In the world of punk rock, there are a handful of bassists who stand tall above all the others. As much of a fan as I am of punk music, I can’t pretend the genre is exactly full to the gills with virtuoso bassists, which makes it all the more exciting when a Matt Freeman or a Rob Wright is able to fuse punk’s irrepressible energy and verve with creative, interesting bass lines that take their bands’ songs to the next level. And, in my opinion, no list of truly great punk bassists would be complete without Joe Lally of Fugazi. As part of one of the most critically beloved and forward-thinking bands of the past 30 years, Lally’s bass lines reflected his band’s penchant for the unexpected, for approaching familiar ideas from novel angles and casting them in a wholly new light. There are scores of songs in the Fugazi catalog that would be worthy subjects for their own bassline breakdown articles, but today we’ll be taking a close look at one of their more accessible tunes, as well as a personal favorite of mine: “Five Corporations”, from their 1998 album End Hits.
Clocking in at just under two and a half minutes, “Five Corporations” doesn’t necessarily offer a ton to analyze on its face. It’s a fast, punchy song attacking American corporatism, a description entirely par for the course as far as late-90s hardcore goes. But as I alluded to earlier, Fugazi’s brilliance always laid less in what they did, and more in how they did it. Drummer Brendan Canty provides the groundwork for the track with a slight twist on the traditional D.C. punk beat, adding some dynamic tom fills and auxiliary percussion to spice things up and provide some rhythmic interest. And again, in the bass and guitar work, we see something of a re-interpretation of a well-worn genre trope, that of the bass following along with the chord progression in the guitar. For one, there’s a bit more to the guitar line than your average punk tune. The main riff alternates between an A power chord and a sort of F/G arpeggio, and the bridge adds in some more chords that emphasizes a more tense, discordant feel. The bass adds the expected weight and fullness to the A power chord, but on the arpeggio, Lally’s bass tone really pops with an aggressive, bright sound. The same notes are being played in the trebly, distorted guitar line, but having the punchier bass sound underneath it helps give it more definition and timbral interest, and draws the listener’s attention a bit more towards the less rudimentary section of the main riff.
This instrumentation here is perfectly enjoyable in a vacuum, but it also helps underscore the message of the song. The thematic tone, in true punk fashion, is largely angry, even furious (Ian MacKaye’s throat-shredding delivery of “EVERY TOWN WILL BE THE SAAAAAAAME!” drives this home all by itself). However, there’s an undercurrent of paranoia to the song as well, a subtle acknowledgement of the existential horror of the modern American march of progress that feels like it could never be delivered by your typical harcore combo- and naturally, the bass work is an essential piece of this. The way the guitar and bass both play with a more jerky, unstable groove against the 4/4 backbeat rather than locking into something more straightforward and aggressive, the spots where the bass drops out to accentuate the gravity of a particular line, or when it’s left to ring out on its own, giving the second verse a less raucous energy are the main examples here. There’s a fair bit of real musical nuance packed into this bite-sized tune, and it does just as much to hammer in the song’s ideas as the words do.
Ultimately, the “Five Corporations” bassline isn’t exactly astonishing from a technical standpoint, but it’s a prime example of how to follow the punk rock axiom of “less is more” without restricting yourself to something completely uninspired. The true mark of mastery in a bassist is the ability to add something to a song without drawing too much attention to yourself, and while it perhaps undermines that point to spend a full article drawing attention to it, Joe Lally’s work on “Five Corporations”, in my opinion, does exactly that.