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.
Stone Alone, perhaps predictably, is a remarkably passionless book, not least in its sexual chronicle. It’s all recalled from Wyman’s pedantic diaries: every encounter important enough to be logged, but usually only with a deathless ‘ – stayed the night.’ Very occasionally he will rise to ‘we made love.’ Wyman comes across as someone who not only always checks the bill but keeps his own slate too in case there’s a dispute: ‘a girl who had stayed with me ... on tour in Denmark in June 1965 contacted the Stones office ... saying she had just given birth to my child. I consulted my diaries and found she was two months out with her calculations, and her arithmetic was politely corrected. Nothing further,’ Wyman is pleased to confirm, ‘was ever heard from her’. He is also concerned to share a month-by-month check on his bank balances – Barclays account and the one with Chemical Bank – but his responses to musical acquaintances are less exacting. Of guitar pioneer Les Paul we learn that Bill ‘found him charming’. He and blues singer John Hammond ‘chatted for a while’. He ‘met’ Bob Dylan.
Above all, what you miss from Wyman’s account – that word again – is any pride in, or even positive recognition of, the danger of the Stones at their peak. This is the band that played ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’. Though Wyman concludes his book after Altamont, he glances forward far enough to note that the early Seventies ‘marked a very tense period to be around the Stones, and were eventually immensely damaging to the band and everyone close to us’. But they were also, surely, when the Stones produced their greatest music. 1972 saw them tax-exiled in France to escape bankruptcy, Richards and most of the entourage strung out on heroin, Jagger negotiating his precarious marriage to Bianca – and also the release of Exile on Main Street, unquestionably the Stones’ finest album, four sides of furious, mean, passionate modern blues. Up to a point, though, you have to let Wyman have the last, bass-playerish beef about even this. When the French authorities decided it was time to bust the band for their drug excesses, they picked on the only two clean guys: him and Charlie.
One day someone will write the story of the Stones and the Seventies, the decade during which they changed from being the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world to the band that had been that band, and show how they managed to follow their best-ever album with Goat’s Head Soup, one of their very worst. In the meantime A.E. Hotchner, like Wyman, is still hung up on the end of the Sixties, and even after the Maysles brothers’ brilliant film of the spooky Altamont gig, Gimme shelter, and countless maudlin threnodies for Brian Jones, can find nothing better than these two shiny-with-handling pseudo-myths to give his oral history of the Stones a melodramatic closure. Hotchner himself comes across as a bit, well, old for the task, his fussy approach reminiscent of the High Court judge inquiring recently as to what was this Gazza ... His earnest quest for significance sometimes elevates those he consults to preposterous sage-status. I particularly liked the billing of ‘SIDCUP PROFESSOR’ for Brian Yates, an art-school teacher called upon to testify, in Private Eye cab-driver fashion, ‘I had Keith Richards in a couple of my classes.’
Hotchner’s transparent unease about writing the book he has set himself fortunately leads him most of the time not to bother, and instead he lets other people do the talking. Never mind, then, whether Brian Jones was a victim of the Sixties, as Hotchner seeks sentimentally to assert: Wyman quotes Keith Richards with a more plausibly robust verdict – ‘You know, he used to like beating chicks up?’ And never mind whether he was murdered: Hotchner turns up a pseudonymous man-in-pub who effectively contradicts the victim thesis with the claim that a group of local workmen bumped Jones off in order to nick his antiques. The best bits of Blown away are the words of an impressive range of Stones people, from a louche Andrew Oldham to a superbly articulate Marianne Faithfull. Another Hotchner inadequacy – no new interviews or cooperation from the present band members themselves – again works in his favour. Here the over-familiar Stones story is retold from the outside, yet from within their most intimate circle: little new information, but much new opinion, and after all these years often surprisingly felt. Here is Marianne Faithfull contemplating the witchlike aura of Anita Pallenberg – first Brian’s girl, then Keith’s – in a smile ‘that seemed to be a camouflage for some great dark secret she was hoarding ... like a snake to a bird’, and Ian Stewart’s wife dismissing the Stones’ second manager Allen Klein as ‘a cross between a New York gangster and an undernourished wrestler’. Wyman could never have taken away this detail of the Sixties: Andrew Oldham going to New York’s sinister ‘Doctor Feelgood’ for some amphetamine injections, and haunted above all by the sight of ‘half-eaten sausages and sauerkraut’ on his desk. Blown away is an endlessly quotable dip-read.
