Tagged: Gang Of Four

Making The Case For Bass

When you listen to music, each instrument involved (including voice) has a part in putting across the vision of the artist. In a great song all the parts contribute to this vision. It’s not really possible to say that any particular instrument is the most important. This is especially true because different styles of music use a diverse palette of available instruments to create a song. We recently did a video discussing the different ways to record electric bass. For this post, let’s talk about the importance of bass guitar in songs.

When I first started playing in rock bands, bass guitar did not get a lot of respect. When you’re young and putting a band together the players who were usually recognized by fans of the band were the vocalist and lead guitar player. If you started a band and two people were guitar players, the person who was less technical was often ‘assigned’ bass guitar duties. Or if there was a person you wanted in the band who didn’t play an instrument, you’d teach them the bass. This was because the bass player could just stay on the key note of the chord and play eighth notes. This would be enough to add a bottom to the song and improve the dynamics.

The more I listened to funk, jazz and dance music, the more intrigued I became with how the bass could control the song. The role of bass was a bridge between the rhythm and the melody. And the bass has a great effect on the song’s dynamics. Just doing a well placed ‘drop out’ on bass can kick a song to a new level. As the style of ‘post-punk’ grew, I found more and more bands that built ‘rock’ style guitars and vocals on top of funk style bass and drums. I spent a lot of time practicing and refashioned myself as a ‘bass player’. I must say it’s a great deal of fun to stand out of the light on stage and still feel in control of where the song is going.

Another interesting prospect is writing a song from the bass line up. Usually you would start with guitar parts (or keyboards, banjo, mandolin etc) or a vocal melody. We have written songs that started with bass lines. It allows all the other instruments to freely ‘wander’ where they will as the bass is holding down the chord changes. I would guess that some of the songs selected below may have been written this way.

Practicing bass became one of the most enjoyable things I do musically. Playing along with a great bass line, throwing in different changes, rhythms and scales is totally immersive for me. Everything else disappears. Following are some of my favorite ‘bass-centric’ songs (and bands) to practice with. Most of the bands here fall in to a ‘funk-rock’ category rather than straight funk style – out and out ‘funk’ bands would be another full post. I’ve picked specific songs, but in practice I’ll usually play through the entire album. Let’s groove.

The Bamboos – ‘Step It Up’

Funky from start to finish. After you get down the main riff, the sky’s the limit and you can go off on your own tangents. This album is a staple of my practice sessions.

Medium Medium – ‘Hungry, So Angry’

Although I had listened to funk growing up (Sly and The Family Stone, James Brown, Funkadelic, The Meters, etc) this was the beginning of mixing my punk roots with a funk bottom. At early ‘punk’ shows you could still see bands in smaller venues and stand right in front of the stage. I learned a lot just watching what and how the bassist was playing. Medium Medium was one of the bands that pulled the ‘slap and pop’ style in to punk.

Gang Of Four – ‘To Hell With Poverty’

More post-punk funk fun. The bass and drums holding down the rhythm allows the guitar to pursue any noise it wants.

My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult – ‘Sex On Wheelz’

The bass sits way down on the bottom end for this song. Sitting on this riff for five minutes will make your fingers laugh and cry at the same time.

Talking Heads – ‘Crosseyed And Painless’

Talking Heads put out a wide variety of music over their careers. Their mid career run of albums of funk rock were amazing. I learned a lot of bass technique watching Tina Weymouth in the ‘Stop Making Sense’ concert movie (a must watch if you haven’t seen it).

The Clash – ‘The Magnificent Seven’

The Clash were another band all about musical variety. Here they combine funk rock music with rap style vocals.

Pylon – ‘Volume’

Pylon combined a solid drums/bass bottom end with a minimalist top end. If you were the rhythm section in a band like this, you really had to stay on point or the whole song could fall apart. Sounds simple, but playing live you had to keep your timing really tight.

Shriekback – ‘Malaria’

The album this came from, ‘Oil And Gold’, is another full play through practice album for me. We did a Messin’ With The Music cover of ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’ from the album. Dave Allen from Gang Of Four was the bass player in this band too.

Bush Tetras – ‘Too Many Creeps’

Another solid rhythm with slashing noise on top. We first saw this band in Manhattan in 1980. If you were in New York around that time ‘Too Many Creeps’ would be your theme song. Times Square in 1980, woooooo…….

February 2020 Grapevine

Even though it’s winter there are still lots of items growing on the Grapevine. As always, you have to keep searching, keep your ears open and you never know what you may find. There’s no real theme for this month’s music, just a variety of nuggets found on the winter ground. So let’s get going….(it’s much warmer if you keep moving and don’t stand still).

First Up: Money For Rope – ‘Actually’

This band from Melbourne, Australia, plays a beautiful swampy form of garage rock. Nice crisp drum sounds and enough space between the instruments where you can hear all of them. Great guitar sound, a bit ‘surf guitar’, love the reverb and tremolo that it’s bathed in. Sharp, simple bass has a prominent place in the mix. There’s a spooky keyboard lurking in the background for atmosphere. The vocals sit on top of the song, a little bit distorted and sometimes stacked for a graveyard effect. Listen for the guitar going totally fuzzed out at the end of the song.

Next Up: The Jackets – ‘Wasting My Time’

Well, maybe there is a thread in this month’s songs. International garage rock? The Jackets are from Switzerland. This has the elements I love in garage rock – simple, straight forward, in your face. Again, nice tremolo on some of the guitar parts. You listen to it and say ‘hey, I’d love to get up there and play that’. Simplicity. For me that’s meant as a compliment, not a put down. This band reminds me of The Hives (if you don’t remember them look up ‘Hate To Say I Told You So’). And I love the video. It’s like an fun-house mirror version of the Beatles ‘Help’. Matching outfits, running around fields with no purpose. Performance parts are a hoot. This is an older video, but they did put out a new album in 2019. For another great, fun video check out ‘Losers Lullaby’.

Finally: Sylvia Black – ‘Walking With Fire’

This is the slow down change of pace song. I’m a fan of David Lynch movies. And this tune is definitely being played in the Lynch Lounge. It’s the music you would hear in some underground black and red lounge bar at 3:00 in the morning. The music underneath is just the set up for the flaming vocals on top. It feels like the vocals could blow up at any time, but are kept totally under control, adding to the tension. The Lydia Lunch spoken word in the middle of the song is just bizarre – oh, how I love bizarre. Mood music for life’s strange trip.

Retro: Gang Of Four – ‘To Hell With Poverty’

Gang Of Four are one of my favorite bands from the post-punk time of the 80’s. We unfortunately lost GOF guitar player Andy Gill on February 1st at age 64. This band had a tremendous influence on the style of music I was writing at the time. Especially Dave Allen’s bass playing. The bass and drums lock in to this amazing funk groove. Then screeching, jagged guitar is dropped on top. The vocals are pretty jagged too, with a lot of fist in the air political content. Gang Of Four showed me that if the rhythm section is grooving, there’s a lot you can drop on top. GOF was the type of band that probably had more effect on other musicians than on the general public. Sure miss those shows. And – ‘to hell with poverty!’.