Whatever Turns You On | Danny Thompson

Rick Batey
Whatever Turns You On
Danny Thompson

Portrait of Danny Thompson

If Danny Thompson was a name-dropping kind of man, he could out-do virtually any bass player on earth. His list of credits is quite incredible... Interview by Rick Batey.

IF NAMES LIKE KATE Bush, David Sylvian, Everything But The Girl, ABC and Julian Cope conjure up the vision of some kind of Status-toting hotshot somewhere in his mid-twenties, think again. Danny Thompson began as a tea-chest player in a skiffle band, with Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy among his earliest influences. He moved on to play with the biggest names in British jazz in the late '50s and mid-'60s -Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott- then joined Alexis Korner's enormously influential Blues Incorporated. He backed blues giants like Little Walter, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Terry, and rounded off the decade by becoming a vital part of the folk-rock movement; that was Pentangle, of course, who subsequently made six albums in their seven-year lifespan.

Throughout the seventies Danny Thompson was the backbone to the music of John Martyn, and somewhere in this busy schedule also found time to play sessions for Nick Drake, Marianne Faithfull, Rod Stewart, Ralph McTell and Marc Bolan. In the eighties he's turned his hand to an even more diverse array of projects, including one of my favourites, Songhai... a collaboration between the Spanish flamenco group Ketama and the devastating kora player, Toumani Diabate. What's more, he's finally got around to leading his own band, Whatever, touring with great success and producing two albums, Whatever and Whatever Next. At the risk of being shaken gently by the neck, I asked Danny how he would care to define this new music - is it jazz, or is it folk?

"It's Whatever! That's the whole idea. It'd be so easy to make a nice little jazz album, something that'd make Wire magazine really happy. But as far as I'm concerned, Wire can get stuffed - and you can print that! I'll do what I want to do, and the fact that the tour did well tells me that the public also want musicians to do what they want to do. Whatever is Whatever, that's all it is, not some clever kind of thing." Danny warms to his theme. "I know there's got to be 'rock' sections and 'folk' sections, but I want to see a 'Who Gives A Monkey's?' section. And what on earth is 'World Music'? People might be surprised at this world-renowned hellraiser being so romantic, but I say it's music of the heart! To me it doesn't matter if Toumani Diabate comes from Wapping, but the press make a big deal out of the fact that he's this Malian kora-player. I understand why; Southall meets Rickmansworth doesn't sound quite the same, does it?"

It's possible to trace a connection from Whatever back to the Danny Thompson Trio of 1966, featuring the then unknown John McLaughlin. "We didn't have drums or piano then, and Whatever hasn't got drums either. I like that open space. I like it to be held down by a single bass note - or by nothing, just the silence alone. People expected bass solos over everything, but in fact I play less on my own albums than I would on somebody else's album."

"I've nearly been killed in all sorts of naughty things in the past. I went charging about, suffered from stress and anxiety, smashed my hands up in a car accident. Then I realised that despite having survived all that, I still hadn't got a piece of plastic with my own name on it. So I came up with this idea for an album that combined English music with improvisation, and got the go-ahead to do it."

The bass is the foundation everything sits on - it's nothing to do with playing fast.

Both Whatever albums have been received with open arms by the jazz and folk worlds, and they've become critics' favourites not only in the music press, but also in the 'serious' papers - like the Guardian and Telegraph. "I was very flattered," says Danny, "but of course you want the whole world to love what you do. That's why we get on the bloody boards every day. And the reason I'm sick with nervousness before a show -white with sheer terror and nearly ill- is because I don't want to let myself down. That's especially so now that people pay a fiver to see me and my band, not me behind somebody else. Do you realise how tickled I am when people turn out to see Whatever? It may sound weird, but I saw someone buying an album in a shop, and I thought "Blimey! Someone's buying my album!"

Still, Danny's pleasure at the reception his albums have received is somewhat tempered by a realism born of experience. "When a critic says you're diabolical, are you diabolical? Or when he says you're the greatest bass player the world has ever known, do you believe that? I've seen what happens with album reviews. They think, 'Oh, we've given him two good ones, now we'll kick him in the nuts..!'"

