A Fender News Q&A with one of the bass world’s elusive main Attractions …
Thomas onstage in the ’80s with Elvis Costello & The Attractions.
Photo courtesy Bruce Thomas
Wanna learn to play bass guitar with impeccable phrasing, rock-solid groove and an adventurous sense of melody? Go get any of the great albums by Elvis Costello & the Attractions and immerse yourself in the beyond-belief bass work of Bruce Thomas. Everything you need to know about pop bass is right there.
From 1977 to 1987 and from 1994 to 1996, Thomas’s agile Duck Dunn-meets-Duck Dodgers prowess on an oddly colored Fender Precision Bass® lent muscle and finesse to the Attractions, one of the most versatile pop commando units ever to storm stage and studio and with whom Thomas was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Examples of his highly lyrical bass expertise abound—marvel at how he treats each verse of “Big Tears”; the bridge of “Radio Radio”; the brilliantly slippery “Accidents Will Happen”; the frantic “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea”; and so many other great songs. Plus, if Thomas’s bass line to the 1978 classic hit “Pump It Up” doesn’t make various parts of your anatomy shake like they have minds of their own, you should see a neurologist at once.
Thomas took up bass in the mid-’60s, inspired by Paul McCartney, James Jamerson, Jack Bruce, Duck Dunn and Shadows bassist Jet Harris. He was a 10-year veteran of the British music scene in 1978 when he joined Elvis Costello & the Attractions, a musically accomplished and famously volatile group that recorded a string of amazing records, including This Year’s Model (1978), Armed Forces (1979), Almost Blue (1981), Punch the Clock (1983) and Blood & Chocolate (1986). Thomas’ other recording credits include Paul McCartney (Back to the Egg, 1979), the Pretenders (Get Close, 1986), Billy Bragg (Workers Playtime, 1988), John Wesley Harding (Here Comes the Groom, 1989; The Name Above the Title, 1991), Suzanne Vega (Nine Objects of Desire, 1996) and Tasmin Archer (On, 2006).
He has also enjoyed a successful literary career. His books The Big Wheel and On the Road, Again chronicled life on the road with the Attractions (earning the ire of Costello), and his writing on the life of Bruce Lee (1994’s Bruce Lee: Fighting Spirit, 2003’s Bruce Lee: Fighting Talk and 2005’s Bruce Lee: Fighting Words) brought him widespread acclaim. Thomas is, as it happens, a man of many interests, including music, kung fu, writing, painting, biking, and, most recently, putting up with questions from Fender News.
Indeed, the spring 2007 re-release by Universal Music Enterprises of the first decade of music by EC&TA (see related story) prompted us to track down the seldom-interviewed Thomas—one of bassdom’s more elusive figures—and pester him for an interview, to which he cheerfully and most graciously assented …
FN: You keep a pretty low profile. Is that deliberate?
BT: Yep. As I’m sometimes fond of saying, I keep a lower profile than a limbo-dancing rattlesnake. It was deliberate, but it has now become something of a habit, which I am now breaking—hence my readiness to answer your questions!
FN: Low profile or not, how does it feel to be considered an influential bassist?
BT: Influence isn’t something I can set out to create; it’s only something other people can choose to accept. Really, I’m glad people are able to take something from my playing to use for themselves just as I did with my own influences—who I suspect we’ll be coming to in a later question …
FN: Yeah, but first—what are you up to lately?
BT: At the moment I’m just putting the finishing touches to a new 80,000-word biography on Bruce Lee called Beyond the Limits, which is working out really well. I’ve taken up painting again, which is something I did in my youth. As you might expect, they’re kind of Zen-influenced abstracts. They’re currently selling for between $5,000 and $10,000, so it’s nice to know that I’ve got more than one string to my bass.
Whenever it stops raining (which is not a lot at the moment; we are experiencing the official wettest June since records began), I’m out on my mountain bike. I’m fortunate enough to live in Wiltshire, where there are almost endless trails to ride. Wiltshire is also the world epicenter for crop circles. There are two in the fields at the back of the house at the moment, and the village near where I live is twinned with Roswell! July is the peak month, and there are already a lot of your fellow countrymen and women over here checking them out.
Other than that, my interests are directed towards Manchester United, who are currently the best football team on the planet, although Barcelona are quite good, too. If you were to see the current wearer of the number seven shirt, Cristiano Ronaldo (check him out on YouTube), then you’ll realize why we’re quite happy to let you have Beckham (via way of Real Madrid, of course). I’ve installed software that allows me to see pirate broadcasts of MU games via Hong Kong (when English TV channels are not showing them) so I never miss a game. Our arch rivals are Ch***** (I still can’t bring myself to say their name), which makes it all the more satisfying that one of my better bass lines was on the song “I Don’t Want To Go To Ch*****,” a sentiment that I endorse wholeheartedly.
