In the film The Big Lebowski, John Turturro plays a character named Jesus Quintana. Jesus is a competitive bowler, and a pederast, and he has no problem whatsoever with his self-esteem. It’s impossible for me to think of this movie without thinking of this character.
The irony of this is that “The Jesus” is only in the movie for a few minutes. He’s in a scene early on, and a scene towards the end, and that’s about it. Yet he steals the show.
A bit player steals the movie. That’s something any bass player can appreciate.
Bass players are, by and large, bit players in the movie of rock. They play an important role, albeit a support one. The notes they play are often barely noticeable, so far down in pitch that they can often only be heard when the rest of the players quiet down, or stop entirely. This can be embarrassing, like a being a kid on training wheels in a BMX race, the others politely waiting for you to catch up so you can all finish together.
Still, every once in a while a bass player shows up the rest of the band, takes the music hostage, makes the song his own. Below are my five favorite instances of bass players doing their best “Jesus” imitations.
The Who-“The Real Me”-Some consider this the greatest bass line in rock history. I consider it the greatest passive-aggressive moment in rock history. The only possible explanation for this kind of explosion of finger work on such a basic chord progression is that bassist John Entwistle is furious with guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend. I imagine Townshend ate one too many sandwiches from the snack tray, or finished off the last of the Jameson, or helped himself to Entwistle’s eight-ball when the man wasn’t looking, and Entwistle decided to screw up whatever Townshend song was on the docket that day. Boris the Spider is out and in full force on this track, and the message is clear: “Touch my shit again, and I’ll make your life really hard.”
Sloan-“The Good in Everyone” (This is the “full version” of the video, which I love, but if you want to go right to the song, start at 2:15)-Every once in a while, the bass fairy comes down and grants someone the power to make the listener levitate with his fretwork. Sloan bassist Chris Murphy was the lucky recipient in this instance. Listen–especially after the first chorus–as this near perfect Beatlesque romp becomes a pop bass masterwork. Thank you, Canada, for universal health care and for Sloan.
The Beatles-“Something”-Let’s say you’re George Harrison. You’ve ridden shotgun for ten or so years to a Lennon/McCartney juggernaut that pretty much defines the gold standard for pop songwriting for the 20th–or any other–century. Finally, you write a song that will make people remember you actually exist not only as a Beatle, but as a songwriter in the Beatles. So, what does bassist Paul McCartney do? He manages to show you up by playing the only bass line in the history of the world that could make a lumberjack weep. “Blimey, Paul. Would you mind being less talented than me for one bloody song?” Back to the sitar, George.
XTC-“The Mayor of Simpleton”-How many times in your life do you find the perfect song by the perfect band with the perfectly bass line to go with it? It kind of like winning the triple crown, and XTC hit that touchstone for me with this unyielding three-minute masterpiece. Colin Moulding’s complicated yet tasty bass line plays the perfect counterpoint to singer-songwriter Andy Partridge’s ode to simplicity.
Stevie Wonder-“I Wish”-Okay, wonderful song, wonderful bass line–try not shaking your ass to this one–but would someone please tell me what happens at 1:03 on this track? Then again at 2:53, and 3:20, and 3:29, and 3:38? What puckish spirit invaded bassist Nathan Watts and allowed him to produce this zesty wigglestick of a lick? Watts takes the prize for having the guts to go rogue on what would become an R&B hit for the ages.
P.S. If you’re interested writing about the music you love, check out my brand new online course “Rock and Roll Writing” at the Basement Writing Workshop, which starts in early October.