Badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom

Graham Coster

  • Stone Alone by Bill Wyman and Ray Coleman
    Viking, 594 pp, £15.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 670 82894 7
  • Blown away: The Rolling Stones and the Death of the Sixties by A.E. Hotchner
    Simon and Schuster, 377 pp, £15.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 671 69316 6
  • Are you experienced? The Inside Story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience by Noel Redding and Carol Appleby
    Fourth Estate, 256 pp, £14.99, September 1990, ISBN 1 872180 36 1
  • I was a teenage Sex Pistol by Glen Matlock and Pete Silverton
    Omnibus, 192 pp, £12.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 7119 2491 0
  • Bare by George Michael and Tony Parsons
    Joseph, 242 pp, £12.99, September 1990, ISBN 0 7181 3435 4

Everyone is agreed: it is the drummer who is most important. ‘No group is any better than its drummer,’ the Rolling Stones’ late piano player Ian Stewart tells A.E. Hotchner. ‘Drummers are the heart of a group,’ confirms Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience: ‘a good one is worth his weight in gold.’ And here is the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock on drummer Paul Cook: ‘that steady rhythm of his was the whole backbone of the Pistols’ sound.’ Then you have the singer, the showman – who probably does the lyrics too; and the lead guitarist, who probably comes up with the music; not forgetting the manager, even, without whom there would he no gigs, hotel rooms or backstage Jack Daniels on the contract rider.

And then there is the bass-player. The bassist is the other man in the band. This is the guy who is only the other half of the rhythm section: the one who only backs up the drummer: who keeps the beat without setting it: whose job is to go badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom through all the worst and best solo excesses of the frontmen and come out badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom the other side. The bassist is the accountable one: accountable to all the others in the band, as they are not to him. Whether he likes it or not, he usually does what he’s told. Even drummers, as the Who’s Keith Moon proved, are allowed to be charismatic – but bass players, unless they also sing, like Sting, get on with playing bass. The manager of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, bassman Noel Redding recalls, was quite clear on the roles mapped out for each of them: ‘Jimi would be the macho man, Mitch the bouncy type, and I’d be the quiet one.’ Bill Wyman, it emerges from the two Stones books, was originally hired for a certain unique stage presence only he at the time could contribute: a decent set of amplifiers.

The bassist knows the rest of the band can’t do without him, and also knows the rest of the band don’t want to know. His job is to keep them on the straight and narrow, so they can be more outrageous and wild and creative and artistic, and they despise him for it, or worse still forget he’s even there. Years on, bass players reflect on how the whole thing was thrown back in their face: sacked for being too competent, ignored for being too self-effacing, poorer for being too parsimonious, or merely alive and jobless for not taking enough drugs to ensure the best career move of all. Alone, experienced (the titles say it all), the patient bass players are the ones who eventually knuckle down to the slow boredom of doing the book about the band, the alternative, reasonable, considered manifesto for how it could all have been rock’n’roll without having to be rock’n’roll – the ones who end up, as they started, being prosaic, badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom ...

The ‘Bill’ in Bill Wyman, it is not commonly known, stands for counting-up, the reckoning. Stone Alone runs to nearly six hundred pages of dogged chronology and totalling. It gives you every date the Rolling Stones played between their formation and the notorious Altamont debacle in 1969, the massive free concert outside San Francisco during which a member of the audience was stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels responsible for the event’s security arrangements. You get the crowd numbers, the length of each set, the hotel the band stayed in, how much they got paid and the girls Bill got off with afterwards. Especially the girls. Wyman had 278 (he and Brian Jones counted up) during the first two years of the Stones. Odd, in a way, that he got rid of his original surname: Perks. Stone Alone is perversely fascinating in its grinding, routine repetitiveness: gig after gig after gig on tour after tour, more girls in more cities, the same clamorous teenybop mayhem night after night (the early Stones were a girls’ group, not a blokes’ band as they are now), as they established themselves as the best live act in the land. Wyman complains a lot, and with apparent justification, about the unfair deal he and Charlie Watts, in particular, received from Mick ’n’ Keef on recognition and royalties, but such office-politics sniping also presents the Stones for the first time as five different guys trying to run a business together. It’s probably that working relationship, indeed – reading each other’s small print – that has kept the hand extant all these years: coming together only to work, and working just as carefully on keeping their distance from one another.

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