FN: Still playing?
BT: I have been doing some music—mainly computer based, along with my nephew, who was a DJ. Most of the stuff has been for club DJs, done straight to vinyl in limited pressings of a few thousand and put out under several different names, just like that former bass player Norman Cook (Fatboy Slim) does. It’s generally what you’d call progressive breakbeat and funky house. With the house-y material, we found that it actually sounds a lot better when I replace the programmed bass with real playing!
We’ve also done some new age-chill out type CDs, one of which, Silent Circle, has sold well. I played live bass on an album for Tasmin Archer a while back. There are two or three good tunes on it from the bass-playing point of view. At the time, Tasmin was also recording vocals on a new version of “Reelin’ in the Years” for an Elliott Randall album. I took the liberty of overdubbing a bass part on it that was mega fun, but whether he’ll use or not it open to question—apparently he’s using an up-and-coming bass player called Chuck Rainey on the sessions (grins).
FN: You recorded great bass work with the Attractions, much of which has just been re-released and made available for the first time for download. How does it feel that so much of your work is still so highly regarded and highly available?
BT: It’s good to know that the royalties won’t dry up for a while longer, then. Other than that, I think it’s every creative person’s wish that their work is well-known and well-thought of. But I get as much satisfaction from having written a highly regarded book on Bruce Lee as I do from the records.
From my point of view, I’d like to extend my appreciation of the work of Eric Clapton who, more than anyone, has shown consistent quality throughout his and my entire life. I only recently found a bunch of clips on YouTube from an unreleased movie called Nothing But the Blues that Martin Scorsese made in 1994—do a YouTube search on Clapton/Scorsese and several will come up. These clips show Mr. Clapton right at the peak of his powers, not simply in the zone, but in the middle of the zone, in the zone! I can’t believe that any of my work would ever affect anyone in the same way as Eric’s rhapsodic and transcendental solos in that body of work, but it’s a nice thought.
FN: A lot of movement in EC&TA songs often came from the bass, which was often pretty busy and melodic. Did you slave over your parts, or were you just sort of noodling away and doing what came naturally? Or both?
BT: I did all of those things. I usually had in mind to construct something distinctive somewhere in the bass part. For example, “Pump It Up” is what you might call a bit of organic sampling—a hybrid riff made up as follows: It’s the same rhythm of the Everly Brothers/Bryan Ferry song “The Price of Love,” but using the notes of Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ riff from “You’ve Got to Lose” and then one bar of “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks added on. The chorus is actually the melody line of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”—I put that in because that was the signature tune of the Joe Loss Orchestra, whose singer was one Ross McManus (Elvis’s dad), so a bit of an in-joke there.
“Party Girl” has a bridge section that is played all in slides on the same string. I looked at the chord sequence and worked out how to go from the lowest note on that string that fit in with the first chord (i.e., root, third or fifth) and then slide up to the highest note that fit the second chord; then the next lowest note for the next chord, then the next highest and so on—the idea being to create a sense of drunkenness that matched the theme of the song.
“I Don’t Want To Go To … (that place with the crap football team)” was originally written as a ballad like the Kinks song “See My Friends.” It was very slow. It was a quite spontaneous idea to just start playing the arpeggiated riff that became the basis of the song.
FN: Armed Forces was especially rich, bass-wise. How were you getting such a great bass sound (Flats? Rounds? Direct in?) and approaching parts and arrangements?
BT: Roundwounds, always roundwounds. Forgotten what make now. But I do remember that I had the bass strung very heavy so that it took a real effort to bend the strings. I think the G string was something like a 55 as opposed to a 40. It was almost as if I’d strung the bass with the D string as the G, the A as the D and so on. In the studio, I used a combination of miking and DI—two whole channels to myself! I think I was using cabinets containing one 18” and two 12” speakers. I’ve used quite a few bass rigs in my day. I now prefer 10” speakers. The only ones I’ve never been able to get on with are 15”, which seem to me to offer the worst of both worlds, i.e., not as bassy as 18”s and not as toppy as 12”s or 10”s.
The Armed Forces album was completely arranged and rehearsed up to performance level before we went in the studio with the songs. As with This Year’s Model, the songs were completely played in by the time they were recorded. I seem to remember we were putting down anything up to five or six backing tracks in a day at that time.
