OK Computer is 20, part 1

On the whole, I try not to put myself into this blog too much. If you’re reading it, I decided at the outset, you’re reading it because a particular song interests you and you want to find out more about it, not the guy writing about it.

But all responses to art are necessarily subjective. I can try to tell you why a piece of music makes me feel the way it does when I hear it, but I can’t guarantee you’ll feel the same way about it as I do when you hear it. The weaker pieces on this blog are hamstrung by my attempt to present an objective front on music I’m heavily invested in personally, and saying nothing about how and why the music really matters to me as a result.

I just can’t do that with the record we’re going to talk about today. It played too big a role in my life as a music listener, fan and musician.

Which is a long way of saying that we’re going to talk about Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns 20 in May.

I also can’t take my jumbled-up thoughts and turn them into one coherent post. It would verge on book-length, and take several months to finish. Instead, I’ll do a few posts on little aspects of it that interest me, for as long as I can find things to say.

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When OK Computer came out, I was fifteen, already a fan of the band, and I was waiting for it. Paranoid Android had been released and was a pretty sizable hit single, and like many, I’d gone from being slightly bemused by it to loving it and wanting more. When it did arrive, OK Computer demonstrated a fair few changes from the group’s Bends-era sound, and while I hesitate to use the word progression – much was lost as well as gained – the record is more arrangementally complicated than The Bends.

Most obviously, the band dialled back the heavy guitars even more than they had on The Bends. There are notable distorted parts on Airbag, Paranoid Android, Electioneering, Climbing Up the Walls, Lucky and The Tourist, but most of that is lead guitar; there’s almost nothing in the way of the multitracked distorted rhythm parts that were the foundation of the band’s early sound and of ’90s rock more generally. This more than anything else made OK Computer sound forward-thinking in 1997 – in place of wind-tunnel guitars, there were several complementary, counterpoint parts. It was now possible to pick out which of the guitarists was playing what at any one moment.

The band’s new arrangement techniques are established on the album’s first song, Airbag. Jonny Greenwood plays the distorted bass string riff, Ed O’Brien plays the high-register melody, and Thom Yorke strums the chords. Colin Greenwood doesn’t start playing until well into the first verse, and Phil Selway’s drums are distorted and possibly cut up.* Even more than they had on The Bends, the band members were listening intently to each other, creating space for each other, taking pains to respond to each other without obscuring or overlapping.

This didn’t end up being the group’s permanent MO, as tracks where all three guitarists all played guitar at the same time became rarer in the Radiohead canon starting from Kid A. But it was clearly an important step in the band’s development, one that I remember reading Ed O’Brien talk about excitedly and at length in a Total Guitar interview at the time. It had been a lesson hard learned over the course of the preceding four years and a lot of recordings, some of which sound pretty unimpressive today.

We’ll come back to this more in our discussion of particular songs. But for now I’ll leave you with a picture of Jonny Greenwood playing his Starcaster with a violin bow. Had we all violin bows and Starcasters, perhaps we’d do the same.

Jonny.jpg

*Some of the effects on the album, such as the distorted drums, sound the far side of banal now, in a world where even the most basic DAW has a plug-in that, when applied, can do a passable version of the Airbag drum sound. It’s only fair to keep in mind that OK Computer is an endlessly emulated and referred-to ur-text for a lot of this stuff.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 5: Mercy, Mercy Me by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson, the man widely and repeatedly cited as the greatest bass player in the history of popular music (or at least the greatest bass guitarist), was a genius, peerless.

But unfortunately, Jamerson had a weakness for alcohol, a weakness that would eventually lead to cirrhosis of the liver and his death. Motown found that they needed a reserve in Detroit who could be relied on to turn up on time and deliver the goods when Jamerson couldn’t.

