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The Precision Bass in the 1970s

 


An archtypal Precision Bass moment, nearly 30 years after the model was introduced: When Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashed his Precision onstage in New York in late 1979, it provided not only the cover for London Calling, but also a great moment in Precision Bass history.

The 1960s. What a decade, musically and culturally. And what a decade for the Precision Bass, which graduated from the root-fifth thump of the 1950s to sheer musical artistry in the 1960s in the hands of greats such as James Jamerson, Brian Wilson, Carol Kaye, Duck Dunn, John Entwistle and many others.

If the Precision achieved newfound status as an indispensable workhorse instrument in the 1960s, it cemented that reputation with seismic force in the 1970s. Although joined at the dawn of the 1960s by Fender’s second bass guitar model, the equally indispensable Jazz Bass, both instruments staked out complementary sonic territory and together ruled the world of electric bass with impunity, as indeed they still do.

Those who already swore by the Precision in its first two decades continued to do so with a newfound sense of history. And as with the change from the 1950s to the 1960s, a new generation of bassists waiting in the wings of the late ’60s would make their own indelible mark on the 1970s.

Rock music, no longer in its infancy of the ’50s or its childhood of the ’60s, now faced the turbulence of adolescence in the 1970s. It had by then established a fascinating process of evolution (mutation might be a better word) into ever more stylistically divergent subgenres, and yet, as is so often the case with Fender’s greatest instrument and amp designs, the Precision was right at home in every one of them.

The form positively proliferated. The 1970s saw straight rock ‘n’ roll, hard rock, blues rock, country rock, psychedelic rock, glam rock, progressive rock, album rock, funk rock, jazz rock, folk rock, pop rock, soft rock, garage rock, Latin rock, heavy metal, Southern rock, avant-garde rock, pub rock, punk rock, post punk, punk pop, power pop, new wave, rockabilly, reggae rock, and even more.

The Precision handled all of it with ease. It is perhaps highly telling that the same bass that percolated throughout the funky New Orleans R&B of the Meters and provided the kinetic jazz funk of Tower of Power was the same bass that stoked the filth and the fury of the Sex Pistols and the forceful melodic power of latter-’70s U.K. acts such as the Jam and Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Telling that the same bass that so supremely underpinned Pink Floyd’s 1973 psychedelic masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon was the same bass that also elegantly underpinned the Eagles’ seminal 1973 country rock classic Desperado. Telling that the same bass that snarled so ferociously on King Crimson’s 1974 prog-rock heavyweight Red was the same bass that less than a year later provided the much-imitated jazz-rock hook that kicked off the opening credits of hit ABC sitcom Barney Miller.

In the 1970s, as always, the Precision Bass did it all.

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Is a Precision without frets really a Precision? Certainly. 1970 catalog page for the most ironic of all Fender instruments.

One of the first significant Precision Bass developments of the decade seemed to be the very height of irony; a design feature that seemed to controvert the very name of the instrument at the ever-experimenting hands of Fender itself.

The late 1960s and early 1970s was an especially creative period at Fender, during which the company experimented with revisions to some of its most enduringly classic models. These mirrored the preferences of the era’s players, and were most evident in Fender’s adventurous re-conceptions of the Telecaster—the Telecaster Thinline (1968), the humbucking pickup-equipped Telecaster Thinline (1971), the Telecaster Custom (1972) and the Telecaster Deluxe (1973).

Fender was listening to the era’s bass players, too. Jazz rock had become a prominent form in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and some jazz-rock and rock bassists preferred the distinctly different sound and feel of a fretless fingerboard. Fretless bass guitars were nothing new by then (Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman fashioned his own in 1961, and the first commercial model dates to 1966), but they weren’t commonplace, either. Fender introduced a fretless version of the Precision in summer 1970, for the same price as the fretted version: $293.50 (the irony being that the Precision Bass was originally named for the precise intonation enabled by its fretted neck).

Halfway across the country, in Detroit, 1971 brought a Motown milestone in the form of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece album, What’s Going On. On the landmark concept album, the label’s previously uncredited house musicians—collectively known as the Funk Brothers—received individual credit for the first time. Finally, resident Motown Precision Bass masters James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt received the individual recognition they so richly deserved.


Two seminal early-1970s Precision Bass albums: 1971 Marvin Gaye masterpiece What’s Going On (above) and 1973 Pink Floyd classic The Dark Side of the Moon (below).

Taking a cue from the turn-of-the-decade creative revisions to the Telecaster, Fender engineers in 1972 unveiled a new version of 1968’s Telecaster Bass—essentially a reissue of the 1951-style Precision—armed with an enormous humbucking pickup designed by none other than the inventor of the humbucking pickup, Seth Lover, who’d been lured to Fender in 1967. Lover’s large new pickup for the bass necessitated redesigning the pickguard to accommodate it; the model included other new revisions in the form of a three-bolt neck plate and bullet truss rod.

An enduringly endearing Precision Bass recorded moment hit the charts in 1973 with the release of Pink Floyd’s massively successful eighth studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Its lead single, “Money” boasted an irresistibly infectious Precision Bass riff by the song’s author, Roger Waters, while simultaneously accomplishing the unusual feat of becoming an enormous international hit that happened to be in an oddball (for rock music, anyway) 7/4 time signature.

