It’s as pointless to say Chris Squire was the best rock bassist ever as it is to argue about the ‘best’ football or basketball player. But this is Chris Squire so, as he might have put it, “that’s not an entirely unreasonable argument to make.”
Yes came along in 1969 at a time when there were a number of soon to be ‘legendary’ bassists such as John Entwistle to name his biggest influence. But let’s face it: to that point, no matter how many notes were played, the sound of the bass was more often than not a rumble. Even the legends did more than their share of noodling, and (heresy!) sometimes not paying quite as much attention to the time as to their bluesy licks. Squire was different. And to my mind he was the first modern bassist.
If you’re a bass player, what’s your first thought of Chris Squire? Trebly tone, right? That’s a myth. Sure he had attack, but a big part of that was because he was the first guy to play full-range. There was plenty of beef, but he made sure you heard the highs because he was performing two functions at once: bass and rhythm guitar. Example: think of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, a piece that is often thought of as kind of ‘progish’. Now listen to their signature song ‘Roundabout’. Chris is doing John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page at the same time (and on steroids.) He was his own ‘octave box’ even before they had octave boxes for bass!
When I think of earlier bassists, I think of Detroit cars; a big, plush, low-ride Eldorado. When I think of Chris Squire? I hear a Porsche 917 tearing up the track at Le Mans. A propulsive, relentless precision machine.
And as ‘flashy’ as his style seemed to some, he was actually anchoring the band. His ability to play both bass and rhythm roles freed Steve Howe and Bill Bruford to fly. (Was there ever a band with more ‘counterpoint’ than Yes at their best?) Chris Squire, team player. Who’d a thunk it?
To add to the embarrassment of riches, he also happened to be a phenomenal background singer. His parts were often higher than Jon Anderson and he sang them flawlessly night after night while executing some of the tightest grooves ever laid down. And did I mention that he helped pen some of Yes’ most popular hits?
I don’t think there is another bassist with such a singular style and impact on a band in any genre until Jaco Pastorius (Another guy who could write, groove and seemingly play both ‘lead’ and ‘bass’ simultaneously.) An aside: I mentioned counterpoint before. Were there ever two bands that played as many layers as Yes and Weather Report?
But unlike Jaco, it’s easy to forget now just how dominant Chris was in the polls in the 70’s. Even the critics (who absolutely hated Yes) loved his playing. If he’s not as well-remembered now perhaps it’s because ‘prog’ suffered such an ignominious downfall in the late 70’s. That said, I also think that there weren’t too many guys who could have followed in his footsteps even if it had been fashionable to do so. It’s hard to over-state just how tough his act was to follow as a musician.
Trends come and go and sadly, his signature sound hasn’t yet been ‘re-discovered’ like other great sounds from earlier eras. (Hell, I’m still waiting for Yes to get into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.) I don’t know when his turn will come, but I am sure that it will.
Honestly, no matter how great they may be, there are very few artists of whom one can say, ‘there was nobody else like him.’ But in Chris Squire’s case that was the absolute truth.
In closing, I want to say that Chris Squire is the reason I picked up a bass. Sure I dug a lot of other bass players, but they didn’t motivate me to want to play the bass. His sound was so compelling, it made me think I couldn’t live with ‘just’ playing guitar. Chris’ playing made me realise that I needed to make the low end a big part of my musical journey. I got a chance to meet him several times and I am embarrassed to say that -each- time I did the Wayne’s World “I’m Not Worthy” genuflection (although in my defense, he -did- have this haughty, formal demeanor that kinda encouraged that sort of thing. 😀 ) Gone way too soon.
Some of my favourite tracks. The ones you won’t hear on Classic Rock radio…
Sweet Dreams: Time And A Word
Perpetual Change: The Yes Album
Long Distance Runaround/Fish: Yessongs
On The Silent Wings Of Freedom: Tormato
Those in the know will note that I did not mention his solo album, Fish Out Of Water. It was great and I recommend it as essential for any electric bassist or progressive rock fan. It’s not on the above list because there’s a sadness to it. He created this thing brimming with potential and then? Dropped that aspect of his career completely. How does a guy do that? So that record is kind of like that suit you wore once and then put away; it’s not really who you were so it might create the wrong first impression. Instead, I would recommend the above tracks first for the neophyte because they’ll give you the full impact of his greatness (as befits the founder of Yes) right away. Listen to Fish Out Of Water later; after you’ve got some context.