Babbitt was that man. He had come into contact with some moonlighting Funk Brothers, including Jamerson himself, while playing sessions at a studio called Golden World, owned by R&B producer Ed Wingate. Through this association, Babbitt found himself playing in Stevie Wonder’s live band, and then Berry Gordy acquired Golden World for Motown. Guys like Uriel Jones and Benny Benjamin who had played with Babbitt at Golden World for Wingate’s sessions knew Babbitt could play – and read written charts – to a high standard, so when the decision was made to try to find a bassist who could bring something of Jamerson’s style to the sessions Jamerson couldn’t make, Babbitt got the call. His first session was Wonder’s version of We Can Work It Out.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On brought out the best in every musician involved in cutting it, and Babbitt was no different. Jamerson plays on the lion’s share of the cuts, but Babbitt got the sessions for Inner City Blues, Wholly Holy and Mercy Mercy Me.

Mercy Mercy Me has always been my favourite of them. Babbitt’s bass is a big, but not destablising, presence in the mix, and the pattern he plays is glorious. He locks in with the dominant kick-drum strokes at the front of each bar on the root note, before playing a funky melodic pattern with the octave note and fifth, stressing the downbeat by playing the first of those prominent octave notes in time with the snare. I love grooves that work like this, that add high-register melodic elements to a great low-end pocket. John Klinberg’s bass line on Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic is another favourite of mine for exactly the same reason.

He plays that pattern on the E, C# minor and F# minor chords, but changes things up on the B by playing a funky vamp mainly on the root, but incorporating a little chromatic run back up to the E.

It’s details like that run, so like what we think of when we think of James Jamerson’s playing, that have led many to assume he was the player on Mercy Mercy Me. Nowhere but Motown would Babbitt be in anyone’s shadow. He may have gotten his start at Motown because he could reproduce the Jamerson style when called upon, but the man was his own player, and is one of the finest there has ever been.

Inner City Blues; Mercy Mercy Me; Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours; Midnight Train to Georgia; Ball of Confusion; Agent Double-O-Soul; Band of Gold. All Babbitt, all classics.

 

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 4: Fixing a Hole by The Beatles

So Paul McCartney’s a good bassist, huh? Well, thank you, Captain Obvious.

OK, I know picking a McCartney performance isn’t controversial, but this series isn’t called Underrated Bass Players I Have Loved, otherwise you’d have had a series of posts from me about Fred Abong, Jason Moulster and Steve Boone.

The point is, McCartney’s genius in all its forms – singer, songwriter, bass player, guitarist, arranger, producer – is taken for granted these days. It’s not just his accomplishments as a songwriter that are simply filed away as something everybody knows about. While a quick Google search for “Paul McCartney’s best bass lines” will pull up dozens of articles about the man, almost all of them concentrate on the most obvious stuff: his work on songs such as Something, Taxman, Hey Bulldog, Come Together and Tomorrow Never Knows. These articles don’t actually help all that much; they don’t encourage us to listen, and just reinforce old news and received opinions.

To get Macca as a bassist, the thing to do is to throw yourself into some Beatles albums, to hear the stylistic breadth his playing covers, and how his playing elevates even The Beatles’ least legendary records.

To illustrate this, I could have picked one of several dozen songs, but let’s look at Fixing a Hole, from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Fixing a Hole has a sparse arrangement, in which the two key instruments are harpsichord (played, it would seem, by George Martin) and bass guitar: there is no rhythm guitar, as John Lennon plays maracas on the recording.

Around this time in The Beatles’ career, McCartney had taken to recording his bass guitar last, on its own track. This allowed him to size up the rest of the arrangement (which had begun to be arrived at via a more accretive process during recording, as the band only really existed as a recording entity after they retired from touring) and fill whatever spaces were still available. On Fixing a Hole, recorded at Regent Sound Studios, the band tracked live, so McCartney’s playing is a little more raw and spontaneous-sounding than on some of the other Pepper tracks (there are, not flubs exactly, but inconsistencies). Nonetheless, it’s beautifully constructed.

After the intro, once Ringo’s swung hi-hat figure reveals the opening harpsichord figure as a rhythmic fake-out, McCartney begins with the simplest-possible two-note bass line, which actually makes the dreamy verse’s chord sequence sound simpler than it is. After four measures of alternating Fs and Cs, McCartney begins playing a syncopated melody that leaves the downbeat open. It’s a gorgeous little detail; as he sings of letting his mind wander “where it will go”, his bass guitar goes wandering too.

