The mercenary of the bass

Dave Woodhall listens to bass player extraordinaire Norman Watt-Roy.

If you can tell a man by the company he keeps, then a musician who’s played with Ian Dury, the Clash, Roger Daltrey and Wilko Johnson, amongst many others, is going to be worth listening to. Norman Watt-Roy, bass player to the stars, released his first solo album Faith and Grace last year and he’s currently touring with his own band.

The first question and it’s one you must always be getting asked, is how’s Wilko doing now?

“He’s amazing. He’s got back last week from a holiday in Japan, I saw him last Sunday and he’s doing really, really well, getting fitter all the time.”

He must also have been in the odd position of reading his own obituaries.

“It’s been weird, he spent a year and a half expecting to die then they suddenly found he’d been mis-diagnosed. He was almost in a rupture which they got to in time otherwise it would have killed him. It wasn’t the normal, aggressive pancreatic cancer which is why he was told six to eight months, it turned out to be a very rare type, not as aggressive. The operation he had took nine hours, they did about five different procedures which had never been done at the same time before, they took his spleen, part of his stomach, his liver, part of his pancreas.”

John Le Mesurier once described himself as a jobbing actor. Would you say that’s how your career has been – you’re a jobbing musician?

“I like Wilko’s term, he called me the mercenary of the bass. There was a time when I was playing on a lot of people’s records. Probably not so much now, I tend to just help friends now.”

Have you ever wanted to be a star?

“No, I’ve always just got a thrill out of playing bass. I was about 15 when I started and I’ve never had a job as such. I left school and joined a band, made a living out of playing this instrument. I love playing and to be paid for it is just a bonus. Maybe I should get a proper job but the joy of playing is all I’ve ever craved. All the other stuff doesn’t mean much. There’s millions of bass players I’m still feeding from and the beauty of music is that you never get to a place where you know everything.”


But you’ve now got your own band and you’re touring after the release of Faith & Grace in 2013.

“It came together last year. I never intended to go out solo and make an album but it all came together. Gilad Atzmon, who plays sax for the Blockheads, I’ve heard some of his production and it blew me away. I told him I had some pieces I’d written that I wanted to record for myself and asked him to help. He heard them and he said I should make a CD, my then-wife said the same and it got me thinking.

Gillad got me singing and saying I could do Ian’s songs plus I had some more ideas. We started doing it then my wife suddenly died, I put it on the shelf for a year or so until my friends got me out of myself and encouraged me to finish it. Then it was finished at the time when Wilko was talking about dying, he was doing his farewell tour and there wasn’t much happening afterwards so I out together a tour with the band that had played on the album, which had come out. Wilko was guesting occasionally, he wasn’t committing to anything because he was basically waiting to die, so I did a tour, then after about 15 gigs Wilko wanted to do something else because he was still here.

“I use Gilad on sax, Frank Harrison on keyboards and Dylan Howe on drums. They’re busy working all the time so I have to treat my band as a project when I’m not with the Blockheads or Wilko. People think I’m doing a solo career but it didn’t occur to me like that, circumstances led into it and now I’ve got this amazing four piece that I enjoy taking out. I play the album, a couple of Blockheads and Wilko songs and an instrumental version of Rythmn Stick, which of course I have to play.”

A question which always intrigues me, and you may be able to answer because you were around at the time. When Dr Feelgood started, were they thought of as the Big Thing the music scene had been waiting for, or was there a feeling that they were paving the way for something even bigger?

“I loved the original Feelgoods, Wilko and Lee had incredible power. The first time I saw them was at the Kensington in London and it was no bullshit, no frills r’n’b. I could see all the people who got off on that, and that was the exciting time for me, I didn’t think something bigger was going to come, this was just where it was.

“Then I got to know Wilko, he had an office off the Fulham Road near where I live. Topper Headon had the same flat afterwards. A lot of young kids would hang around all night because they knew Wilko and Lemmy were the speed freaks of the seventies, it was Billy Idol, Sid, Rotten. They learned from the Feelgoods that anyone could just get up and play. When we look back we realise how important the Feelgoods were for punk; learn three chords and bang it out.”

So you were there at the beginning of punk and you were also arguably there at its ends, when you played on the Clash’s final album Cut the Crap. Did those sessions feel like the end of an era?

“I played on Sandanista as well, but Cut the Crap was just me and Joe. There wasn’t anyone else from the Clash on that. I don’t people thought it was ending, Joe was being very positive with his music and I was thinking it was starting something new. Things come to an end because people grow in different directions, everything changes and you have to go with it, which is one of the things I got from Joe. He was in a different place when he did that because he was on his own, back with Bernie Rhodes and he was a different guy. We were enjoying it because it was still good music and he was still positive with where he was going.

Joe went on to do the Mescaleros and Tymon Dogg, the Mescaleros were a great band, Joe introduced me to Tymon and I played on his album. I’d known Joe for many years and in all that time I knew him he was so positive, he would always try to be up about things and he was always like that whatever was going on.”

You’ve played with all those great names, you were involved with so many iconic musicians. Who was the one that got away, the one who you look back and think should have been as big as the others?

“Hmmm, I’d have to think about it. Eric, Wreckless Eric, there’s one I always thought could do it. Ian felt that Eric was the next great lyric writer, he’s an amazing songwriter and he wrote a book which very good. Yeah, I love Eric’s songs. He could have been as good as Ian and Elvis Costello but he never got the recognition he should have done.”

Norman Watt-Roy plays the Hare & Hounds, Kings Heath on Wednesday 14th October.