As the 1970s became the 1980s Phil, my old friend from school and myself set about forming a new band. Phil had moved up to Nottingham after finishing a degree and was living on a council estate on the outskirts of town with his girlfriend’s mother. His main priorities were getting a job and somewhere a bit more bohemian to live but musically neither him or me had achieved a great deal musically over the last couple of years so it was time to get a band together.It was summer when he moved to Nottingham and the middle of winter before we actually started any musical activity together, in fact I had actually joined another band in the interim so bored was I at the interminable wait. The other band made a cardinal sin of not turning up for the second rehearsal so I blew them out pretty quick and waited and waited.
In this day and age all it takes is a quick post on the right website and within 24 hours your inbox will be inundated with offers from fantastic musicians who thought your advert was just what they were looking for but mysteriously disappear when an audition date is set. In 1979 however things were a lot slower, recruitment involved going to the local record store and putting an advert on their notice board. Selectadisc was the store of choice, it would usually be packed out with punks, goths and assorted new wave types. It employed staff notably for their interesting haircuts and their total distain for all music apart from their own particular choices. Posting on their notice board was a traumatic experience, you had the choice of either
a) Trying to sneak a post on without the assistant seeing you, this meant that you needed your own drawing pin as well as scrap of paper. The downside of this approach was if the assistant saw you doing this you could be singled out for attention and called up before the assembled mass to…
b) Give the assistant your scrap of paper which meant they would then read it, if it failed to meet their exacting levels of cool they would then sigh and give you a long withering look, then, If you were lucky they might then give you the advert back and nod at the board which meant you were free to proceed with your hopeless dream, otherwise they would just put it on the counter leaving you uncertain as to whether it would end up on the board or in the bin.
I know it sounds pathetic but when you’re 20 this sort of thing is agony and by 1980 the music scene was stratified and had so many layers of etiquette you might as well have been living in a Jayne Austin novel.
Phil had to take the brunt of this by virtue of the fact that he had a telephone, if he hadn’t we would have had to use an address and risk all sorts or wierdos just turning up at the door. All the same this was not an immediate experience, ads could remain yellowing on the walls of Selectadisc for months or at least until they were covered by the next generation of muso dreams.
And so Christmas passed and a new decade began, I had no phone so I would arrange to meet up with Phil on a regular basis to check on progress, but at least our patience was rewarded one day when Seth made contact.
Seth was impossibly young and enthusiastic. His father had actually been a big cheese in the Socialist Worker’s Party and although he no longer lived with the family Seth had bohemian credentials and lived in a big house in a nice part of town in conditions that were more like a squat than a family home.
Seth also affected to wear a lab coat which he had dyed orange and which he wore continually no matter what the weather, this genuinely freaked people out as there were no identity markers as to what sub group he belonged to. He had a copy of a violin bass like Paul McCartney and, more recently Captain Sensible of the Dammed had used, at some point he also acquired a bass cabinet which was the size of a small family car.
Soon we had a singer Meloni who like Seth had no previous musical experience but that wasn’t a problem because we were going to create new music and those old notions of musical theory were simply going to hold us back from the purity of our goal. There was never any thoughts of cover versions because that was outdated rock and roll nonsense we were going to create our own sound.
Even with that particular ideology however Seth was too far out there, he simply couldn’t play, he didn’t really know this because he hadn’t really tried, most of his musical attention had been on getting the strap on his bass so long his instrument was down to his knees. We later found out his bass was so badly set up that it went way out of tune above the 5th fret but that was all for the future at problem was we had a bass player but he couldn’t play.
Having spent 6 months trying to get him we were not going to just give up, instead I guided him through the bare basics and within a couple of weeks we had written a song using Seth’s limitations. I can’t remember the title of our first creation but should you want to play along it went
And that’s it, the whole song all three verses, no chorus of course that was too tin pan alley for us.
Four strings, eight fingers, two hands.
For years the bass had been a bit of a default instrument. When Stu Sutcliffe decided to stay on in Hamburg it was piano player and guitarist Paul McCartney who decided it was time for an instrument change. When he ran out of family members to coerce into his band Brian Wilson shrugged nonchalantly and picked up the bass, he was a musical genius, how hard could it be? The same thought also occurred to brass player Phil Lesh when offered a chance to join a bunch of hippies in a musical adventure called the Grateful Dead. Back in Britain guitarist Lemmy picked up the bass when Hawkwind’s usual player failed to show and never put it down again.