In the choruses, he plays a busier, more insistent line that bounces along between F and C in the first half and C and G in the second. Throughout the song – even with it’s cool lead guitar from George Harrison and characterful harpsichord playing from George Martin, it’s McCartney’s bass that both pushes the song along and glues it all together.

The man is every kind of musical genius.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 3: Across the Great Divide by The Band

It would be hard to think of another bassist who contributed more to popular music but who is less copied than Rick Danko.

The bass player’s job is to provide low end, supporting and reinforcing the harmony. At its simplest, this means playing the root note of each chord the other band members play, usually in time with some element of the rhythm the drummer is playing (usually the bass drum pattern).

How was Rick Danko different, then? Danko’s bass provided low end, sure, and it supported and reinforced the harmony, but what was unique about Danko in the context of rock ‘n’ roll and roots music is that he played around Levon Helm’s drums rather than locking in with him. The bassists to whom he is most comparable are reggae players, not rock players.

Danko’s lines often took the form of syncopated little melodies or riffs that sometimes, but not always (and definitely not as a rule), connected with Levon’s kick drum. This technique was already in place when The Band signed to Capitol, and is nowhere to be heard in the group’s work as Bob Dylan’s backing band. In effect, Danko cooked it up in Big Pink after the end of the tour with Dyan in 1966 and had it ready to go when the group cut its first album, Music from Big Pink.*

To Kingdom Come, the second track on Big Pink, is a song I’ve written about before. Then I was talking about Robbie Robertson’s wonderful guitar solo. But the song is also notable for Danko’s idiosyncratic bassline.

danko-ing

Those of you who can’t read music or tablature will need to listen to the recording to hear what Danko is doing here. He’s playing a game of hide and seek with the kick drum, playing little off-beat runs, beginning his grace-note slides on the strong beat and hitting the root note on the off. It’s brilliant, and utterly unlike anything any of his peers were doing in 1969.

He’s on similarly great form on Across the Great Divide, the opening track of The Band’s self-titled second album.

The song is a Fats Domino-style rock ‘n’ roll tune with a triplet feel carried by Richard Manuel’s piano (Levon Helm doesn’t really spell out the triplets on the drums, instead merely suggesting them). Underneath that, Rick Danko plays this:

Danko

There are so many Danko-isms in this line that it practically constitutes one big Danko-ism in itself, but let’s actually itemise them: the rests straight after the initial root G and A notes; the rest in the middle of the third bar where you might expect a third C note; the descending triplet run in the fourth bar; and the triplet run from G up to B in the first bar of the verse sequence. This in six bars of music.

As I said up top, Danko’s style was so his own – it came out of who he was and was so much a response to what his band mates did musically – that no one within rock music has ever really picked up from where he left off. You can listen to elements of what he did and hear relations in reggae, in funk, in jazz and in country music, but ultimately Rick Danko was a one-off, and one half of what is possibly the finest rhythm section in popular music.

*I’m not actually a huge Basement Tapes buff, but it would be fascinating to listen to them with an ear to whether Danko was debuting ideas and techniques that would become part of his style when playing Band material.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 2: Don’t Wanna Know Why by Whiskeytown

The line-up of Whiskeytown that recorded the group’s last album, Pneumonia, didn’t much resemble the one that cut the band’s debut, Faithless Street, around four years earlier, with only David Ryan Adams and fiddler Caitlin Cary remaining. Three dates from the end of the tour to promote Srangers Almanac, tensions between the band members (particularly between Adams and founding guitarist Phil Wandscher) came to a head, Adams announced to the audience that they’d just witnessed the last show Whiskeytown would play, and he and Cary finished the remaining dates on the tour as a duo.

When the group next went in the studio it would be as a core three-piece of Adams, Cary and Mike Daly (a replacement for Wandscher), with a team of session musicians, utility players and friends augmenting the songs where needed. Luckily that group included Tommy Stimson (the Replacements), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins), producer and multi-instrumentalist Ethan Johns, guitarist Brad Rice and bass player Jennifer Condos.

I’ve written before about the quality of Ethan Johns’s musicianship, and while both he and Jennifer Condos are credited with bass on the album, I’m going to take a leap and assume Condos was the primary bass player on Pnuemonia*. I’ve not been able to find any material to settle the issue, but if anyone happens to read this and knows for a fact who played which instrument on which song, do please leave a comment.

