If you’re a regular reader of this parish, chances are you’ll own some music that features the basslines of Robbie Shakespeare. The bass players’ bass player, he died in Florida yesterday aged 68 following kidney complications. A pioneer of reggae and its many and varied offshoots, his basslines are as iconic as the genre itself; booming and thudding but always playing a tune within the tune.
Such is the fluid and ambivalent nature of the haphazard approach to such essential things as credit and copyright in those early, formative years of reggae, many of the recordings that Shakespeare played on remain uncredited. He’s there on Bob Marley‘s breakthrough Catch A Fire album, an honorary Wailer filling the spaces between the offbeat in Concrete Jungle, his melodic solidness providing the four stringed groove courtesy of his McCartney-inspired Hofner bass.
He’s there on Gregory Isaacs‘ Cool Ruler album, providing a steady rhythmic counterpart to Issacs’ sweet-toned lovers rock and uplifting spirituals, the noodling, head nodding, dread-shaking yin to Isaacs’ yang.
He’s there too (credited this time) on Peter Tosh‘s self-explanatory Legalise It album, a lamppost-sized spliff wedged between his teeth, his ganja-fuelled basslines meandering wide and expansive, slo-mo and steady. I’m listening to it now as I write this and his playing, in all its room shakin’, filling-loosenin’, flare-flappin’ majesty is really brilliant.
On many of the albums that will remain his legacy, he was joined by drummer Sly Dunbar, with whom he formed a formidable partnership that did as much for a fertile, ever changing but always grooveable scene as Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards did with Chic. Just as Nile and Bernard crossed over into unexpected territories with Madonna, Bowie and co, so too did Sly and Robbie. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and even Serge Gainsbourg sought solace in their rocksteady riddims. Go and listen to Dylan’s Jokerman to hear the results of what happens when ascerbic folk and loose and spacey reggae collide.
Grace Jones – Private Life
Some of Shakespeare’s (and Dunbar’s) greatest work remains the stuff he/they did with with Grace Jones. Marrying reggae and funk basslines to new wave guitars and synths, Grace’s band created ambient, atmospheric and always revealing music, incredibly unique and stylish y’know…just like the singer who had hired them.
You’ll be well aware of the big ones – Slave To The Rhythm, Private Life, Pull Up To The Bumper, their electro-fried version of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, etc etc, but it’s their little-heard take on Joy Division’s She’s Lost Control that pulls me in every time.
Grace Jones – She’s Lost Control
It’s, well, kinda boing-y, isn’t it?! A rubber band bassline, augmented by bicycle cranks, a trampolining wonky background noise and the guitar scrapin’, chain rattlin’ ghost of a horrified Ian Curtis, it’s spectacular (even if the 12″ version above goes on maybe a wee bit too much). It’s all in the production – rich and deep enough to make the heart vibrate, light and airy enough to tingle the senses. It’s cavernous and widescreen and just about as long and interesting as the career itself that Joy Division carved out. It is, you’ll notice, the bassline that carries it, played effortlessly by Robbie Shakespeare, the true root at the base/bass of roots reggae.