This is the latest in a series about the best musicians I've seen play live: the best technicians on their instruments. Though I gradually realised that in practice it's difficult in rock music to separate pure playing skill from creativity. So what about a bass guitarist? This isn't easy as the bass player generally has less chance to show virtuosity. To some extent they are a self selected bunch of musicians who have decided they don't want to be the main event. Bill Wyman of the Stones, talking of virtuoso bass guitarists, said "to me they should be playing guitar, not bass. You need some balls in the bottom... you leave the space for other people, you don't fill it in with the bass. Leave lots of room and let the track breathe from underneath". Paul McCartney, rubbishing the suggestion that he had manoeuvred Stu Sutcliffe out of the Beatles so he could play bass, said "Forget it. Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days".
Let's get out of the way the notable bass guitarists that I didn't see play live. Listening to recorded music I am consistently impressed with the playing of McCartney, Jack Bruce and John McVie. And then there are the awesome bass parts on early Who songs such as My Generation. I've seen the Who, but only some years after John Entwistle's death.
Some of McCartney's bass lines are sublime. In my favourite Beatles book, Revolution In The Head, author Ian McDonald notes that McCartney, perhaps out of boredom or mischief, seemed to save his most innovative bass lines for songs written by Lennon. This apparently irritated his song-writing partner. With hindsight Lennon should have been flattered as several of his songs are adorned by the brilliance of the bass guitar part, for example on Nowhere Man Macca's bass line is not the obvious way of playing the song in what McDonald calls an "ornate foundation" to the "massed vocals glowing against a tapestry of saturated guitar-tone". Browsing the internet will reveal a concensus that McCartney's bass line on Come Together, another Lennon song, is widely considered his best, with frequent mentions for Harrison's Taxman and Something. In contrast the bass lines on many of McCartney's own most notable songs are much more predictable: it's as if he didn't want to take attention away from the songs he'd written himself.
In Cream Jack Bruce was perhaps the ultimate rock virtuoso bass player. In contrast, for McVie it's a team game in the rhythm section with Mick Fleetwood and I love the tightness of his playing, rock steady but with lots of carefully planned variation on songs like Rhiannon.
I suspect all three of the above were better than any I've seen but, turning to those I have seen play, one of my all time favourite bass lines is on the early Clash song, Janie Jones. It's one of my favourite songs full stop, but the bass line is sublime. However, having seen Paul Simonon playing with The Clash live in 1981, I'm a bit bemused at how he actually played such a complex part successfully. Of course he might have been the worse for wear, shall we say, that night - the band's attempt to play Guns of Brixton was one of the most shambolic efforts at a prominent group playing one of its well known songs that I've ever seen. It has a prominent, if plodding, bass line and I guess that, as Simonon sings that song, he found it difficult to play it and sing at the same time. So he and lead guitarist Mick Jones switched instruments, leaving Simonon to assist Strummer in playing the simpler, jagged chords that overlay the bass. Which proved utterly beyond him. But watching Jones play the bass and conscious that Strummer said almost all the guitar parts on the Clash's eponymously titled first album were played by Jones inevitably made me wonder who conceived and played the bass line on Janie Jones. I can find nothing on the internet to suggest it was Jones, but I have strong suspicions. Indeed Wikipedia says Simonon learned his bass parts by rote from Jones in the early days of the Clash and didn't know how to play the bass when the first album was recorded. Which doesn't mean he didn't become a player but, although I admire Paul Simonon (he certainly looked the coolest of my nominations - see pic below) he's not a candidate for my best bass guitarist.
Other notable bass players I've seen include Tony Levin of latter day King Crimson (well, since 1981), Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath (the bass line in Paranoid - wow), Bill Wyman of the Stones and John Paul Jones of Led Zep. Jones didn't make a great impression on me though watching Jimmy Page would have been more than a distraction. And Dave Grohl said of playing with him in Them Crooked Vultures: "John silently challenges everyone. His presence makes you play the best you can possibly play, because you don’t want to let him down. And if you can keep up, you’re doing OK" so he must have been good.
We saw Muse a couple of times at their peak, touring their Black Holes album and bass guitarist Chris Wolstenholme was a strong component in their performances. The bass line in Starlight, for example, isn't complex but the playing is very strong indeed.
In a similar vein, Chris Squire of Yes played very well when I saw them at least twice in the early 70s and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd has contributed some very fitting bass lines, such as on Money and Another Brick.
A bass guitarist who has been a fundamental part of his band is Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who I saw play twice touring Stadium Arcadium in 2006. Michael Balzary was nicknamed Mike B the flea at school because he wouldn't sit still. He had a step-father who was a jazz musician, inviting others to jam sessions at the house. Flea had no interest in rock as a youngster and grew up idolising peole like Miles Davis - and playing trumpet. He got into rock, punk, funk and hip hop later, being taught to play bass by guitarist Hillel Slovak who asked him to join what became the first incarnation of the Chilis. His early style was punk but then he incorporated a lot of slap bass. However that got copied so much by others he almost eliminated it by the time of the Chili's fourth and first commerially successful, album Mother's Milk. By the time of their next album, the breakthrough Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik he decided to play half as many notes, go for less is more and like Wyman leave "more room for everything". "If I do play something busy, it stands out, instead of the bass being a constant onslaught of notes. Space is good". Thus we got bass lines which are wonderfully supportive of Frusciante's lead on songs such as Breaking The Girl though there are also a lot of songs where the bass leads the way (sometimes with a lot of notes) such as Throw Away Your Television on Californication and Torture Me and Warlocks on Stadium Arcadium. Either way Flea's playing always impresses. Flea contributed massively to the group's songs.
