Chris Squire, David Bowie, Prince.
It's been a hell of a year.
To say these artists were musically influential on a global scale seems like an understatement.
On a personal level, all were artists I listened to a lot from my teens onward, all had a lasting effect on who I am as a musician, songwriter and producer today, and all were about as distinctive as you could be while still selling records.
Perhaps it could be argued that all had their best years well behind them at the time of their departure, but to coin a phrase – theirs is no disgrace.
Of the three, Squire is the least likely to be called a household name, and ironically – had the longest career. It's probably no coincidence that he's the one non-lead-singer of the trio, and a bassist rather than a solo artist; but he's a giant in his field, nonetheless.
In case you're unfamiliar, Squire formed the band Yes in 1968 with singer Jon Anderson, drummer Bill Bruford, guitarist Peter Banks and keyboardist Tony Kaye. Between the time of the band's first gig and the last with Chris Squire in 2015, Yes was on its second drummer, fourth lead singer, third guitarist (technically second, but Steve Howe stepped away from the band for 12 years) and sixth (technically fourth, due to Downes' 34-year sabbatical) keyboardist. Yes was still on its first bassist, though. Beyond the achievement of keeping Yes together over that many years and personnel changes, Squire had a lot to do with the highly original and unique songwriting and arrangement of the band's material, to say nothing of arguably the world's most recognizable and perfectly badass electric bass sound. From the relatively short and simple “Wondrous Stories” (1977) and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (1983) to epics like “Heart of the Sunrise” (1971), and“Close to the Edge” (1972), somehow Squire kept the bass parts distinct, original, propulsive, musical and fascinating. Listen carefully to the bass parts sometime and note how often Squire enters or starts a phrase at an unexpected yet beautifully appropriate time. My personal favourite Squire performance is anytime he is paired with original drummer Bill Bruford. Despite frequent disagreements between the two, the musical combination was something magic. Adding to the package, Squire was a very strong backing vocalist, lending more distinctive sound to the ensemble; and he also appeared to be the Yes man with the most active sense of humour and welcome sense of irreverence- especially in the years without Rick Wakeman in Yes. After being diagnosed with the rare and aggressive strain of cancer that brought his demise, Squire hand-picked his successor in Yes, and the band continues to this day with Billy Sherwood as bassist. It's to the credit of both men that Sherwood performs all those challenging Yes tunes with confidence, accuracy, and that incredible Squire tone, despite a very different arsenal of instruments and equipment. Meanwhile, there are several generations of bassists who cite Squire as a leading influence. Still, few can so capably match the way Squire brought spotlight to the bass without diminishing or cluttering the band as a whole...and he made it look easy!
Strangely enough, there is quite a strong Yes connection to David Bowie, as longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman played on many Bowie recordings in the '70's. That should come as little surprise, as Bowie's list of musical collaborators is quite the Who's Who of musical rock royalty. Since around the time of his second album, Bowie had the credibility and cachet to make many of the biggest names in pop jump at the chance to work with him, including John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Freddie Mercury, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Nile Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Brian Eno and many others. He re-invented himself musically and visually several times over a near-half-century career, each time leaning more toward setting trends than following them. It's in fact rather surprising that an artist who enjoyed such massive financial success from music could have so much in his repertoire that is not especially catchy or commercial-sounding. While many musicians settle into a 'greatest hits' phase in later life, Bowie kept moving into new territory, challenging listeners at the very likely risk of losing them. While his courage and inventiveness were always admirable, my own connection to Bowie is a little less cerebral – his melodies grabbed me. Not every song, of course, or every Bowie 'era', but there was a sweetness to his basic melodic approach that resonated with me. “Ashes to Ashes” and “the Man Who Sold the World” leap to mind first, but there are little examples of elegant phrases or poignant resolutions throughout his catalog that could only be Bowie. I certainly can't emulate it, but I can admire it.
Then there's His Purpleness. It took me a little longer to appreciate Prince, as it was the Purple Rain-storm that brought him to my attention back in the day. The hyper-image of over-dressed, uber-cocky poseur turned me off, and the r & b trappings of stage dancers and drum machines impressed me even less. Still, that relentless exposure in 1983-84 eventually brought his guitar playing to my attention, and caused me to take a second look. I never did become much of a fan of his more dance-oriented songs, but I was ultimately awed by effortlessly tasteful and articulate guitar-playing, his uniquely advanced harmonies, his boldness and even the sometimes-earthy-eloquence of his lyrics; that and the same characteristics that drew me to Bowie and Squire – he was always fearlessly himself, distinctive, unmistakable, original. Unlike Squire and Bowie, he was still many years from his seventies when he died, and so left a lingering air what-might-have-been. Apparently, he also left a vast catalog of unreleased material in his vaults that equals his official releases in sheer volume, so even if we'll never know what might have been, we'll learn much, much more about what was...which might be just as illuminating.
Naturally, there are plenty of rock fans out there who would also mourn the recent losses of Glenn Frey, Lemmy Kilmister and Keith Emmerson, and I'm certainly not arguing the merits of one musician over another – but it was Squire, Bowie and Prince who took root in my psyche many years ago, while the other three simply didn't, for whatever reason. Perhaps if the airwaves of 1984 had been flooded with images of Keith Emmerson riding a motorcycle with Apollonia and a Hohner Wildcat on his back, I'd be writing about ELP now – but somehow, I doubt it. For better or worse, it's Fish, the Thin White Duke and the Former Artist who I'll miss most.
Here's to you, gentlemen, and all the music you made.