Global Bass Online June 2001
February 6th 2000 marked the last ever gig by one of the best bands to come out of Britain's early punk rock scene, 'Ian Dury And The Blockheads'. Only six weeks later, Ian passed away, having battled against cancer for quite some time. Many British artists have paid tribute to Ian's work and it was this admiration from fellow stars that prompted record company East Central One to release an album, giving some of these stars the chance to record their own personal tribute.
The album 'Brand New Boots And Panties' was released in April and I recently caught up with the Blockheads renowned bass-player Norman Watt-Roy for a chat about the album and his own life as a working bassist. I began by asking him how the whole tribute album idea developed.
"Well East Central One, the record company that put out 'Mr. Lovepants', originally had the idea of getting different artists to actually do their own versions. The Blockheads weren't going to be involved at first. After Ian died the record company asked the Blockheads if we would do it, also I think they were finding it hard to get everybody to do their own versions because it was taking such a long time, so that's when the Blockheads got involved and it all came together."
I was initially surprised, when my copy of the CD arrived in the post, to discover that there was no 'Reasons To Be Cheerful Part Three' or 'What A Waste' or 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick'. Rather it is a complete re-make of the 'New Boots And Panties album, track by track. Then again as Norman told me "It was always considered Ian's best album, it was a classic of the time and stayed in the chart for over a year."
The album brings together some top names from British music and each artist seems perfectly suited to their own particular track. Madness do a flawless version of 'My Old Man' and I couldn't imagine a better voice for 'Partial To Your Abracadabra' than that of Paul McCartney. So I asked Norman whether the artists had chosen which songs they wanted to do.
"In actual fact Paul's first choice was 'Sweet Gene Vincent' but Robbie Williams had pipped him to the post, because Robbie was one of the first people on board. Shane (McGowan of The Pogues) wanted to do 'Plaistow (Patricia)', Sinead (O'Connor) wanted to do 'Wake Up (And Make Love To Me)' and the others just chose from what was left really. We said to Paul 'Robbie's taken 'Sweet Gene Vincent'' and that was the one he really wanted to do. So we said what about 'Abracadabra' and at first he didn't know but after he thought about it he said he'd love to."
Amongst the other artists on the album are Billy Bragg, Cerys Matthews from Catatonia, Grant Nicholas from Feeder and the Blockheads old label mate Wreckless Eric. How likely is it that we will be able to see the Blockheads performing some of these songs live with guests?
"Well if it can come together we'll do it, but it's a bit difficult because of the availability of the people" Norman explained. "We've done a couple of gigs where we've had Keith Allen and Wreckless Eric come down and sing their tracks with us and also Robbie came and did a gig with us and also the Jools Holland show we did. So I suppose it depends on how well the album does. Originally Paul was booked to do the Jools Holland show with us and he was just so sorry that he couldn't make it because he was in America at the time, so we just had Robbie and Suggsy."
Back in 1990 the Blockheads original drummer, Charlie Charles, died so when Ian himself was diagnosed with cancer it was a doubly hard blow for the band, I wondered how Ian himself reacted to the news.
"Well it was very much like the way he treated his polio, he ignored it basically and got on with things, you have to deal with it," Norman told me. "He went off to Egypt and did some gene therapy treatment which they don't do in this country, they only do it in Switzerland and Egypt and they're still researching it here. When he knew that he had liver cancer he asked his doctor 'how long have I got?' and they said that it could be anything from eight months to a year and he actually had two years, so he kind of looked at it that he had an extra year as far as he was concerned. He asked his doctor 'what can I do?' and the doctor said 'what do you want to do?' and he said 'well I really want to just gig and work' so the doctor said 'go out and do that.' So that's what he did. He was actually on stage with a little pack of chemo, they call it a Hickman Line, that he had going into his chest with a little pressurised pack on the side in a little bag and he was on that all the time, it regulates the chemo you get but he was performing on stage with that, he was amazing. When he was on stage he was a different person, it was the one time when he could just be himself again and that's what he loved. After gigs it was getting very visible, how he was getting weaker. The last few gigs he was actually sitting on a flight case because he couldn't stand for the whole gig."
The Blockheads themselves are still working together and are just putting the finishing touches to the follow-up album to "Mr. Lovepants". Ian himself had begun to record the album with them and they actually have seven tracks with Ian on vocals as well as three with their own vocals and one with guest vocalist Robbie Williams. Hopefully that album, the last 'Ian Dury And The Blockheads' album, will be released around September this year.
Apart from the Blockheads Norman Watt-Roy has of course recorded with more bands and artists than you can shake a rhythm stick at. One of his main gigs over the years has been with former Blockhead and Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson.
"I met Wilko when he joined the Blockheads in 1980, he was with us for about two and a half years and we struck up a good friendship. He asked me in '85 if I could do a few gigs with him and it just spiralled from there. His thing is playing live all the time so we go all over the place, we've done eleven tours of Japan and we're going again for the Fuji Rock Festival in July. The first recording we did together was an e.p. called 'Watch Out', that was live. Then we did a couple of studio albums 'Don't Let Your Daddy know' was one, 'Barbed Wire Blues' was another and there's been another live album."
I asked Norman to tell us what have been some of his favourite sessions over the years.
