Essential Ingredient

From Longtime Reader Sean F comes this letter:

I have a question that has been nagging me. Why do I like this fairly obscure and modern group?  They’re only three, which is fine (e.g. Police).  They start off like the Ramones and suddenly they get Who-like – especially the drummer and bass.  Is it the syncopation, unusual tempos (which are Zappa – like)?  Or are they just plain good musicians?  They caught my ear.  An opinion please, if you have time.  I chose this video because it’s live, you can see them all as they interact as well as their individual performances in a good light.  Of course the studio stuff I first heard is MUCH tighter.  But what is a band if not live?

Frankly, I couldn’t stand the thing, and my response to Sean was somewhat dismissive of both band and song:

Garage band.  Not my thing.  For a 3-piece to work, you need a monster bassist — John Entwhistle (The Who), John Paul Jones (Zep), Mel Schacher (Grand Funk), Jack Bruce (Cream) etc. — otherwise it’s just thin noise.

The longer answer — hence this post — is that if you’re going to have a three-piece rock band, each member of the band has to work really hard and be really good at their job, most especially the rhythm section of bass and drums.   Ergo:

  • John Entwhistle + Keith Moon (The Who)
  • John Paul Jones + John Bonham (Zep)
  • Mel Schacher + Don Brewer (Grand Funk)
  • Jack Bruce + Ginger Baker (Cream)
  • Geddy Lee + Neil Peart (Rush)
  • Sting + Stewart Copeland (The Police)

Honestly — and this is not just because I’m a bassist — I think a trio’s bass guitarist has to be every bit as good as or even better than the lead guitarist, because otherwise the band is going to sound like a garage band, forever.  (And, in full disclosure, it’s why I never ever played in a rock 3-piece, because I was completely incompetent under those circumstances.  A piano/bass/drums trio playing old standards at a dinner club?  Lovely, anytime.  Trying to play Zep or Rush-type music?  No chance.)

There’s a simple reason why in the above list I put The Who’s Entwhistle (“Ox” or “Thunderfingers”) at the very top:  because he is quite simply, one of the best if not the best bass guitarist of all time.

It’s not just that Ox played bass guitar better or more differently than his contemporaries way back in the 1960s;  it’s that his technique is still the equal or better of any bassist who’s come along since.  And we all know it.  Even virtuosos like Chris Squire of Yes and Billy Sheehan of Mr. Big, when hearing Entwhistle’s name, shrug and say, “Just the best.”

And here’s my problem:  I loathe The Who’s music.  It is quite simply noise to my ears, and I have never listened to more than one of their songs at a time (except for Tommy, which was a studio album anyway) because I can’t get past Keith Moon’s seemingly-random thrashing away at his drum kit, Roger Daltrey’s screeching vocals and Pete Townsend’s flailing guitar pyrotechnics just to get into Entwhistle’s brilliant bass playing.  (By Townsend’s own admission, The Who were four soloists all playing at the same time.)

But if you can isolate his part and mute all the other shit going on, it is truly astonishing — and when you listen to this rendition of Won’t Get Fooled Again, you’ll see exactly what I mean (skip to 1:10 to avoid the pointless silence of the setup, and quit at 8:50).

And that, folks, is why his nickname was “Thunderfingers”.

The same is true of Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.  Jones is a far more melodic bassist, which is no small part of Zep’s monumental sound — come on, you’ve got Bonzo on drums and Page on lead, how much more do you need?  Here’s an excellent overview of his technique, with the killer quote:  “He stays out of the way, which is what every good bassist should do.”  Like, for example, John Deacon of Queen — another lovely bassist in a three-piece (most of the time) — who with drummer Roger Taylor provided a rock-solid foundation for Freddie Mercury’s towering showmanship talent and Brian May’s soaring lead guitar.

That’s the kind of skill a bassist has to bring to the party in a rock trio, and that’s the reason why Dinosaur Pile-up sounds like a garage band.  Their bassist is okay, but he needs to be better.  (Pro tip:  he’s playing his bass slung too low, which is why his style is fatally cramped and stiff:  anatomically, your wrist cannot bend that far around and still maintain dexterity in the fingers.  Look where John Entwhistle carries his bass, for example:  the neck is high up.  Bill Wyman of the Stones — another underappreciated but stellar bassist — played his guitar the same way.)  Oh, and by the way:  Pile-up’s songs suck.  They sound like pieces that wouldn’t even be considered for the B-side of a 7″ single record, back when I were a lad.

I could talk about this stuff all day, but you guys need to get on with your weekends.  Till next Saturday.


  1. the first words that came to mind after watching a bit of that video is cacophonic garbage. Were they playing the same song? The guitarist’s hands didn’t move. The drummer sounded like he was just beating the drum set for noise rather than any sort of rhythm.

    If that’s what you like, then by all means enjoy it.


