Bill Laswell: Baselines Revisited

Bill Laswell has carved out one of the most critic-proof careers in music.

He’s probably best known as the producer of distinctive pop hits (Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, PiL’s ‘Rise’, Sly & Robbie’s ‘Boops’) and rock/jazz legends in need of a makeover (Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, Iggy Pop’s Instinct, Sonny Sharrock’s Ask The Ages, Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Red Warrior).

He was the Miles Davis Estate’s go-to man for reimagining the trumpeter’s 1970s catalogue (Panthalassa) and also hugely important for bringing the P-funk sound into the ’80s and ’90s.

But Laswell is also a highly-original bassist in his own right and was a key figure of the late-’70s/early-’80s Downtown New York scene, featuring in bands like Massacre, Last Exit and Material (though he was pretty disparaging about the ‘scene’, once telling writer Bill Milkowski: ‘There never really was a Downtown community. All that means is that people don’t have enough money to get a better place to live…’).

His solo career has been interesting too, latterly showcasing a fusion of ambient, world and dub styles. But it’s his debut album Baselines (released 14th June 1983 on Elektra/Asylum) that really floats my boat. He plays a lot more bass than usual, fusing the soundworlds of Bootsy and Ornette Coleman and doing cool things like sticking objects under the strings or digging out the old Mu-Tron pedal for some memorably funky lines.

To these ears, Baselines is also the project that gave him the perfect vehicle for all his interests – My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts-style found sounds, paranoid funk a la Talking Heads/King Crimson, Afrobeat, early hip-hop, avant-fusion, authentic jazz soloing and even post-punk white noise courtesy of future Chili Peppers/Marilyn Manson/Soundgarden producer Michael Beinhorn.

I wasn’t in New York in 1983 but this album would seem to be a perfect amalgam of all the hippest sh*t that was going down at the time. It’s always totally Laswell’s show, leading from the front on four/six/eight-string fretted and fretless basses and generally keeping the tracks short and sweet. Baselines is also beautifully recorded and produced – it’s easy on the ear despite some abrasive textures.

Shannon Jackson has never sounded better, supplying hilariously scattergun grooves and crunching fills. ‘Upright Man’ still inspires a kind of giggly menace, nearly 40 years on. Who supplies the scary spoken-word part? Whosampled doesn’t reveal, but the smart money’s on Fred Frith (who also plays some amusing violin on country-tinged curio ‘Lowlands’).

Baselines was certainly influential from a bass point of view too – you can bet Jah Wobble, Mick Karn, Stump and Human Chain had well-thumbed copies in their collections. But, to the best of my knowledge, Laswell has never returned to such a bass-led solo project since. A shame. He might have a future there…

Fist Of Fun: Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Mother’s Milk

Apart from some sojourns with Faith No More, Neil Young, Nirvana, The Rollins Band, Tin Machine, Blur and Suede in the ’90s, the last time I was really into rawk was during that incredible wave of bands who hit their straps in the late-’80s – Faith No More, Living Colour, Fishbone, 24/7 Spyz, Mr Bungle.

And this lot. Mother’s Milk, released by EMI Records in August 1989is rock all right, channelling Led Zep and various LA punk heroes, but these boys had some serious funk chops too. You knew they’d studied P-Funk, James Brown, The Meters, Fela Kuti, Hendrix. This immediately separated them from a lot of second-rate imitators.

After the death of great original guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer issues to rival even Spinal Tap, they’d finally hit on two top-notch permanent members (don’t ask about the initiation rituals…). John Frusciante channels Hendrix, Jimmy Nolen and Adrian Belew (and even dares to take the p*ss out of Slash at the end of ‘Punk Rock Classic’) and contributes serious songwriting chops. Chad Smith is an excellent groove player. And Mother’s Milk is one of the great bass albums of the ’80s: take a bow, Flea AKA Michael Balzary.

It screams: YOUTH! Listening back now after 10 years or so, it’s an extremely enjoyable listen and a real contact high for my teenage years of 1989/1990.

The issue for producer Michael Beinhorn was capturing the band’s incredible energy in the studio. In general, he achieves it really well here; it explodes out of the traps, though its gated snares, multiple guitar overdubs and occasionally dodgy Anthony Kiedis vocals overpower it from time to time.

But it’s hard to think of any other band of the era who could pull off the controlled mayhem of ‘Magic Johnson’, ‘Stone Cold Bush’ and ‘Subway To Venus’ (and is that a homage to Faith No More at the end of ‘Nobody Weird Like Me’?). The ‘pop’ tracks ‘Taste The Pain’ and ‘Knock Me Down’ work fine too, and they have something to say.

Mother’s Milk also has the feeling of ‘last chance saloon’. It was just successful enough, going gold in the US although failing to chart in the UK. The boys had bought themselves some time. They signed a shiny new deal with Warner Bros in 1990 and then made their magnum opus Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the one that truly fulfilled their potential.