I became a bass player by accident because the guys in the band chose the roles that got the most attention- two guitarists and a lead singer (no drummer yet). I didn't mind. I was just in the same room as them when they told me I'd be playing bass guitar.
To start off with, I borrowed one from Bella Donna who played bass with Poison Girls. She was one of twins, and she had such long hair that it almost reached her behind. The bass was a deep red semi-acoustic that had belonged to one of the Buzzcocks (she came from Manchester).
As soon as we had played one gig as Joby and the Hooligans, we got offered more, and that's when I realised that I was going to be a bass player.
I'd been saving up for a BSA Bantam and instead I spent the money on a tattered, scuffed, torn bass cabinet with one huge speaker in it, a cheap transistor amp top and a cream coloured Jedsen bass with a white scratchplate. I strung it with flatwound strings that were covered in black plastic sheathing, and across the top was a strip of masking tape with our song titles written on it in black felt tip pen.
For an quiet and insignificant girl, the power of the bass was a complete revelation.
While everyone else was showing off at the front, I discovered that I had the power, aided by the bass drum. Boom.
From the strings of my magical, cheap, shiny instrument, through the curly, crackly lead (the wires always broke up inside those curly leads) into the amp and through the speaker, I could shake the very ground that people in the audience stood on, while simultaneously whacking them in the chest with a hefty dose of sound waves. The Jedsen didn't so much boom as thud (it was extremely cheaply made) but the power was there and even when I was too shy to look up at the audience, I knew what it was doing- or what I was doing.
I had never imagined that I would possess or play such an instrument; owning a guitar was and remains a fantastic privilege. The potential of those switches and knobs to make and change sound!
Then there was learning. One of the guitarists had told me that the bass played what the vocalist sang but I knew that wasn't true. Without knowing, I had been listening out for those low tones in every record I'd ever heard, and I knew exactly what to play. I knew nothing about root notes, but I knew what sounded good and I loved low and deep sounds. I headed for the lowest and deepest (this was before The Chefs when I had to learn to play busy lines so we could carry on playing, just the drummer and me, when the guitarist walked off stage in strop).
The next revelation was doing a cover version of Dennis Brown's How Can I Leave. Punk bands like ours weren't restricted by style (we also played Roller Coaster by Jonathan Richman amongst our own noisy and sometime deliberately offensive contributions). But How Can I Leave has a bass groove like no other and what's more, it was simple to play. In my head I imagined a stoned bass player moving his hands to the most convenient places on the fretboard that sounded good, over, back, up, down the neck, moving with the hips, you don't have to look because it's all played in a pattern that repeats and repeats as a satisfying hand exercise as much as it sounds like a great groove. So clever, and yet so revealing to me about how little I knew. Feet and chest, I knew, but hips- that was the new thing and that meant that the bass controlled the whole body.
I don't play bass much any more, although every song I write has a bass line at its heart, a thread that runs through it that the whole song could be sung even if the guitarist in my head walks off stage. I am still a sucker for a sexy bass line in a song, preferably played on a Fender bass rather than a keyboard so that I can imagine my fingers cantering over the strings as I listen.
What brought this to mind?
Talking to Gina the other day just before we filmed our latest musician for the documentary. I will bring news soon of the screening date and place. We are still applying for funding- not crowd funding (yet) as this is being done under the umbrella of the University of the East at the moment. The longer we wait before injecting other people's cash, the more we get to make the film we want to make.
It is very, very important that these stories about women punk musicians are told by women and filmed and presented by women, isn't it?