  2. What I notice from bassists like Entwistle and Mark King is not only how intricate their bass lines are, but also how much “English” they put on individual notes. It’s difficult enough to play the lines and even more so to add a tiny vibrato to a note. Even more annoying, those bastards never seem to miss a note. They are spot on every single performance.

  3. RE: Dinosaur Pile Up
    Sorry, just noise to these old ears. If you like what they offer, then by all means, enjoy! But please have the courtesy to use ear-buds or headphones. All sorts of music is pleasurable to all sorts of people, for all sorts of reasons. My experience has been, if they do not like your music, they probably will not like if you force it on them.

  4. “I loathe The Who’s music.” PREACH, Brother Kim. You’re quite right about Entwhistle, of course. I’ll see your rock stud & raise you Jaco Pastorius. And while McCartney isn’t in their league, he was nonetheless the best player in the Beatles’ lineup & quite a nice bassist in his own right.

    As far as piano/bass/drums I’ll choose upright double bass every day of the week & twice on Sunday, over any Fender/Rickenbaker/etc. The Great Dane comes to mind: Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Ditto Ray Brown (Mt. Rushmore all the way).

    NHOP tells a story about he & Ray Brown playing a gig with Oscar Peterson. A drunk douchebag stumbled into NHOP’s bass & broke two of the strings. Not having any spares, both players traded off using Ray’s bass for the rest of the gig. Ray handed his axe over to NHOP at one point. Just as the Great Dane was about to launch into one of his impossible runs, Ray leaned in and said “Not on my bass, you don’t.”

  5. Find and listen to Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water solo album. Still amazing after all these years.

    [whisper whisper whisper whisper]
    [whisper whisper whisper whisper]

    Does that about cover it?

  7. Dang. Just…dang. From junior high through early college I played tuba in the schools’ concert bands so I’ve always listened towards the lower ends of the music. (Note that I said “music”, not the sub-woofing trunk-thumpery of “rap”, which I am convinced is an acronym for “R*tards Attempting Poetry”, but I digress.) I’ve always liked Zeppelin and The Who over The Beatles or (ugh) The Stones, probably because John’s bass playing is so good. But this was the first time I’ve ever heard his playing isolated. Man, that’s one aggressive sound. His play has a snarl to it. Compare it to McCartney, whose playing is the 4-string equivalent of sunshine and lollipops.

  8. I think that band is aimed at people who don’t listen to music for the music, so to speak. The songwriting is arbitrary, the playing is just bashing. I guess the vocal harmony in the chorus might sound like a hook to somebody.

    It’s got energy, at least. When you’re 15 that’s enough sometimes.

    But early Supergrass had four times the energy and killer songwriting, and a great rhythm section too.

    Wyman is sorely underappreciated.

    Nirvana got away with a pretty boring bass player. IIRC Rick Beato took apart one or two of their songs and the bass was doing more interesting stuff than I’d realized, but Novoselic certainly didn’t wear any chops on his sleeve.

  9. When you say, three piece band, you mean guitar, bass, and drums, correct? I would assume that adding a lead singer, who doesn’t play an instrument, like Van Halen (Eddie, Alex, Mark, and Diamond Dave), would also qualify?

    I enjoyed Ben Folds Five: Piano, Bass, and Drums.

  10. Have you ever listened to anything from Lovebites? They’re a “power metal” band from Japan that sings in English — though very heavily accented — that I find their playing to quite good. They also wear white dresses to perform in for the dual purpose of making them stand out from the dark-colored stage and to show that metal can be classy too.

    An example —

  11. Hey Kim, what are your thoughts on Jaco?
    When he played with Weather Report and solo, it was magic.

  12. OK, I’ll take the licks. I thought I heard something, but as you all pointed out I was wrong. Garage band was correct, Kim. As I explained, I am musical. I liked the song 5:15 on the Who’s Quadrophenia for some reason (probably because I’d been there). Ox is the best though, and the Police were good for the bass and drums as well as Sting’s unusual vocals. I stand corrected. Thanks!

  13. Thank you for that pointer to Entwhistle’s isolated performance. I had never been able to hear him well enough to understand why people made so much of his talent.

  14. I find that Les Claypool is up there with the backing ranks – his finger style, and drifting range is great on Primus’ albums. Getty Lee commented if he ever broke his hand, Les would be able to continue the tour for them (I even think he played several gigs with Rush).

    I also have a fondness of Gene Wright from Dave Brubeck fame. His double-base work is par excelence – I saw one of his solos (B\W on YT in Europe) on the DB, and it was amazing.

  15. Great commentary Kim. My favorite of the bunch is Geddy Lee. He’s not the best on the list, but I appreciated the way Rush worked together and developed “their” sound.

    Also nice to see John Deacon of Queen mentioned. Not flashy, just consistent and right where he needed to be. The perfect complement to Brian, Freddy and Roger.

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