Much has been made of the sheer amount of well renowned and much loved musicians that’ve died the beginning of this year, and within the last twelve months. David Bowie, Paul Kantner and Maurice White to name just a few. Bassplayers, though, have perhaps lost more than most; most recently losing Jimmy Bain of Rainbow and Dio fame, towards the end of January.
The Highlander had his troubles but that didn’t stop him from featuring in two out of three of what are considered singer Ronnie James Dio’s greatest albums, which are considered the best out of the genre as a whole. Those two are Rainbow’s 1976 sophomore effort Rising, and Dio’s solo debut, 1983’s Holy Diver. Who knows, had he been on the remaining one, Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell, he’d have done more than just reenergise a failing, post Ozzy Osbourne metal titan.
Even from just those two albums in question, it’s hard to pick out just a single performance from the Scotsman. A more obvious one would perhaps be “Stargazer”, a chugging hard rock epic. It’s not so much what he plays, but how he sounds and the sheer attitude his playing has. The sneer of Sid Vicious, but with more than just capability in spades.
A standout performance though, is not included in the so called Dio and Bain classics; it’s the second Dio album, the title track from 1984’s The Last in Line. Bassists were already dividing into two camps at this point in the Eighties; those so low in the mix, their frequencies barely registered, and those, like Bain, who were loud and proud. The cyclical riff during the chorus represented that second camp; good chops, sizeable presence and tone.
Around this time, he also performed uncredited on Love at First Sting, the album by the Scorpions. Prior to that, he was involved with Thin Lizzy and Phil Lynott. Without players, like Bain, you could argue that the late Eighties, and then the Nineties, would’ve been amiss, potentially being without players like Rex Brown of Pantera and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. Certainly they wouldn’t have played the way they did, without the likes of Bain.
In turn, without the late Lemmy Kilmister, who died just after Christmas, guys like the long deceased Cliff Burton of Metallica would’ve been strange to imagine sonically. That is, had he not borrowed that overdriven sound that the Motorhead frontman made his own. No “For Whom the Bell Tolls” for a start. Metallica would’ve still been an epic proposition, a genre in themselves above most other thrash metal bands, but with none of that distorted dirt and bite. The title track from 1980’s Ace of Spades arguably began it all, that famous opening gambit as much a bass riff as a guitar one.
Furthermore, Lemmy was an accomplished songwriter and not some stupid grunt. It may surprise many that he wasn’t much of a Black Sabbath fan, because he went onto work with Ozzy Osbourne. However he booted the latter’s career back into touch, and stopped him from flagging in the Nineties. The 1991 comeback No More Tears was a commercial success which was partly down to the Lemmy-penned “Mama, I’m Coming Home”. This introduced Ozzy to a whole other generation of fans. Lemmy even adapted another track he helped write for the album, “Hellraiser”, for Motorhead.
Arguably, though, the biggest contributions came from Chris Squire, from progressive rockers Yes, who passed away at the end of June last year. A more general way his contributions could be measured is in his background. Now, progressive rock is usually considered the preserve of upper-middle class public school boys. Yes, he also went to public school, but he was the son of a cabdriver and secretary for an estate agent.
Where it matters, his playing, is almost as easy to measure; or, rather, it’s immeasurable. So much of his works to wade through. Even the self-titled Yes debut of 1969 has evidence of his individual style in its closer, “Survival”. Many credit Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler with pioneering the wah wah bass within their mid-February eponymous 1970 debut, on track “N.I.B”.
Yes, however, came out months earlier in late July 1969. There might be some crossover with those tracks, going back all those years, but Yes and Squire were first to the punch. Again, Cliff Burton and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” comes to mind with its Lemmy distortion, and, Squire wah wah bass.
Much more obvious would be “Roundabout”, a prime example of an eight minute stretch, almost nine minutes, that even the masses can enjoy. The track, from 1971’s Fragile, is dismissed by other bass cheerleading camps as just being about how fast Squire and his fans, can play. The more mellowed middle section however is thoughtful, restrained and functions gracefully.
What’s more, there’s more than just a few examples of Yes tracks that appear to show the bass to have been the primary songwriting instrument. That, rather than, reacting to whatever the guitarist and keyboardist have done; and being employed as a riff instrument. This is when it seems Squire was at his best, like the high register and angular riffs in the aforementioned “Survival”.
However, one of their most enduring songs, almost entirely written by Squire, is “Onward”, which appears on 1978’s Tormato. This was more or less their first, and yet still, one of their only direct and unabashed love songs. It, dedicated to his then wife, with its multifaceted layers and perpetual longing, is probably, and easily, amongst the best love songs ever written.
If that doesn’t convey his contribution to music, even in relation to Bain and Lemmy, then consider the tone and buzzsaw bite of that Rickenbaker bass of Squire’s. Millions of people have forked out on £1,000 plus basses in a bid to replicate that sound. Apparently it’s nigh on impossible to do this because he’s had numerous paint jobs on his model. His is significantly lighter, from sanding down it so much, changing its resonance irrevocably. His stamp on music and the world of the bassplaying is also irrevocable.
Words by Andrew Watson