Friday, March 6, 2015

A Bass Proposition

I grew up with what is now called "classic rock" - the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and so on. 

My musical tastes have expanded over the years to include most other popular music: folk, jazz, classical, country, and "world" music too. 

Just one member of Wings, after all. 

I've always maintained my love of that late 1960s' and early '70s' sound. 

Considering the difference between rock-n-roll, the original fusion of country and rhythm-n-blues, and rock, the music that came in the wake of the Beatles and the rest of the British invasion, I propose that it is due to the adoption of the electric bass-guitar. The early records of Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and so on, featured the double-bass. 

But by the early '60s, the electric bass had taken over "beat" music entirely. During the '70s, when rock-n-roll music underwent nostalgic revival, Haley, Domino and other pioneers of the form, re-recorded their hits for contemporary audiences. But no matter how much they tried to maintain the style of the original records, the use of the bass-guitar instead (as in the original recordings) of the double-bass always gave them away as updates. 

The bass-guitar is the musical ground of the genre called "rock." Folk music, with the bass, became folk-rock (as instantly at 40 seconds in the linked clip), and later on, soft-rock. 

When applied to blues, it became hard-rock (which in turn spawned heavy-metal, another heavily bass-driven form). 

Introduced to jazz, the electric bass produced "fusion", while classical touches when played on the bass, gave the world progressive-rock. When, in the mid-1970s, aspiring musicians sought to give up the bombastic and over-production familiar to the album-rock of the period (Pink Floyd, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Yes, et al.), they often turned to the more stripped down sound characteristic of early rock-n-roll and rockabilly - by then half-forgotten music that preceded the Beatles and the Age of Rock. 

But this older music was characterized by the typical employment of the standup bass, whilst by '70s the electric bass was the instrumental standard. The resultant music was distinctive enough from the pre-British Invasion sound it sought to revive, that it that it was labelled "new wave." 

Also, in the 1970s, the bass applied to rhythm and blues and soul music, brought about funk-rock (disco music was merely the extension of the power of the bass-guitar, pushed to its natural limits). Popular music stopped being "rock" when the electric was subtracted largely or wholly from the mix. 

This was achieved by the widescale application of electronics to music, as the beat-machine took the place of the rhythm section willy-nilly: hence Synth-Pop. 

No God. In Heaven. 

The essentiality of the bass to the Rock Age is to be highlighted, precisely because it is literally and experientially in the background of rock performance. 

Much greater attention is given to the other performers found in a rock group - the singer often, the lead-guitarist as much or more so (when the latter is also the lead-vocalist), even the keyboardist and drummer, before the bassist. 

As one web article put it: "One thing many young musicians wonder is why a rock band ever needs a bassist. I know I always did, until I became one! Really they’re just in the background, and many bands are so drum and guitar-heavy on their albums that you can’t even hear the bass. This is especially true now that so many guitarists are detuning down to the frequencies once occupied only by the bassist. In truth, while average bass players may be content with taking a backseat, a good bassist knows his or her job is to carry the band, and provide a backbone that holds up the other instruments. In genres like jazz and blues this means settling into a groove and working with the drummer. In metal and hard rock it means supplying the meat of the guitar riff, that part of the sound that puts the audience through the back wall."  

It is entirely possible to have rock without a vocal (as is often the case with fusion), with no or only rhythmic accompaniment by six-string guitar (as with fusion again, or typically with new-wave rock), certainly without keyboards and even without drumming (as with folk- and soft-rock). Rock ceases to be rock when the song is without the electric bass. 

But like most other cultural phenomena, in rock what is most essential is ignored in favour of what is not. There are plenty of six-string rock-guitar "heroes" - too many to mention - but unless the bass-guitarist is also the lead-vocalist (as with Paul McCartney in Wings, Jack Bruce in Cream, or Geddy Lee in Rush), he or she literally fades into the background (as with John Entwistle in the Who, Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin, or Bill Wyman in the Rolling Stones). 

Only when rock styles become more instrumental, does the bassist receive due recognition. Thus, in funk, Earl "Bootsy" Collins, was the best-known member of the Parliament-Funkadelic crew during the 1970s, while the late Weather Report player Jaco Pastorius was famed throughout fusion fandom in 1980s. 

The electric bass-guitar had many practical advantages over the double-bass: it was less costly, portable and easier to learn. What really laid-low the upright bass was increasing amplification. As the New World Encyclopaedia describes it, "The double bass is difficult to amplify in loud concert venue settings, because it can be prone to feedback "howls." The double bass is large and awkward to transport, which also created transportation problems for touring bands. ... The electric bass was easily amplified with its built-in pickups, easily portable (less than a foot longer than an electric guitar), and easier to play in tune, thanks to the metal frets. In the 1960s and 1970s bands were playing at louder volumes and performing in larger venues. The electric bass was able to provide the huge, highly-amplified stadium-filling bass tone that the pop and rock music of this era demanded, and the double bass receded from the limelight of the popular music scene." 

It was as an unintended side-effect to the practical decision of musicians to swap double-bass for bass-guitar, that this monster called rock was born. 

It is almost impossible to conceive of the psychedelic- or hard-rock music of the late 1960s and '70s, even being played on an upright bass - just as the modern jazz of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or Miles Davis would've sounded entirely different with an electric bass (and Davis' music became jazz-rock precisely when he hired an electric-bass player on Filles of Kilimanjaro, which coincidentally I'm listening to right now, or Bitches Brew, one of the all-time great albums in any genre). 

As a fan of that earlier jazz, though, I really adore the sound of the upright bass. There is in fact one rock songs where, I am certain, where the double-bass is heard, Cream's rendition of Spoonful, from their 1966 debut. At 2:19 in this clip, just as Eric Clapton goes into his guitar solo, I can distinctly hear what seems to be Jack Bruce strumming away on a double-bass. I'm not sure if Bruce (who had played the upright bass originally), was so nimble with the bass-guitar that he actually made it sound like a stand-up bass (not out of the question), or if he decided to use a double-bass for that section of the recording (as I like to think he did), one really gets a sense of how powerful a sound the upright bass can give to a record.

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