Interview with bass icon NORMAN WATT-ROY (June 2013)

After a 46 year career that has made him a bass icon, Norman Watt-Roy finally has finally recorded his first ever solo album ‘Faith & Grace’ – cockney rhyming slang for bass.

With a career that started with playing American air force bases, he moved to bands like The Greatest Show On Earth, Glencoe, Loving Awareness, Wilko Johnson Ian Dury and The Blockheads, as well as laying down his trademark bass riffs for Frankie Goes To Hollywood (‘Relax’) The Clash (The Magnificent 7), Madness and the likes of Nick Cave. Norman almost fell into making his own album by accident, but once he had decided to cut it, his creative levels went into overdrive.

Pete Feenstra spoke to Norman Watt Roy about his past, present the future, starting with the new album, complete with a over sketch by famed pop artist Sir Peter Blake.

Given your long and illustrious career, how come you never did this before?

Well be honest I wasn’t going to make an album, but it kind of came together very easily. After I started recording a couple of ideas I had with my producer Gilad Atzmon (a fellow Blockhead and top session player) – and it led on to other things.

I had a couple of instrumental things I wanted to record and Gilad helped me with it and he said you should do some more. And then my missus sort of got behind him and said, yeah he’s right, and that got me into it. I started it and unfortunately very suddenly my missus died, and I couldn’t finish it for a while, so it just sat their until a couple of years later and then I got back into it when I pulled myself out of my misery

Because of the gap, was there a change from what you originally had in mind?

Yeah Originally I was doing some instrumentals and then Gilad said why don’t you sing a little bit and he encouraged me to cover a couple of songs by people I’d worked with like Ian and Wilko, so I covered ‘Billericay Dickey’ and ‘Roxette’ from Wilko.

How come ‘Roxette’ is a much slower arrangement?

I changed the arrangements to both songs as I didn’t want to do them like The Blockheads or Wilko had originally done them. So I thought of some new arrangements for both songs and they ended different and slower. On ‘Roxette’ we used organ, horns and everything and I got Wilko to come along and sing it. I sang ‘Billericay Dickey’ and Sarah Gillespie also sings on ’Save It’ which I wrote with her.

How did you know her?

She’s an old friend. I’ve known her for a long time and I like her style and lyrics. She’s written some great songs on her albums and I asked her if she wanted to do some lyrics with me and she said yeah, brilliant.

Given Gilad Atzmon’s jazz pedigree, it’s amazing you didn’t work together before? 

Well yeah, exactly, we worked in The Blockheads together for 15 years but never thought about anything like this. I just wanted to put some instrumentals down and then we sort of got together after that.

When did you start work on it?

Just about 4/5 years ago

Was it always your intention to include something of Ian Dury on the album or was that Gilad Atzmon’s idea? 

No. right from the beginning I realised I needed more songs, and when Gilad asked for more material and stuff, I though I’d cover one of Ian and Wilko’s songs. And I even covered a Jaco Pastorius song, just to pay homage my hero. I’ve also done a jazz standard ‘My Foolish Heart’ because it was a favourite of my wife Patty

Have you written much down the years?

Musically? I wrote a lot with the other Blockheads on a lot of the material and also with Ian of course, but I never sat down to do a whole album’s worth of material before (laughs).

‘Faith & Grace’ is essentially a thinly disguised jazz album. Do you think you will have to you drag Blockheads fans over to the album?

Yeah probably, but I think a lot of Blockheads fans will understand it, they know I love jazz as I’ve thrown in a lot of jazz things down the years, even when I’ve played with Wilko. I think it will be ok to play live and I think I will be able put it across to them. I know initially the people who will come and see us will be Ian and Wilko fans and that’s why I wanted to connect them with ‘Billericay Dickie’ and ‘Roxette’ and stuff.

Did the autobiographical thread slowly emerge as you worked on the record, or was that the aim from the start?

