Recently, I’ve embarked on a mission to listen to every song to appear on Billboard’s year-end hot 100 list since the list’s debut in 1959. It’s an endlessly fascinating project, and as great as it is admiring old classics and cringing at long-forgotten failures, the best part of the whole endeavor has definitely been discovering great songs that, for one reason or another, haven’t really endured in our collective cultural awareness. Most of the time forgotten pop music gets forgotten for a reason (that reason being that it’s not very good), but every now and then a total gem slips through the cracks, where it waits for weird, obsessive musical archaeologists like myself to uncover and marvel at it.
I happened upon just such a song as I was making my way through the year-end Hot 100 for 1970. It was “Reflections of my Life” by Marmalade, a little-known psychedelic rock group from Glasgow, Scotland. I was really impressed by the song, and by the bass part in particular, and in honor of the upcoming 50th anniversary of its U.S. release I’d like to take the opportunity to dissect the song and see if we can figure out what makes it such a success. (Note: before continuing I recommend you listen to the official YouTube upload of the song, which does not seem to be the original rendition but is either a remaster or an especially faithful re-recording. The mastering is much more crisp and the bassline is even easier to hear.)
“Reflections of My Life” uses the same 8-chord pattern throughout:Gmaj, Bmin, Emin, Gmaj7, Cmaj Bmin Amin Dmaj7, or I-iii-vi-I7-IV-iii-ii-V7. The choice to stick to one chord sequence is an interesting one for a song that lyrically centers around the observance of change and turmoil, but it proves effective nonetheless- just about every other element of the song seems to be in constant motion, with the chord pattern acting as a sort of motif tying everything together. The star player here, of course, is the bassline, which seems to be made entirely up of runs and incessantly memorable licks. It draws the attention away from a repetitive structure to a punchy melody that’s always doing something new or interesting. The bass doesn’t follow the vocal line or adhere particularly to the root notes, which actually helps sublimate the tension that builds as the guitar keeps refusing to resolve back to that major tonic chord. I also love the choice to keep the bassline the same during the chorus- it’s familiar at this point, but the vocal line is different enough that the bassline plays off it in a totally new way and stays fresh. And during the solo break, the guitar descends into the bass range as the bass is reaching into a higher register for the lick on the V chord and there’s this wonderful instant where you’re unsure if they switched places, and the guitar is now playing the bass part and vice versa; It’s pretty much the audio equivalent of an optical illusion.
I’m honestly just gushing at this point, but I think you get the idea- This is a really well-built bassline. Marmalade never really troubled the stateside pop world again after “Reflections of My Life”, even after bands like Pink Floyd became icons for similarly meticulous fusions of pop, prog, and psychedelia just several years later. Still, a song and a bassline this fantastic feels more than deserving of its own little spot in music history, and maybe even someday in the repertoires of bassists all over.