More recently the aforementioned Captain Sensible and Steve Diggle of Buzzcocks had picked up the 4 stringed instrument as it gave them a chance to be part of something momentous but both were biding their time before they could get back to their instrument of choice namely the guitar.
I know, I know, John Entwistle, James Jameson, Jaco Pastorious, that bloke in Level 42, the world has had it’s share of great musicians who play bass but it’s an instrument it’s easy to be diffident about, you miss it if it’s not there but as long as it’s in the right key no one is going to get too excited about it.
For that reasons bass players tend to be the easy going steady members of the group, it’s not a glamorous job. Bass players are nice people.
With the advent of punk however bass playing temporarily hit a low ebb. Not only was the bass player an inferior musician willing to take a step down the food chain for a while it became acceptable for the bass player to actually not be a musician at all.
It was largely Sid’s fault of course. Vicious was recruited for many reasons but bass playing was not one of them. In their final days it is apparent that musically the band were operating quite effectively with just guitar and drums, a concept that failed to take off pre White Stripes.
Vicious didn’t really get a chance to develop as a musician in fact he probably just got worse.
Also on the scene were a Mr TV Smith and his girlfriend who had arrived in London from Devon with the purposes of forming a band. The musician pool for punk was really limited and so Gaye picked up the bass and became a focal point and feminist icon with The Adverts. Her playing was about adequate but wasn’t helped by having a drummer of similar ability which meant despite having some of the best songs of the era The Adverts never quite did as well as the should/could have.
Finally there’s the case of Paul Simenon recruited to play bass with The Clash, another non musician. His early playing is a bit ploddy but such was the band’s dedication to the cause that within a year he was fully up to strength and still resurfaces playing bass occasionally to this day.
So in the big four British punk bands we had a two guitarists who had to play bass because the guitar slot was filled and two non-musicians who were recruited to play the instrument from scratch. It says something about the lack of dedicated bass players on the scene, initially bands struggled to get together due to lack of bass players and drummers and anyone who could remotely fill the role was in.
It also led to a devaluing of the bassist with the concept that if you could hold a bass you could soon learn to play one. There was some truth in this initially, the minimum the bass player had to do was to shadow the guitarist’s three chords but only use one note for their six. The bass is a fairly forgiving instrument and particularly in a live situation they could get away with murder but is the drummer was also not up to scratch the band was in trouble. On the other hand a good player did make the world of difference which is one of the reasons that the Pistols with Glen Matlock were head and shoulders above the competition for a while. There were also The Stranglers but don’t get me started on that one.
For quite a while post 1978 the most influential bassist was Jah Wobble. The previous John Wardle has missed out on the Sex Pistols gig but was present and correct when Johnny Rotten needed a mate to help him out in PIL. As well as punk Wobble was a reggae aficionado and was starting to experiment with bass lines from that genre. I doubt that Wobble did any proper practicing or even knew what key he was playing in but his bass lines were simple and effective and he showed that anyone with a bit of talent could be an effective player within a few months.
And so my band now called Butisitart? * started out having to work the ability of our weakest musical member. Seth got better quite quickly, within a few weeks he could play the bass part to PIL’s ‘Death Disco’. His unorthodox approach kept us on our toes as did the fact that his bass easily went out of tune so we weren’t sure whether his bum notes were intentional or not.
Despite this Butisitart, was the most successful band I ever played with, we did plenty of gigs round Nottingham, Derby and Leicester, the local radio show was most impressed with a demo we sent in and the very same poorly recorded piece of work secured us a couple of support gigs to Altered Images who were enjoying their 15 minutes of fame.
Post punk having too much musical skill was still regarded as extremely suspect. Soon the concept of the non musician bass player would be surpassed by the one fingered synthesiser practitioner and so the 80’s emerged.
* Note the lack of the definite article, one of the things that separate punk and post punk.
* Note also we’re also moving towards pretention another thing that separates punk and post punk.