Monday, October 21, 2013

10 Great Classic Metal Bassists: What Makes for Greatness?

As with any sort of highly positive qualifier -- "supreme," "top-notch," "greatest" and so on -- the quickest and most cursory of internet searches uncovers dozens of lists (not all of which would necessarily qualify as "great" themselves).  There's Metal Descent's Top Ten Most Recognizable Heavy Metal Bassists, Heavy Metal Time Machine's Top Ten Bass Players,  Gears of Rock's Top Ten Metal Bassists of All Time -- there's even more specialized lists like Metalholic's Top 12 Female Hard Rock/Metal Bassists 2013.

Interestingly, you see quite a few now-iconic metal bassists make their way into less genre-focused lists like Ultimate Guitar's Top 10 Bassists of All Time -- which includes a few proto-metal band's long-axemen (Cream's Jack Bruce, for example).  Steve Harris and Cliff Burton often jockey for position as the top-number metal representatives on these sorts of lists -- and rightly so, I think.  In fact, I've been doing quite a bit of thinking off and on, not so much about these sorts of lists, but of just what qualifies a bassist as being genuinely "great" -- not just good, competent, a contributor to his or her band, their songs, and their sound -- but someone outstanding, of a clearly superlative rank.  Those musings have had me assembling a list of my own -- one restricted, understandably enough, to  bass heroes of the core of metal, the now-classic, dynamic forms it assumed and spilled over into during the 1970s and 1980s.

My List of the 10 Greatest Classic Heavy Metal Bassists

Admittedly any listing along these lines is always going to retain some element of the irreducibly subjective to it -- but perhaps it can be steered into what Paul Ricouer called (in a much different context, writing in History and Truth) "good subjectivity" as opposed from merely "false subjectivity" (a theme and a text I'd like to come back to, as I think about the history of metal's origins and development).  Whether or not I work out and provide some sorts of reasons another person could find plausible, worth considering, even endorsing and incorporating, for this listing I provide -- something going beyond an appeal at bottom to "I like them", or  "they just rock!" -- that would seem to be the linchpin upon which it turns.

There's more to be said about that. . .  but first, the List:

For most of these players, I list only their main band, the locus where they exercised their greatest and most lasting influence.  Notice, while they are in some sort of order, there's no attempt to place them in #1, # 2, and so on slots -- I have to admit that my criteria for judging are just too heterogeneous to allow the sort of quantification or comparison needed in order to really do that right. . . . and I've got zero interest in just making numbers up or merely going with some momentary feeling about their ranking.

There are quite a few other bassists who were (or are) excellent players, took part in the composition and touring of amazing bands, even played important roles behind the scenes, but who simply didn't make this list -- Ian Hill of Judas Priest would be a prime example, as would be Roger Glover of Deep Purple, or Francis Buchholz of the Scorpions.   One might also look at some of these entries and wonder:  why not early ground-breakers like Pete Way (UFO, Waysted) or Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy) instead?  Or, should perhaps an eminently reliable contributor like Rudy Sarzo (Quiet Riot, Whitesnake, Dio, Blue Öyster Cult . . .  and now one of the two Queensryches) be added to the list?

I debated about expanding it to Best 15 or even Best 20 -- but decided against it, for multiple reasons.  One is simply the equal arbitrariness of any more inclusive number.  Another is that fact that the decisions about who ought to make it in and who remains below the threshold don't really get easier by adding a few additional slots.  And, capping it, 10 is a nice round number, small enough.

This is really more triage than homage.  Determining who gets in and who doesn't takes some hard thinking, reconsideration, case-making and consideration.  Is it all arbitrary?  Merely subjective?  Or can this list -- or any list for that matter -- make good sense in terms of rational criteria, i.e. reasons possessing a basis ultimately grounded in something other than popularity, preference, feeling, reasons other people could find compelling?

What Sorts of Criteria Bear on Greatness?

 Why did I pick each of these bassists?  This is something I've mulled over for quite some time, and it turns out that I've got a number of different, though interconnected reasons for why I would qualify each of them with an epithet like "great" or even "best".  I've also realized that when it comes down to it, my reasoning process has most to do with the role each of these musicians played in the development of a sound, in the growing momentum of a movement and a type of music.  Each of them took part in important ways, in an unfolding of expression, experiment, aesthetics -- a historical development that brought something -- or rather a very many somethings -- new, original, radical, exciting, and yet grounded

While technical mastery of one's instrument, in this case the bass guitar, is a criterion, it is really the least important -- it's presupposed from the start.  There were thousands of able bassists in the 1970s and 1980s who were fortunate enough to find their ways into one metal band or another.  Some were, as musicians, more skilled than others -- though endless practice, attentiveness to the demands of music, a capacity to learn probably played a much greater role than raw talent.

