Tag Archives: Detroit

Give some to the bass player, part 3 – What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye

James Jamerson had no peer. Even at Motown, who could also call on the services of Bob Babbitt in Detroit and Carol Kaye and Wilton Felder in LA*, Jamerson stood tallest, at the apex of the art.

The factory ethic at Motown instilled by Berry Gordy militated against too much individualism on the part of its players. Stylistically, the musicians that came to be known as the Funk Brothers played in a house style. Jamerson was the wild card. Jamerson could not be constrained. His outrageously (in their context) chromatic, syncopated and rhythmically complex lines seemed to come from somewhere deep within him, and he was wisely given the freedom by Motown’s producers** to play what he felt. Any of the bass players associated with Motown could play tight, tidy, groovy lines. Only Jamerson could rip your heart out.

His bassline on the title track of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On has been admired and deconstructed by fans for four decades now, and it remains a thing of wonder. The story, whether it’s true or not, goes that Gaye was determined that Jamerson should play on the track and tracked him down, already drunk, at a local club and asked him to come by the studio. Jamerson, too drunk to sit upright, played the line horizontally. Arranger David Van DePitte claims to have written a part for Jamerson , which the latter played verbatim. If so, he captured Jamerson’s style perfectly. Listening to the isolated part, I find it hard to believe that all the little Jamersonian licks were written by Van DePitte, but then we are talking about a couple of musicians of the very first rank.

The fluidity, the sheer ease, with which Jamerson plays these complicated runs (listen to the part he plays on the B chord at the end of the first verse to hear the sort of thing I’m talking about) is what defines him as a player. Most of us can’t get near this. When most of us play complicated stuff, we make it sound complicated. Jamerson made it sound beautifully simple.

*There’s an extremely long-running controversy over the authorship of bass parts on Motown records, with Carol Kaye laying claim to some parts that thitherto had been considered signature Jamerson performances (I Was Made to Love Her is the most contentious). Kaye has an impeccable CV, so one would assume no reason to fabricate a story like that. Still, it’s hard to give her story much credence when numerous Motown insiders have denied it. Can they all really be complicit in a cover-up?

**Jamerson had the great good fortune to work under producers and songwriter-producer teams including Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Henry Cosby and Norman Whitfield. None of them got where they did without learning to get out of the way of genius.
Jamerson
James Jamerson (left)

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Tune-o-matic bridges on Gibsons & Epiphones

So here’s something I’ve been thinking about this evening. Beware – guitar geekery is to follow.

A couple of months back, after spending a while wondering whether it might be nice to have a hollow-body electric guitar in my armoury, motive met with opportunity. I was informed that I’d been entitled to a bunch of annual leave I didn’t know about, and that the company was willing to give me a lump-sum equivalent to the number of days off I hadn’t taken in 2013. So a week or so after that, I took myself of to Macari’s on Charing Cross Road one lunchtime, played a natural-finish Epiphone Casino they had hanging up on the wall and decided on the spot to buy it. It sounded great and was really comfortable to play and I could hear in my head how it would blend with my other electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster (yeah, whatever – you may not think they’re cool, but I do. Mine’s finished in a dark blue stain, the grain of the wood clearly visible. It looks bitchin’).

I got the Casino home, played it a lot, recorded some parts with it and was generally really happy. It felt like great value at £449. However, I soon started to notice a rattling coming from the tune-o-matic bridge, particularly noticeable on the D and G strings. It took a while to pin down the culprit, but I eventually realised that it was a thin retaining wire at the front of the bridge that sits over the threads of the saddle screws (for those of you unfamiliar with Casinos and similar hollow-bodies with tailpieces rather than stopbars, the bridge is properly fitted with these adjustment screws at the front to prevent the strings from snagging on them behind the bridge due to the back angle created as the string passes into the tailpiece). This is a fundamental design flaw in that style of bridge. It wasn’t the end of the world but it was annoying enough that I took it back to Macari’s and asked whether they had any suggestions for a fix.

They directed me to Andy Gibson, a repairer based in the basement of their other shop on Denmark Street. He suggested that as any attempted fix would be a bodge, the best thing to do would be to upgrade to a Schaller or a Gotoh unit, which I was happy with — I figured £30 or £40 for a better bridge that didn’t buzz or rattle was a reasonable expenditure when it would also likely give me more sustain, cause fewer string breakages and have more widely adjustable saddles for finer tweaks to the intonation. In the event, while waiting for the one he ordered to come in, Andy found a TonePros unit in his workshop that he reckoned would fit, so as of this evening I have a brand-new AVR tune-o-matic on my Casino, the buzz is gone, the bridge is locked to the posts (a nice little feature, that) and if anything the guitar sounds better than before.

I’m a happy little chappie.

But here’s the thing. Both Andy and the guys from Macari’s mentioned that fitting one of these bridges (Schaller, TonePros and Gotohs) is a popular mod that a lot of guitarists make, not only to Epiphones but to Gibsons as well. Now, that’s staggering to me. Epiphones are made to a tight price point so spending a little more after the fact to improve certain parts of the hardware is a good investment, no question. Having said that, I think a lot of guitarists would be happy if they put the prices up a little on their more expensive models and included better hardware on them as standard – after all, they’re buying thousands of bridges at bulk trade discounts, so the extra cost to them of using a better bridge (or tuners, or whatever) would actually be very minimal.