Whenever you see a double bass player lugging his pride and joy down the tube, it makes you realise how seldom we guitar players appreciate the portability of our instrument. I'm pretty sure what the answer will be - but I ask Danny if he's ever regretted his choice.

"No, I've never thought I was crazy to play the double bass. I've always loved it, even with people saying things like 'How do you get it under your chin?' My usual riposte is 'Well, if my chin was as big as your mouth, I'd have no trouble at all!'"

"I've tried playing saxophone, trumpet, guitar and mandolin, but the only one I had much success with was the trombone, probably because it's an instrument of judgement, just like the bass. I love the instrument and I love Victoria, my particular instrument. I've had loads of basses, but she's the one I've had all my life - and she's fantastic. I recently played in the Fair Isles as part of the Shetland Festival, and they told me that since these Fokker planes can't take basses, it'd have to go by boat. In that case, I said, then I'd go by boat too. I'd just bought a Rumanian bass, set it up really nicely and named it Albert. 'Right, Albert,' I said, 'this is your first gig, your first outing.' So I got all packed up to go, with Albert in his case, but when I got to the door there was Victoria, standing there, looking at me. So I went 'Oh, Christ! Alright, alright, you're coming!' It's like that."

"I got her off this old geezer in Battersea, when I was sixteen. I was in this club playing table-tennis when this little girl came up and said, 'Ere, my grandad's got one of them funny big violin fangs.' I said 'What? Where do you live?' and went running round the corner to see him. It was standing in the corner, all black, and it was beautiful. 'Oh, mister, how much do you want?' 'Five quid,' he said. 'Can I give you five shillings a week... and take it now?'"

"When my mates found out what I had, they invited me to play a jazz gig in the pub that night for fifteen bob - which meant three weeks of paying for the bass. It wasn't exactly raining, just drizzling a bit, so I tied Victoria on to the top of this car with a bit of rope -it's frightening to think of it now- and when we got to the pub, I grabbed an old bit of cloth and started to wipe her down. And as I wiped, this thick, tarry black gunk started to come off and, would you believe, this beautiful varnish began to come through."

"The next day I went to Foote's bass shop, and they immediately offered me a hundred and eighty five quid. When you think what that was to a young kid in those days - we're talking about a lot of money. And what with my Jesuit Catholic upbringing, I went back to the old man, all choked up, and said, 'Listen, mister, this is worth a lot more than a fiver.' He said 'Oh, I know that, old son, I know. But if you're determined to be a bass player, you just give me five bob a week, like we said...'"

"I've told that heart-tugging little story a few times, but I can still picture that old man's face. And however much I try other instruments, I always come back to this one. On occasion I've had doubts as to whether she really is a good bass or not. After all, when I've been strapped for cash and on the dole, I could have raised fifteen thousand on it. So one time I went to this shop, the one I take her to when she needs a service, and I said 'Listen, this is driving me mad. I'm sure I'm just being romantic here. Can I try another bass?' I left Victoria with them and they lent me a French Claudot, which is worth about six thousand and quite a nice instrument, maybe even better in some respects. So off I go, and it's as though I'm being unfaithful. It felt like I was sleeping with some other woman while my wife was in hospital delivering my baby!"

"One time my bass was at Neville Whitehead's place being repaired, when the phone rang. 'I'm not in,' I said, '... whoever it is.' So my son answered it and told me it was Stanley Clarke on the line. 'Don't muck about, Dan,' I said -he's a drummer, my son- but as it turned out, it actually was him. 'Hi!' said this voice... 'My name's Stanley, I'm a bass player. I've just been into Neville Whitehead's...' and I knew. 'FORGET IT!' I said. 'It's not for sale!' Even if I lost my right hand and she had to be sold, then she'd go to a musician in this country. Americans tend to come over, buy our great instruments -although Victoria happens to be French- and then use them to make money. If you could guarantee that someone of Stanley Clarke's calibre would actually use her and treat her with the same respect, then maybe... but otherwise, no!"

"Maybe other people who would have that relationship with an instrument, haven't yet found the instrument that gives them that satisfaction. You often get people complimenting the sound of the bass, and I say 'Well, you play it then,' and of course it doesn't sound quite as lovely. We're a matched pair."

