Saturday Single No. 268

The Texas Gal and my sister both have asked me in the past week for a Christmas list. So I complied, pulling out of the e-files a similar list I compiled last year. I eliminated those things that have come my way since then, and I split the list in two, so the two can shop without worrying about duplicating the other’s efforts.

The two lists were pretty slender. In order to actually give the two shoppers some options, I wandered off to Amazon and dug into the music and DVD catalogs there. I eventually found enough items to add to the lists, and along the way, I noticed one of the bulletin board discussions. It asked folks to consider the question: Which rock group benefitted most from the presence of its bass player?

I started running through lists of great bass players in my head, acknowledging to myself that I’ll always be better off sorting through the groups of the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s than those that came in later years. So, admitting that there are great bass players that came around later, those that came to mind immediately were Paul McCartney of the Beatles, Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones, Jack Bruce of Cream and John McVie of Fleetwood Mac.

Then I stopped. The question was not aimed at identifying the greatest bass player; it was aimed at finding the group that most benefitted from the existence of its bass player. So I decided that in that framework Wyman and Bruce didn’t qualify. Why? Well, in the first case, I figure that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones were going to put a band together and find success no matter what. Yes, Wyman (and drummer Charlie Watts) provided an astounding floor for the other three – and the other Stones that followed – to build their sound upon. But the vision that created the group came, as I see it, primarily from Jones and then from Jagger and Richards.

Bruce was more integral to the sound of Cream, but to my ears, his contributions ranked third behind Eric Clapton’s guitar and Ginger Baker’s hyperkinetic drums. The sound of Cream – or whatever Clapton and Baker would have called the band with a different bassist – would be similar to what it was.

The necessity of the other two bassists I mentioned is a bit greater. From its early days as a blues band into its last decade of sublime West Coast rock, Fleetwood Mac rested – not always easily – on the rhythm section of McVie and drummer Mick Fleetwood. And consider that McVie is the Mac in Fleetwood Mac. Without him, the group’s identity is likely gone, although Fleetwood and Peter Green and the others in the early version of the band would likely have put together some kind of band. It just would not have been Fleetwood Mac in name or in sound.

Similarly, I would guess that, whether Paul McCartney had come along or not, John Lennon was going to put a band together that would succeed. It would have been a vastly different enterprise without McCartney, of course, and I think Lennon’s band would have been challenged for primacy first in Liverpool and then in all of England by the band organized by McCartney and his younger friend George Harrison. In this slender version of alternative history, Ringo Starr has a pleasant career with Rory Storm & the Hurricanes. And there are no Beatles. So maybe – at least during the years I tend to think and write about most – the Beatles are the answer to that question.

But as I thought about the question a little longer, another group popped into mind, one that I write about – and, to be honest, listen to – very rarely: the Police. Andy Summer and Stewart Copeland – on guitar and drums, respectively – are good musicians. But bass player Sting – from where I listen – is the heart, mind and soul of the Police. Maybe those who listen deeper into the band’s catalog and deeper into Sting’s solo catalog can say differently, but I hear Sting’s solo work as an extension of the music the group made: Topics, technique and musicality evolve, but always in the framework of Gordon Sumner’s aesthetic. Without Sting, there are no Police.

So which mattered more: the Police or the Beatles? I’d lean toward the latter, but I imagine there are those who came along later than I did who would argue for the former. And if either band had never formed, we’d have never known, of course. As my friend Rob told me as we discussed alternate history over coffee years ago, “We can never know what didn’t happen.”

And that’s okay, as it’s hard enough to make sense sometimes of the things that did happen. So we’ll close this odd (and possibly pointless) exercise with one of Sting’s tunes that tries to make sense of things that happened. Ranging from the British boys sent to war in 1914 to those abandoned by all around them some seventy years later, it’s “Children’s Crusade” from Sting’s 1985 album The Dream of the Blue Turtles, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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One Response to “Saturday Single No. 268”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    Several thoughts on “the group that most benefitted from the existence of its bass player” — bass players that didn’t make your post:

    Willie Dixon — arguably one of the most important links between blues and rock n’ roll — with any band he ever played for; any band that covered his work, and even those thieves Led Zeppelin who launched their career stealing from Dixon for their breakout single “Whole Lotta Love”.

    Jaco Pastorius — Weather Report; and also in Joni’s Mitchell’s backing band on her Hejira album, among his other work.

    Freebo — Bonnie Raitt’s bass player in her early years band.

    And just two more that, in the truest sense, were half the heart and soul (i.e. the rhythm section) of their bands for life:

    John Entwistle — The Who

    Mike Mills — R.E.M.

    (I know I stretched the limits of the category at issue here, but hey, I had a fun, fun time doing it.)

    Again, another great post whiteray.

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