’s free-flailing drums and Pete Townshend’s scything powerchords.  (Not forgetting those climactic orgies of instrument-smashing).  But on “My Generation” John Entwistle supplies more than his fair share of the savagery. Often described as lead bassist to Townshend’s  rhythm guitarist, on this late 1965 single, his is the loudest instrument (with the possible exception of Moon’s cymbals). 

For the first minute “Thunderfingers”, as his bandmates nicknamed him,  churns and grinds as relentlessly and remorselessly as a gigantic tunnel-boring drill. Then, outrageously, he takes the solo and slashes a rent in the song’s fabric with a down-diving flurry of notes at once fluidly elegant and brutishly in-your-face.  This is generally regarded as the first bass solo in recorded rock, and as such, it’s a mixed portent.  Entwistle would immediately attempt to reprise the shock effect on the Who’s debut album with the bass-dominated instrumental “The Ox” and over the years he became an increasingly ostentatious player, peaking with the verging-on-Pastorius floridity of Quadrophenia’s “The Real Me” (much admired in the technical guitar magazines). 

But in the immediate aftermath of “My Generation”, young bands like The Eyes, The Creation and John’s Children picked up not on the sophistication (beyond their capabilities, anyway) but the loudness, distortion, and menace.  Amping up the jagged, edge-of-chaos frenzy, they recorded a series of 1966-67 singles that fans and collectors today know as “freakbeat”.  Mod, as a musical form as opposed to a subcultural style, represented a uniquely English contribution to rock: the sound of frustration and neurosis, tension and explosive release.  In their own way, for a moment there in the mid-Sixties the Who were as radical as the Velvet Underground. Certainly, as far as Britain is concerned, punk starts here. Entwistle can even be seen as a forefather of postpunk’s  “lead bassists”, or at least the  aggressive hard-rocking sort, such as Jean-Jacques Burnel and Peter Hook. Indeed Hooky actually bought some of the Ox’s bass guitars in the estate sale after his 2002 death.

Tina Weymouth / Talking Heads’s “Found a Job” (from More Songs About Buildings and Food, 1978)

So dominant was David Byrne as the front-and-center figure in Talking Heads – voice, wordsmith,  mesmerizingly awkward physical presence—that it’s  always been too easy to underplay the vital contributions of the instrumentalists. (Including Byrne’s own instrumental role as marvelously inventive guitarist).  Props due to drummer Chris Frantz and to Jerry Harrison for his keyboard colorations, but DB’s only serious rival as charismatic focus was always Tina Weymouth.  Her bass is often the primary melodic voice in the songs, while the unfettered joy of her playing provides a vital counter to the singer’s neurotic unease. 

Talking Heads’s classic first four albums hold an embarrassment of four-string riches.  The nimble pretzel-funk of “Cities”. The rubbery ache of “Heaven”.  The languid lope of “Warning Sign”. The lurching anti-groove “Drugs”. The virtually iconic unchanging bassline of “Once In A Lifetime” (whose composition Weymouth generously credits to her husband Frantz but which has her fingerprints all over it in terms of the use of space and silence). The quirky quiver of “Mind”. The uncharacteristic hypno-drone of “The Overload.”

In sheer desperation, I plump here for the first B-line of Weymouth’s, and possibly of anybody’s, that caught my young (16 years old) ear: the corkscrewing earworm that is “Found A Job,” a bass-riff that sings in your head like pure pop and pummels you in the gut like the toughest funk or hardest rock.   During postpunk, I never played air guitar (too phallic, too masculinist and metal). But I did play air bass.  And Tina Weymouth got as much mime time out of me as that other great bass hero of the era, Jah Wobble.   

Unique 3, "Weight For the Bass (Original Soundyard Dubplate Mix)" (Ten Records, 1990)

In the beginning, U.K. rave was fueled by imports from Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Homegrown efforts paled next to the real thing. But towards the end of 1989, a distinctively British sound  emerged.  Associated with artists like LFO, Rhythmatic, Nightmares on Wax, and Original Clique, and with fledgling labels like Chill, Network, and Warp, this phase has gone down to history as bleep. But at the time synonyms like bleep-and-bass or Northern bass got bandied around too. And that’s because the tracks mostly came out of Yorkshire and the West Midlands and what they brought to the house template was something that hadn’t been particularly prominent before: low end. Most of the bleep-makers were former B-boys who’d come up through the UK’s mid-Eighties “street beats” culture—breakdancing to Man Parrish and Mantronix, daubing graffiti on railway bridges and after-dark shopping center walls. Then their heads got flipped out by acid house in 1988. But instead of mimicking Chicago’s Roland 303 acid-bass, they stuck with electro’s 808-bassed boom. They were also influenced heavily by the imported-from-Jamaica sound system culture that was thoroughly established in mixed-race Northern cities like Leeds by the late Eighties. 

That three-way collision of hip hop, reggae, and house is all across the bleep sound of 1989-1991, but nowhere more thrillingly than in the output of Bradford’s Unique 3.  “The Theme” b/w “7-AM’, their debut, is officially regarded as the Birth of Bleep. But “Weight for the Bass”, their third single, packs more sub-lo heft.  The tectonic-plate-shaking  bass and eerily cavernous space are offset and lightened by  skippy electro-descended beats and an Italo-house piano vamp that chatters with the bright-eyed inanity of an E’d up raver. Spelling out the Jamaican connection, the “Original Soundyard Dubplate Mix” also nods to the Soundyard, the Bradford club founded by  Unique 3's Edzy. The group’s L Double would go on to be a valuable player in jungle, a scene organized around dubplates and bass-drops. And the title “Weight for the Bass” pre-echoes the dubstep fetish-term  “bass weight”. Indeed the way that the track stretches out a tremor into a trauma-scape of ecstatic dread anticipates such classics of the last decade as Pinch’s “Qawwali” and Loefah’s “Bombay Squad.”

                                                       [NB below is not the right mix but gives you a flavour at least]

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