Portrait of Danny Thompson
NOW DANNY THOMPSON is a very fine bass player indeed. You've only to look at his list of credits to realise that he has to possess a high level of proficiency just to survive. But wait, he's off again...

"Technique, as applied to playing fast, is something that can be learned. But unless you've got the basics to work on -firstly, a good sound, and secondly, good timing- then everything else is meaningless. You might be asked to play one note and hold it there for seven minutes, and long notes are the stuff that musicianship's made from. Play things slowly! I remember they were once holding a competition to find the guitarist of the year at the Metropolitan Opera House, and Segovia was on the panel. He said 'I've listened to seventy-five guitar players, but I haven't heard one that played the guitar.' There wasn't one that moved him. So there's this obsession with technique as applied to speed."

"The bass is the foundation that everything sits on. It's nothing to do with playing fast, and the fact that you can play solos on a bass is an incidental thing. I sometimes play melodic lines, but they don't interfere with the vocal because they're not busy lines. So whether I'm playing with Ralph McTell or Freddie Hubbard, it's all the same person, applying that instrument to the most basic role, which is playing the bass."

"Playing too many notes is one of all of our faults. It's all down to insecurity, because the first thing you feel you have to do is show people how good you are. But by now I think I've learned to just do what is needed - which is generally as little as possible."

"I was once in a bass shop, having a thrash around on some instruments like you do, not being unfaithful to Victoria but just checking out what was around, and this old boy was standing there, and he was laughing. 'I know what you're laughing at,' I said, 'I don't exactly play in the correct academic manner, do I?' 'No,' he said, 'I'm not laughing at that at all. I just know I'm listening to somebody who'd never heard of an amplifier when he was learning.' Dead right - he'd sussed it! These days, if someone wants to buy a double bass, they'll decide on the bass they want and the amplifier they want at the same time. When I played jazz with people like Tubby Hayes at Ronnie Scott's, they didn't tootle around - you were either a silent bass-player, or you managed to cut through. I was always recognised as someone who got really stuck in, although people used to laugh at me with blood pouring from my fingers. I don't want to give the wrong impression, mind, because Tubby used to grimace at some of the notes that were coming out, but at least they could hear them."

"Nowadays the average playing action has gone down, for the sake of playing fast. When you listen to players like Eddie Gomez, you can actually hear the strings on the board. Now, I'd question that. Is it really necessary? Why not have the action up so you don't hear those strings, but you can get a great tone like Niels-Henning's1? Or Charlie Haden - what a great sound he's got. These are people you can hear - they instantly recognisable. To be told that you have your own sound is, to me, a great compliment, but it seems to be something that people don't even regard as important any more. Whenever other bass players have a go on my bass, they always say 'Christ! How can you play that? What an action!' But I've got to get dug in, even if it means losing out on chops and flying about."

This physical aspect of Danny's playing has compounded the problems he's had with his thumbs, both of which were broken in a car accident in the late 70s. However, he found the best thing to do was keep quiet and struggle on as best he could.

"The thing you don't do in the music business is say you're having trouble with your hands. You've only to screw up one note in a session, and the whisper will go round that you're finished. I'm supposed to have an operation to fuse the joints, but they can't guarantee the results." Danny pauses to laugh at himself. "This is just like a film-script, isn't it? But I'll continue with the same action and the aggravation until I'm forced to lower it. Hold your hand up to the light, and it's a real shock to see that all that's been pressing down those strings for thirty-five years are these little bird-like bones! I don't piss around when I play, so they're beginning to suffer a little. Still, it's all for the cause."

What advice would Danny give to an electric bass player who's thinking about investigating the acoustic bass? Can you do both? "Well, there's quite a long list of people who started out as double bass players and some have become great electric players - like Jack Bruce and Herbie Flowers. Personally, I don't believe you can devote yourself to both. The only time I ever played electric bass was on tour with Roy Orbison, in The Beatles' era - in fact The Beatles were support on the first lot. I'd just come out of the army with no money, and they offered me this gig - I didn't know about Roy Orbison at that time, because I was a bit of a jazzer. I told them I didn't really play electric, but they assured me that the set was easy and handed me this sky-blue Vox copy of a Fender bass. I'll never forget the time I had with Roy Orbison - he was an absolutely phenomenal geezer, and I was very, very upset when he died. However, the reason I don't think you can play electric and acoustic bass is that when I went back to playing the acoustic again, after that long Roy Orbison tour, my left wrist was completely wrong."

