Twenty thousand bass sessions? You'd better believe it.

It’s a different era nowadays, at least when it comes to music. At least that’s what Herbie Flowers says, and given that he’s spent the last 40 years playing bass on some of the greatest songs ever recorded – 20,000 of them, he tells us – he should know what he’s talking about.

“In the 60s,” he begins, “all the session musicians seemed to come from the army, the air force or the Salvation Army! There weren’t distractions like TV, games and so on, and music was one of the cheaper things to do. We had to read music or we wouldn’t get paid at the end of the week, and also we needed to read so that we could behave like other musicians. There was a camaraderie and a lot of jokes. Deep down I think most of our lot were jazz lovers. It was a great period in musical history back then: we would play Sunday night club shows for two pounds and then there was an explosion in international sales of British music, so there was lots of recording to do.”

Flowers still doesn’t take many days off. “Luckily I’m as in demand today as I’ve ever been, which must make me indescribably boring,” he chuckles. “Do you want to know what I tell young musicians who want to make it in this business? I tell my son, who is a drummer, ‘Don’t play somebody else’s lick; learn to read music; and listen to a bit of Miles Davis’. And don’t play what we call groove-busters, which are bits of music that aren’t relevant. Chris Spedding, who is one of my dear friends, started out as a bass player in the early 60s, and he told me that he was on a session once, and the drummer stopped him and told him that he’d played a groove-buster. There’s no answer to that.”

Although Flowers is known for his bass playing with Al Kooper, George Harrison, Cat Stevens, Elton John, David Essex and literally hundreds of others, he’s probably best known for that nifty little slide line that he played on a double bass on Lou Reed’s frankly rude 1972 hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’. He also played on David Bowie’s breakthrough hit from 1969, ‘Space Oddity’, but he’s keen to dispel the notion that those songs are his best work, saying: “Those records were 40 years ago so I can’t still be living on the strength of them, and they didn’t become popular because of my bass playing anyway. I’ve even heard a remix of ‘Space Oddity’ with a synth bass doubling what I did. But I get booked because of my stupid name, and also because they think I must have something because I’ve played on so many records.”

The trick, he tells us, is relatively simple. “What the producer wants is for you to come up with something that is a bit catchy and will make a listener go, ‘Oh, that’s good’,” says Flowers. “What you’re doing is putting together a product that will capture the public’s information. I have to be careful because some people are embarrassed when a 73-year-old bloke turns up with an electric bass. I still play equal amounts of bass guitar, upright bass and tuba. I carry them all around with me. With Lou Reed it was easy to say, ‘Can I get the double bass out of the car, because this song is a bit jazzy and the electric bass doesn’t work?’ although it did work when I put the bass guitar on, an interval higher. Bass players should play all three instruments, or what’s the point of being a bass player?”

It may not have occurred to you that the tuba is as valid in low-end terms as a bass guitar or upright bass, but once again, the man does know what he’s talking about. As he explains, “I run rock workshops, and 500 or 600 people come to them: bassists have a go on my tuba and they realize that there’s a whole bottom end that they have to get into. My strength is that someone can phone me up and I can roll up and do a bass or tuba part with an orchestra, or do a film score with an electric bass with the sound that they have. My weakness is that I struggle on the bass guitar because I came from the double bass, and at the same time my double bass playing suffers from imperfect intonation because it doesn’t have frets. Also, when I see slapping, I think it’s marvelous but I can’t do it.”

Asked about his gear, Flowers stuns us by revealing that those thousands of bass sessions were essentially delivered on the same bass. “I’ve got a blue 1960 Fender Jazz bass and it’s the only one I’ve ever had,” he says. “It’s got the same frets, the same pickups, the same pots and everything: I change the strings every five years. I use black Rotosound strings because they don’t give me that string whistle when I fly up the fretboard, which I do less of because I’ve realized that it’s nonsense.” (Actually he used a stronger word than ‘nonsense’, but this is a family magazine…)

After four decades at the business end, what keeps Flowers motivated to pick up a bass every day? Turns out that that old saying about variety, spice and so forth still holds good. “I wouldn’t want to be Robbie Williams’s bass player and tour the world endlessly,” ruminates Flowers. “I’ve done War Of The Worlds with Jeff Wayne a few times, but I like doing different things as much as I can and being a moving target. It all depends on the phone call: if someone calls and says ‘Do you want to come and play on my album?’ it’s a great thing. I take the tuba, do some recording and come home with a few quid.”

Of the thousands of sessions he’s done, we’re assuming that some were tougher to execute than others. Faced with this question, Flowers pauses to consider (he has a lot of memories to go through, after all) and replies, “A lot of film scores were tough, and working for Henry Mancini and touring with the Royal Philharmonic is a great responsibility – not necessarily technically, but because you absolutely cannot fluff it. There’s no second go at it, like when you’re in a studio: you’ve got to be on the ball, and that is the difficulty. You reduce the pressure by being qualified to do it, of course. But the reason producers ask you to do these sessions is because they know you’ll get it right. They never give you direction apart from giving you a rough idea: they book you because you can do the job. A producer wouldn’t book [a bassist like] Jaco Pastorius, for example, because he’d be really loud and busy. He’d rather book me because he’s comfortable with me.”

An obvious question is which of his gazillions of recordings makes Flowers most proud. Again, he contemplates before answering: “Well, Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ was quite magical, because it was the start of an amazing period of his career, and it led to me playing with him for some years. I remember he sat down on the floor and wrote ‘Rebel Rebel’ in two minutes. But you know, I don’t sit at home listening to Tom Jones’s ‘It’s Not Unusual’ to hear what I’ve done. Even if you get to 20,000 recordings like I have, because I’ve done sessions every day since 1965 – sometimes three a day – you might never make a fortune, but I’ve got enough for a nice house and to pay my way and to have a good life.”

After all these years, you’d think that Flowers doesn’t have many unrevealed secrets, but as a parting shot he leaves us speechless with the declaration: “I was the first bloke ever to play a detuned bass. It was on Nilsson’s ‘Jump Into The Fire’ on the Nilsson Schmilsson album in 1971, and there’s a long fade at the end, so I just decided to detune the strings down to a low G. That was at least five years before anyone ever had a five-string bass!” Your respect is due, no matter who you are…

What happened when Herbie went to a Brian Wilson gig? Ulp…

“I went to see Brian Wilson play a concert a while back, and I went down to the front to tell the bass player to stop faffing about with his bottom B string. I paid 50 quid to hear the Pet Sounds album, and some of the bass playing on that album is some of the best playing ever. This idiot would hit his bottom string every few bars and it absolutely had nothing to do with anything. The idea was to recreate the album with a Beach Boys tribute band, but the bass player didn’t get the point. Anyway, I just shouted at him ‘Leave that string alone!’ and he left the stage.”

Why Herbie won’t be writing a tell-all book anytime soon…

“I won’t do an autobiography because it won’t be very interesting, and there would have to be a bit of duplicity where you couldn’t remember something, and I’m puzzled why people would want to know what went on in the studio in Transformer. I’m still really busy, too, and I would feel a bit strange about doing it because it’s a kind of epitaph. I don’t feel qualified enough, and all the interesting things would have to remain a secret. If someone asked me if I took drugs, I’d say yes, the two worst ones: nicotine and caffeine!” 

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