I was travelling home on the Tube the other night when I noticed a headline in the Evening Standard that featured the name of a company called Helphire. This caused me some confusion as I read on, since the article concerned a hire company. Admittedly I didn’t know what else the article could be about but it took a good few seconds for me to register that the word was meant to be pronounced as ‘help hire‘ and not, as I’d read it, ‘hellfire.’ As I type it now it continues to insist upon sounding as ‘hellfire’ in my head. Did you read it like this just now? Just me?
I suspect my lifelong association with the PH in ‘Murphy’ is the primary reason my brain was wired to read this the way I did, along with words like ‘sapphire’ and ‘samphire.’ Maybe if the company resolved to render the second ‘h’ as an uppercase (HelpHire) — in the manner that seems to be adopted on a tiresome increase wherever portmanteau words are coined — the confusion would lift for me. I blame EastEnders myself. They started it.
Anyway, I pointed out this amusing detail in the Standard to Mrs M, who immediately reminded me of another example of this phonetic syllogism that we see nearly every working day. There’s a coffee stand on the platform of one of the stations on our way into work, that proudly boasts their trade as ‘coffeemongers’. Unfortunately the chalkboard did not permit room to print the whole word, but as two separate words on top of one another: ‘coffee mongers’. Oh dear.
If you require an explanation why this is unfortunate, then that’s the measure of the difference in maturity between you and me, I fear. I am quite a fan of schoolboy humour and enjoy even the most tediously puerile double-entendres, not to mention the seemingly endless and creative euphemisms for men and women’s naughty bits and habits. Put another way, no one appreciates a good willy inserted into daily intercourse more than me, arf arf, oo-er don’t-you-start missus etc.
You may find this sort of thing — and I don’t blame you if you do — barely above the level of unintended hilarity upon discovering that there’s a Lithuanian toilet paper called BUM, a Swedish chocolate snack called Plop-Plop, a Spanish bleach called Clit, Chinese Cock Oil for stir-frying and so on. OK, I made those up. Well, some of them. There’s bound to be a website devoted to real ones out there somewhere and you know the kind of thing I mean. Some of you may recall That’s Life!, a ‘light-hearted’ consumer information programme of mystifyingly immense popularity on BBC-tv in the Seventies and Eighties that used to revel, with disproportionate glee, over these phonetic synchronicities. Poor you. Other countries can claim, albeit however disingenuously, that these words may have other, more honourable, innocent associations in their own languages. They probably do, too — however much I want to think they’re playing a game with tourists.
The thing is, once I’d noticed Helphire and Mrs M reminded me of ‘coffee mongers’, I began to experience what I like to call ‘Emerson, Lake & Palmer Syndrome.’ I’m fairly certain no one else calls it thus. You will no doubt have your own name for this phenomenon. In short, how it works is this: you went your whole life never hearing of — for example — Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Then, over a short span of time, you hear their name mentioned on several distinct and separate occasions. Your curiosity now suitably fired, you investigate Emerson, Lake & Palmer. ELP, as you are now calling them, become a familiar thing to you. Now you know about them, you find that their name crops up with surprisingly frequent regularity in things you read, in conversations, and so on. I only call it ELP Syndrome because that’s how it happened between me and ELP. How wonderful for me.
So, I’m having this conversation a day or two later at work and one of my colleagues reminded me instantly of the company who make the office staplers: Rapesco. I’m sure it’s pronounced ‘rap-esco’, but when the word is blazoned along the side of the device in capital letters — rapesco — it does rather raise an eyebrow. I am reminded of the fictional, but sadly rather too-near-real publication featured in the Channel 4 comedy series Nathan Barley — Sugar Ape: the funky typeface rendering the ‘suga‘ in tiny lowercase while the rest of it is spread in alarming colour and size across the cover page.
Several food products — particularly ones made by large food magnates such as Kraft, Nestlé and the like — offer a consumer phone line that one can ring should you either be deliriously ecstatic or seethingly venomous about said product. A Careline, they call it, written in a homely, pseudo-handwritten font on the sides of these products to convey the promise that there may be a real human on the other end of the line. Between that and the way my brain is wired, I find this word sings in my head as ‘Caroline.’
There’s an episode of South Park titled ‘Wacky Molestation Adventure.’ I’ll take it as a sign of a well-adjusted, innocent upbringing that my mind is irresistibly drawn to thinking of a charming, wee train platform populated by a staff of tiny, bespectacled hairy burrowing rodents.
In the world beyond my own slanted vision, I find that Led Zeppelin, whose name is well documented as a magniloquent play on the phrase ‘went down like a lead balloon’, had to spell it ‘led’ as too many people read it as ‘leed’. It’s, ahem, led me to wonder why people never read the words ‘lead guitar’ with the implied heaviness that would come of thinking of that element on the periodic table known as Pb. Perhaps people don’t want to equate guitar solos with soft metal. I know I don’t.
