Friday, January 13, 2012

Guest Post/Fat Friday Feature: Bill On Trevor Bolder

Bill sent along some thoughts on Trevor Bolder's work on the David Bowie song "John, I'm Only Dancing". It's good stuff - check it, yo.

Trevor Bolder was involved in such 70's Brit-prog-heavy-rock geek legends as Uriah Heep and Wishbone Ash (replacing slightly more famous Brit-prog-heavy-rock bass icon John Wetton in both bands), but before that, he was one of Ziggy Stardust's Spiders from Mars.  Bowie's "John, I'm Only Dancing" has a colorful history primarily because of its overtly gay themes, and became an underground hit of sorts in the US when it saw its first release in 1976 on the insanely popular ChangesOneBowie greatest hits collection (it had already been a hit in England, where the pop crowds were a bit more tolerant . . . but only a bit: the BBC banned this video).

Bolder, for his part, was an adept, if workmanlike, hard rock bassist.  I've heard plenty of Uriah Heep (can't manage to stagger through much Wishbone Ash), and there's nothing that really sticks in my mind about his work with them.  On this song, however, he rides a white-hot David Bowie songwriting streak straight to bottom-end gold.  Nothing against Bolder, but the real star here is the arrangement that pushes guitars than snarl and bark like leashed German shepherds against a bassline that walks itself into the twilight zone before dissolving into stuttering funk.

There are several versions of "John, I'm Only Dancing" floating around.  The version Americans are most familiar with is the one from this video.  Bowie's UK record company very confusingly released two versions of this single with the same catalog number: this one, and one that has become popularly known as the "Sax Version" of the song.  The "sax version" differs by adding an r -n- b flavored sax to the rhythm section (natch), the addition of reverb to give it that "big room" sound, and the addition of a guitarist who sounds a whole lot like Robert Fripp going completely apeshit in the back of the mix.  Now, lord knows I'm not one to complain about guitar noise in any song; but with the reverb, the sax, and the extra guitar, the song becomes much more lush and full, and loses a lot of that angular angst and rawness that make it a classic of twisting sexuality.  Bolder's bassline, too, while still there and intact, gets relegated to a much less interesting role.  The other versions I've heard of this song reinforce the same thing: 1) "John I'm Only Dancing" is a legitimately great (and vastly under appreciated) song that is almost impossible to foul up, no matter what the arrangement; and 2) a good arrangement (and yes, Trevor, Mick, and the rest of the boys, a good performance) can take a great song and make it immortal.

Unlike many of Matt's "Fat Friday" features, this is less about a bassist than a specific bassline.  There's little doubt that, through the accidents of history, this line could have been played by John Wetton, Klaus Voorman, Greg Lake, Chris Squire, Andy Fraser, etc., etc., etc.  But hey - hats off to you, Trevor Bolder.  You were in the booth when one of the most memorable basslines of all time was laid down.  And you were the one playing it. 

You should definitely be reading some of Bill's other work, which can be found here and here.

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