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10 Band Member MVPs (That Don't Play Guitar) Part One: Classics

Music ListAarik DanielsenComment
Flea, bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers (via Facebook)

Flea, bassist of Red Hot Chili Peppers (via Facebook)

This is part one of a two part series. Don't miss Part Two: Contemporary.

Guitar players get all the glory. Aside from lead singers, they typically are the focal point in any band, and at their most prolific, guitarists can overshadow singers or even render frontmen interchangeable. The dynamic is understandable; The mythic power of rock is perhaps most fully alive in a great riff or solo. If we’re going to play “air” anything, we usually go for the guitar first.

That doesn’t lessen the significance of a band’s other members, though. Strong players on other instruments sharpen a band’s sound, make it more versatile, and make their running mates look even better. The best of these players don’t just keep the beat or meet minimum expectations, they find spaces of their own to express something intangible, to contribute moments of lyric beauty and sheer power. Here is a small sample size of those who’ve shouldered these roles, a team of most valuable players who don’t primarily play guitar. They might not be the flashiest players, but they make their bands better in important, sometimes nearly imperceptible ways.

First, an all-star group culled from legacy bands — acts that have achieved longevity and done most of their swimming in the mainstream.

Christine McVie
Role: Keyboards, Fleetwood Mac
Strengths: In a band full of big, unpredictable personalities, McVie was an anchor, an elegant, steadying force. She not only suited her playing to the band’s stylistic shifts, but had a serious hand in shaping them. McVie could create warm sound beds, accent all-out rockers or show off a surprisingly bluesy side.
Check out: “Say You Love Me” 


Benmont Tench
: Keyboards, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Strengths: The classically trained pianist took a fork in the road to become a rock keyboard legend and the prototypical MVP. His Hammond organ chops and nimble piano playing brought a dimension to one of the truly great American bands. Tench is as important — on some songs, even more so — than Petty’s first mate, guitarist Mike Campbell.
Check out: “Refugee”

Steve Nieve
: Keyboards, Elvis Costello
Strengths: Whether in Costello’s first band, The Attractions, or a later iteration, The Imposters, Nieve has been a regular presence alongside the English bard. Like any great rock keyboardist, Nieve can do a little bit of everything. But he established a unique voice, augmenting Costello’s particular neuroses with the jittery, kaleidoscopic sound of the Vox Continental organ.
Check out: “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”

Tina Weymouth
: Bass, Tom Tom Club
Strengths: Weymouth and husband, drummer Chris Frantz, will of course always be better known for their integral roles in Talking Heads. But the band they formed in the midst of the Heads’ peak years, and the one that still remains, benefits from the still-bounding energy and lovely, strange persona Weymouth brings to the table.
Check out: “Genius of Love”

: Bass, Red Hot Chili Peppers
Strengths: Flea is the Red Hot Chili Peppers. You can argue that without him, Anthony Kiedis would just be a shirtless surfer mumbling something about California. The bassist provides the Peppers’ manic energy, but also is its music historian, working from a great knowledge of jazz and funk.
Check out: “Soul to Squeeze”

Steve Berlin
: Saxophone, flute and keyboards, Los Lobos
Strengths: Berlin is the consummate team player, bringing versatility and an edge to the Lords of East Los Angeles. Berlin plays the saxophone with a chip on his shoulder and a groove in his heart. His ability to move seamlessly between instruments and styles makes him a perfect fit for the multi-faceted band.
Check out: “Mas y Mas”

Jeff Ament
: Bass, Pearl Jam
Strengths: Ament’s contributions can be lost to the two-guitar attack of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready and fevered singing of Eddie Vedder. A recent episode of Steven Hyden’s Celebration Rock podcast noted that Ament brought a bit of funk with him from stints in bands such as Mother Love Bone and Green River. Hyden and Co. were right on: Ament is an agile player, commanding in a relatively quiet way.
Check out: “Corduroy”

Phil Selway
: Drums, Radiohead
Strengths: If it’s possible for a drummer to be a quiet force within a band, Selway is the embodiment of that notion. With whirling dervish Thom Yorke at the microphone and all the squalling noise coming from guitar and synthesizer, Radiohead needs a steady force behind the drums. That’s not to suggest that Selway is merely reliable; he is an incredibly musical drummer who, like the other members of his band, finds the fullest range of possibilities on his instrument.
Check out: “Bodysnatchers”

Charlie Gillingham
: Keyboards, Counting Crows
Strengths: Following in Tench’s footsteps, Gillingham fits the man of mystery role for the Bay Area folk-rockers. All he does is put his head down and play resonant parts. Occasionally, Gillingham cedes the piano to frontman Adam Duritz, allowing him to paint from a different palette, moving to the organ or stepping away from his perch to play accordion.
Check out: “If I Could Give All My Love (Richard Manuel is Dead)”

