Progressive Pop: Colin Moulding's "Mayor of Simpleton"

March 18, 2015

SO MUCH OF WHAT WE BASS PLAYERS LOVE about popular music is our instrument’s unique ability to shape a song’s mood and character. It may sometimes go unnoticed, but everyone feels the effect. In Progressive Pop, we’re going to explore what gives the bass the ability to impact music profoundly. We will take an in-depth look at clever pop bands that exploit the bass’s power, like XTC, Queen, Everything Everything, and more. We’ll examine the lines and how note choice can help convey a song’s deeper meaning. By taking an in-depth look at the tools we bassists bring to pop’s table, you’ll be better equipped to use them in your own approach to music.

Let’s start with “Mayor of Simpleton” by XTC. Colin Moulding’s approach demonstrates aptly just how much a bass line can shape a song. First, take a look at the chords. They’re the main ingredient of the harmony and play the biggest role in the notes you choose. The verse of “Mayor of Simpleton” is C and D, two major chords a whole-step apart. The chords are given two beats each and played back and forth through the whole verse. Example 1 shows a bass line in the style of Moulding.


When chords alternate by a whole-step, players can exploit an interesting harmonic device. A tritone is an interval of three whole-steps above a given root note. In this case, F# is the 3rd of our D, but it’s also the #11 of the C chord. The progression creates an opportunity to use the sonically striking tritone sound in a bass line. Example 2 shows how this applies to these two chords.

Instead of focusing on the two chords individually, Moulding weaves a thread through both, using the G major scale. The G is the 5th of C and the 4th of D. Since 4ths and 5ths can be considered harmonically neutral (they don’t substantially alter a chord’s basic function), using G obscures each chord’s individuality, making them sound more harmonically ambiguous. Since F# is the 7th note of the G major scale, its presence in the line creates the tritone under the C chord, imparting a dreamy quality.


To experiment with this concept, it helps to have a person playing chords with you, or a playback device that can loop. Start by taking two major chords whose roots are a whole-step apart, and create a loop that allocates two beats to each. Listen for the impact of playing a major scale whose root is a 5th below the first chord. Try other common scales over these two chords, listening for the ways the mood changes, adding tension or creating release. Also, find the notes in each chord or chord scale that spark an emotional response.


Another distinctive quality of Moulding’s line on “Mayor of Simpleton” is its density. This is a busy line by most standards in pop music, yet that’s what makes it so remarkable. While simplicity is often the critical aspect of a solid pop line, sometimes more is called for, especially when the line is clever and well executed.

Moulding creates a pattern that repeats every two bars. Using a repetitive note pattern is a great way to solidify and anchor the rhythm section. It provides a start and end point that can be used as a marker for the other instruments and their placement of fills and embellishments. It also creates an increasingly familiar backdrop, which provides stability for the melody and lyrics. In conjunction with organizing the notes in a pattern, Moulding also plays them as steady eighthnotes that propel the song and make it rhythmically solid.

There are many ways to develop patterns of your own. Moulding cleverly alternates the intervallic direction for every set of two notes he plays, pairing them in opposites. The whole line consists of variations on this idea. If two notes go down, then the next two go up, and so on. Now, he doesn’t only use this method, but it is a good starting place conceptually when you’re exploring ways to add interest to a line.


Drawing from the sounds you developed with our simple two-chord exercise, try making patterns out of them using the method above. Try various amounts of notes; three down and three up, four down and four up, etc. This will create a dialog within your line—a kind of call and response.

When developing a part, see if there is a way to enhance the lyrics or story by incorporating these ideas. You can create a subtext in the language of your bass line in how it relates to the lyrics and the message you are trying to convey. In the case of the “Mayor of Simpleton,” it’s clever that the bass line is busy and complicated when the subject matter is about simple-mindedness. It creates a subliminal juxtaposition to the lyrical content, the perfect complement for a really well-written pop tune.

Next time, I will continue to explore the bass’s melodic potential, liberated from its traditional supportive role. We’ll also discuss how you can create countermelodies while still laying it down.



Tarik Ragab is the bassist and cofounder of San Francisco Bay Area band MoeTar, and he is also an accomplished visual artist.


XTC, Oranges and Lemons [Virgin, 1989]

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