Also allowing for innovation as well as performance another candidate is Peter Hook, credited as an influence on Flea, in particular for his high bass parts. I didn't see Hook with Joy Division or New Order but I did see him performing both band's songs tribute style with his own latter day group The Light. The bass guitar was material to many of those songs, often contributing a major part of the melody and giving the bass guitarist the chance to shine. Hook produced some very memorable bass lines until, as he put it in his book Unknown Pleasures, he became "overdrawn at the bank of bass riffs". Just like the Chilis, a lot of Joy Division songs start with or are lead by the bassline. They include the melody on She's Lost Control, which is played very high up on the neck and the more typical doom laden introduction to New Dawn Fades. And of course there is the insistent bass line in Blue Monday, which he had to recreate after the cassette of the session in which the band produced the first version of the song was stolen. Hook claims he couldn't quite recreate the original bass line which he felt was even better. But he also says he stole it from Ennio Morricone's soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film For A Few Dollars More. Hook only learned to play bass as a 20 year old after seeing the Sex Pistols play in Manchester which left him with two thoughts: "I could do that!" and "I want to stand on a stage and tell people to f*ck off! Bernard Sumner, his buddy from school days, already had a guitar so Hook chose to learn bass, mainly self taught from the Palmer-Hughes book of Rock 'n' Roll Bass Guitar. Teaching himself meant he immediately picked up a bad habit of playing with three fingers instead of four, making him play a bit more slowly and melodically than most bassists. Learning with Sumner, who was slightly ahead of him but learning in the same way, it's perhaps not a surprise that he ended up playing the bass rather like a lead, also like Flea. Such is the way innovation often occurs in rock music, doing the wrong thing can become exactly right. That means Hook can't credibly be the best bassist I've seen. But it does underline the point that it's not all about technique. If you had your own group you wouldn't just want a bass player to stand there and ask you what notes you wanted playing, however beautifully. You'd want someone who could come up with great bass lines.
So, while I was very tempted to go for Hook, that leaves me choosing between Flea, Chris Wolstenholme and Chris Squire. On my logic that you'd want great bass lines for your songs, together with versatility in terms of style, I'm going for Flea, though I suspect Squire and Wolstenholme might deliver note perfect performances with greater regularity.
That makes my supergroup Jimmy Page on guitar, Keith Emerson on keyboards, Dick Heckstall-Smith on saxophone, Jon Hiseman on drums and Flea on bass. All I need now is a singer. That will be a far easier choice.
P.S. unlike guitarists I drafted this before checking what Rolling Stone mag said. Of course there is a RS "50 Greatest Bassists of All Time" which the journos say is "emphatically not intended as a ranking of objective skill" but ranks by "the most direct and visible impact on creating ... the very foundation of popular music...". It covers country, jazz, R&B and hip-hop, so a broader musical scope than my gig going tendencies. Of the names I mention above they have Hook at 46, Levin 42, McVie 37, Wyman 23, Flea 22, Butler 21, Squire 18, John Paul Jones 14, McCartney 9, Bruce 6 and Entwistle 3. They have jazz great Charlie Mingus at 2 and top place went to James Jamerson of Motown ( e.g. the Temptations My Girl). Jamerson was a hero of McCartney, even though he didn't know his name at the time. I guess listening to My Generation I can't really argue with Entwistle as best rock bass guitarist, especially given the date of that recording - 1965 - though as a rock virtuoso you wouldn't look past Bruce.
Other sources include:
Wikipedia (of course), Revolution In The Head by Ian McDonald and Unknown Pleasures, Peter Hook's autobiography, published by Simon and Shuster, which is a terrific read, full of interesting stories. Rolling Stone notes that Hook has published "three hilarious memoirs and - perhaps not unrelated - is not on speaking terms with his old band mates. A story I liked concerned a bass speaker he bought from a newspaper ad for ten quid. The seller turned out to be his old art teacher. There was no way of testing the amp so Hook bought it on trust but it sounded awful on low notes, making a farting noise unless he played high on the neck. Singer Ian Curtis told him the high notes sounded really good "we should work on that" and they did. It seems unlikely he was using the same kit nearly two years later for the seminal live recordings at Les Baines Douches in Paris, though Hook's low notes still produced the occasional farting sound. For example on the tremendous version of Disorder you can hear it on the youtube version (here) after ten seconds. Hook also notes that on the recording of the first album (also Unknown Pleasures) there were a few bum notes, mainly his. Some were due to catching two strings, producing a guitar-like sound. There was no time for re-recording but the band decided the effect was pleasing and, per Brian Eno's adage "let thy error be thy true intention", became integrated into the way they played the song. But there are many funnier anecdotes.