Here’s a smooth conversational transition for you, coming right up.
Speaking of rock music — you see what I did there? — I posted up a list of five brilliant keyboard players a while ago. Now it’s time for the bassists. My selection criteria, then as now, still stands. If you recall from last time, this is not just a list of people who clearly possess absolute technical instrumental accomplishment and are often famous for being so — that’d be too easy. My choices are largely modified by how much I like the kind of music they play — which is why Mark King of Level 42, as skilful as his playing is, will not be making his way onto this list. Ever.
So — here we are again, in no apparent order:
• Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (Jethro Tull) — he illustrates my selection process point entirely: a confessed non-bassist when he joined Tull at his old schoolmate Ian Anderson’s request. His arrival was clearly not based on technical merit, but simply to be amenable to the group dynamic (their previous bassist, Glenn Cornick, had proved to be a bit of a handful on the road). Good old Jeffrey soon proved to be adept at learning the instrument, and while it’s possible his lines were suggested to him by Anderson — at least at the very beginning of his five-album stint in Tull — there’s no doubting the certain special something he brings to the tracks he’s on. Proving equal to the task on stand-up double bass as much as electric, there’s definitely plenty of character, especially humour, in his playing — as well as no little amount of skill belying his frequent claims to the contrary.
Sample: Baker Street Muse (Minstrel In The Gallery, 1975). Take time out to enjoy the almost-entirely instrumental passage leading up to and encompassing the song section called ‘Pig-Me And The Whore’ (between 3:36 and 6:30), constituting what I believe is the finest three minutes in Tull’s entire recorded output. Hammond’s bass part throughout is sparse, but not without complexity, demanding precision and timing in its execution. Elsewhere, check out the playing on The Third Hoorah (War Child, 1974), again with busy, bouncing bass, good wit and a tasteful sense of when not to play for added dynamics.
• Geddy Lee (Rush) — still a relative rarity in rock music: the total bassist frontman. Geddy Lee has a little more work cut out for himself than most in the position too, being one-third of his band. His vocal style is undoubtedly distinctive, divides opinion and certainly an acquired taste, but there’s no questioning the quality of his bass technique. First off, Lee employs a wonderfully fat, clanking string sound that really drives the bottom end of the songs along and needs must be played with supreme confidence. Second, he mostly plays with his fingers, as opposed to a plectrum, which requires immense physical stamina, but gives the lines a very fluid, supple feel. Lee’s most onerous duty, though, has to be as one half of Rush’s rhythm section, the melodic counterpart to Neil Peart’s extraordinary drumming. With Peart frequently cited in All-Time Great Rock Drummer lists (and I daresay he’ll pop up on my one when I get round to it), one can only imagine the pressure Lee must be under.
Sample: Cygnus X-1 Book 1: The Voyage (A Farewell To Kings, 1977). After a bizarre, spoken introduction over an ambient swathe of synthesiser tones, Lee brings in a creepy, half-heard bass ‘fanfare’ out of nowhere at (1:24), before developing the figure recurrently, inexorably, into a cohesive melody line that gains an effective sense of momentum. Look no further than La Villa Strangiato (Hemispheres, 1978) for just one example, out of many, of Lee’s speed and technical bass prowess, between (6:10-6:48). Finally, an example from latter-day Rush and the wondrously capable ascending line that provides virtually its own countermelody on Far Cry (Snakes & Arrows, 2007), starting from (0:43) and on throughout the song.
• Chris Squire (Yes) — I’ll confess that while this list is strictly in no order of merit or favouritism, Chris Squire is the bassist on this list whose work seems to provoke the most reaction and response from me whenever I hear it. He’s awesome! Here again we have a highly individual bassist; fat, chunky and with more middle range than would seem necessary. His bass sound is a bit like that too, wa-heeeeey! Sound aside, his playing is what’s truly astonishing. Such dominating presence and sheer musicality. Squire’s bass insists on being taken on equal consideration with such mighty musical companionship as Steve Howe’s versatile, edgy guitar or Rick Wakeman’s whizz-bang keyboard flourishes. Crucially, like Geddy Lee, Squire seems to have brilliant empathy with his drumming oppo and in Yes he has had two; Bill Bruford at the start and latterly Alan White. Whether it be Bruford’s funky, jazzy stylings or White’s more straight-ahead, no-nonsense approach, it’s a moot point whether Squire is following his drummer or lashing him on.
