Who are the greatest role players in rock history?
In sports they’re called “role players.” They’re the working class guys who play defense, dive for loose balls, get under the opponent’s skin, fight it out in the trenches. They’re not stars and they don’t make the big bucks or have lucrative endorsements or land supermodel wives. But without them you don’t win, period.
Music has role players, too. We tend to spend all our time talking about the charismatic lead singers and incendiary lead guitarists, but all the great bands also feature guys who stand off to the side, outside the limelight, and don’t really do anything except make the whole enterprise click. They seem not to be there for the fame or the glory so much as they are just because they love the music. Frequently you find them in the rhythm section, although not always, and when you look at the history of great bands all of a sudden being less great, you often don’t notice who isn’t there anymore.
I can’t imagine cranking out anything like a definitive 100 Greatest Anonymous Rock Role Players in History list, but I can certainly suggest a few worth considering.
John Paul Jones: I recently made a new friend, a musician, who was telling me about the night Dave Grohl came into the place she was playing with this weird little guy who kept waving at her from across the room. Turns out Them Crooked Vultures were in town and the weird little guy was the least-talked about member, once upon a time, of one of Rock’s greatest bands, Led Zeppelin.
Primarily known as the group’s bassist, JPJ also handled the piano, clavinet, mellotron, mandolin and – remember that signature recorder part in “Stairway”? Yeah, that, too. As hard as I know this probably is, sit down with a Zep CD sometime and listen, as best you can, to everything except the guitars, drums and semi-coherent mumblings from Robert Plant. Now, try to imagine where the band would have been without him.
Bill Berry: Category A: Murmur. Reckoning. Fables of the Reconstruction. Life’s Rich Pageant. Document. Green. Automatic for the People. New Adventures in Hi-Fi. Category B: Up. Reveal. Around the Sun. Notice anything? Right. Up until about 1996 or 1997 one could perhaps argue that REM was the greatest American band ever. Then the wheels flew off. Specifically, the band lost something as essential as it was intangible when its mild-mannered drummer retired. It’s true that REM recovered and finished with a bit of a kick, producing Accelerate and Collapse Into Now before finally calling it a day, but the basic fact is that they gave us several essential albums in their prime and very little we couldn’t live without after Berry’s departure.
John Deacon and Roger Taylor: Two-for-one here, because when the guy at the front of the stage is perhaps the greatest lead singer in Rock history and guy off to the other side is arguably the most underrated guitarist alive, there’s plenty of anonymity to go around. John and Roger were the rhythm section for Queen, and if you never paid them much attention, don’t feel bad. You’re not alone. But they played an incalculable role in the band’s success – Deacon the cool, perpetually bored looking bassist who never did anything except play perfectly and occasionally write a smash hit (“You’re My Best Friend,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Spread Your Wings,” and he also jacked out the bass line for “Under Pressure”). Taylor, in contrast, was simply electric – I’m not sure there has ever been a better drummer who fewer people paid attention to. He was also a tremendous vocalist. Many people hear some of the band’s anthemic moments and assume that Freddie is the one responsible for all those majestic, soaring high notes. Nuh-uh. Those high tenor spots were all Roger.
Larry Mullen, Jr.: I’ve always argued that U2 is one of the two or three best bands in history, but for the most part nobody is doing anything that’s musically all that complex. Mullen is at his best laying down beats that sound like marching-to-war cadences, and while it’s insanely appropriate for what the band is doing artistically, it’s rarely the stuff of technical genius.
But there’s a moment in Rattle & Hum, if you’ve seen the movie, that tells us more about LM than we’d ever know otherwise. The band comes off stage, catches its breath and prepares to go back out for an encore. They huddle up for a second and all of a sudden we see that Larry is fucking in charge. He’s telling everybody what to do and when and how and they’re all taking orders like they’re afraid he’ll stomp their balls off if they don’t.
Bono may be the superstar. Edge may have defined the sound of a generation. But Larry Mullen is the soul of the band. If he retires, my advice to the rest of the guys is to join him. Nothing good is going to happen to your legacy once he’s gone.
Dudu Zulu: Few Americans are probably familiar withJohnny Clegg & Savuka, the iconic South African band. And to all appearances, there’s no reason for Zulu, a percussionist and dancer, to be terribly central to the proceedings. To be sure, he was a talented drummer and his war dances with Clegg were among the most exhilarating moments of the group’s electric live performances (they’re responsible for the second and third best shows I ever saw), but on paper you’d think he could be replaced easily enough.
Then, in May of 1992, he was murdered while trying to help mediate a brutal taxi war in KwaZulu-Natal. Clegg carried on, but I saw his next tour. He was professional and energetic, but it was evident that something crucial was gone.
Andy Summers: It’s hard, in my experience, to find anyone who’ll tell you that The Police couldn’t have replaced Andy with a chimp, which I’ve always thought was grossly unfair. As with Larry Mullen above, he wasn’t doing anything that technically daunting – Sting and Stuart Copeland did most of the heavy lifting, and in fact some of the band’s most wonderful moments were drum and bass only. In many respects The Police were backward from most bands – the rhythm section drove things while the guitar was the support instrument. But Summers created a sound – atmospheres and textures and counter-melody lines – that was hugely responsible for the group’s success. We’re talking about one of my three favorite bands of all-time here, and you’ll never convince me that Summers was anything but essential to their greatness.
So there. That ought to get the conversation rolling…..