Further design modifications were afoot in 1974, when Fender introduced black pickguards as a Precision Bass standard and moved the thumb rest from the treble string side to the bass string side.

Another seminal Precision Bass recorded moment that brought the pure sound of the instrument to millions came from an unexpected angle in January 1975. That month, a new sitcom debuted on ABC television about a New York City police precinct captain and his detectives. The opening credits of Barney Miller featured a solo bass intro to what had to be the funkiest theme song in TV history. It was a riff that launched a thousand ships—for many years hence, bassists of all stripes would demonstrate chops and cred by busting out the Barney Miller theme.

The famous funk-bluesy line was played by veteran Los Angeles session bassist Chuck Berghofer, who took his 1959 Precision to the session. When the producer suggested departing from the written chart by starting with a solo bass line, Berghofer—who had also played the famous string bass part on 1966 Nancy Sinatra hit “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”—improvised on the spot what subsequently became one of the most imitated bass lines (and grooviest TV themes) in electric bass history.

On both sides of the Atlantic bombs detonated mid-decade in popular music that would have resounding repercussions for decades to come, and the ever-reliable Precision Bass figured heavily in the attack. It could be summed up in one word: Punk.

In New York in 1976, bassist Douglas Colvin set the tone for much punk bass playing with a visceral, no-frills machine-gun style driven home using an impossibly low-slung Precision Bass. That year, his iconoclastic band released its seminal eponymous debut album, which inspired legions of imitators. The album, Ramones, sent shock waves through the rock world and heralded the large-scale arrival of a reactionary new musical movement that had been brewing since rock was born two decades earlier. And Colvin, under the stage name Dee Dee Ramone, never missed a single pumping sixteenth note.


The twin pillars of mid-’70s punk and the Precision’s role in it; one from each side of the Atlantic: Ramones (1976) and Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977).

Meanwhile, an even more incendiary debut was in the works across the Atlantic in London. A year after the Ramones’ debut album, punk’s ruder, spikier U.K. movement was spearheaded by the Sex Pistols, whose debut (and only) album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, appeared in fall 1977 and promptly became the most important punk album ever and an extremely important and influential album in rock history in general.

Most of the pumping Precision Bass work on the snarling, gutturally magnificent Never Mind the Bollocks was played by the Pistols guitarist Steve Jones, despite the fact that 10 of the album’s 12 songs were co-authored by original Pistols bassist Glen Matlock (who did in fact play on one of the album’s biggest tracks, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” previously released as the Pistols’ first single). Matlock could actually play—a dangerously subversive risk for anyone who called himself a true punk—and he was succeeded in the lineup by John Ritchie, who went by the stage name Sid Vicious and was far less proficient on the instrument. Although Ritchie created an iconic (to use a term much too corporate for any discussion of punk) look with a Precision, his tenure with the band was short-lived—from April 1977 to January 1978—as indeed his life was—he died in February 1979 at age 21. Matlock returned to the Pistols lineup in subsequent reformations.

Punk—real punk—was over almost as soon as it started, but its effects were far-reaching. Its spiky-haired, safety-pinned anti-establishment ethos influenced a snowballing wealth of subgenre descendents, and the late 1970s blossomed with new acts, particularly in the U.K., that put the Precision Bass to exciting and musically riveting new use.

Take, for example, Elvis Costello. Literate, angular, angry and bespectacled, he appropriated a decidedly punk-ish image that belied the obvious fact that he was an able and important new singer-songwriter. Costello assembled a ferociously formidable backing band in late 1977, the Attractions, that featured the nimble and melodically adventurous Precision Bass work of Bruce Thomas. Irresistably energetic early singles such as 1978’s “Pump it Up,” “Radio Radio” and “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea” and 1979’s “Oliver’s Army” and “Accidents Will Happen,” are all great examples of Thomas’s propulsive Precision Bass mastery.

The 1970s ended, however, with possibly the greatest Precision Bass moment in all of rock history. After the early 1978 implosion of the too-volatile-to-last Sex Pistols, the more serious Clash assumed the mantle of most important U.K. band and was at its creative and popular peak at the turn of the decade. When the “Clash Take the Fifth” U.S. tour rolled into the Palladium in New York City on Sept. 21, 1979, bassist Paul Simonon, angered by staff treatment of the audience, smashed his Precision to pieces onstage.

Simonon’s moment of fury just happened to be caught by U.K. photographer Pennie Smith, and the resulting photo was immortalized as the cover of what many consider the Clash’s greatest album, 1979 magnum opus London Calling (with a title track launched by Simonon playing what is surely one of the most apocalyptic bass riffs of all time, also on a Precision). The photo has subsequently become revered as one of rock’s greatest images (Q magazine, for example, deemed it the greatest rock ‘n’ roll photograph of all time in 2002).

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Not all musical instruments weathered the 1970s nearly as successfully as the Precision Bass. The business of musical instruments changed; the business of rock music changed; and there were winners and losers. The Precision Bass was a winner, as indeed it had been all along since its 1951 introduction. It didn’t just roll with the punches—it provided the punches, as it always had.

Rock and pop continued to splinter, evolve, reinterpret and reinvent themselves yet again as the 1980s dawned. And while all was not necessarily well at home base early in its next decade, Fender would eventually find the wherewithal to re-energize and redefine itself; to engineer a steady and remarkable comeback that would see the Precision Bass enter the modern era as revered, as powerful and as indispensable as ever.

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