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Friday, January 20, 2012

(3rd in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Spotlight on Bill Wyman: The Power of a Passive Presence"


Song: Rocks Off
Album: Exile on Maine Street
Released: May, 1972

Spotlight on: Bill Wyman

As was the case for many who grew up in the 70’s, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was required reading for me in middle school.  The story of Ponyboy, his brothers, and the rest of a gang of “greasers” caught my imagination.  On reflection, some of my interest was a bit hard to decipher.  For example, the similarity in the naming of two of the main characters, Dally and Darry, was clever to me, which I now believe had the effect of the storyline seeming more real.  I was also interested in the age range of the gang and how the oldest, toughest guy (Dally) was strongly (and ultimately tragically) affected by the youngest and most fragile (Johnny). 

Of most interest to me, however, was the variety in the gang’s personalities:  It seemed like every character trait I could think of was personified by one or another.   And each of these characters brought something powerful to the collective whole.  I eventually gained firsthand knowledge of this experience in the three motley crews of which I have since been a part of in Franklin, Ottawa, and North Adams (the short-lived “TH#1” crowd that I discussed several years ago in my Gem Videos).  

Group dynamics is also a reason why I’ve read a number of books about bands.  I find it fascinating how, not just skills, but personalities, can shape music.  As with The Outsiders, when I first read a book about the Stones back in high school, I was intrigued by the range of personalities.  If the band was just Mick Jagger types or Keith Richards types, I would not have picked up the book in the first place.  The reason:  The Stones would never have been as good as they turned out to be.  Other personalities were needed to produce such a depth and breadth of music.  When you add it all up, the Stones have had this range of personalities in spades.

Thinking back on my earliest reading on the Stones I recall there was one band member, Bill Wyman, who was seldom mentioned.  He was on all the album covers as an equal member, and in all the group photos, but there was ne’er any information about him.  Oh, there was the occasional off-handed remark or anecdote, but unlike the others, nothing sustained.  This only got me more interested in what Wyman brought to the table, and in hindsight, I believe this may have been what first got me interested in listening closer to the bass guitar.  The forgotten man and his forgotten instrument were not going to pass me by without further investigation.

Wyman’s role has since been better documented, but not much.  Bill Wyman was a quiet, passive, and to some degree indifferent presence in the Stones circles.  Yet, these traits have over time, been found to be a defining factor in the band’s success.  Passivity can have a powerful effect on others.  It pushes them to impress even more.

Bill Wyman is more of what you would call your traditional backbeat style bass player than, say, John Entwistle (then again, compared to the Ox, everyone is traditional).  But he does have his standout moments.  One that comes to mind is the “vrooming” bass lines at the end of Paint it Black.  Also, the rolling-down-a-hill bass lines at the end of 19th Nervous Breakdown.  Yet another is this week’s Stepping Stone:  Rocks Off. 

Rocks Off opens the Rolling Stones greatest album with a bang.  My favorite parts of the song are the horn/bass refrains which happen ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lNP-x94-SE ) first at the 1:14 (horns) and 1:24 (bass) marks; then again at the 1:58 (horns) and 2:08 (bass) marks; and finally the lengthy refrain to close the song.  I always pictured this as a great conga line opportunity for the Stones on stage (Jagger and guitars in front; horns in the middle; and Wyman and his bass guitar bringing up the rear as the refrain closes with those 7 bass notes).  Open confession:  I’ve often performed air bass guitar in this imaginary conga line while cranking this tune on the stereo.

Other great features of Rocks Off include:
Ø  The opening lyrics where the protagonist switches from first to second person as he tries to interpret what others on the streets think of him (“What’s the matter with the boy”)
Ø  The echo-chamber bridge (“Feel so hypnotized.  Can’t describe the scene”)
Ø  The anticipation the band creates at the end of the bridge just before the line “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me” (2:34)
Ø  The inaudible background lyrics throughout
Ø   The great line “Kick me like you kicked before.  I can’t even feel the pain no more”.

In closing on this Bill Wyman appreciation, here is a great video of Bill being Mick (Jagger):

- Pete

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