"I enjoyed playing with the Clash in the early days. I did a lot of the Stiff artists, I did Nick Lowe's album, Rachel Sweet's album, I even did some with Kirsty when she was on Stiff, I did all Jona Lewie's stuff. I also did the Frankie Goes To Hollywood thing 'Relax', that was the Blockheads. I enjoyed all of them really, people think of me as a session musician but I don't really go out and do sessions as such, it's usually just friends who ask me. When the Clash asked me it was because Paul (Simonon) was busy at the time doing some filming up in Canada and they had two weeks in Electric Ladyland in New York while Paul was away filming."
Born in 1951 in Bombay to Anglo-Indian parents, Norman was just four years old when the family moved to England. At the age of eleven he started to play rhythm guitar in a band with his brother Garth and turned professional at the tender age of sixteen when they formed a nine-piece showband backing American artists, playing a lot of Stax and other soul material, at that time they toured extensively in Germany, playing G.I. basses. So Norman's certainly been a career bassist.
"I still expect someone to tap me on the shoulder and say 'Isn't it about time you got a proper job?'" he mused. "It still seems strange to be making a living out of playing, especially when you love it."
Later he and Garth formed a band called 'The Greatest Show On Earth' that released two albums on the Harvest label in the early 70's. Then Garth joined East Of Eden and Norman joined a band called Glencoe. After a while the old musical differences scenario began to creep in and Norman and Drummer Charlie Charles parted company with the keyboardist and guitarist. Friends John Turnbull and Mick Gallagher were drafted in and the four began to work on a project for Ronan O'Reilly of Radio Caroline that he was calling 'The Loving Awareness Band'.
Shortly after that Norman and Charlie were asked to go in and do a session for a guy called Ian Dury with Chas Jankel. As they already knew Ian from Kilburn And The Highroads, they readily agreed and within two weeks cut 'New Boots And Panties' and the Blockheads were born, named after one of the album tracks.
In the early days of Stiff Records the Blockheads acted as something of a house band for many of the artists, both in the studio and on those famous 'Stiff Tours'.
"They used the Blockheads quite a lot because some of the people didn't have bands and some of them were just learning to play," Norman explained. "There was also another band called 'Clover' and they did a lot of stuff as well and eventually became Graham Parker's band, 'The Rumour'. Between them and us we were more or less doing everyone's records."
Norman himself has been cited by many as one of the great exponents of bass guitar, his easy, bubbling style brings together elements of funk, soul and rock and his most famous line, 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick', is one of the great bass challenges that we all want to conquer. How does he create a line like that?
"It's just how I've always done it," He said, simply. "I study now and can read but I never learned that way, I always played by ear. So it was just listening to what the others were playing and finding something to fit. I always joke about 'Rhythm Stick' and say 'I thought I was getting paid by the note!' I was just doing what everyone else had laid down, I was lucky enough to have a schooling of doing a lot of great stuff, a lot of Tamla Motown and Stax stuff, with some great bass players. It just kind of moulded me that way, it's very hard, you never really get to where you're trying to get. Even now I'm still trying to play things that I can't play. I listen to a lot of jazz and stuff now."
Ask Norman who are his favourite bass players and you'll get a list as long as your arm. "Jamerson, Chuck Rainey all those guys and from the modern era, Larry Graham and Jaco Pastorius, the best for electric bass," he says, just for starters. "He did for the electric bass what Mingus and Scott Lafarue did for the acoustic bass. But there are so many, you know, if people ask me for my favourite bass players I've got lists that go on for ever and they're all my favourites. I'd say Jaco is the one that stands out. He was, as he said himself, the world's greatest bass player. I mean he went up to Ronnie Carter and introduced himself that way!"
As far as Basses are concerned Norman is one of the old school. "Yeah, I've always had a Fender Jazz. My very first bass was a cheap Rosetti or something and when that fell apart I got my dad to sign a form for H.P. for me when I was doing my paper round and I started with A Fender Jazz. There's something about them, I just fell in love with them. It's what I call a working man's bass. I had an Alembic for a while, lovely instrument but so delicate. And 'active' and 'passive', I couldn't deal with all that, I didn't see the point of it you know? The Fender is so down to earth, you've just got your volume and your tone and that's it."
Norman and I spent the next ten minutes or so telling each other how much we loved our Fender Jazzes and then I asked him what models he currently plays.
"I've got a '62 Jazz that I use most of the time, the gold one and I've got a '70 maple neck Precision that I adapted, that's the one I played on all the hits, I put a jazz pick up on it as well so I can get the jazz tones out of it. It has a maple neck which is not like the ordinary Precision, it's slightly thinner, but a little bit wider than a Jazz."
If pressed, Norman will admit to owning a five-string Jazz too. "I play it a lot at home and I use it if it's required on any recordings if I want to get a bottom 'B' or something. But I listen to Jaco and I think 'if I can't do half those things on four what's the point in getting more strings!' But I love Anthony Jackson and all those guys, John Pattitucci. If it's required I can do it but I'd rather stick with the old four string."
Similarly in the amp field Norman's stuck to his guns over the years. "I've always used Trace Elliot. My cabs were made in 1978 by a flight case company and fitted with JBC K140 speakers and in all that time I've only had them re-coned once. I was in the Bass Centre recently and I was tempted by some Gallien-Krueger and also by Ashdown, but for now I'll stick with the Trace."
Hopefully we'll be able to catch Norman on tour with the Blockheads later this year, if not we'll certainly be able to see him playing with Wilko, or with any of his other old mates. If you get the chance to see him take it and say hello from me.
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