Tag Archives: The Carpenters

Give some to the bass player, part 1 – California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas

For years I disdained straight eights with a convert’s zeal.

I started playing bass at around 14 when it became clear that my high school friends did not want another guitar player in their band but needed someone to play bass. If I wanted to be in a band, and I did, bass it would be.

We played Nirvana covers and our own songs in that style, so the bass lines were very often nothing but straight eights, just the roots. A one-string version of the guitar part, an octave down – the simplest way to play bass. It worked for Krist Novoselic, it worked for Kim Deal. I was familiar with a few bass players who did more (people such as Colin Greenwood, Mike Mills, Leslie Langstone), but it was never really necessary for me to learn how to play like that.

Locking in to the kick and playing with fingers was something I learned later (when I played in a country/folk band called Great Days of Sail with my friend Yo Zushi) and to this day, even though I know I keep better time playing eights with a pick, I always approach a new song without a pick, and start by locking in with the kick and seeing how that sounds.

It’s needless purism. Plenty of truly great bass players have been primarily (or even exclusively) pick players: Carol Kaye, Paul McCartney, Rick Danko and Joe Osborn to name just a very few. Joe Osborn is a studio bassist, one of the so-called Wrecking Crew who played sessions in LA and New York for Phil Spector and artists like the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, the Carpenters, the Monkees and Simon & Garfunkel. These folks – a loose network rather than a tight and consistent unit – were some of the best in the business: drummers including Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon; bassists like Osborn, Carole Kaye and Jimmy Bond; guitarists Glen Campbell, James Burton and Barney Kessel; the list goes on. Heavy-duty players.

What’s great about Osborn’s bass line is the way he swaps between locking with the kick in the verses and a more propulsive straight-eights part in the chorus and under the flute solo. It’s perfectly judged, musically astute and surprisingly tough-sounding. However pretty the melody and vocal harmonies are, California Dreamin’ is a song with iron in its heart, and Joe Osborn knew it.

Joe-Osborn-studio

Mamas

top: Joe Osborn, 1967; bottom: the Mamas & the Papas

Advertisements

The Persistence of Sentiment by Mitchell Morris

I picked up Mitchell Morris’s The Persistence of Sentiment from the new Foyles the other day. Subtitled Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s, it’s a book about some of those artists and genres of 1970s pop that have devoted followings but not critical respect; that are guilty pleasures, so to speak, even for many who do like them.

This kind of discussion is right up my street. Soft soul and disco are both discussed in the context of Barry White (and to a lesser extent Barry Manilow), as is the music of the Carpenters. Soft soul and disco are long-standing favourites of mine, and Karen Carpenter is, I think, one of the greatest singers we’ve had in the recorded-music era. The best feature of modern critical discourse around music is that having had the chance easily to get hold of any music they want – by means legal and illegal – modern rock critics are very catholic in their listening, open to anything. As a young lad, I welcomed a gatekeeper telling me that, say, Steely Dan were awful. It meant that I didn’t need to spend my own money to find that out (only later did I find out how 180-degrees wrong that assessment was and that having gatekeepers dictate what art you should or shouldn’t consume is fundamentally problematic). So while I might argue the extent to which, say, the Carpenters are still seen as kitsch or as a guilty pleasure by anybody, there was no way I wasn’t going to buy this book once I picked it up off the shelf.

Morris is an associate professor of musicology at the University of California, so his book is understandably strong on the formal analysis of his subjects’ work (you don’t get notation transcriptions of the music being discussed in much mainstream pop criticism), but what’s most impressive is the multi-disciplinary nature of Morris’s approach. He’s alive to the intersection of music and history, and how it was lived by different segments of the record-buying audience (his analysis of the social and political contexts of this music in the introductory chapter is wide-ranging and very astute), and he’s at home deploying the terminology of literary as well as musical analysis. Letting my biases out into the open for a second, this is the kind of music criticism we need. It’s a shame that this is being marketed expressly as an academic work and isn’t going to make it into the average high-street Waterstones.

I’m particularly grateful to Morris for giving us a useful term to deploy in my own work. Discussing the differences between symphonic music, opera, art song and the other kinds of ‘high’ music of the European classical tradition on the one hand and pop song on the other, he uses the term ‘modest songs’ as a blanket term for the pop songs of the recorded-music era and the folk and parlour songs of the 19th century and earlier. It’s a term he uses in a purely descriptive way, not as a value judgement.

We have rarely known how to account for music that loves the quotidian because our methods have been based on aesthetic and moral preferences for the extraordinary, the original and the convention-breaking inspiration. Our commitment as music scholars have been the strongest, historically, to music that was never meant to be heard every day… The heroic gestures that fill out most of the “great works” in virtually any kind of canon are the ones that modest songs usually refuse – they must forgo too much “greatness” if they are to accomplish their principal goal of living with us instead of living against us in moral-aesthetic agon.

Morris articulates this more clearly than anyone I’ve ever read, and my sympathies tend always to lie with critics who treat all kinds of art just the same, who recognise no artificial “high” or “low” distinctions between works. I haven’t finished The Persistence of Sentiment yet, but what I’ve read so far is pretty extraordinary.

persistence