Scotty, I Need More Bass!
by Eric J Baker
Poor bass players. What’s it like to be invisible in plain sight?
I liken the bass player in a rock band to Scotty on Star Trek. If Captain Kirk is the lead singer – arrogant, full of swagger, and always bagging the chicks, then Spock is the guitar player – the guy who the cocky singer doesn’t realize is actually the star. Dr. McCoy, naturally, is the drummer with all his charm and humor. Meanwhile, poor Scotty the Bassist is off camera in the engine room, futzing around with dilithium crystals and never getting any credit.
A lot of casual music listeners have said to me over the years, “To be honest, I can’t even hear the bass guitar.” That right bassists: Outside of prog rock and fusion nerds (and your fellow musicians), people don’t even realize you are there. Unless your name is Geddy Lee, all those cool bass runs you came up with seem to fall beyond the range of average human hearing. When most people think of bass, they think of teenagers driving around with 15-inch subwoofers in the trunk, rattling Precious Moments figurines off their shelves with grating low-end thump that, embarrassingly for you, isn’t created on a bass guitar.
From the beginning, bass players have been the Romulans of the music world… listeners are vaguely aware they exist, but they don’t register on the public consciousness as do Klingons or Vulcans. In the era of classical music, I’m sure some dude was back there sawing away next to the tympani drum, but the violin players and harpsichordists were the ones getting all the chicks and appearing on the cover of Baroque Monthly. Then swing and jazz came along, making stars of drummers like Buddy Rich and horn players like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. All the while, that poor guy is plucking out ba-do-do-do-do ba-dee-dee-dee-dee on his upright over and over again while the audience stares, enraptured, at the cat wailing on the sax. And you can forget early rock music. Three-chord-rock becomes three-note-rock for bassists.
Then James Brown invented funk.
The advent of funk for bass players was like the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin for fifth grade teachers’ lesson plan: Important. Instead of building songs around the melody or the beat, funk promoted the bass to center stage. If you can’t pick out the bass when you hear funk, you should probably throw your iPod away and listen to talk radio from now on. I’m pretty sure Rush Limbaugh cannot hear bass either.
James Brown bassist Bootsy Collins, who went on to become a cornerstone of 1970s funk powerhouse Parliament-Funkadelic, was unsatisfied with a support role, coming up with all kinds of slaps and pops that grabbed ears and have inspired countless musicians since. He was also unsatisfied with fabric-based garments and the eyewear selection at Woolworth’s, apparently.
You gotta have a special kind of panache to dress like Bootsy Collins. I doubt I could get way with it.
I know what you’re thinking: What about Gene Simmons, Paul McCartney, and Greg Lake? They were bass players and big stars. But those guys are famous singers who also happen to play bass, most likely because it makes good business sense to double up duties and split the money fewer ways. Anyway, who listens to Kiss for the bass lines? And I’m not sure The Beatles’ initial fan base of screaming teenage girls weren’t the very ones who invented not being able to hear the bass. As for ELP…yikes! Brain Salad Surgery? That album shouts “1973,” and not in a good way.
I’m glad I’m not one of those people who stubbornly refuses to like more than one kind of music. I dig heavy metal as much as any shaven-headed white dude, but it’s hard to talk music with metal heads who can’t see the value in restraint or soulfulness or in not singing about Satan and dragons. Or people who don’t understand why some black kid from a tenement complex relates better to hip hop than to Beethoven’s Ninth. Or people who think country music is for hicks. After all, it’s a proven fact of science that Johnny Cash kicks your ass.
All that soap boxing is leading up to this: Contrary to the claim that has appeared on millions of iron-on T-shirts over the years, disco does not suck. No rule exist that says you are not allowed to like both Lynyrd Skynyrd and disco. Especially if you’re a bass player, because the late Bernie Edwards from Chic was maybe the grooviest four-string wizard of them all. Along with drummer Tony Thompson and guitarist Nile Rodgers, Edwards’ Chic laid down rhythms that have been borrowed by everyone from David Bowie to Queen and Duran Duran to Prince and the Red Hot Chili Peppers to The Killers. The great John Taylor from Duran Duran, who has recorded some of the most memorable funk-pop bass lines of the past 30 years, once said that Bernie Edwards made him cry from feelings of inadequacy.
Alas, like Ricardo Montalban in Star Trek II, who was not satisfied with simply escaping from Ceti Alpha V and had to go ahead and steal the Genesis device, bassists couldn’t enjoy their newfound prominence and had to keep pushing their luck. The Chili Peppers’ Flea – an accomplished musician who has inspired his own generation of players – took an aggressive approach to funk, losing the nuance but pressing the attack. He also wore a sock on his johnson and nothing else, but that’s a different blog post.
That allowed for the formation of Primus and bassist Les Claypool trying to subjugate the other instruments with a relentless assault of bass notes that left little room for melody or composition. And what happens when Les Claypool tries to steal the Genesis device? Not only does he kill Spock and make Captain Kirk howl, “Khaaaaaan,” he inspires random bloggers like me to rant about the shittiness of most ‘90s rock music. Oops. That’s a different blog post as well.
I too own a bass guitar, though I rarely play it. Not because it’s boring or makes me invisible or because I can’t hear it (duh). Because it’s way harder than it looks and beats the crap out of my baby hands that are inadequate for those fat monster strings. If I could knock out some Bernie Edwards or Bootsy Collins grooves, I’d take it out every day, but I can’t and never will. So it stays in the case most of the time. When Jason Newsted quit Metallica in 2001, he cited the “physical damage” he had suffered as the reason for his retirement, which I assume means he gave himself a wicked case of arthritis. Luckily, I play drums and guitar, so I can find some other lunkhead with Lurch hands to do my bassing for me. I’ll even turn it up in the mix so the average consumer can tell it’s there.
If you’re a bassist, you should know that, though you may not get the glory, your musical comrades know you are the glue that holds it all together. You should also know that you are loved and needed and appreciated. People hear you. They really hear you. Now get your ass down to the engine room. The Starship Funkenstein is under attack and I need warp speed now!