Every level of music from the Renaissance and the Baroque onwards comes from peasants, people who've had syphilis and love to get pissed.

In case you still think Danny's your average kind of jazzer with an intolerant attitude to musicians who don't 'play well' in the accepted sense, listen to how he coped with John Lee Hooker, a man infamous for playing thirteen-and-a-half bar blues whenever the mood takes him.

"Well, it's blues, isn't it? Can you imagine some little white man with his bass saying, 'I say, just a minute, ah - Hook, you've missed half a bar there'. Blues is not in any metre! It's the white man who put things into scales. You've got to remember that academics never did anything for music. Music doesn't come from college. Every level of music, from the Renaissance and the Baroque onwards, comes from peasants, people who've had syphilis and love to get pissed. We're talking about normal human beings who go to the toilet. Verdi didn't come out of an opera-writing school; a Bulgarian crane driver can probably play some fantastic music. David Sylvian and Kate Bush are peasants. This is what the so-called sophisticated miss out on."

He also has a horror of falling into another common trap for musicians. "I don't like the idea of being associated with the jazz musician gang or folk musician gang. This country is full of cliques like that - I'd just like to be called a musician, full stop. The reason I work with anybody is because I love it."

"I've seen what these cliques can do. If someone's up on the stand saying, 'Hey - listen to what I'm going to lay on you" then yes, he's asking for a slap in the face. But I've seen people in jazz clubs tearing apart someone who's just up there trying to do his best, still going through the learning process. I'm fifty, and I'm still learning. When I'm dying, I'll still love to play the scale of C, and play it perfectly in tune. I'd even be happy to play the note of C."
Portrait of Danny Thompson
For a man deeply involved in providing bass on other people's records, Danny has strong views on the importance of playing live - especially when it concerns the Whatever project.

"We're not here to play to a load of microphones; we want to be able to reproduce a Whatever album on stage. I also want to do small clubs, because people playing to people is where it is. Alas, that's something that's becoming less and less possible with modern music. I've done albums where I'm the only human element, and it really saddens me that these things can't be taken out on the road."

"But I feel very fortunate to be asked to play on people's records, and I just do my best. If I'm working for you and you've written a song, it's not for me to question it. You're paying me to do a job, which is to play what I consider to be the right bass part for that. I enjoy doing that. I've been in sessions for well-known people where the musicians are going 'Cor - talk about making a silk purse out of a sow's ear...' and I hate that. If you don't like being there, go home! I can have an opinion about something and it's probably a very valid one, but it doesn't matter. It's your opinion that matters, and mine is totally inconsequential."

"I've got this love affair with the double bass, and I think it comes out. You can lie to your bank manager, but you can't lie when you play an instrument. You can be tired, you can have the flu, but when you go on the stand your money troubles fly out of the window. If you're an honest musician then the love affair will come through. You might even do it out of tune, but it's all spontaneous and that's the beauty of it. You either play safe or you go for it, and I tend to have a go. The biggest highs in your life are when it all comes off."

Danny has a great deal of pride in the things Whatever has achieved, and also looks back with especial fondness on his work with John Martyn and singer/songwriter Nick Drake. But which has been the most fun?

"Difficult to say. It's all fun, isn't it? I can go from here to my Victoria, and be sure of having some fun. She's a joy. I know it sounds really corny, but this morning I'll swear she was telling me off for spending two weeks sitting with my backside in the snow in Italy! The double bass is something that will catch you out every time. You've got to keep on at it. But without sounding frightfully precious, what a lovely job I've got - playing my Victoria, and getting paid for it."

"It's only when you get to fifty that people start putting your life together. Looking at it all, I do feel I've been fortunate to get involved in all these things. But when people say to me 'You're so lucky, the way you drop into things,' I say to them, 'D'you know, it's funny, the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get?'

This interview was published in Guitarist magazine, March 1990. Some spelling mistakes have been corrected.
1 Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, 1946-2005. Famous Danish bass player.