The Pretenders “Mystery Achievement” (1980)

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There’s a real art to playing fake instruments. Air guitarists are obviously most prevalent, but finding the proper level of verisimilitude can be tricky. If you watch the limbs of a real player they often move relatively little, particularly the picking hand, but that won’t emote to a room. Most guitar mimickers, on the other hand, flail about wildly with their arms or wiggle the splayed fingers of both hands simultaneously in a move far more resemblant of “jazz hands” than, for instance, any jazz guitar. You’ve got to seek the right amount of hyperbolized performance, of theatrics, while still enacting moves akin to actual guitar wailing (facial expressions, I’ve found, are key). I’m decent at it, but I’d have to say it’s not necessarily my best category.

I spent most of my formative years as a faux musician playing air drums. I can keep a relatable beat, ape some decent fills and cymbal crashes, and my open high hat move for Zeppelin’s ‘D’yer Maker’ is still being talked about decades after it’s first appearance. I’ll dabble in air horns; with suitable hand placement and cheeks fully puffed, saxophone and trumpet can be imitated fairly readily, though I find the altogether rare air trombone more satisfying for the opportunity to vigorously extend one shuddering arm. But for the most recent period of my ersatz musicianship I’ve been all about the air bass.

You look around at an average concert and you won’t see a lot of air bassing. Much like the real thing, it’s a subtler skill. I’ll tell you this from experience, though: you make genuine eye contact simulating a bogus bass with the always-underappreciated bass player, you’re going to get a nod of acknowledgement. Playing the low frequencies has a low frequency of getting play, so yeah, they’ll notice. Long ago my friend Skemmit popularized his now-legendary “high bass” motif – the imagined instrument tucked incongruously under one’s chin forcing an akimbo arm positioning no actual bassist could possibly utilize. I’ve emulated it for years, modifying it only slightly to a somewhat more recognizable placement while seeking to maintain the exaggeratedly ridiculous plucking figures and ever-present head-bobbing smirk. It’s proven to be a real crowd pleaser, assuming people can distinguish what the hell you’re doing.

Maybe someday I’ll attempt playing some funky beats on a bona fide bass. It’s unlikely, but who knows. If I were ever to try, however, I’ve long known the piece on which I’d hope to learn: a song from the phenomenal debut album by The Pretenders (a band aptly named for an exploration of air instrumentation), and on it’s final track, ‘Mystery Achievement,’ a tune seemingly appropriately titled for a quixotic quest at legitimacy. The ultra-simple and wonderfully repetitive beauty of Pete Farndon’s bass line (listen here starting at 14 seconds) seems like something I could actually do. Possibly. Then again, it’s probably far more likely that such an achievement, that of really playing rather than simulating a bass (or, for that matter, any other musical apparatus) will remain just that – a mystery. I guess I’ll just keep on, um, pretending. And you know, I’ve yet to hit a bad note playing an air instrument.


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