The burn-out and breakdown that the Stones took six years to reach, if we go along with Wyman and Hotchner in seeing the death of Brian Jones as the point when something ended for good, the Jimi Hendrix Experience managed in three. Noel Redding’s terrific autobiography sets down with self-deprecating wit and graphic recall the whole muzzy business. The morals of the story are simple: don’t sign bits of paper without reading them – they’re called contracts because that’s what will happen to your income if you do. And if you’re setting out to play the most trouserleg-dentingly loud music every night on a non-stop world tour, take lots of drugs. It doesn’t really work, but it’s the only way.
You might say Redding deserves to be the most famous bass-player of all – ahead even of such fancy fingerpickers as Jack Bruce or Mark King – because on a Hendrix record you can hear every note he plays – in the next room, and through the soles of your shoes. You might have gone to an Experience gig to see Hendrix set fire to his guitar; you also went to hear – no, to have your aorta quiver to – Redding’s rumbling bass. Then you tottered home suddenly grateful for Herman’s Hermits; but he had to fly to Pensacola or somewhere and do it all over again. ‘Just how do you get down after the show so you can sleep?’ Redding asks reasonably: then he tells you.
Knowing that there were only two or three hours to squeeze a night’s sleep into didn’t help ... so a few stiff drinks and a sleeper sped you on your way. But plane time would come before the sleeper wore off, hence the leapers. But the flights are terribly boring when you’re up, so a creeper rounds off the edges and a lot of drink takes a bit of the cotton wool out of your mouth. But booze (well over a bottle of vodka a day) makes life a bit grim, so ‘just a bit’ of acid makes you feel all tingly and good. But it’s hard to concentrate on acid, so a quick sniff of coke ... brings the brain briefly to attention while you smoke some grass or hash to take the nerviness out of the coke. Then, as you’re beginning to feel a bit tacky by the time the flight’s over, and the hotel is found, and it’s gig time ... a snort of methedrine and a big tobacco joint puts you on stage.
Redding, who was 23 when he joined the band, concludes: ‘I was a bit tired most of the time.’ He ended up with the classic bass-player’s lot: out on his ear with nothing to show for it – and the result is one of the best rock’n’roll books, attempting no more, as all the best should, than to admit that, for some hilarious, hideous reason, I was there ...
Hendrix developed his guitar technique alongside the great bluesman John Lee Hooker: by the time he’d put what he’d learned through a huge battery of amps, and speeded and fuzzed and snarled it up, it sounded nothing like Hooker’s snaky, pattering, shivering runs – but you couldn’t have got the one without the other. Hendrix needed to start from Hooker. ‘All artists inevitably copy somebody because that’s how they learn to play ... after they fail to produce an accurate copy, they become themselves ... out of failure comes a brand-new style.’ Thus, and incontrovertibly, not Harold Bloom, but Harold Pendleton, founder of London’s famous Marquee Club, where the Stones first met and Hendrix broke the house record. Pendleton’s Map of Musical Misreading, set out for the benefit of A.E. Hotchner, even extends to the Sex Pistols, according to their first, proficient, surviving bass-player (as opposed to the other one). Glen Matlock makes the brazen claim that the band’s third hit single, ‘Pretty Vacant’, was actually a shameless rip-off of an Abba song. (Glen’s mum, however, liked it because it reminded her of the Shadows.) The Sex Pistols have recently been commemorated at stupefying length by the American rock critic Greil Marcus as the natural culmination of every Anarchist/Dadaist/Situationist movement of the century. I think they sounded rather like the Stones at their fiercest. Matlock half-agrees: drummer Paul Cook, he admits, ‘was always “Mister In My Own Good Time”. He was Charlie Watts all over again’ – which explains how the Pistols are the only band to have approximated to that shambling, sleazy boogie every good Stones song falls into.
