Herbie Flowers created that silky, sexy, brilliant twin bass line that defines Lou Reed’s 1972 stone cold classic, ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ Flowers was a session musician hired to play on Reed’s second solo album, Transformer, which was produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, who both also played on the album. This is, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest bass line in history.
Flowers provided the bass for the entirety of Transformer as a session musician, though he was also a member of the pop group, Blue Mink, and he would go on, when that band ended, to join T.Rex, and then Sky. He came up with the bassline himself, though, such was the time and place, he didn’t get a song-writing credit for the part that actually defines the track and made it a stone-cold classic (and the best-selling of Reed’s career, on the best-selling album of his career).
It was a twin-bass line, played first on a double bass, and then overdubbed with a stacked knob 1960 Fender fretless bass. He was paid £17 for it, though he claimed in a 2004 interview with the BBC that he partly created the twin line to get paid twice, so that would mean he got all of £34 in 1972 money, which is just over £500 in today’s money. For that measly sum, he became the author of one of the most classic of all classic songs.
Not that Flowers, who is still alive, saw it that way. He once declared that
You do the job and get your arse away. You take your £12 [sic] fee, you can’t play a load of bollocks. Wouldn’t it be awful if someone came up to me on the street and congratulated me for Transformer?
I admire his humbleness, but, c’mon, man! You are rock royalty!
Just listen to the song, listen to that bass line:
Hear the double-bass there in the intro? Hear the way that slinky bass sets up the track, the acoustic guitar buried in the mix? And then those brilliant brushed drums from Ritchie Dharma? And then listen how that bass line carries the song. It sounds so simple, so compelling, so basic. And so jazz-based.
Reed’s lyrics, of course, are ground-breaking, singing of the superstars of Andy Warhol’s Factory, the gender-bending superstars that they were. That this was a massive hit in 1972 and still gets play on classic rock stations today is kind of mind-blowing, though the references to oral sex were removed for that radio version. And then there is that stunning alto sax in the outro, from Ronnie Ross. It’s sublime, stunning, brilliant. The BBC, though, apparently has banned it recently, or so says Flowers.
Now watch this video from 2016, where Flowers is at Basschat SE Bass Bash, and he’s got Dave Swift, from Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, and John Bentley, from Squeeze, on stage with him. Bentley plays the electric bass, Swift plays the guitar bit, and Flowers plays the double bass. He also talks about how the bassline was created. If you don’t want to hear that part, the music begins around the 3.50 mark:
It probably would’ve been better had Bentley not done the singing, I have to admit.
This is a bassline that has not been redone, remade or the like. And that’s probably a good thing. But it was memorably sampled by A Tribe Called Quest for the track ‘Can I Kick It?’ on their 1990 début album, People’s Instinctive Travels and the Path of Rhythm.
The album was grew out of the creative melting pot of The Native Tongues hanging out at Calliope Studios in NYC, and Q-Tip has reflected that
It was another worldly place. I was 18 years old; I was a kid in a candy store. Those tools in the studio became extensions of my imagination and thoughts… The rest of the Native Tongues were there with us, and we made each other better. We were a family.
Flowers’ bass line is one of five samples that Tribe built ‘Can I Kick It?’ from, as both Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the DJ, built the song outwards. The others were ‘What a Waste’ by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, ‘Dance of the Knights’ by Pokofiev, ‘Sunshower,’ by Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and ‘Spinning Wheel’ by Dr. Lonnie Smith. But as with most hip hop tracks, it is the bass, the low end theory (also the title of Tribe’s classic second album), that defines the song:
Flowers’ bass line also lays the groundwork for Tribe’s generally laid-back approach to the mic, both Tip and the late Phife Dawg, as they drop call and response rhymes.
But here’s the kicker about this track: Lou Reed took all of the royalties from it. Tribe’s label, Jive, was unsuccessful in clearing the sample with Reed, so they just gave him the money. Think of that. Reed didn’t write the bass line, he didn’t create the bass line, but because Flowers was just the session musician, it is owned by Reed’s estate (he died in 2013). And therefore, so is the Tribe track. On the upside, the band wasn’t bitter, as Phife told Rolling Stone in 2015:
I’m grateful that [the song] kicked in the door, but to be honest, that was the label’s fault. They didn’t clear the sample. And rightfully so—it’s his art, it’s his work. He could have easily said no. There could have easily been no ‘Can I Kick It? ’So you take the good with the bad. And the good is, we didn’t get sued. We just didn’t get nothing from it.