Basspiration Wednesday – 7/8/2015

In Memoriam Chris Squier — 1948 – 2015

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I began playing the guitar in 1982 and, by the time I entered my last two years of high school and began really noticing bass players. At that time there were three bass players that completely knocked me out — Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report, Geddy Lee of Rush, and Chris Squire. By that time Yes had already made their triumphant comeback with the 1983 album 90125 so much of my appreciation was filtered originally through the lens of “Leave It,” “Changes,” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Appreciation for 90125 begat appreciation for appreciation for The Yes Album which begat appreciation for Fragile which begat appreciation for Close to the Edge. The Squire of 90125 was a smooth, capable bassist sporting brief flourishes of brilliance. The Squire of the so-called “main sequence” of Yes albums [1] was a raging avatar of sound and fury. And I am excluding Squire’s immense contribution as the vocal yang to singer Jon Anderson’s yin.

At the  beginning of the 1970s, the preferred electric bass guitar sound preferred by the vast majority of record producers was that of a deep, throbbing “thud.” That thud was commonly produced by a Fender Precision bass strung with “deadwound” (flatwound) strings and a piece of foam stuffed under the strings near the bass’ bridge. The sound was a luxurious, sensual tone best exemplified by bassists like Carol Kaye (“Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys), Bob Babbitt  (“The Rubberband Man” by The Spinners), Joe Osborn (“Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine In” by The 5th Dimension), “Duck” Dunn (“Green Onions” by Booker T and the M.G.s), and most gloriously by James Jamerson (“Darling Dear” by The Jackson 5).

Reacting against the deadwound Precision bass sound, several electric bassists went the other direction and opted for a sound that was heavy on the treble side, somewhat distorted, and sounding more like piano strings being struck by a mallet than dead strings on an upright bass. On the rock music side the two bass players most responsible for blazing a trail toward a brighter sound were John Entwistle of The Who and Chris Squire of Yes.

It is easy to take for granted now the electric bass sound of a song like “Roundabout,” but in the “deadwound” context of 1971, it was positively revolutionary. In fact, when one hears the bass isolated from the rest of the track on “Roundabout,” there is simply no way that a bass tone like that should be useable. Too much treble. Too much clank. Too much buzz coming from the strings rattling against the frets. A Rickenbacker 4001 bass strung with Rotosound strings played with a pick running through a Marshall 100 watt guitar amp? Are you kidding?!?

But that was Squire’s recipe for greatness and the trail that he blazed is still being followed by countless bass players to this day. Just like a country guitar player wouldn’t dream of showing up at a gig without a Fender Telecaster, no self-respecting prog rock bass player shows up without a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, Rotosound strings, and a plectrum. That is the magnitude of the shadow of Chris Squire.

These days my musical tastes trend much more toward jazz, funk, and smooth R&B bass playing. But every once and a while I have to pull out a Yes album and travel back down the music path blazed by Squire and his bandmates during their heyday. During one such time a few months ago I was struck anew by the joyful, searing beauty of Squire’s bass while listening to the Steven Wilson remix of The Yes Album. The epiphany came at the 2:40 mark of “Yours is No Disgrace” just after the words “Lost in losing circumstances, that’s just where you are.” The band suddenly modulates to the key of Bb and Squire’s bass line comes alive in a way that I find difficult to express in words. It is a sound that reminds me of why I find so much joy for God’s gift of music. It is a sound that reminds me of the power progressive rock music and why I decided to lay down the electric guitar in favor of the electric bass as my main instrument.

I am exceedingly grateful that I grew up in a musical atmosphere that allowed easy access to the music of Yes and the revolutionary sound of Chris Squire’s bass. I’m humbled that he paid no attention to the naysayers who swore that his busy, clanky bass sound would never work. I love the fact that that sound will live on through the gift of recorded music. Stubborn individualism married to prodigious technique can leave a mighty wake behind it. Such is certainly the case with Mr. Squire.

My selfish hope is that the powers that be at the otherwise despicable Rock & Roll Hall of Fame will sense a publicity moment (don’t they always?), glom onto the renewed interest in Yes’ music at Squire’s passing, and grant the band their long-overdue induction. Yes has sold in the ballpark of 30 million albums. That is a whole lot of product moved, especially for a band as exploratory as Yes. Of course Yes’ music was, is, and always will be aggressively out of step with the nincompoops that run that farcical hall. They would rather find a loophole in the process and induct Madonna a second time before allowing Yes to receive their rightful place of honor. But I’m a Yesfan and I’m allowed to hope for such meaningless trinkets. Nevertheless, a Yes induction into the hall will from now on be (at best) a bittersweet affair with Squire no longer around to enjoy the acclaim and fruit of his labors.

In many ways, 2015 has been a difficult year for the electric bass community. In March we lost Toto bassist Mike Porcaro. In May came the news of the passing of Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson. The passing of Squire continues the same sad trend. Time refuses to stand still and the greats of our instrument aren’t getting any younger.

Rest in peace, Chris Squire. May your low vibrations go on and continue to touch our hearts and minds.

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1. The albums from The Yes Album (1971) through Going for the One (1977).

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