Of course, later, the same strategy didn’t work. For example, on the Imperial Bedroom album we rehearsed all the songs, but when we got into the studio we abandoned the arrangements and jammed new ones. “Tears Before Bedtime” was rehearsed as a slow swing-blues like John Lennon’s “Starting Over,” but in the studio it morphed into a kind of Meters/New Orleans feel. Most of the tracks were jammed in the studio in a different genre to the way that they’d been originally written and rehearsed.
“Beyond Belief” was even recorded without the drummer present. Three of us played to a click track and Pete (Attractions drummer Pete Thomas) eventually turned up nursing a rather large hangover. E.C. was very irate and told him he could play the drums but without hearing what we’d done first. That’s why, if you listen to that track, the drums only play punctuations all the way through and don’t come into tempo until the song is about to start fading out!
FN: You’re a die-hard Precision guy. What’s the story behind your Precision basses and what is it about them that grabs you?
BT: The first bass I ever bought was a salmon pink Precision Bass like the one that I’d seen Jet Harris playing with the Shadows when I was a small boy. As an aside to this, there seems to be some confusion as to whether Fender ever did a custom color called Salmon Pink or Coral Pink; the accepted view is that these colors were just faded versions of Fiesta Red. Anyway, to my mind Jet Harris’s bass didn’t look red—and neither did the one that I bought for the princely sum of £50.
When I turned pro and moved to London, I went through a spell of a couple of years changing my bass almost every month. I settled with a Fender Mustang® for a couple of years until I bought another Precision. I had this bass re-sprayed just after I joined the Attractions in 1978, at Andy’s Guitar Shop in Denmark Street in London. I specifically asked him to spray it “Salmon Pink, not Fiesta Red.”
Unfortunately this “Attractions” bass was stolen in Los Angeles in 1998. I replaced it with a white and gold-anodized 1964 model, but I have been trying to find someone to spray it for me. When I went online to look for someone to do this, I found all these forums about this very bass, and a great deal of confusion as to whether Fender ever did a salmon pink custom color. So maybe I’m actually the culprit who started this mythical Fender custom color that I and many others are now trying to trace! Other than that, I suggest we put out a Bruce Thomas signature model and at least a few of us would be very happy indeed (laughs).
As far as I’m concerned, Leo Fender’s creations—the Precision Bass and most of all the Strat®—are up there with the Porsche 911 as timeless design classics. He got it right the first time, and they’ve never been bettered.
FN: What was your early life like? When did you start playing, how did you learn, and who were your influences?
BT: I dropped out of school at 15. Couldn’t wait to leave, to be honest. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t interested in learning; I just wasn’t much interested in schooling. After that I worked for a two years as a graphic designer, first in an advertising agency and then on a newspaper, before the band I was in, the Roadrunners, turned pro and headed for London. The Roadrunners were an R&B power trio in the same mold as the Jeff Beck Group or Led Zep. The guitar player, Mick Moody, went on to success with Whitesnake, and the singer, Paul Rodgers, did the same with Free.
I started playing when everyone in school got a guitar during the great British beat boom of the mid-1960s. My first bass was homemade in the school carpentry shop—it was quite a while before I realized that there were supposed to be 12 frets to an octave and not 11! I had no formal lessons whatsoever. I learned by playing along with records. The Beatles bass lines were too complex and their songs too melodic at the time, so I stuck to Booker T.’s Greatest Hits and then later Fresh Cream. My influences were Duck Dunn and Jack Bruce, obviously, and any other bass players (the Kinks’ Peter Quaife and the Yardbirds’ Paul Samwell-Smith) who I could jam along with. McCartney and Jamerson were too much for me at the time. The bass solo of “My Generation” was a challenge; I got it down eventually. And when I could play along with Jack Bruce on “Spoonful,” I felt I was getting somewhere.
FN: You came from the late ’60s British music scene, but your playing sounded more like Jamerson/Dunn/McCartney than the then-prevailing trebly U.K. Entwistle/Squire bass school. Accurate?
BT: Your question leads me to believe that I eventually managed to hang on to the coattails of the greats, at least. My influences were always a mixture of R&B and melody-based players. I also took a lot, both consciously and subconsciously, from Phil Lesh and Jack Casady. I think some of the high note noodling on songs like “This Year’s Girl” stem from the fact that they were never afraid of “going up on the thin ones.” Mark Andes of Spirit was another influence—Spirit was probably my fave band of that era.
I remember once having a discussion with Jeff Baxter of Steely Dan, and I said, “As long as it’s at least 51 percent feel and 49 percent notes.” And he said, “No, as long as its 49 percent feel and 51 percent notes”—which pretty much sums it up. I would like to take my hat off also to Rutger Gunnarsson, who created all those wonderful bass lines for Abba, including the never-bettered “Dancing Queen.” Major respect.
