Som etim e R olling Stone B ill W ym an returns w ith a new album and signature
bass. Paul Trynka asks the sticky-finn ered questions
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here's no place like home. While
his ex-bandmates head for the
stadia of North America, Bill
Wyman has been busy in his
basement - where he cooked up
his aptly-named
Back To Basics,
his first solo album in over 30
years, aided by the home-made bass that underpinned
his band's rise to fame 50 years ago.
Sitting in Sticky Fingers, the Kensington restaurant
that features a luscious selection of his old basses,
plus the Gibson Les Paul goldtop that the late guitarist
Brian Jones played for his very last public appearance
with the band, Wyman is relaxed and almost
uncharacteristically cheery. It's been 20 years since he
left the Stones, but the joy of a low-key career, away
from the hassles is one, he says, that's “much more fun”.
Over the past couple of decades, Wyman has
produced plenty of albums with his Rhythm Kings, the
blues and roots band that hinges on musical luminaries
and friends like Georgie Fame and Geraint Watkins.
The idea of a solo release, he says, came “when I was
listening to some old demos, and suddenly started
thinking, 'These sound pretty good!' And it just grew
from there.
Wyman's solo albums were a big deal in the 1970s,
when he famously became the only Stone to have a solo
hit - much to the chagrin of Mick Jagger, who hired the
hippest producers and musicians for his own solo works,
which mostly sank without trace. Yet those days were “a
real drag, dealing with a company and everything they'd
line up for you”
, which is why recording the skeleton of
his album in the basement was “low-key. It just grew bit
by bit. I wasn't even thinking in terms of it being an album
until I played it to friends, and they said 'people need
to hear this'!” The initial songs included the laid-back,
sweetly melodic 'November And Stuff' - a song about
money, initially intended as a follow-up to Wyman's 1981
hit 'Je Suis Un Rock Star', but which, with its shuffling
Alabama 3 groove, sounds startlingly contemporary.
Most of the songs (heretically) were built around a
core of acoustic guitar, played by long-time collaborator
Terry Taylor; these were augmented in two stages, as
more friends, including Mark Knopfler and long-term
Stones engineer Glyn Johns, suggested improvements,
firstly with drummer Graham Broad and keyboardist
Guy Fletcher, while Robbie Macintosh's guitar lines were
added later, for emphasis here and there. Although the
whole album shares the same JJ Cale-ish groove, along
with a distinctive Wyman world-view (“quirky, is what
everyone called it”) the newer songs especially share
an upbeat, positive vibe. The optimistic feel denotes
something of a renaissance for the 78-year-old, who has
three young daughters - one of whom, Matilda, helped
audition the new material along with her friends: “I
thought they'd like the newer, more uptempo stuff, but
it turns out they like blues. It still appeals to a younger
Compared to musicians starting out, Wyman reckons
that he and his ex-bandmates benefited from a freedom
that's gone today - even if it was harder work back then.
“You had to find out how to do everything yourself,” he
says. “It was totally different from today, where everyone
wants to become a star and go on TV or Youtube - we
were doing it with no idea at all that it would become a big
deal. We did it because we loved the music.”
Wyman's new album, both in its bass-lines and its
cover, pays tribute to the incredible primitiveness of the
music scene when he first started out, for his current
instrument of choice is a modern Bass Centre reissue of
the practically home-made bass that kicked off his career.
Most of the instruments on offer when he decided to
take up the instrument were “pretty horrible”
, including
the Dallas Tuxedo bass that his friend, drummer Tony
Chapman, helped source. With Tony's encouragement,
Wyman took the primitive, single-cutaway instrument
round to a neighbour, who owned a fretsaw; soon the
instrument was a double-cutaway fretless.
Chapman later joined the Stones, which is how
Wyman first hooked up with the band. The former
was booted out a few weeks later, but Wyman stayed
on for three decades. That first bass saw him through
many of those decades: he continued using it despite
several endorsement deals, and reckons the Fender
Mustang bass, often associated with him thanks to its
use on several seminal Stones tours, was “OK”
, but never
appealed in the same way. The original sits in a glass case
on the wall of Sticky Fingers, replaced by the modern
replica. He explains: “It was made by Barry Moorhouse
from the Bass Centre in Surrey. He told me lots of
other people love the production model, including girls,
because the neck's so slim.”
The instrument itself is deliciously distinctive - a small
slab alder body with simple pickguard, one humbucker
and one Baldwin-style pickup, like the one that Wyman
added to his own, but with a solid, modern bridge-
tail-piece with chunky saddles replacing the original's
unadjustable, pressed metal affair. With its 30-inch scale,
it's extremely compact, but with a distinct, rather than
woolly, basic tone. “It really is the perfect bass for me,”
Wyman adds. “That's why I put it on the album sleeve!”
His main version is fretted, although the Bass Centre is
planning to deliver him a fretless instrument, and are
currently considering a stripped-down, single-pickup
'Junior Blues' model.
As one of Britain's leading bassists from his first Stones
show on December 14, 1962, Wyman had to contend with
the lack of knowledge about his instrument in those early
days. He'd managed to get close to the sound he wanted,
initially with a homemade bass cabinet: “My sound has
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