The Low End Theory: Celebrating This Saturday's "12 Bassists of Christmas" with 12 Great Bass Lines

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Which Beatles song do you think made the list? Read on to find out. - PAUL MCCARTNEY MARY MCCARTNEY/MPL COMMUNICATIONS LTD.
  • Paul McCartney Mary McCartney/MPL Communications Ltd.
  • Which Beatles song do you think made the list? Read on to find out.

On Saturday, December 14, Off Broadway will host "The 12 Bassists of Christmas," a holiday spectacular presented by Bruiser Queen and featuring Sleepy Kitty and Middle Class Fashion. Notably, there's only one bassist -- MCF's Brian McClelland -- between all three lineups. BQ's Morgan Nusbaum started on bass, but has since switched to guitar. On Saturday, however, at least eleven additional bass players will appear onstage, including members of Bunnygrunt, Town Cars, Syna So Pro, Pretty Little Empire, Burrowss, Fire Dog and more.

This got us thinking about the bass' role in the typical band lineup. Let's face it: Bass players don't always get much credit. It's often assumed that either no one else wanted to play bass, or that the bassist wasn't talented enough to make it on guitar. True, it's not hard to learn the root notes. However, an imaginative and innovative bass player can transform a song by picking out subtle melody lines, coming up with hooks and adding extra rhythmic heft (the "thud stuff," in Mike Watt's words). More than just a member of the "rhythm section," a solid bassist is a secret weapon.

Therefore, we figured it was time to paraphrase James Brown and give the bassists some. Keeping in line with the twelve-day format, we've chosen to recognize a dozen of our favorite bass lines and the players behind them. Obviously we've left out a lot of bassists and bass lines in the process. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments section. 1) Theme from Barney Miller Bassist: Chuck Berghofer

Forget the Seinfeld theme and its obnoxious finger-popping. This is the iconic television bass line. Ominous and noirish, it's perfect for a show about a 1970s New York City police precinct.

2) Joy Division, "She's Lost Control" Bassist: Peter Hook

Along with Pere Ubu's Tony Maimone and Siouxie and the Banshees' Steve Severin, Hooky pioneered the post-punk idea of bass as lead instrument. In "She's Lost Control," the bass virtually carries the melody for the entire first verse. Bernard Sumner's distant, violent guitar slashes only begin in the chorus.

3) Chic, "Good Times" Bassist: Bernard Edwards

A hit in its own right, Edwards' "Good Times" bass riff essentially invented hip-hop. The Sugarhill Gang used a re-recorded version as the backing track for "Rapper's Delight," the first rap track to gain any traction outside of the New York City and the Northeast. Later, Grandmaster Flash repurposed it for "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on The Wheels of Steel," one of the first recorded demonstrations of scratching and mixing.

4) Liquid Liquid, "Cavern" Bassist: Richard McGuire

If "Good Times" typified the throw-your-hands-in-the-air abandon of early rap, Grandmaster and Melle Mel's "White Lines" expanded the idea of rap as social commentary. For "White Lines," Sugarhill appropriated the bassline from New Jersey art-funk band Liquid Liquid's "Cavern." Both the bass line and the slightly rewritten chorus (the original "slip in and out of phenomena" becoming "something like a phenomenon") have become hip-hop memes.

Continue to page two for more.

5) Talking Heads, "Psycho Killer" Bassist: Tina Weymouth

With her rapid-fire finger-picked style, Weymouth is the engine behind many of Talking Heads' and Tom Tom Club's most recognizable songs. At first, Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" seemed the obvious choice, with its sunny, bouncy, almost liquid bass line. But ultimately, "Psycho Killer" remains her trademark. Its simple but spooky opening riff evokes unfamiliar footsteps late at night on a dark street. 6) The Beatles, "Taxman" Bassist: Paul McCartney

Famously, McCartney became the Beatles' bassist not because it was his chosen instrument, but because neither Lennon nor Harrison wanted to give up their guitars. However, he made it his own. Beginning in 1966, his bass lines became more fluid and melodic. Allegedly he'd been strongly influenced by Motown and Stax, but we suspect other "influences" came into play as well. "Taxman" opened Revolver. The Jam later appropriated it for "Start!"

7) A Tribe Called Quest, "Excursions" Bassist: Mickey Bass

For its second LP, The Low End Theory, A Tribe Called Quest consciously sought to emulate the feel and flow of its members favorite jazz records. The group even went so far as to recruit bassist Ron Carter for a song. "Excursions" is the opening track, and that deep bassline that kicks off the first verse is sampled from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' 1973 Buhaina LP.

8) Bobby Byrd, "I Know You Got Soul" Bassist: Fred Thomas

James Brown is, of course, one of the most sampled artists in hip-hop. However, some of his most famous samples are credited to other artists, including his backing bands and sidemen. Consider Lyn Collins' "Think (About It)", whose "yeah! whoo!" break appeared in no less than 788 tracks. Or how about "I Know You Got Soul," which Brown produced for Bobby Byrd in 1971? If it sounds familiar, that's because Eric B. and Rakim used the bass line, as well as the drums and the chorus, for their own song of the same name.

Continue to page three for more. 9) The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations" Bassist: NA

It's unknown which member of the Wrecking Crew actually played this. Some sources credit Carol Kaye. However, our Beach Boys records, including the Smile Sessions double CD, do not include detailed production credits. It's likely, given that "Good Vibrations" was recorded in several studios over a period of months, that several bassists ended up on the final version. Regardless, this is a perfect distillation of Wilson's production sound at the time. The bass sneaks in on the offbeat, weaving its way around the verses, before coming in full strength on the chorus.

10) ESG, "UFO" Bassist: Deborah Scroggins

Originally known as Emerald, Sapphire and Gold, the four Scroggins sisters (plus friend Tito) emerged from the early-'80s South Bronx. Influenced by the breakbeats they heard in local parks, their version of dance music incorporated bass, percussion, brief lyric snatches and little else. It was sparse, minimal and polyrhythmic enough to get them noticed by the artsy crowd, including the 99 and Factory labels. Factory producer Martin Hannett recorded "UFO" and two other songs in a New Jersey studio, using some extra time left over from an A Certain Ratio session. At its heart was a descending bass riff, which held steady while the drums dropped in and out, and the guitars beamed in from outer space. 11) Black Flag, "Six Pack" Bassist: Chuck Dukowski

Next to guitarist/founder Greg Ginn, bassist Chuck Dukowski was arguably Black Flag's most essential member. He wrote some of the most powerful songs, including "My War," "American Waste" and "What I See." His blunt, aggressive bass style was the perfect counterpart to Ginn's fractured anti-solos and sculpted noise. "Six Pack" begins with a long, portentous bass solo. The drums and guitar gradually join in, and when the tempo change hits before the first verse, it's like being kicked in the gut. 12) The Who, "My Generation" Bassist: John Entwistle

Almost too obvious to mention, "My Generation" contains the most famous bass solo in rock history. However, what's less appreciated is how Entwistle plays like a maniac through the entire song. This is especially clear on the instrumental version, which you can hear as a bonus track on the My Generation CD reissue.

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