Posted on October 21, 2016

How bad a bass player was Sid Vicious? Written for Making Music, 1992.  

SID VICIOUS IS NOT, I have to admit, top of my list of fave bass players. I’ve just had cause to compose such a list, as the forthcoming third edition of our lovely little What Bass book needed its chapter on `bass players worth listening to’ updating.

So it was that I shoe-horned in such noteworthy recent additions as the two Kims (Gordon of Sonic Youth and Deal of the Pixies), Paul Ryder of Happy Mondays, Muzz Skillings from Living Color, that annoyingly competent Stu Hamm bloke… and other appended bass workers included older players who’d somehow slipped through previous nets, like Zep’s John Paul Jones, the Meters’ George Porter, the Damned’s Paul Gray and the Jam’s Bruce Foxton.

But Sid Vicious was never under consideration. Even if I had wanted an entry for the Sex Pistols, then perhaps Sid’s predecessor Glen Matlock might have got the mention for `Anarchy In The UK’. More likely would have been the group’s guitarist, Steve Jones. Let me explain.

Recently I happened upon a frightful new `biography’ of the Vicious chap, called Sid’s Way. Frankly, it seemed a waste of trees. But one line leapt off the page among the attempts to pass off the asinine Sid as someone important: “Even now, when a bass guitarist plays in a fundamental and fast driving style, the remark that is most often passed is that the player is an exponent of the Sid Vicious style of bass playing.” By whom, I wonder?

Certainly not by those who worked on the Sex Pistols’ records. According to conversations I had with producers Chris Thomas and Bill Price some years ago, Sid barely played on the group’s records. Bill diplomatically described Sid as “not often available”. There may have been a bit of Sid’s efforts on `EMI’, though most of the bass on that, as elsewhere, was played by guitarist Steve Jones. The only track which the producers were sure that Sid played on was `Bodies’ (actually one of Chris Thomas’ favourites). So can I just reiterate that Sid is not on my list of divine bass players? Nor, I trust, is he on that of anyone else in the possession of ears.

Of course, it’s a practical necessity that the What Bass list of cool players features records, not live performances. Of the two most impressive bassists I’ve seen live in the last few months, I could only add one to the listing. He is Victor Wootten of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, a visually as well as musically diverse group: Mr Fleck plays amplified banjos throughout, supported by a black pirate playing drums on a Synthaxe; the keyboard player seemed rather normal, I remember. Bassist Wootten was tremendous, offering sensitive support when needed, but showing off a treat in his solo spot, finishing with an explosive bass-as-percussion-instrument routine that culminated in him throwing the bass on its strap around his head – and still keeping time. He’s good on the band’s records, too.

The other impressive bass player I’ve seen lately was Chad Watson, who played with Janis Ian on her recent handful of dates in the UK. But I couldn’t put him on the list, because I couldn’t find him on any records. So lanky is Watson, who looked to me like a tall Gil Scott-Heron, that his Precision seemed like a tiny toy bass hung around his neck. But Chad’s bass was no knick-knack. From it he drew firm, melodic accompaniment, and from his employer a big smile when he stepped forward for an absolutely remarkable solo. And on a couple of songs he played bottleneck. This was the first time I’d seen bass bottleneck – and you might like to give it a try. Roundwounds clank a bit, but it provides a very different sustain and tone that could well prove helpful in a few odd places. Now if I remember rightly, the on-stage Sid Vicious used a bottle for a very different purpose, didn’t he?