With some songs all you need, musically, is a melody and a bass line. The bass will suggest chords but, to ‘hear’ the song, it’s not necessary to hear the chords; just the bass line.
There are many songs with great bass parts that add immeasurably to the song.
But this week I’m looking at classic songs from the second half of the 20th century in which the bass line is so integral and irreplaceable that it’s easy to imagine that the song was written to it (although in most cases we don’t know for sure). And where it’s hard to imagine – or perform – the song without that bass line.
Think of ‘Stand By Me’ by Ben E. King. It starts with the bass line and goes around the 8 bar progression eleven times with the line never changing – the whole song and arrangement is built on top of it – and it’s sturdy.
There’s a whole family of songs, including ‘Fever’. ‘Green Onions’, ”Money’, ‘Bassline’, and ‘Higher Ground’, written around the rising bass line of Root, b3, IV (C – Eb – F, in the key of ‘C’) .
And there’s another whole family of songs, such as ‘Hit The Road, Jack’, ‘Sixteen Tons’, and ‘Stray Cat Strut’ written around the descending bass line of Root, b7, b6, V (C – Bb – Ab – G, in the key of ‘C’).
There are songs in which the bass line grabs you right at the beginning, before you’ve heard much or anything else, such as ‘I Want You Back’, ‘Billie Jean’, ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something (MJ was very good at this)… A lot of classic R&B songs did the same thing – ‘Papa Was A Rolling Stone’, ‘Super Freak’, ‘For The Love Of Money’, ‘It’s Your Thing’, ‘I Wish’, ‘Thank You (falettinme be mice elf agin)’…
Lou Reed’s ‘Take A Walk On The Wild Side’ is inseparable from Herbie Flowers’ rolling 10ths bass line. ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane is set on course by Jack Casady’s roots and fifths… calling back to Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ and foreshadowing the bass line of Madonna and Nile Rodgers’ version of ‘Material Girl’.
And speaking of Nile, what about what may be the most influential bass line of the last quarter of the 20th century (and into the 21st)? Created and played by Nile’s late, great partner, the superb bassist Bernard Edwards, that would be the bass part on Chic’s ‘Good Times’… which led to The Sugarhill Gang’s classic ‘Rapper’s Delight’… which led to Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’… and many more.
I’m sure that many of the songs above were not written to the bass line. Some of them probably were. But the bass line in all of them is so embedded in the DNA of the song that it’s very difficult to separate them.
Bottom line? (Sorry…) Writing – starting – a song with a strong bass line is a great way to go and one that, in my experience, is an option that’s too often ignored (by me anyway…).
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