Ron Wood Sticks His Neck Out

Stones guitarist releases his third solo album and prepares a star-studded tour

Ron Wood Rolling Stones
Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Ron Wood performs at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York on May 7th, 1979.
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A squall of typhonic guitars blares through the walls of a Culver City soundstage, as if in retort to the blustery wind that's been slamming around this bare movie lot for the last hour or so. Inside, Ron Wood is guiding Keith Richards through the chord changes to "Come to Realise," one of Wood's catchier odes to sexual possession. Gradually, almost mincingly, Richards alters his phrasing — yanking up hard on the offbeat, then suspending crucial beats in the "Tumbling Dice"-like chorus — until Wood follows suit with a bemused grin, parroting the movements of Keith's lithe hands.

From that point on, it becomes a classic display of the two Rolling Stones guitarists' near-telepathic affinity: Woody careens through the song, playing smoothly crafted, clarion leads and rhythms, while Richards complements him with funky rhythmic embellishments and terse leads. Yet somewhere Wood's and Richards' styles merge, until it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Actually, this rock & roll communion is merely the two guitarists' way of killing some spare time as they rehearse for their most provocative venture yet: a Rolling Stones-proportion tour of America, minus the rest of the Rolling Stones. It's a one-shot blitz designed foremost to promote Wood's raucous new album, Gimme Some Neck, and at present, the band — which calls itself the New Barbarians and which made its debut at Richards' April 22nd benefit shows for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — includes former Small Faces pianist Ian McLagan, Meters drummer Joseph "Zigabo" Modeliste, saxophonist Bobby Keyes and former Return to Forever bassist Stanley Clarke.

Beyond that, though, Wood — who's never led his own tour before and doesn't seem overly enthralled with the idea of being alone in the spotlight — has also invited Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, David Bowie, Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart (who has his own tour to do) to appear separately or jointly at several of the shows. Suddenly, the post-Woodstock fantasy about the leading rock stars all materializing on the same stage seems like it may become a reality. In fact, only Jeff Beck has flatly refused to play.

Ron Wood: Rolling Stones Are Born, Not Made

Of course, whether any of the others actually turn up is another matter. But the list of Wood's friends speaks well for his standing in the British-cum-Malibu rock community. "I'd especially hoped that Neil Young would join us," Wood tells me. "After all, he's the one who named us the New Barbarians. But I think his film and new baby have weighed a lot heavier on him than he expected. Last I heard, he still wants to turn up for a few shows. I think even Mick — who'd said he was going to do some filming while we toured — is considering joining us for as many gigs as possible.

"Actually, it would be nice if ticket buyers see it as a Rolling Stones tour," Wood chortles, and then deadpans: "No, I shouldn't say that, not with people like Stanley Clarke helping out. I don't want to misrepresent it, and I don't want people coming in the hope of hearing Mick. I'm doing most of the singing, and if it's a disaster, then let it fall on me. Actually, I wasn't thinking of touring at all, but Gimme Some Neck came out so well that I thought it was the right time. I just need a little reassurance; then I'll throw my energies back into the Stones and that'll be it."

At one a.m., Clarke, who's just completed a twelve-hour mixing session for his own album, strides into the rehearsal, toting his custom-made Alembic bass like a featherweight tennis racket. Immediately, the band assembles for a run-through of the still-evolving repertoire, with Wood and Richards sharing a double-headed microphone in the center of a stage painted in blood-red swirls.

As the band members work their way through a sprinkling of songs from Wood's three solo albums, plus a couple of reggae and South African tunes, it becomes apparent that this unit is even more rhythm-obsessed than the Stones. In some songs, like the funky blues "Am I Groovin' You," the whole focus and texture of the rhythm section inverts, with Wood and Richards preserving a thrumming version of the basic pulse while Modeliste and Clarke overlay it with a fervid melodic-percussive dialogue.

Modeliste was suggested to Wood by Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who had been impressed by his ability to play both a no-frills backbeat and a galloping lead bass; Clarke joined the band after he and Wood met at a London club and expressed mutual admiration for each other's work.

"It's funny," says Clarke, "but some people have said, 'Stanley, you're a jazz artist. How can you do this?' Jazz may be more progressive, but in some ways this music is less restrictive. This band may not be quite as tight, say, as Return to Forever, but then in rock & roll and rhythm & blues, music is secondary to emotion. In that respect, this is some serious shit we're playing."

In a way, the biggest charge of this event for me is seeing Keith Richards and Stanley Clarke in the same band. Not only does Clarke stand a head taller than Richards — or anyone else in the band, for that matter — but he cut his teeth on the music of Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, while Keith learned from the songs of Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry. What's being created here hardly qualifies as "fusion" music, but it does seem at moments — like during Clarke's and Richards' funky contrapuntal dialogue in "Infekshun" — that two forks of the same blues-based tradition have been forged in some mighty floodwaters. Richards himself, dressed in a Rastafarian T-shirt and dancing to his own rhythms like a giddy eel, looks more electrified than I've ever seen him onstage.

It's a little rough being objective with a coliseum-size sound system raging away twenty feet in front of my face, but it seems to me that this band, even without any extra stellar bonuses, might be the liveliest thing to happen to rock & roll since, well, punk.

