Bill Wyman looks back at his time with The Rolling Stones and the changing face of the King’s Road as he prepares to launch Around the World in 80 Years: Photographs by Bill Wyman, at Proud Chelsea
Words: Mark Kebble
When preparing for this interview with Bill Wyman, I didn’t know where to start. As he approaches the age of 80, there’s so much to look back over, not all positive. There’s his current battle against cancer – when asked how he’s feeling, he simply says ‘pretty good’ – a contentious break up from the Rolling Stones, and the controversy that swirled around him and his relationship with Mandy Smith back in the 80s.
Then there’s intriguing aspects of his life that may not be so well documented. I love the fact he created his very own metal detector to assist with his love of archaeology, there’s his restaurant empire, and also the fact he is a keen photographer who has exhibited all around the world. The latter is something we will see up close this month when Around the World in 80 Years: Photographs by Bill Wyman opens at Proud Chelsea, which will mark his birthday.
‘It should be nice,’ he remarks on that fact. ‘There should be lots of my friends turning up. The gallery have made a nice choice from my thousands of photographs.’
Perfect timing, too, for Stones fans lamenting the end of the Saatchi Gallery’s special retrospective on 50 years of the band. Wyman has mixed feelings on Exhibitionism. ‘It was a fine portrayal of the present band,’ he says, with the word ‘present’ hanging in the air. ‘I was disappointed there was nothing on Mick Taylor and there could have been more on Brian Jones, the creator of the band.’
It’s tough to detect any bitterness in his answers, but the fact Wyman is marking his 80th birthday with an extraordinarily candid portrait of the band in their early formative years perhaps highlights that he sees his time in the band as one to remember – perhaps not so when he moved on to pastures new. There doesn’t appear time to delve into his Stones’ past – ‘It was a very enjoyable 30 years and something I am proud of,’ is all he says – but maybe his photos speak more than words.
I try my best to photograph a subject while they are occupied doing something else, preferably not looking at the camera. The photography just filled in the years of hanging around between the journeys and the hotel rooms
Around the World in 80 Years shows life on the road with the Stones and catches the band, more often than not, unaware. ‘I try my best to photograph a subject while they are occupied doing something else,’ he says on his style, ‘preferably not looking at the camera. The photography just filled in the years of hanging around between the journeys and the hotel rooms.’
There are some extraordinary pictures in the exhibition: a shot of Ronnie Wood and David Bowie relaxing in LA after Wyman’s solo recording session at The Record Plant; Mick Jagger tasting something rather unpleasant during a recording session in the Bahamas; Keith Richards sporting a black eye, dished out to him by Chuck Berry, reputedly for playing too loudly at the latter’s concert; and a snap that captures how big the band had become, taken backstage before playing to 90,000 fans at the JFK Stadium.
It’s also rather apt that the exhibition is being staged at Proud Chelsea on the King’s Road, given it’s where it all began for Wyman and the Stones. He first met Jagger, Richards and Jones at The Wetherby Arms in 1962, close to where the band shared a flat on Edith Grove, and soon joined as their bassist.
The King’s Road is not what it was in the 60s, but it’s still a great street to walk along, for shopping, restaurants and galleries. It has so much Stones history
‘It’s in a commanding position on the King’s Road,’ he says on Proud Chelsea, ‘which has so much Stones history. The King’s Road is not what it was in the 60s, but it’s still a great street to walk along, for shopping, restaurants and galleries. I do miss the wonder of shops selling classic clothes, where we would shop for stage wear, and great children’s shops like Kids In Gear, where I bought fabulous clothes for my very young son.’
He may be about to celebrate his eighth decade, but Wyman shows no signs of slowing down. He’s about to finish a book, on Chelsea no less, as well as another publication featuring his photos of nature. Looking back, given the highs and lows of his life and career, does he have any regrets? There’s not even a pause. ‘None whatsoever… But I feel I have achieved more personally in the last 20 years since I left the Stones that I ever did while I was in the band.’
Around the World in 80 Years: Photographs by Bill Wyman will be exhibited at Proud Chelsea from 19 October-27 November 2016
Bill Wyman meeting the rest of the Rolling Stones at the start of the 60s is just one part of the King’s Road’s extraordinary musical legacy. During that decade it became the renowned centre of mod culture, and soon King’s Road became home to some important pioneers in music. Chelsea Drugstore opened there, followed in the 1970s by Malcolm McLaren’s boutique, Let It Rock (renamed SEX in 1974, and then Seditionaries in 1977).
As time wore on, fashion became more important than music, but still there were notable landmarks from the scene. Number 484 was the HQ of Swan Song Records, owned by Led Zeppelin, and 535 was the home of Cube Records, an independent record label (later becoming part of Elektra Records). A sign of the times, most of these famous buildings are now owned by fast food chains and coffee shops – but the King’s Road’s position in music history remains untouched.