Six Of The Best - Prog Bass Performances


The London Bass Guitar Show takes place at Olympia this weekend, 4-5 March. Prog readers can get 20% off tickets by heading to the event website ticket page and using the code Prog where it states ‘Enter Promotional Code’. To highlight this offer, we’ve decided to kick off a brand new web feature, with Prog writer Sid Smith choosing his six favourite prog-related bass performances on record.

810 - TNK (Tomorrow Never Knows) from 801 Live (1976)

It takes some chutzpah to take on Beatles psychedelic classic and bring something new to it but that’s exactly what Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Simon Phillips and the other members of the short-lived but legendary 801 do. All of their talents might have been enough pull off such a stunning victory but the secret weapon here though is Bill McCormick’s superbly muscular bass intro. Bustling their way between Eno’s swooping synth arcs, Lloyd Watson’s scraping blues slides and Francis Monkman’s Terry Riley-inspired diversions, McCormick supple blue-tinged licks do much to define the character of the song. Bill had cut his teeth as a member of Robert Wyatt’s Matching Mole and so when 801 took the stage at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1976, he was no stranger to exploring and pushing at musical boundaries. What might otherwise have been too light or vapid is anchored by an earthy, no-nonsense attitude.

King Crimson - Starless from Red (1974)

The passing of John Wetton reminds us of his brilliance as a player who knew how to lead from the back line but capable also of keeping things simple and direct. Suffused with woebegone mellotron, Wetton’s yearning, smoky vocal would perhaps be enough to earn him plaudits in this classic song. However, it’s the bass section after the dark ballad that really catches the ear. Known by the Crims at the time as ‘the ominous bass line,’ people often assume it springs from Wetton. However as he often delighted in revealing, it was written by Bill Bruford on his piano at home. Wetton makes it his own with a rasping tone that irrevocably ramps up the drama and tension. When Fripp reaches the crescendo of that wailing one-note solo, Wetton stays unwavering and focused. His unerring delivery, and his thunderous playing in the finale ensures the majestic power of Starless.

Genesis - Can-Utility And The Coastliners from Foxtrot (1972)

Mike Rutherford may not be regarded as one of the flashiest or fastest of bassists in the world of progressive music but what he does on this track from Genesis’ 4th studio album is nothing short of miraculous. As the track trickles down from its pastoral beginnings into the gathering storm-clouds of Tony Banks’ elegiac Mellotron solo, solitary bass pedal notes form a looming presence. At around the 4.00 minute mark, Rutherford slips from the tight reins, bursting forth with a galloping break that turns the head. There’s something almost funky about the way he then sets about annotating Tony Banks’ stout and square Hammond organ, injecting a racy element that undoubtedly helps ready the track for its stomping conclusion. Little surprise that when Steve Hackett revived the song in his Genesis Revisited tours it rapidly became one of the most welcomed and applauded jewels of an already starry setlist.

Yes - Heart Of The Sunrise from Fragile (1971)

There are so many stand-out moments in Chris Squire’s career that boiling it down to one track seems something of a thankless task. Yet from the album that spawned his solo track The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus), it’s worthwhile focussing on Squire’s flawless contribution to their undisputed classic, Heart Of The Sunrise. Said to be loosely based on King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man, Squire delivers a masterclass in shock and awe, attacking the opening riff with a gravelly bite that few of his contemporaries could muster. That trebly sound sits somewhere above the expected position normally associated with his instrument but is perfectly set-up when the opening flurry drops away to leave Squire and his partner, Bill Bruford to build the tension back up. As Wakeman’s Mellotron adds a luminous ambiguity, the interaction between the bass and drums is intensely creative yet incredibly playful. And we’re only two minutes in!

Weather Report - Havona from Heavy Weather (1977)

Although their star was already on the rise it’s absolutely no accident that Weather Report became a stadium-friendly band when Jaco Pastorius joined their ranks. Quite simply nobody had sounded like Jaco. However, after the release of 1977’s best-selling Heavy Weather it seemed as though every bass player on the planet wanted a piece of that sleek fretless action and fat, sliding sound. From pop to prog, from jazz to funk, Jaco irrevocably altered the way bass was perceived. His grasp of providing foundation and lead melody within a single take remains breathtaking. A natural showman on stage, he was also a talented composer as this self-penned track ably demonstrates. Challenging the accepted wisdom that in mid-period Weather Report the best tunes came from Wayne Shorter or Joe Zawinul, the newcomer puts these veterans through their paces in a joyous composition that takes flight when bass and piano lock horns.

Pink Floyd - One Of These Days from Meddle (1971)

One of the most recognisable baselines in rock thunders in on one pedalled note, bouncing and skimming across waves induced by the fabled Binson echo unit. It’s played by both Waters and Gilmour, with Waters having the more trebly tone of the two. Emerging from the desolate sound of a mysterious wind, Waters’ single repeating note suggests something unknown is stirring and acts in a sense as the bass equivalent to Rick Wright’s sonar ping heard later in the album on Echoes. Rapidly coalescing and gaining pace, what takes shape, and spills forth when Nick Mason’s drums and FX-garbled vocal kicks in, is at once pure unadulterated rock ’n’ roll yet altered and strangely mutated as if through some bizarre, secretive experiment. Demonstrating that sometimes simple is best, the band’s fondness for using quarter notes on the bass was repeated when they revisited the trick on Sheep from 1977’s Animals.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.