Remembering Andy Rourke: 1964 - 2023
When I was 15, I was obsessed with The Smiths. This band was everything a sad boy could want: jangly guitars, gloomy lyrics, and sophisticated musical arrangements that offered just a little more than you could find in an average punk record.
I've since matured into a respectable appreciation for The Smiths; it doesn't change their influence on me as an artist.
I was sad to see that bassist Andy Rourke died. He is another of those significant losses of 2023. Bassists usually go understated, but Andy Rourke was a silent hero of music. Every songwriter can take a page from Andy's book studying his deceptively catchy bass lines. He could lay down sophisticated parts that provided the harmonic material for Johnny Marr to layer endless guitars over without flying off into space.
Consider this a highlight reel of Andy Rourke's work with The Smiths. Indeed, with four studio albums to their name, this band can be known and known deeply by anyone who cares to spend enough time with them. Many have disavowed this band because of its problematic frontman, but that's a shame. The rhythm section of this band would have crafted hits regardless of who their singer was. It's not unusual for people to associate The Smiths with mopey teenagers. Still, if that's stopped you from listening, it's my goal to change that with this article. The Smiths are a band worth spending time with.
Side note: Normally, I'd look for some interesting footage for these songs, but it can often be at the sacrifice of audio quality. I want Andy's bass lines to shine, so these will mostly be studio recordings.
You've Got Everything Now
This track opens with some sassy 9th chords, an unusual choice for a mainstream pop tune. The bass makes some cool contrary motion against the chromatic open chords and, throughout the song, acts as a bass and rhythm guitar. Andy had a fantastic way of outlining power chords to make his lines more engaging than simply playing root notes. If you want to take a page from his book in your own songwriting, try using the 5th and octave in your bass parts when you hang out on a chord for a few measures.
William, It Was Really Nothing
Rourke played bass with a pick. Often bassists are lauded for their right-hand finger or slapping technique, but Andy owned his pick playing. In William, It Was Really Nothing, the bass comes in strong with plucky articulation against Marr's jangly 16th note guitar pattern. Andy Rourke's playing is an excellent template for emulation if you're a guitarist who plays bass.
The Queen Is Dead
This classic track would be nothing without its bass line. The Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr was known for layering guitar parts in an almost orchestral fashion. On The Queen is Dead, his guitars act more as a texture, leaving the heavy rhythm work to Andy's steady bass line. Andy's tone is terrific in this song, hitting the perfect balance between drone and groove. Never underestimate the power of building a song around a single bass riff.
Hand in Glove
I chose this live performance of Hand in Glove because it shows Andy's importance to this band. When you stop to think about it, the smiths are essentially a power trio with a dedicated singer. The studio versions of Hand in Glove are lush with guitar tracks; live performances forced the band to arrange only the most essential parts. Andy's bass does double duty here, filling in the space left by the absence of guitars and maintaining a driving pulse that gives the song its forward momentum.
Barbarism Begins at Home
If you were a Smiths fan before reading this newsletter, you likely checked to see if I mentioned this song. How couldn't I? This bass line is legendary. I remember the first time I heard it; my head nearly exploded. It's Rourke at his finest. He's driving the bus, evoking the slap feel of some of the '70s best slap baselines, and he even manages to work in a slick chromatic walk down. Very few bassists manage to write one of the best bass lines of all time, but Rourke did it.
This list was hard to compile because Rourke was a veritable powerhouse of hooky (not Peter Hook) bass lines. I can't imagine that this band could have been the same with any other bassist. Andy was a talented musician and a lifelong friend of Johnny Marr. The Chemistry between the two musicians gave the band an unfathomable depth. If you have yet to live with their catalog before reading this letter, I recommend doing so. Yes, Morrissey is a goober, but this band produced some of the most excellent music of the 20th century. Do it for Andy.
I appreciate the patience y'all have had with me getting these newsletters out. I just finished the acoustic treatment in the office this past week, and we'll be starting work on a desk this week. Here are a few pics: