I am a bass player by trade. One of my favorite bass players is Adam Clayton from U2. His playing is often disparaged by musicians. This criticism stems from an old argument in music about technical ability vs. feel. I also believe that some people don’t understand the idea that within a band people have different roles and those roles are crucial to creating the sound of a band.
Keith Langford, the drummer in The Gourds and Shinyribs, and I often have a discussion about musical roles in bands and we use a football analogy. We often talk about how someone needs to stay home and block. In each band there is usually a member that provides the glue in which keeps the song together while the other musicians play more expressive roles. In different bands this role is held by different instruments. In U2 Adam Clayton usually stays home to block while the Edge floats above him playing unique sounds and Larry Mullen Jr. plays polyrhythmic drum parts. In New Order there is usually a rhythm guitar, keyboard, or sequencer part holding things together while Peter Hook, the bass player, flies around the higher end of the neck playing melodic lines. One of the bands that breaks this rule is the Who. Although Pete Townshend’s rhythm guitar is the thing that most often glues the band together, they are all often being expressive which leads to the chaotic nature of their sound which you can hear on an album like Live at Leeds. But most bands are not like the Who. Most bands have at least one person staying home providing the foundation for the song. Someone needs to subdue their ego so that other members of the band have freedom of expression.
Although there are definitely periods where I see the point in criticizing Adam Clayton, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb comes to mind as he is playing nothing but root notes the entire record, for a good portion of U2’s career he has created simple memorable lines that form the bedrock for U2’s songs. I view his playing as being very Zen like. He plays the fewest notes possible, but crafts them in such a way that they are memorable and functional. There are many U2 songs, Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World, New Years Day, and Bullet the Blue Sky being a few, where you could hear the bass line by itself and recognize the song. Not only are these bass lines recognizable and hooky, but they also serve the songs functionally as they allow the other musicians to play in an expressive manner. These are parts carved out of stone until only what is absolutely needed is left.
Adam Clayton also has great tone and feel. Their 90’s albums, Acthung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop, are especially full of great bass performances. These are also records which are centered around strong grooves. I particularly love the groove on Until the End of the World. Or listen to his performance during the chorus of Mysterious Ways. It is only four notes but it feels and sounds incredible. In Bill Flanagan’s excellent U2 book Until the End of the World, he talks about, and I agree with this assessment, that a beat is like a target. One can play on either side of the bulls-eye and doesn’t necessarily have to hit the target dead on. Adam Clayton plays in a slightly dubby behind the beat style. Larry Mullen Jr. often plays right on top of the beat. Between the two of them they create a great foundation for which the songs can be built on.
Although Adam Clayton has always worked with great producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, which definitely help him to achieve a great bass sound, a lot of the sound of bass is how you approach it with your right hand if you are a right handed player. How you pluck the strings with either your fingers or pick, and Clayton does both, goes along way in determining the sound of the bass. The sound of a bass relies slightly less on technology than the sound of a guitar does.
There are plenty of great technical bass players, and Adam Clayton certainly does not fit that bill. However, if you look at the roll that he plays in allowing his band to do what it does, and listen to the tone and feel of his playing there is a great deal to appreciate. Taking three or four notes, and making them the perfect three or four notes, is something every player should try to achieve once in awhile. Subvert the ego and aim for a certain Zen like aesthetic. You just might create the most essential part of something while doing the least amount of work.