There may be no more critical interplay between two musicians in modern music than that between bassists and drummers. As jazz bassist Christian McBride put it in a recent NPR interview, “the bass and drums should work as one instrument. It determines whether it’s funk or jazz or country or rock ‘n’ roll. It all depends on what rhythms are coming from the bass and the drums that make a particular music what it is.” In funk and jazz, these rhythm players tend to get a lot more credit. Most people—even die hard fans—would be hard pressed to name one country bassist or drummer. In rock and roll, we’re used to lauding lead singers and guitarists. And certainly classic duos from Jagger and Richards, to Page and Plant, Roth and Van Halen, Morrissey and Marr and a lengthy list of others each have earned their vaunted places in music history.
Yet as a fan, I’ve always been drawn to unsung bass and drum combos—like The Smiths’ Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke, Jane’s Addiction’s Eric Avery and Stephen Perkins, and many others in bands whose flamboyant leaders tended to overshadow their rock solid supports. This is not the case in many other groups of superstars. McBride gives us the examples of Bootsy Collins and John Starks in James Brown’s band, and bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes from Cannonball Adderley’s ensemble. Today we look specifically at some famed rock rhythm duos, and listen in on isolated tracks from some of their bands’ most well-known tunes. We begin with the absolutely classic powerhouse rhythm section of John Paul Jones (top) and John Bonham, whose grooves anchored the riff machine that was Led Zeppelin. Just above, hear their push and pull on “Ramble On.”
As it turns out, Zeppelin were big James Brown fans, and Jones has specifically mentioned the funk influence on his playing. Jones and Bonham, in turn, have influenced thousands of rhythm players, including perhaps one of the most famous of bass and drum duos, Rush’s Geddy Lee and Neil Peart. Just above, hear Lee’s fuzzed-out bass work in tandem with Peart’s expert time changes and breakdowns in isolated tracks from “Vital Signs,” a song from their early-eighties new wave-inspired album Moving Pictures. Rush is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but more rock and roll drummers than not probably cite them as an influence at some point in their careers. Though it wasn’t apparent to me in their heyday, even such a minimalist band as the Pixies had a Rush influence, specifically by way of drummer David Lovering. His locked grooves with bassist Kim Deal more or less defined the sound of the 90s through their influence on Nirvana, Weezer, Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins and countless others. Hear their isolated rhythm tracks from Doolittle’s “Wave of Mutilation” below.
It’s hardly necessary to point out that perhaps the most famed rhythm section in rock history comes from its most celebrated band. But Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr often get remembered more for their songwriting and personalities than for their rhythm playing. Ringo’s taken his share of undeserved flak for his no-frills style. I’ve always found him to be an especially tasteful player who knows when to add the perfect fill or accent, when to lay back and let the song dominate, and when to get out of the way entirely. Starr’s thoughtful drumming perfectly complements McCartney’s highly melodic walking basslines—captured as well on the George Harrison-penned “Something,” below, as on anything else the band recorded.
Again, it’s hardly necessary to cite the number of bands influenced by the Beatles, though it’s harder to name rhythm sections directly inspired by McCartney and Starr’s dynamic. Nonetheless, their DNA runs through decades of pop music in all its forms. The other three duos above have directly inspired a more specific phenomenon of bands made up solely of bass and drums. One such band, the UK’s Royal Blood, has won numerous awards (and praise from Jimmy Page). See them perform a live version of "Figure It Out" below.
Other bands like Death From Above 1979 and Om have hugely devoted followings. (See a discussion of more bass-and-drum-only combos here.) With the success of these bands—along with the rise of electronic dance music as a dominant form—it's safe to say that killer rhythm sections, so often overshadowed in rock and pop history, have pushed past traditional lead players and, in many cases, taken their place. I’d say it’s about time.