When we got down to it I wanted it to be a cross section of everything I’ve ever done, you know what I mean? I didn’t purely want to come out with a jazz album that would alienate me from the people that know me.

But at same time as well, I was thinking it was a good way to try and make something that wasn’t what people might expect. It’s like a cross section AND I have to say I’m claiming back my riffs. In those days you couldn’t copyright the bass riffs and so I kind of gave them away.

I saw Mick Jones from the Clash a couple of weeks ago and told him I’d recorded ‘The Magnificent 7’ riff on one of my songs on the album, and he said, well it’s your riff! That is also why I included the Frankie riff, the ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ riff and all that stuff.

‘Me My Bass I’ is a very clever autobiographical track tracing your career, but you missed out bands like Glencoe?

Yeah ha ha, and I missed quite a few other bands too But that was the period after my brother Garth, but I do mention Charlie (Charles) Micky (Gallagher) and Johnny (Turnbull) and Johnny and me were both in Glencoe.  There were a few bands I had to skip over as I call it boys from a bad age

Were you and Davey Payne the jazzers in The Blockheads? I think he was into Roland Kirk wasn’t he?

I suppose so yeah, but Davey was more out there than me. He was into Albert Ayler who I hadn’t heard of until I met him and Eric Dolphy etc., and he turned me on to stuff that I now like. I suppose me and Davey were the more jazzier ones yeah.

Apparently you wanted Nick Cave or Robert Wyatt to sing on ‘Me My Bass & I’. That suggests you had some sort of overall concept of the whole thing?

Well I worked with Nick on some solo work and toured Italy and Iceland with him. Initially I had the basic piece of music and was hoping he could do a narrative over it, as I love his work, he’s a great poet. I also thought of someone like Robert Wyatt, and sent them the track and said if you feel can do something for it that would be great, but if not don’t worry because I don’t want it to come out as if you were writing something for the sake of it.

They were great and they loved the track but Nick said he didn’t really know what to do with it. A couple of months later Gilad said why don’t you do something on it yourself and I said I don’t really have any lyrics, so he suggested doing my story. He said he’d interview me and make it into a piece that would fit the music and it came together really quickly like that

Didn’t you ever think about producing it yourself?

Hmm that’s interesting. No I honestly didn’t think about that, I have to say on the production level Gilad helped me a lot on that as he is a fantastic producer. He’s also a brilliant musician and had done a lot of production before and in Israel when he was younger. I’d heard some of his stuff and that what made me want to use him as his production is incredible.

He’s great in the studio and knows what he is doing. I also know what I’m doing too, but we also had Philip Bagnall (he did the early sessions for Ian’s ‘New Boots & Panties’ and we demo’d the early 70’s sessions in his basement studio). So we both wanted to use him as well, and that combination blew me away and the production on the album is incredible.

I particularly like the clever use of voice samples and the musical collage.

There’s a track called ‘Papa-Chu-Pap’ which kind of came to me in a dream I had. I dream’t I was playing with Wilko in the dream and suddenly it turned into The Blockheads and then Ian was there. I got all of them muddled up in a dream, so I wanted to recreate that sort of collage of Ian and Wilko and everything live and put it all over my bass solo.

So I was looking for some of Ian’s verbals. I thought we had some tracks of him talking the way he did and actually that’s where the name of the album came from.  He used to announce me as the man with the face, from outer space on his faith & grace – faith and grace being rhyming slang for the bass.

Anyway I couldn’t find that recording, but there was another recording of him saying that, so in the end we used something from last ever show we did at The Palladium. It’s the one you hear after ‘Billericay Dickie’ when he says: ‘14 stone in the blue corner’ etc.

Do You think you can drag some of your Blockheads fans over to the more jazzier elements of your playing on this album?

Yeah I hope so, but I think a lot of them will understand it as they know I love jazz and played a lot of jazz even with Wilko.  When I play, I can put it across live to them, and I think that at the start it will be Wilko and Blockheads fans that will be drawn to this album so I think it will be ok, yeah.