Sample: Close To The Edge (Close To The Edge, 1972). Compare the delirious, octave-swooping bass line of the first verse (starting at 3:54) with the sparse, almost sarcastically taciturn bassline that underpins the second verse (from 6:04) and almost seems to be in a different time signature to the rest of the music — yet holds it down effectively. In Machine Messiah (Drama, 1980), a stunning piece of instrumental ensemble playing starting from (3:57). Note how Squire holds down a reliable, thumping, almost one-note bass while Geoff Downes‘ keyboard plays a complex, spidery line on top. Eventually, at (4:14) Squire takes Downes up on this challenge and shows he can peel it off just as equally on his fretboard with amazing skill. Attempts to play along with Squire’s lines don’t always leave one feeling inadequate and banana-fingered, though: occasional parts of ostensible complexity can yield up their secrets delightfully upon attempt — final example: Squire’s driving, relentless, terrifically fun climbing bassline (0:52) that upholsters the verses of No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed (Time And A Word, 1969) and is essentially played by running up the fretboard like it’s a swanee whistle at a rate of knots.
• Paul McCartney (oh, you know) — obviously a consummate musician and composer, true, but it seems only recently that his bass-playing skill and style has been assessed and brought into focus: the man who almost single-handedly created the basis for rock bass playing by absorbing elements of Motown, blues, rock’n’roll and Beat music into a cohesive, often busy, but always tasteful and witty technique. To cap it all, his insistence into how his bass should sound on Beatles records, aided and abetted by George Martin’s continuously questing approach to the art of recording, not only defined the Fab sound for several albums in of itself, but continues to influence whole generations of players whether they even realise it or not.
Sample: Paperback Writer (1965 single. Also Past Masters, 1988). The entire bass part on this song is simply so innovative from start to finish, not least of all for its sheer volume and presence in the mix — unprecedented in the Sixties by any white, English rock band of the same era. As a performance, it’s a complete antidote to the less-is-more school of bass playing, with bubbling octave leaps and joyous flourishes in virtually every other bar — yet McCartney never overplays, keeping it interesting and rhythmic above all other considerations. Elsewhere, McCartney proves to be more than willing to add skill and personality to his colleagues’ compositions: the light-fingered runs (eg. at 1:04) all over George Harrison’s Old Brown Shoe (1969 single. Also Past Masters, 1988) are a prime example. Macca displays considerable technical mastery of his instrument from the get-go: consider the fast-flowing quaver run that comprises the verses on I Saw Her Standing There (Please Please Me, 1963) — a quintessential Sixties bass riff that seems somewhat overlooked in most musical studies of the Fabs.
• Jim Smith (Cardiacs) — “Jim’s too fat and he’s going to die, probably!” So was the lot of the portly Mr Smith, with brother Tim encouraging the audience at Cardiacs gigs to heckle and harangue him. Pity him not: I like to think that Jim, by way of taciturn riposte, contented himself simply to turning out HUGE, roiling, tricky and fleet-fingered bass lines, safe in the knowledge that no-one else in the universe who could begin to match his brother for sheer invention in their music together. He was a past master of the sarcastic, John Entwistlesque stance too — barely moving, almost as if bored to be there, infrequently breaking the pose to salute the crowd. Brilliant.
Sample: The chorus of Dog-Like Sparky (Sing To God, 1996) finds Jim playing a weird part, by turns walking and sharply sliding upwards, (0:25) that would appear to make no sense at all when played in isolation, yet meshes with absolute certitude under the rest of the arrangement. Later in the same song (at 2:53) he develops this idea into a kind of ‘tic’ in the bass part that has it leaping like a salmon, still yet on to greater heights, as the middle eight ascends triumphantly through its chord progressions. While it may sound like a faint sort of praise to comment on a bassist’s essential ability to hold down the line, it’s a feat indeed for Jim Smith when he has music as frenetically, kinetically changeable as Cardiacs make it. Appreciate his sure-fingered, dogged pursuit of the melody during the instrumental break in There’s Good Cud (Guns, 1999), starting at (1:10) and featuring a gunslinging, signature Smith flourish at (1:30), followed shortly after by an insane, psychobilly-tinged chasing passage (1:40-1:44) that slams back to hard-hitting regular Cardiacs business with neck-snapping, dynamic intensity from (1:44) to the end of the song.
Thank you all, gentlemen.
Throbbing under: Carol Kaye and James Jamerson, to name but two immense session giants; Stanley Clarke, Primus’s Les Claypool, Jaco Pastorius, the mighty John Entwistle — finger-popping thunder gods all; Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads for tasteful understatement; Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant for staggering, Baroque complexity; two singing bassist-frontmen in Greg Lake and Phil Lynott; sterling, understated, rocking support from Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, Purple’s Roger Glover, Kim Deal of The Pixies, founding Tullian Glenn Cornick, later Tull Dave Pegg…and many others, all of whom could have made the list on another day…and may yet do so!
Still yet more Doctor Who: Revenge Of The Cybermen, Planet Of Evil, The Seeds Of Doom, The Masque Of Mandragora, The Hand Of Fear, The Deadly Assassin, The Invisible Enemy, Image Of The Fendahl (BBC, variously between 1975 and 1977)