While there have always been jokes about bassists being the least interesting members of the band (and having the easiest jobs, duties able to passed off to the younger, less talented kid brother), those stereotypes lose any plausibility when one looks at those list members and their playing.  These are people who advanced not only the metal genre, but the range and understanding of their own instrument.  Among other things, they all set down some immemorial bass lines, the glue that holds metal songs together, and supplies a significant portion of the depth and heaviness.  They leave behind a collective legacy of fills, riffs, steady bass lines, pedal notes, jamming.

So, what else should we view as important?  What other criteria go towards a bassist's greatness?  I would say that, paradoxically, it is what takes them from the domain of the bass, considered in isolation, into other critical areas of expertise.  Many of the bassists I've placed on this list early on occupied a central place in the crucial activity of song-writing.  And, given that nearly all of these bands played crucial roles in the very development of heavy metal itself, influencing so many other musicians, putting out hard and heavy hit after hit, I think that one can legitimately claim that many of these bassists are responsible for a good portion of the ground-breaking, genre-setting writing -- not only lyrics, but musical lines and compositions.

Quite a few of these legendary axe-men are (or, sadly, were) in fact the front-men for their bands.  In several of the cases, that is because they either are (or were) the main vocalist -- Blackie Lawless, Conrad Lant, Algy Ward, and of course Lemmy Kilmister -- or trade off vocal duties -- as is the case with Gene Simmons.  Those who aren't front and center singing nevertheless step into the spotlight, making themselves impossible to miss or overlook (Steve Harris comes particularly to mind).  For each of these, one can categorically say that the bands to which they have contributed would not be what they were -- and would not have been as brilliant, as heavy, or as successful (in some cases, perhaps not even existed) lacking the contributions of these musicians -- something particularly interesting to think about in terms of Bob Daisley and Ozzy Osborne's band.

Forming and Forging the Metal Genre

Every one of the bands in which these 10 great bassists played exercised a formative, even seminal role in the ongoing development -- the enjoyment, the imagination, the experimentation -- of heavy metal in its "classic," paradigmatic period, the 1970s and 80s. (To be sure, a number of other bands -- Deep Purple, Judas Priest, UFO, the Scorpions, among others -- would require front-and-center mention if this post was primarily about the origins and early development of metal).  And within each of these top-tier bands, these bassists contributed centrally to what one might call the dominant and expressive "ethos" of the group -- the character developed and exhibited through lyric, riff, and rhythm, the origination and expansion of style melding together the instrumental and vocal lines throughout a growing, identifiable repertoire.

As a side-note, it's particularly interesting to think of the role of standards in a genre of music -- not "standards" as criteria so much (though those do matter), but "standards" in the sense of the songs that contribute to the musical imaginary, becoming iconic and imitable.  They are the songs upon which new musicians cut their teeth and through which they hone their craft.  Iron Maiden's Run to the Hills -- a commonplace in documentaries when people want to reference Steve Harris' "galloping" bass lines (which one can find in plenty of other Maiden songs as well) would be an example of a "standard" in this sense -- as would KISS' Deuce, Motorhead's Ace of Spades. . .  Standards provide a sort of common language, a set of shared reference points, stored less in the media (LPs to mp3s) and more in ongoing memory of the metalheads who listen to, learn, reenact those songs.

There are quite a few classic, even seminal metal bands in which the bassist was not such a driving force, where although certainly making solid contributions to the sound, they simply put in workmanlike performances -- and I'm not knocking that at all.  I'm eminently grateful for the Ian Hills, Cliff Williams, Juan Croucier, Francis Buchholzes -- and in admiration of their talent each time I listen to Judas Priest, AC/DC, Ratt, or the Scorpions.  But, there's something that occurred (and is still occurring, in a certain timelessness that nonetheless possesses its own type of historicity) on a different level with each of these bassists assembled on this top ten list.  It's something for which I'm still struggling at present to find the right mode of expression.  

I suppose that it would not be out of place to contrast them with other bassists by saying that not only do they rock . . . not only do they play their roles participationally in generation of metal songs, performances, bands, even legacies -- they go further and actively create the very forms and fundamentals for the metal genre.  They make the rock by which others rock.