Bruce Thomas is a controversial guy in Elvis Costello-fan circles. Some have never forgiven him for portraying their hero as a whiny guy who sweats a lot in the semi- autobiographical novella The Big Wheel. Elvis certainly hasn’t. Yet few Elvis fans would be stupid enough to dismiss Bruce Thomas as a musician, and as bass guitarists go, he deserves a place at the top with James Jamerson, John Entwistle, and Paul McCartney. Today, on his 65th birthday, let’s take a listen to some of the lines that make Bruce one of pop’s most amazing bassmen (although Bruce has done some fantastic work outside of The Attractions, particularly with Suzanne Vega on the great 99.9F°, but here I’ll just be focusing on his work behind Elvis).
1. “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” (1978)
Elvis Costello has always been more of a colorist than a lead guitarist. This often left Steve Nieve and Bruce Thomas responsible for the hook. In the case of the first single released as Elvis Costello and the Attractions, all three musicians supply memorable riffs, with Elvis jittering out triplets and Steve Nieve countering the amphetamine paranoia of that guitar riff with a languidly creepy descending line on his Vox Continental. Yet it is Bruce Thomas’s uncharacteristically simple reggae bassline that best catches the ear. His halting major triad riff pins down the verses, while his capricious slides give momentum to the bridge even as the overall dynamic remains constant.
2. “Pump It Up” (1978)
Bruce Thomas’s bass stands out on “Chelsea.” On “Pump It Up,” it practically is the song. Elvis’s Dylanesque rap, which droves of kids learned word-for-word as a sort of New Wave badge of honor (until it R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It” took it’s place), is no small thing. However, all the melody flows from Bruce’s fingers. He squeezes in two totally distinct, totally memorable lines: the hopping riff of the verse and the three-note descent that supplies super-gravity between verses. His two-steps-forward/-one-step-back climb under the chorus is not as iconic as those other two riffs, but it’s the most technically spectacular bass work on the track.
3. “The Beat” (1978)
Bruce and Steve Nieve work out some intricate interplay on “The Beat.” The keyboardist stabs out the progression on his Vox Continental, while Bruce keeps it moving with another jarring riff in the “Chelsea” mode. This time he mixes up his rhythm with sudden asides reminiscent of John Entwistle, reaching a frenzied climax in the final verse. On the chorus, he pumps down the neck with the purposefulness of James Jamerson.
4. “Lipstick Vogue” (1978)
All of the songs on this list so far can be found on the Attractions’ first album with Elvis, This Year’s Model. We’ve heard the melodic, the improvisational, and the simply driving. Bruce Thomas’s playing on “Lipstick Vogue” can only be described as virtuosic. I’ve been playing bass for 27 years. At this point, I can reproduce pretty much everything McCartney did and do a passable version of Entwistle’s “My Generation” solo. However, I will go to my grave with the painful knowledge that I will never, ever, ever be able to even manage a shitty facsimile of what Bruce Thomas does on “Lipstick Vogue.” I can try explaining it, but I’d only sound like an idiot, because frankly, I have no fucking idea what he’s doing in this song and less of an idea how he does it. Are human fingers even capable of moving that fast? And with that level of precision? And stamina? You want to hear the most complex, most exciting, most mind-boggling Rock bassline ever coaxed out of four strings? Here it is.
5. “Opportunity” (1980)
The Motown indebted Get Happy!! gave Bruce Thomas a lot of opportunities to show off what he learned from James Jamerson. One of the most impressive showcases for Bruce’s bouncing soul is “Opportunity.” Pete Thomas, one of the great Rock drummers, keeps the beat as basic as imaginable, stomping four on the floor. Bruce’s bass breaks the rhythm out of those confines with a nimble, dancing flourish. The only thing more out front on the track is Elvis’s voice.
6. “The Imposter” (1980)
Here, Bruce Thomas takes a tape of Jamerson and hits fast forward. If The Funk Brothers popped bennies incessantly instead of downing Budweiser and Jack Daniels, this is how they’d sound. If Bruce Thomas’s runaway train bassline didn’t suit the track so perfectly, he could be accused of showing off.
7. “Fish ‘n’ Chip Paper” (1981)
What’s better than Bruce Thomas? Two Bruce Thomases, of course. On “Fish ‘n’ Chip Paper,” a very Get Happy!!-flavored number from Trust, one Bruce superimposes a nagging, upperneck melody over a funkier line the other Bruce plays way down on the bottom. Steve Nieve should also be commended for doing double-duty on shimmering piano and roller-rink Vox Continental, but those dual keyboard parts are cradled between the high and low sonic beds Double-Bruce weaves.
8. “Shabby Doll” (1982)
“Shabby Doll” is fascinating both for Bruce’s shattering improvisations and for the atypical sloppiness with which he discharges them. This is not a backhanded compliment. Bruce adds much needed grease and grit to one of the most polished pieces on the lush Imperial Bedroom, conveying the song’s acrimony as authentically as Elvis’s weeping/venom-spitting vocal. Bruce’s sudden outbursts on the concluding vamp must be Rock’s bitterest bass playing.
9. “13 Steps Lead Down” (1994)
Jump ahead a dozen years, after the totally-eighties production follies of Langer & Winstanley, the marvelous comeback of Blood & Chocolate, and the end of The Attractions amidst a rancorous falling out between Elvis Costello and Bruce Thomas. In 1994, they were together again, if only on a part time basis, for the vastly underrated Brutal Youth. Bruce did not play on every track (Nick Lowe and Elvis, himself, pick up the slack), but the tracks he helped create are unmistakable. This is particularly true of the second single from the album. “13 Steps Lead Down” is a classic rocket of Attractions Garage Rock, and with his leaping McCartneyesque arches, Bruce lets us know he’s back with the band.
10. “Complicated Shadows” (1996)
Two years later, Bruce Thomas really was back when All This Useless Beauty became the first record credited to Elvis Costello and the Attractions in a decade. Unlike the earlier records, the tracks were constructed tighter, leaving Bruce less room for the wild lines that are his trademark. Consequently, All This Useless Beauty sounds less like an Attractions album than Brutal Youth does. Bruce sounds like he’s feeling those limitations on “Complicated Shadows,” a nail-biting slow burn that relegates him to the deep background of its first two minutes. But when Hell breaks loose halfway into the song, Bruce bounds to the front of the stage with the high-end, buoyant bass work we expect from him. He’s not the sole reason why “Complicated Shadows” is so exhilarating (Elvis’s scream of “GO!!!” at 3:37 sends shivers up the spine too), but it would not be the same without him. Neither would Elvis, who gave up playing with Bruce for good after All This Useless Beauty. He still made some really good records—and Imposter Davey Faragher is a great bass player in his own right— but the bottom never quite bubbled and boiled with the same unpredictable excitement again.