Whoever played on each song, the standard of bass playing throughout the album is high. The bass is always crucial yet is always understated, by both necessity and design. This edition of Whiskeytown was quite a big band but the arrangements for each song were so astute that the songs actually feel less cluttered than those on Strangers Almanac. Don’t Wanna Know Why is a case in point.

The basic skeleton of the song is drums, bass guitar, mandolin, acoustic guitar, electric guitars and keys. The mandolin is mixed left, the acoustic guitar right and there’s at least one electric guitar on each side of the stereo field. Adams’s lead vocal is centred, as are the bass and drums, and in the choruses there is a close harmony on the left (Mike Daly?) and a Caitlin Cary counter melody on the left. Within that, each player plays relatively simple parts, and Ethan Johns’s mix spotslights little character moments in turn: Cary gets her fiddle melody in the intro, the outro and after the second chorus, the mandolins (and possibly mandocello) comes chugging up in the back half of the same sequence, providing a lovely opposing texture to Cary’s fiddle and the guitar alternates Peter Buck-style arpeggios with glorious ringing open chords in the choruses.

With all that going on, Condos has no room for showboating. Her job was to hold down the bottom, fill out the sound and lock in with the kick. All of which she accomplishes easily. It’s the extra little things that make her playing on the song special. My favourite detail is the use of a passing melody in the chorus, to get from one chord to the next in a way that is interesting and pushes the song forward but that doesn’t detract from the other players or the vocal arrangement.

The change from C to A minor illustrates the technique. The kick drum is playing a Mick Fleetwood-style pattern (think Dreams), so Condos plays the root C locked in with the first three strokes on the kick, then – when you think she might descend to a B as a passing note down on her way to A – she actually plays a low E and comes back up to A through G. On A minor, she repeats the trick, going once more to low E, then back to A as a springboard down to G.

There are other cool details too (such as the lovely scalar melody Condos plays at the end of the second verse), but all of them are subtle and in the service of the song. This kind of musicality is what gets players like Jennifer Condos hired: the fine judgement about when a extra little push is needed and when it’s not, and the ability to judge whether their instrument is the best choice to provide it.

Whiskeytown+colour
Whiskeytown, Jennifer Condos third from left

*If for no other reason than that Johns is the primary drummer on the album, and I’d guess he and Adams prefer tracking at least somewhat live.

Give Some More to the Bass Player, Part 1: Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was by Radiohead

Many neophyte bass players assume that because the primary job of their instrument is to provide low end, they have to play each root note in the lowest possible octave. Depending on the type of music the young bassist plays, it may be years before they begin to realise the musical effects that can be achieved through other approaches.

Familiarity with the work of Colin Greenwood might help to flatten this learning curve. During Radiohead’s glory days of The Bends through to Kid A (OK, not everyone’s going to agree that this was when the band were at their best, but it’s my blog so that’s what we’re going with), Colin was the band’s oft-overlooked secret weapon. Thom Yorke’s voice and Jonny Greenwood’s endlessly inventive lead guitar got most of the critical plaudits, but Colin’s playing on those three albums function as a sustained masterclass in what can be done by the bass player within a, more or less, traditional rock band setting.

He’s so eclectic and adaptable that there doesn’t appear to be any one feel or sound that constitutes the Colin Greenwood style. On Airbag he’s ultra-minimal, not playing a note until 30 seconds in, long after Phil Selway has started drumming. On Exit Music, his bass is a brutally distorted noise that pushes its way in unexpectedly and then dominates the song’s final minute and a half. Bones sees him uncharacteristically swaggering, somewhere between Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic and Slade’s Jim Lea. How to Disappear Completely is free-ranging, scalar, essentially a walking line. Colin Greenwood is about being whatever the song needs, and he has the ears, the chops and the imagination to transform himself on almost a song by song basis. The young player can learn half a dozen invaluable new techniques from the songs on any single Radiohead album.

