In a band, the position one occupies generally contributes a great deal to their popularity. Simply put, vocalists and lead guitarists are showered with more attention barring some exceptional cases. The spotlight shines on them leaving what is known as the “backing team”, comprising the bassist and the percussionist, in the half-illuminated stage both literally and metaphorically.
The Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, though one of the founding members of the band, didn’t share as much fame as Jimmy Page or Robert Plant during their time together. Hence, we are determined to rediscover the genius of Jones through five isolated bass tracks.
Growing up in a family where each expression was a melodic hum and each step a rhythm, music embraced Jones in the purest and natural form, meant the bassist has always had a tune in his veins. The musical tours that he took with his parents around England, exposed him to different styles and artists such as the blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, the jazz artist Charles Mingus and the classical pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff, who left some of the most melodious impressions on his mind. However, it was the butter-smooth style of the Chicago based jazz and blues guitarist Phil Upchurch that inspired Jones to take up the instrument.
Spending his initial years as a session musician and an arranger, Jones soon grew weary of the continuous process. He felt that it was burning out his passion for music by squeezing out creativity under the pressure of time: “I was arranging 50 or 60 things a month, and it was starting to kill me.”
The opportunity came his way in the name of Jimmy Page and the guitarist pulled him out of the pit. Page while reminiscing the early stage of Zeppelin’s formation said, “I was working at the sessions for Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, and John Paul Jones was looking after the musical arrangements. During a break, he asked me if I could use a bass player in the new group I was forming. He had proper music training, and he had quite brilliant ideas. I jumped at the chance of getting him.”
Although his contribution to the band’s success is undeniable, Jones is to be partially blamed for the lack of recognition. Somewhat a Chameleon, Jones liked to blend in the shadows of people and become invisible. he tricked people into believing that he was shy and polite while he carried on all his mischievous activities silently. He later expressed that he “tried to stay out of the drift of the rock star’s path, mainly because I needed my sanity and freedom on the road.”
He might have been casual about his music, but that shouldn’t be our excuse for not celebrating his brilliance. Here are five isolated bass tracks of Led Zeppelin songs that establish him as an equal creative contributor.
John Paul Jones’ 5 best basslines:
Written during the band’s tour of Iceland in the summer of 1970, the lyrics reference Norse mythology. The song featured in the 1970 album Led Zeppelin III but was also released as a single which became a chart-buster.
Plant who wrote the lyrics of the song said, “We weren’t being pompous … We did come from the land of the ice and snow. We were guests of the Icelandic Government on a cultural mission. We were invited to play a concert in Reykjavik and the day before we arrived all the civil servants went on strike and the gig was going to be cancelled. The university prepared a concert hall for us and it was phenomenal. The response from the kids was remarkable and we had a great time. ‘Immigrant Song’ was about that trip and it was the opening track on the album that was intended to be incredibly different.”
The isolated track featuring both the johns — Jones and Bonham — proves that they weren’t merely a “backing team.” Without their individual efforts the song wouldn’t have gained the significance it enjoys today.
The preceding album Led Zeppelin II contained some of the band’s most memorable songs. ‘Heartbreaker’ being one of them opened the second side of the album. Recorded during the band’s second North America tour, it is said to be the source of the famous tapping technique.
Though the song is remembered by the opening guitar riff and freestyle solo by Page, Jones’ steady support on the bass guitar demands some credit.
‘Whole Lotta Love’
Another song from the same 1969 album that received a whole lotta love from not only Europe but other countries like USA and Japan and became the bands first hit singles upon its release in the US in 1970. Jimi Page allegedly came up with the catchy riff while on a houseboat on rover Thames during the summer of 1968.
The song starts with a loose blues intro and slowly takes up the jazz form as the song proceeds. Jones’ semi-muted bass portion in the middle of the song, created an interesting soundscape that though escapes one while listening to the song, is crystal clear in the isolated track.
‘What Is and What Should Never Be’
No points for guessing which album the song belonged to. Written jointly by Page and Plant, it was the first song where Plant got credited for songwriting. Stephen Davis, the Led Zeppelin biographer, claimed that the lyrics reflected on the real-life romance of Plant with his wife’s sister.
As usual Page’s riff played on his Gibson Les Paul outshined others contributions. Hence, its all the more important to separately focus on the bass track by Jones which in this ace is mellow and groovy.
The album’s yet another memorable track was ‘Ramble On’. Once again co-written by Page and Plant, the song drew its influence from the fantasy novel by J.R.R Tolkein’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Though it may well feature as a song the band members would rather forget, it’s one of their most beloved tracks.
It was probably one of those rare times when Jones shared the same amount of appreciation as Page for his winding bass style which Michael Madden once described as like a “Garter snake” playing. Like every song, Jones played his part sincerely giving Page’s solos a boost and quietly asserting Led Zeppelin as rock heroes.