WITH HIS BITING LYRICS, RETRO IMAGE, AND jittery deportment, Elvis Costello was somehow more punk than punk when he hit the mainstream back in 1977. For his solo debut, My Aim Is True, Costello relied on bassist Johnny Ciambotti and other players from Northern California's Clover to back a batch of tunes that showed Costello's true potential as a songwriter. [Note: That's bassist Steve Goulding's irie riddim on "Watching the Detectives."] For the following year's This Year's Model, Costello put together the Attractions-drummer Pete Thomas, keyboardist Steve Nieve, and bassist Bruce Thomas-who would set a new standard for songwriting and creativity in a genre that often emphasized style over substance, pose over performance.
For his part, Bruce Thomas took the groove sensibility of American R&B, the melodic sense of British pop, and the transatlantic energy of punk and new wave to create a signature style of bass playing that's every bit as exciting now as it was more than 30 years ago. Though well matched musically, Costello and Thomas had personal differences that came to a head-as things do-after years on the road and in the studio, with Thomas coming and going as Costello branched out to work with other bass players. When it comes to Attractions-era Costello songs, it almost doesn't matter who's playing them; the wildly inventive, harmonically opulent, intensely propulsive, structurally crucial bass lines are pure Bruce. Fresh off some recent sessions with British pop singer Tasman Archer and American folk-rock outfit the Weepies, Thomas took a tick to talk about the heyday of the Attractions, and of its most auspicious debut, "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea."
I understand "Chelsea" came together the very first time the Attractions played together. How did that happen?
It was actually the first track that we worked on when the band formed. We began playing through some of the songs we played at our separate auditions. Then Elvis played us a new song he'd only just written, a slow, chordy, riffy song a bit like the Kinks' "Tired of Waiting for You." When we got to the chorus, the words were something about going to Chelsea. Anyway, to me it seemed the tempo was way too slow for the song; it would go on for ages. So, after a pause, I began playing the sequence as an arpeggiated riff that was a bit spikier and more urgent It was a bit like the bass line I'd heard John Entwistle do at the end of the live version of "My Generation," after the key change at the end; while Pete Townshend was power chording away, and Keith Moon was doing his buffalo stampede, Entwistle played a part based around the main notes of the chords. Anyway, that's what I started doing and everyone fell in with it. After a few more plays to work out a drum intro, an ending and a few variations on the riff idea for the chorus we had our first group arrangement.
What do you recall about your rig for the This Year's Model sessions?
I was using a Traynor Monoblock amp, and I had a speaker cabinet made that had an 18" speaker at the bottom and two 'Tong-throw" 12" speakers. We recorded with a mic on one of the 12" speakers, and direct, as well There would have been an overdub or two, but we recorded everything live. We very rarely edited things together in the way that people comp things now. Usually the songs were rehearsed and played in by the time it was recorded.
What bass did you play?
That was my 1965 Fender Precision. That was my main bass. I got it from Ashley Hutchings of Steeleye Span and had it for five or six years at that point. I shaved the body down to make it more lightweight, I sanded the neck for a flatter profile, I reverse-wound the pickups, and I did a few other things. That guitar had quite a "whiney" sound because of the pickup winding. The action was a bit too low, so there was a lot of fret buzz and string rattling giving it a funny sound. Fortunately, we had a bass player as a producer in Nick Lowe, so they got the bass to sound pretty good. The body was unfinished at that point, but I later had it sprayed. I asked it to be sprayed Salmon Pink, thinking that was the original Fender color. Of course, the original color was Fiesta Red. When Fender started importing instruments into the U.K. in the early '60s, everyone wanted a red finish like the ones Hank Marvin and Jet Harris played in the Shadows. The instruments would be shipped over, and Fender in Britain would spray red over whatever other colors they got. I think Fender U.K. didn't have the same DuPont lacquer they had in the States, and the Fiesta Red came out looking pink. [Note: Learn more on the matter on Bruce's website, brucethomas.co.uk.]
What kind of setup did your basses have back in the day?
I used to play with high action and heavy strings: .055, .075, .095, .110, or something like that. It was almost impossible to bend the strings, so when I'm bending strings on songs like "This Year's Girl," that is full-force string bending! It was very physical.
The Attractions were able to shift between genres from one album to the next so well. How do you view those transitions?
This Year's Model was an R&B, British beat type of approach. On Armed Forces , we got Beatlesque at some points. Then we went to soul and Motown on Get Happy .
How much freedom did you feel in building bass lines with the Attractions?
We were all left to our own devices. I pretty much played what I heard, and nobody said, "Don't play that."
Aside from "Pump It Up" and "Every Day I Write the Book," which we've written about before, "Accidents Will Happen" [Armed Forces] is another great bass line we should revisit someday.
I was having a lot of musical epiphanies at that time; because the quality of the songwriting was so good, the material was there to work with. On that one, I was trying to write a neo-classical, Bach-type bass line. I realized you could string notes together by taking, for example, the root of the first chord and linking it to the third of the next chord, and then the fifth of the next chord, etc., and string them together so they make coherent structures within themselves. You don't just play the roots there's always the harmony there to make an interesting bass line.
For example, take the bridge to "Party Girl" [Armed Forces]. I start the bridge on the highest note that fit in the first chord-root, third, fifth, it doesn't matter. Then I slid down to the lowest note on the same string that fit in the next chord, then up to the next highest note to fit in the next chord, and so on. The song is about a slightly drunk girl tottering around in high heels; the bass line becomes a kind of musical metaphor to match the lyric. In that period, I was really figuring out what my bass playing was all about.
Thomas knows how to spin a yarn with bass notes, but he's equally sharp with a pen. His 1980 memoir The Big Wheel [Helter Skelter] got him into hot water with a certain singer, but that didn't stop him. Bruce followed up with On the Road... Again in 2003, and is currently working on another memoir. He's also written books on Bruce Lee and metaphysics. Because, Bruce Thomas.
Next Year's Model
Seeking a replacement after his prized "Salmon Pink" 1965 Precision Bass was stolen, Thomas teamed up with the London Bass Centre's Barry Moorhouse to create the Bruce Thomas Profile Signature Model Bass in the Bass Centre's British Bass Masters series. Bruce and Barry promise to send one in for review, so stay tuned for more!