Note: This is a series of things I like better than all other things. For some reason I think I should tell you about them. Please feel free to tell me I should wear a different set of rose-colored glasses. I don't know how often I'll post, likely somewhere between once in a very blue moon and twice in a very blue moon. First up: some major heaviness.
What: Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt’s apocalyptic thrum in the Temptations’ “Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)”:
Why: Because of the color of their skin. The Temptations represented the contradictions swirling around popular black music at the end of the 1960s. Due to their popularity from milky-smooth hits like "My Girl," Motown prevented the Temps from releasing the anti-war "War" ("What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"), which went to Edwin Starr. "War" writers Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield penned a less pointed, more chaotic protest song, referencing gun control, white flight, drugs, and a crazy-quilt of touchstones of the turbulent Sixties. The Temps alternated lyrics in a hurly-burly throwdown bigger than any rap battle. And underneath all this chaos, like an earthquake rising to wreck the population center above it, comes Babbitt's bass line. Starting as a polite tremor, the three-note line swells in intensity as the Temps throw lyrics back and forth as if to save them from destruction. Every so often, a horn-fueled break comes, and Babbitt relaxes…for a moment. And then—Great Googa Mooga!—he comes roaring back, shattering windows along the way.
Impact: In early rock and roll, the bass merely served to anchor the drum track. But in the jazz tradition, the bass, not the drums, holds the song together. "Ball Of Confusion" borrowed from that tradition; until the first chorus, the drums appear as a dramatic frisson, rather than a driver. Babbitt's line showed that the bass could instead plunge the song forward, becoming its own sort of lead vocal. The next decade rumbled with songs like Parliament's "Flash Light," Queen's "Another One Bites The Dust" and the Commodores' "Brick House," all putting the bass in front and green-lighting the way for axle-popping stereos in the trunks of low-slung Chevy Impalas everywhere.
Personal Connection: As a kid, I would always use my fingers to pound out the drumbeats of anything I was listening to, long before my mom foolishly bought me a trap set. Early on, though, I latched onto the bass lines of the Funk Brothers' songs from Motown, before I knew what a Funk Brother was. I would play the bass notes on various parts of the drum set, as if the higher ones were snares and the bottom ones were toms. Eventually, I actually got a bass. I'm no Funk Brother, but in my dreams I can be.
Other Contenders: Scotty Edwards' high bass alternating with Ray Parker Jr.'s low rhythm guitar on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"; Tina Weymouth's water flowing underground on Talking Heads' "Once In A Lifetime"; John Deacon's steady barometer on David Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure"; John McVie's barrel roll on "The Chain"; Paul Simonon's dark Western gallop in The Clash's "The Magnificent Seven"; Josephine Wiggs' gunpowder blast on "Cannonball"; Trent Reznor's synth bass from hell on Nine Inch Nails' "Head Like A Hole".