Possibly my favourite Colin Greenwood part is one I’ve mentioned here once before, Bullet Proof… I Wish I Was, from The Bends. Bullet Proof is one of the softest pieces on the album, a narcotised wisp of a song, with ambient noises running all the way through it, apparently improvised by Ed O’Brien and Jonny Greenwood without listening to the backing track on headphones (this may be overstated since a lot of the noises are specifically tonal, unless producer John Leckie got the scissors out).

Colin plays up in the bass guitar’s second octave, using the A string at the 12th fret to play the root of the A minor chord and going up from there to play C, B and D notes at the 10th, 9th and 12th frets of the D string. The notes are mainly held and allowed to ring. The combination of a high register and thick tone (contributed to by playing the notes on a lower, fatter string at a higher fret) gives the song a feeling of weightlessness yet allows Greenwood to carry the verses almost single-handedly. His restraint is admirable, and lasts until the final chorus, when he allows himself a few more expansive melodic ornamentations. Even so, Bullet Proof is an object lesson in how the position in which you decide to play a note and the tone you use are just as important as the choice of note itself, and shows just how valuable Colin’s contributions are, even on songs when the bass guitar plays a low-key supporting role.

Cortez the Killer/Through My Sails – Neil Young

Zuma (1975) was the first Neil Young album to feature the second line-up of Crazy Horse, with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro on guitar and vocals in place of Danny Whitten, who had died a few years earlier of a heroin overdose.

Whitten had been a strong guitarist, with a rhythm-guitar style that still bore traces of the soul and doo-wop he had played when Crazy Horse had been Danny and the Memories. His contributions on guitar and harmony vocals were crucial to the success of Evetybody Knows this is Nowhere, the first record Young cut with Crazy Horse. While Young did include Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina on his records after Whitten died, they weren’t Crazy Horse records. Crazy Horse is a particular thing, and with Whitten gone, it didn’t exist.

When Talbot met Poncho, he had a hunch that he would click with Neil, and so he hyped Neil on him, insisting that Poncho could fill Whitten’s shoes. While Young did indeed like him, he quickly realised that Poncho was inexperienced and his guitar playing was still rudimentary, so he’d need to keep things simple for Poncho’s benefit. Zuma accordingly became an album of big, simple songs with big, simple chord changes, ideal for breaking in the new guy.

Fortunately simple suits Neil Young. He can take three or four chords and build a world out of them. He can make Cortez the Killer, for one thing. If you’re in any way a fan of Neil Young’s guitar playing you’ll probably know it, but if you don’t, you’re in for a treat. It may be his finest moment as an electric player: throughout the song’s seven minutes, Young’s playing is edge-of the-moment, incandescent.

Behind him, Crazy Horse rise to the occasion, as they always seemed to when Young’s songs demanded it. It’s a return to the sort of hypnotic, churning groove they patented on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere. Ralph Molina in particular plays a blinder; it may be his finest moment on any of Young’s records.

Cortez fades out and gives way to Through My Sails. The emotional transition is so perfect, you’d think that the two songs must have been designed to fit together this way: Cortez, the shattering end of something important; Through My Sails, the sound of someone summoning the strength to begin again.

In fact, Through My Sails had been recorded at an entirely separate, earlier recording session with Crosby, Stills & Nash for an aborted second CSNY album, to be called Human Highway.

Accounts differ as to what scuppered the record. Some say that Nash and Stephen Stills were still uneasy with each other having fallen out a couple of years earlier over Rita Coolidge; others put it down to the drugs (in his book, Wild Tales, Nash said they fell out over “some business, some cocaine thing”). Accounts even differ as to when Through My Sails was recorded – some sources say that it was recorded on Young’s ranch in 1973 as part of the first Human Highway session; others that it was cut during the rehearsals on Neil Young’s ranch for the 1974 CSNY reunion tour.

Most agree, though, it features Young on acoustic guitar, Stills on bass and Russ Kunkel on congas, with Crosby, Stills and Nash all adding their harmonies, and for a band not always known for their restraint (Stills is an incorrigible overdubber), it’s a sparse, beautiful performance. The four may have produced more technically impressive, tighter group vocals, but they never sounded more human.
Human Highway.jpg
No, this is not a real album cover, but it is the picture that was intended as the cover, and it’s a pretty impressive mock-up