In 1991 it’s easy to see the Sex Pistols as nothing more than half a dozen classic, blistering tracks: a band that briefly, but really, rocked – and difficult too to remember that, in the middle of the Seventies, record shops had to display their album cover in a brown paper bag because it blazoned the word BOLLOCKS, and more amazing still that the judiciary even hauled their record label into the High Court in order to hear John Mortimer defend a good Anglo-Saxon word. Matlock’s self-knowledge has an exemplary brevity. ‘After “Pretty Vacant” I found it very hard to write a lyric. For me that encapsulated everything we were about. It was, “We’re pretty vacant and we don’t care, so fuck you, pal.” ’ Pretty comic, pretty silly, and exactly the point. Rock’n’roll, as Mick Jagger says in Hotchner’s book, is ‘just sort of funny entertainment’.
Rock’n’roll as modern vaudeville: I doubt the precious George Michael would agree. On the cover of I was a teenage Sex Pistol Matlock peeps cagily over his shades at you; Bare has George in one of his standard-issue moody pouts. I take it the title connotes the craven exposure of the most secret soul: risky – this risibly padded-out non-story is very bare. The trouble is that, apart from having a couple of zillion-selling albums, George Michael has done next to nothing. (Neither has Glen Matlock, so he shuts up about it.) George’s coauthor, however, is at great pains to locate George well away from every important event. In the Seventies, therefore, ‘modern terrorism made its murderous debut ... the PLO, the IRA and the Angry Brigade were all frontpage news ... a grim, stagnant time’ – you get the picture. And as the centre was finally refusing to hold, Parsons builds to the climactic revelation of where George’s family in Bushey, Herts, stood: ‘the Panos family ... were largely untouched by the gathering of the socio-political storm clouds.’ On to 1981: ‘England burned ... young rioters hurling bottles, bricks and Molotov cocktails ... the urban battleground lit by the ferocious night-lights of burning buildings.’ Anarchy in the UK! And George ‘remained largely untouched by the insurrections in the streets’. It is probably safe to assume, too, that the meteoric rise of Wham! had little to do with the dissolution of the monasteries. Give it the benefit of the doubt and call it an attempt to insist on George Michael as your average man: the achievement is to present The Greatest Bass-Player in Modern History, who never even played bass!
Bare, in fact, signals a big change in the music business. As one half of Wham! Michael became massively famous doing flouncy, prancy dance singles for teenybops – without ever hitting the road and doing a proper tour. The only time they ever graced the Marquee Club, indeed, was to record a video. ‘Those kind of shit gigs are what most people do for years and years,’ sniffs Michael: ‘we were very aware of how ... you could suddenly reach more people with a video on MTV than with a ninety-date tour of the States.’
Then Wham! split, and Michael’s momentum carried him on to a vast-selling solo album of moony, lachrymose balladry. At 27 he is already brooding darkly on the disadvantages of fame, and the ironies of owning houses, plural, in Santa Barbara. Out of this self-absorption it is hard to detect any real musical influences on Michael, apart from Elton John – any evidence of looking around him much. He’s too busy trying to be himself. All this has possibly terminal consequences for the Rock Book. Take away the terrible early tours, the overloaded Transit van breaking down on the Ml, the trashed dressing-rooms, the TVs plummeting from hotel windows, the gigs-where-everyone-was-too-pissed-to-play, the comedy of it all, George, and here’s a dreary read. No more picaresque, no more road narratives, no longer the story of the travelling circus, no longer a group act: it’s a story without a cast, and with no one to laugh at. So what George and his bare book need is a band, all the other guys piling in around him, but one above all, from the back of the queue to the front: the musical spear-carrier, the capable, phlegmatic foot-soldier, the Bill for all this, the bloke for whom the most important question is, ‘Oi, George, are we doin’ this one in E?’, the one to bring the whole thing down to earth, a proper bass-player, badoompa-doompa-doompa-doom ...
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.