Kevin Hearn
: Keyboards, Barenaked Ladies
Strengths: In a band that, at least on hits like “One Week,” can be a little up-in-your-face, Hearn has a beautiful, deft touch. Hearn glides across the piano, executing runs that, in some cases, make the song without ever drawing too much attention to himself. Set against their hits, the Ladies’ deep cuts exhibit a serious musicality, and often Hearn underscores and upholds it.
Check out: The live version of “Jane” from “Rock Spectacle”

10 of the Best Musical Cameos on TV

TV/Film List, Music ListEllen WilsonComment
Jack White on Portlandia

Jack White on Portlandia

1. The Shins on Gilmore Girls 

Gilmore Girls is known for their fast paced dialogue and countless pop culture references, often mentioning numerous artists an episode, so it would make sense that Rory and co would stumble upon a hip new band playing in a club while on spring break. James Mercer and band play "So Says I" for an uninterrupted minute and a half, which is a pretty impressive amount of airtime for television. Rory and friends don't arrive until the last song, though, so we can assume they are the worst concert goers ever. Shortly after you can hear "The Laws Have Changed" by The New Pornographers while Rory and Paris uncomfortable try to fit in with the club-goers stating, "no one can sniff out the hip like we can." 

2. The Decemberists on Parks and Recreation 

The Decemberists get about 30 seconds of airtime playing "Crane Wife 3" at the Pawnee-Eagletown unity concert. While they might not have gotten as much airtime as deserved the entire episode was full of additional musical guest such as Jeff Tweedy, Ginuwine, and Yo La Tengo. 


3. Jack White on Portlandia 

Jack White magically appears on the Portlandia sketch "The Studio" in which Fred's character portrays a man who has a "top notch" studio with overwhelming similarities the studio used when recording the Beach Boy's album Pet Sounds. Jack White magically appears and silently watches Fred's character as he struggles to make sense of it all. The lack of dialogue from White makes his facial expressions even more hilarious and one of the best musical guest Portlandia has locked down. 

4. Britt Daniel of Spoon in Veronica Mars

Britt sings a karaoke version of the song appropriately titled "Veronica" by Elvis Costello. The Spoon song "I Summon You" was also featured in the same episode. You can read more about Britt's decision to do the show here

5. Death Cab For Cutie on The OC 

Death Cab was famously the favorite band of OC stud Seth Cohen, despite Summer's less-than-flattering analysis, "it's one guitar and a whole lot of complaining." When the band finally appears they play a show at the infamous fictional venue, The Bait Shop, and were featured on the official soundtrack. 

6. Prince on New Girl 

Prince, the majestic being himself, guest stars in an episode of New Girl. In the episode, he plays himself and gives Jess (portrayed by Zooey Deschanel) relationship advice. The highlight, though, is when the The Purple One asks, "Do you like pancakes?" 

7. Beck on Futurama 

After Bender is hospitalized he discovers Beck's disembodied head is occupying the bed next to him. Beck then loans Bender a set of neck-mounted robotic mini-arms, and the two go on tour together as Bender uses the arms to scrape across his mangled body and earn the position of Beck's washboard player. As the episode continues, Bender writes a song about broken robots, and the duo decide to put on a benefit concert in San Francisco to help all the disabled machines. While helping Bender write a song about his feelings, disembodied Beck explains how emotion is an important part of his musical process as well, saying, "When I'm upset I write a song about it. Like when I wrote 'Devil's Haircut,' I was feeling really... what's that song about?"

8. The Beach Boys on Full House 

The Beach Boys have a long standing friendship with the Tanner family, appearing in not one, not two, but three separate episodes. The most notable episode is the one in which DJ wins two tickets to the Beach Boys show but has the tricky decision of picking which family member to take. Naturally, The Beach Boys show up and invite the whole bunch along (except for baby Michelle) to the show where they sing and do some sort of a line dance on stage. 

9. Radiohead on South Park

In this particularly dark episode, Cartman vows to take revenge after being tricked by eighth grader Scott Tenorman. Upon learning that Radiohead is Scott's favorite band, Cartman writes a letter to Radiohead claiming that Scott is a victim of "cancer, in his ass" and the British rock band visits South Park just in time to watch Scott cry after hearing he ate his parents.  

10. Sir Paul McCartney on 30 Rock 

In one of these two brilliant episodes of 30 Rock, Sir Paul McCartney appears as himself to prove the point that "it's live TV, anything can happen." The look on Alec Baldwin's bewildered face as Paul McCartney grins and slaps Baldwin's face makes this one of the best moments of 30 Rock's entire seven season run.