1 October 2015
Everyone has their favourite singer, their guitarist of choice, pet percussionist - you can draw up dream line-ups of Best Band (the music press mooted a reconvened McCartney-free Beatles line-up following their 1970 split with Harry Nilsson, Billy Preston and Klaus Voormann taking over Macca’s vocal, keyboards and bass duties), or conjure a congregation for a post-Punk version of the Travelling Wilburys - but, unless you’re a real muso and care passionately about such things, naming a favourite bass player isn’t so easy. “Bass? What’s that, then - that mumble in the background going doombah-doombah-doombah?” And, apart from a few Star bass players, you’d be hard-pressed to name any. Gary Tibbs is known to the 1980s Pop generation only because he is named in the chorus of Adam & The Ants’ “Ant Rap”.
Even some of yer actual Rock Royals have little understanding of the importance of the instrument. In 1989, a year into his Never-Ending Tour, Bob Dylan’s bassist Christopher Parker was forced to leave the band to undergo an operation for cancer. When asked by his manager if he had any preferences for a replacement player, Dylan replied, “I don’t give a s*** who plays bass”. One cannot help but feel that Elvis Costello is of the same opinion - so long as it isn’t Bruce Thomas.
Bruce, as part of Costello’s band The Attractions, was an integral part of the sonic architecture that made those records, from ‘This Year’s Model’ (1978) to ‘Punch The Clock’ (1983), outstanding and resonant, of and outside their time. It was he, with drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, who took Costello’s sketches and designs and gave them form, dimension and unity. Through their commitment and passion, they brought out the very best elements in his compositions and obscured the weaknesses. (When the back catalogue was reissued, again and again, the CD booklets for the albums prior to 1982’s ‘Imperial Bedroom’ included the song lyrics for the first time. A big mistake - because they exposed Costello’s lyrical weakness of wrapping himself up in meaningless wordplay and obfuscation. The joy of those records was the combination of the voice working in harmony with the music.) To use his song title, Costello may have written the book, but The Attractions edited it, provided chapter titles, chose the font and drew the illustrations.
One cannot overstate Bruce Thomas’ contribution to the records that made Costello’s reputation. Whilst reading this memoir, ‘B-Movie’ - a song from their 1980 masterpiece ‘Get Happy!!’ - was playing on a loop in the back of my mind. An apt choice, because the song is practically a bass solo; not flashy or virtuosic, but imaginative, sensitive and supportive. These attributes are more than readily apparent in Thomas’ writing. There’s no flabbiness in his prose. He paints his scenes with deft, sharp and luminous strokes, one moment unpretentiously poetic, the other jaw-achingly funny. The incident where members of punk jokers The Damned tie together the shoelaces of a sleeping Costello, empty an ashtray into his open mouth and set his trousers alight had me blind with tears of laughter. It’s cruel, I know, but the image of the future crooner of Charles Aznavour’s ‘She’ hopping with a mouth full of dead fag-ends and his trousers ablaze is priceless.
An aspect of Thomas’ personality that cannot be avoided is his often-sarcastic but ever-present sense of humour. He isn’t your Keith Moon-type rock’n’roll clown with elaborate practical jokes and stink-bombs; he is more your ego-deflater, the pretension-debunker, the sardonic quipster, always with a rib-tickling deliberate mishearing of a lyric or song or album title. Personally, I love this Galton & Simpson attitude but this flip demeanour can rub some people up the wrong way, and it must have been this characteristic of Thomas’ that set Costello against him so vehemently. Costello, to his discredit, has been petty in denigrating Thomas; on the DVD of ‘Live: A Case For Song’, the bassist’s name is misspelled ‘Bryce Thomas’, and in the booklet for the ‘Extreme Honey’ compilation CD, the one photograph of EC and The Attractions crudely crops Thomas out of the picture. He’s just shabby, doll…
The problem between them lay in how they perceived themselves in the realm of Pop stardom. Bruce - and, I’m sure, Steve and Pete - saw themselves as equal(ish) partners, like John, Paul, George & Ringo or Pete, Roger, John & Keith, whereas Elvis considered the set-up to be solely himself in the spotlight with a backing band (albeit the best backing band one could ever hope for). Like Mark E. Smith, Elvis seemed to want uncritical yes-men to play his songs. Towards the end of their working relationship, Costello admonishes Thomas for improvising a melodic fill on a live performance of ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’, saying, “I don’t want you camping it up on stage again […] There’s only room for one star onstage”. It’s reminiscent of M.E.S. berating The Fall on their live album ‘Totale’s Turns (It’s Now Or Never)’ - “Will you f***ing get it together instead of showing off?”
(On the subject of The Fall, is it a coincidence that 'The Big Midweek', Steve Hanley's remembrance of his two decades of going 'doombah-doombah-doombah' behind Mark E. Smith, shares the same faction'n'friction as 'Rough Notes'? There must be something in a bass players' genetic make-up that make them such captivating yarnsters...)
Costello’s mistaking Thomas’ pun-drunk jocular sensibility for critical attacks rather than the necessary pressure valve and coping mechanism it so plainly is put paid to their social and working relationship. It is a savage pity, still felt keenly by Thomas personally. Costello would never admit it, of course, but his subsequent albums - whether good or bad - have all suffered from the Bruce Thomas-shaped hole in them.
The book isn't entirely fault-free, however. Thomas has his chronology go haywire when he thinks that 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' is Ian Dury & The Blockheads' chart-topper at the time of the late 1977 Live Stiffs tour, and - as with absolutely ALL books published in the past 10 years, so this tome is no exception - the proofreader decides to skip the last quarter of the book, thinking nobody would notice. Well, I DO, MATEY-BOY!!!!
It’s a ghastly cliché that every favourable review of a music book should end with, “It had me running to play those records again”. I can happily report that your reviewer will say no such thing, because the truth is I was so taken by this book - by both the story and the manner in which it’s told - that I could not bear a distraction by The Attractions. It really is that good.