Going back to Ian Dury, was it always The Blockheads intention to carry on after he died?

That was the decision we actually had to make. After he died we didn’t do any work but people kept asking us and we had loads of hits on the site, so in the end we chose Dingwalls to do a show.  We didn’t have a new singer, but we got Derek ‘The Draw’ Hussey who had been with us for the last 20 years.  Ian used to make him sing a few songs at the end of the show when he came to take Ian off stage.

So we said to Derek, the fans know you, so you do as much as you can and then Phil Jupitus  helped us out as he knew loads of the words. And a few other people like Keith Allen, Mark Lamarr and people like that, said they would do something and the result was that the Dingwalls gig went well. And we all still get a buzz from it because we still enjoy playing our music.

We’re proud of the music and we’ve grown together as musicians and now we’ve got new things to play and it keeps Ian’s and our music alive. In fact the gigs we do today are still going great.

While The blockheads songs were co written by Ian and Chaz Jankel, is it true to say that the band’s overall funky sound developed from specific band members like yourself and Micky?

I think if you are lucky enough to have musicians that have some character in their playing, then you will have always have those different influences.  Ian knew that, Chaz knew that and well, I think we all knew that. That’s what we all try and do as  musicians anyway. Each contribution affects the overall picture.

Was there a problem with the writing on ‘Laughter’ after Chaz left?

A little bit. When Chaz left, Ian was searching for new people to write with and that’s how ‘Laughter’ came about as Wilko had joined by then and he wrote some of the stuff. ‘Superman’s Big Sister’ was an example of how the style changed a bit.

‘Where’s The Party’ has been described as: ‘Tower Of Power meets Steely Dan’. Was that the point when you realised the band had something in their own right?

Yeah but I think that album helped us because it gave us the chance to do something on our own. We found after that we wanted someone like Derek to do all the singing, rather than all of us trying to help. I think there’s Johnny and Chaz singing a couple of songs on that album and it doesn’t sound like the same band sometimes.

What was it like working with Don Cherry?

Oh unbelievable.  He was a fantastic musician a beautiful guy and a real calming influence on The Blockheads at that time as well. He was also older than us. He saw us backstage in Norway and said how much he enjoyed it and said he’d love to come and jam with us, and we said you can come on tour with us any time and stay as long as you like. He played with us in Norway and carried on and played on the UK tour. He was such cool guy to have on the road, what a lovely guy. He calmed us down a little bit when we were wild.

How did Ian put his lyrics across to the band as part of a song?

He had sheets of paper with words basically all over his place.  You’d go round his house and there would be hundreds of bits of paper everywhere. You’d pick anyone of them and it would have bits of verse on it and I’d say, Ian this is great and he’d go nah I’ve got a better one here, look at this! The first time I ever met him and the first lyric I think I ever saw of his was ‘Clever Trevor’

I was looking at it and reading it and thought this is incredible, as I’d never read a lyric like that and it blew me away as no one was writing lyrics like that, you know:  ‘just cos I aint never ad, no, nothing worth having, never ever, never ever. You ain’t got no call not to think I wouldn’t fall, into thinking that I ain’t too clever’.

Are you going to do any dates in support of your album?

I’ve got a launch at Rough Trade July 24 and then in October and November we’ve got a 16 date tour of the UK, and I’m going to use as many of the musicians  on the album as possible.

I know Gilad will be doing it and hopefully some of the others including Sarah, Azaf Sirkis,  Dylan Howe perhaps,  and I’ve got Onnie (McIntyre) from the Average White band, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. And if Wilko is still around he might want to do something. The album is on Cadiz, the same as Wilko’s ‘Oil City Confidential’.

Interview © June 2013 Pete Feenstra


The latest Facebook Live session from Canadian singer-songwriter Josh Taerk Sunday 21 February, 16:00 EST, 21:00 GMT

More about Josh:

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 7 February 2021 and includes the Top 10 albums at for that week.

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