FN: In the 10 years before the Attractions, you played with Quiver, Al Stewart, and even a band with Steve Howe …
BT: Quiver was a pretty nifty country-rock outfit. Guitarist Tim Renwick was a very melodic player with great feel. He went on to become one of the most sought-after session men of the day and has played with just about everyone, including Eric Clapton, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, Diana Ross, etc. We did quite a lot of fledgling sessions together, like Al Stewart (Orange, 1972). I should say that the highlight of these sessions were Rick Wakeman’s jokes. His version of Liberace playing “Whole Lotta Love” had to be heard to be believed.
Before Quiver, I lived in a house with a load of musicians who had formed a group called Bodast and, eventually, after a reshuffling of personnel, I became the bass player. The guitar player was Steve Howe when, to my way of thinking, he was playing the best that he ever did—really original fiery rocking guitar. I think that band was years ahead of its time and could go out right now and be a hit power-pop rock band. The band split up and Steve used to come to my room and get me to play bass to some of his new guitar ideas, but there were too many time changes; too many chords and fiddly bits for me. I heard a lot of these ideas surface on later Yes albums!
FN: The Attractions were a formidable musical unit that seemed to easily go down any musical avenue. What was the chemistry like?
BT: I once wrote a book about what it was like being in that band, and it got me fired—twice! Sometimes there’s creative tension and sometimes there’s just tension. We had a fair amount of both. Musically, we had a classically trained virtuoso keyboard player with a pop R&B bass player, a drummer who insisted that he was a musician as well as a drummer (if you’ve ever heard anything so preposterous) and a singer who told me he didn’t believe in philosophy, which, as I pointed out, is a philosophy in itself.
FN: In particular, you and Pete Thomas formed one of the best rhythm sections in pop music. Were you two telepathic or something?
BT: Pete Thomas actually confessed to being a great fan of Quiver while he was still at school. I do have a memory of a tall young boy in crushed-velvet bell-bottoms coming backstage at a Quiver gig. Yep, it was him. When he bought his first drum kit he set it up exactly like Willie Wilson, Quiver’s drummer. He had photos of both kits and you couldn’t spot a single difference.
Pete also cited a seminal moment which he said inspired him that the life of a rock musician was for him. He once saw me get out of a cab with a guitar case, stop at Uncle Bernie’s fast food stand and order some spare ribs, and then get back in the cab and drive off. So having impressed him thus, he was probably at pains to make the relationship work. Pete was every bit as pleased as I was when I got to play (at different times) on sessions with Booker T. and with Peter Green.
FN: You worked with many other artists outside the Attractions …
BT: I enjoyed doing the Suzanne Vega albums, definitely. Little did we know then that 1994-1995 was about the end of the road for session musicians; before the Macs took over. The Tasmin Archer album was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio near Bath. Every morning, Pete and I would go up to Lucknam Spa health club, where the studio had guest passes. We’d have a swim and a sauna or a Jacuzzi; come back to the studio where the resident cordon bleu chef had made lunch. We’d lay down a couple of tracks in the afternoon and then stop for another cordon bleu meal and a bottle or two of fine wine. And get paid thousands for doing it! The album I did with Tasmin in 2004 was done in her spare bedroom on a G5 and for a take-away curry. Times change.
One of the more inappropriate sessions I ever did was when I was booked to do an album for the Pretenders. I listened to the first track and came up with my usual lyrical meanderings. Chrissie Hynde stopped and gave me specific instructions not to venture above the first dot on the fretboard. I wasn’t asked to return for any further tracks.
FN: Is there much crossover between your martial arts and musical disciplines and careers?
BT: You could write a whole book on that subject! As Bruce Lee says, “The mastery of an art transcends the art,” meaning that the same principles run through all arts, and many sports, too—timing, relaxation, spontaneity, etc. As a renaissance man (!), I said that I did music for the emotions, writing for the head and martial arts for the body, although these all cross over. I reckon that it takes ten years to learn the basics of any art, let alone master it. It took me from 1967 to 1977 to learn the bass. And it took me a similar length of time to learn kung fu and also to learn to write well.
FN: Any forthcoming books?
BT: Apart from the new Bruce Lee bio which I’m just finishing, I have a book coming out called Immortal Combat, which is something of a thesis about the how the role of the warrior and the soldier in society is paralleled by the difference in approach between the martial artist and the martial sportsman, and ego-based or spiritually-based endeavours. See, I knew you’d be interested (laughs).