Monthly Archives: April 2017

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.

*

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.