This is not some sort of cheap slam on Far Eastern manufacturing, by the way. A lot of lazy, ill-informed, unconsidered and frankly pretty racist nonsense is spouted on that subject. Epiphone guitars are made to specifications laid down by the people at Epiphone headquarters (in Nashville, Tennessee, since you ask) and any deficiencies in manufacturing are all directly attributable to the company’s US management, who are responsible for overseeing the process (however closely they choose) and awarding the contracts. And anyone who thinks Western production is automatically superior needs to read up about Detroit or British Leyland in the 1970s.

But while we’re on the subject of Western manufacturing, here’s another thing. Andy showed me the bridge off a newish Gibson Les Paul Custom he happened to have in his workshop right now. It appeared very similar to the one off my Epiphone, with noticeably less mass than the TonePros unit now on my guitar. It felt flimsy and surprisingly cheap. Andy had attempted to refile the grooves in the saddle once before but the owner was still breaking strings every gig he played and just wanted rid of it. The going rate in the UK for a new, US-made, LP Custom like this is £2999, by the way. Three. Grand.

If the use of such substandard hardware is standard practice for Gibson now, that’s really poor. If it’s a one-off rogue bit of ‘recycling’ by one enterprising member of staff, it’s hardly reassuring, as it doesn’t say much for their QC process. What the hell, Gibson? Show your customers a bit of respect.

I Want You – Marvin Gaye

I have a little theory to float about Marvin Gaye.

If What’s Going On and Trouble Man had turned Marvin into one of the most vocal social critics among mainstream black popular musicians (Marvin’s dissent, after all, paled next to that of Gil Scott Heron or Charles Mingus), Let’s Get it On saw him turn his energies once more to the carnal. His biographer David Ritz has suggested that Gaye’s most sexual works are also his most spiritual. Five minutes in the company of Here My Dear, Vulnerable or What’s Going On should be enough to dispel that as a ridiculous myth.

As for so many others in the seventies music industry, Gaye’s interest in sex was intimately bound up with his interest in cocaine. The very sound of the Marvin Gaye albums that are seemingly most concerned with sex – Let’s Get it On and the later Midnight Love (parent album to Sexual Healing) – give away the true inspiration behind them: not eros, and certainly not agape, but coke. Trebly, bright, cold and essentially hollow, they are competent, intermittently inspired, but not much more. Efficient and easy to admire, but hard to love.

There’s a difference in the voice and in the sound. When Marvin cared, it showed in the attention he lavished on his vocal arrangements and on the warmth of the instrumentation. Let’s Get it On (the single) in comparison to, say, What’s Going On (the single) sounds tinny, the bassist and drummer are seldom together, and the wah-wah guitar part is sketchy. After the famous opening lick, the guitarist quickly runs out of ideas; by the end of the song his playing is pure wibble. Compare this to the care taken over What’s Going On, which saw him scrap the original, perfectly good, Detroit mixes and start again in LA, honing the sound until he arrived at a finished product which is unquestionably one of the greatest-sounding records ever made. As the producer of his own work, Gaye could have worked harder and called for better takes from his players. Instead he kept the performances given to him, oversaw mixes that skimped on the bottom end (maybe to hide the looseness of the playing), and went on his way, presumably to get it on again.

I Want You is a curious album that occupies a middle ground between the two extremes, containing both the best and the worst of Marvin Gaye as an artist. The title track trumps Let’s Get it On and Sexual Healing by managing to be all at once a wracked love song, full of romantic and sexual desire, and a genuinely spiritual piece, with Marvin pleading for the soul and the body of his love, not just the latter. The vocal tracks are so dense with harmony and counterpoint that they almost bury the lead vocal, which paradoxically works in the song’s favour: Gaye’s pleading surges and recedes in intensity and audibility as he puts to use all of his registers: a close and intimate near-whisper, an airy falsetto and a strident, throaty wail. Gaye’s ability to multi-track his own voice, in different registers, is unparalleled in pop music (Prince did similar things, but he didn’t need to invent any of it). I Want You would be captivating if reduced to only the vocal tracks; a documentary I saw on Gaye did just that to soundtrack one section – it was absolutely thrilling. With the jagged lead guitar and the drum track, playing the snare on every other offbeat (creating a weird, stop-start effect that seems to switch the song into half-time every half a bar), added to Marvin’s voice, the song becomes undeniable.

The rest of the album, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to the title track; although it has its moments, it’s second-division Marvin, with too few ideas stretched over too many minutes. Ian MacDonald’s off-handedly damning reassessment-cum-obituary characterised him as ‘a charming muddle who hadn’t much to say’ and bemoaned the ‘supine coke-fuck aesthetic that governs much of his work’. This was on the harsh side, but I share his reservations about this aspect of Gaye’s work. Further, his closing comment about Marvin’s inner world, ‘wherein ecstasy, melancholy and ennui were entwined in troubled complicity’, seems to me an accurate encapsulation of his music, and indeed this gets to heart of why he’s so fascinating, even when he was wasn’t, um, really trying.

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Marvin Gaye, troubled man