Ron Wood, at thirty-one the youngest Rolling Stone, has always had a knack for kicking up the right band. His first solo effort, I've Got My Own Album to Do, recorded in 1974 when the Faces were still together, featured a support group composed of, among others, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Mick Taylor, Rod Stewart, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. His second LP, Now Look, released in the middle of his maiden 1975 tour with the Stones, was reproduced by Bobby Womack (who wrote "It's All Over Now," one of Stewart and the Faces' best concert songs). Both were very much the records of a man — and rock sensibility — in transition, moving from the fading funkiness of the Faces to the intense luster of the Stones.

The new Columbia album, Gimme Some Neck, is the first on which Wood's bawdy, guileless personality clearly reigns (although Jagger, Richards, Dave Mason and Mick Fleetwood make brief appearances). It's a clamorous, crass, raw rock & roll record — something like a cross between the Faces' A Nod's as Good as a Wink and the Stones' Some Girls — and at the heart of it is one of the most massive guitar-and-drum alliances (the latter played by Charlie Watts) ever recorded. But perhaps the most striking thing about the album is Wood's vocals; with his thick-tongued, slithering inflections, Woody sounds like a stormy Bob Dylan (especially on "Seven Days," a song Dylan wrote).

"It's strange. I spend a lot of my time singing with Mick and Keith and I end up sounding like Dylan," muses Woody, seated on a paunchy sofa in the retreat-like grandeur of his Pacific Palisades home. The flare from a burning fireplace illuminates the lines of exhaustion settling into his gaunt face after a week of rehearsals. Still, Woody's an animated, avid host, giving me a modest tour of his drawings and antiques, carting out his new toy — a tenor saxophone — to demonstrate his reed facility ("Bowie's very impressed; my family's very pissed"), and proudly playing a videotape that features a sextet of Ron Wood's mugging their way through "Seven Days." As we watch it, he says, "My singing here reminds me a bit of that Mark Knopfler guy in Dire Straits. I asked Dylan about him and he said, 'Yeah, he sounds like the way I used to sound.' Wait till he hears this."

Gimme Some Neck is also Woods first effort with producer Roy Thomas Baker, who works with Queen and the Cars as well. "I guess I kind of fall somewhere in between them, don't I?" Wood titters. "Roy had heard the earlier records, and the first thing he said was, 'We don't want to make a second-rate Stones album, and we don't want your vocals to go down the way they did before.' He always seemed so unimpressed with what I was doing that I began hearing myself more critically, too. All I wanted on those first records was a one-off, back-room sound. This time, I got a back-room sound produced to the full.

"But I refuse to get too refined about making records. I like the earthy approach to rock & roll, which is why the Stones aren't real different for me. They've been saying all along what I've been trying to get at."

Looking back, Wood's ascension into the Rolling Stones seems more a product of rock's version of natural selection than an act of his own artful ambition. Ever since his mid-Sixties stint with an R&B-influenced Mod group from London called the Birds — which enabled him to form friendships with Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Mick Taylor — Wood has been acquiring a reputation as one of British rock's most eager and valuable players, as well as one of its most jovial. Woody is considered a bit of a self-styled clown, which is not to be confused with a buffoon: his comic exuberance is a welcome respite from the coolness of so many of his British colleagues.

"I don't mind blundering in on someone, and I think that's why I get along well with so many 'rock illuminaries,'" laughs Wood. "I just figure they can't be as hard as you'd think. If somebody was offish, I'd leave, but nobody has been. That's how I came to know Mick and Keith and George Harrison. Thats also how I came to join Jeff Beck. I just rang him up after he left the Yardbirds and said, 'What're you doing?'"

After things with Beck soured in 1969, and Steve Marriott left the Small Faces to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton, Wood persuaded Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagan and Kenney Jones to carry on as the Faces — with him as their new guitarist. After a little time, when no one wanted to be the lead singer, Wood helped encourage his brandy-voiced comrade from the Jeff Beck Group, Rod Stewart, to sit in. Soon after, the Faces became one of the most exciting and enigmatic English bands. While their endearing brand of inebriated camaraderie never translated that well on to record, Stewart and Wood flowered as unforgettable songwriters and showmen. (Once, during the group's early peak period, Mick Jagger tried to contact Wood to see if he had any interest in the Stones. Instead, he spoke to Ronnie Lane, who said, "No thanks. Ronnie's very happy with the Faces." Later, Lane was the first to leave the group.) But Stewart, whose solo career outdistanced the Faces both commercially and artistically, grew restless about music and romance, and by 1974 the Faces' future looked uncertain.

That same year, Mick Taylor left the Rolling Stones, and Jagger and Richards began auditioning guitarists to join them in Munich for their next album, Black and Blue. "Just prior to that," recounts Wood, "I was sitting in the back seat of a car with Mick and Marshall Chess [at that time, president of Rolling Stones Records], and Mick said to me, 'I don't want to split up the Faces — I really dig them — but if you ever want to move on, would you come with us?' I said, 'There's nothing more I'd like, but I am committed in every way to the Faces, so if you could find someone else, that would be better. If you get real desperate, though, ring me up.'

Photos From 'The Faces 1969 to 1975'

"A year later Mick tracked me down in L.A. and said. 'Woody, I'm desperate.' I said, 'Does that mean you want me? Things are a little rough with the Faces and I was planning on dropping by Munich to see how you're getting on.' After Black and Blue and that first tour, I was willing to play with both bands — which I did for a while in 1975 — but then Rod threw in his cards and that made my choice easier. I thought, 'These are my marching orders to work with the Stones full time.'"

Ron pauses, squinting wearily at the fading embers in his fireplace. "I think in his heart Rod wanted me to carry on with him," he says. "But he knew the Stones were much hotter on my list. I knew I'd have no problems with them. Keith, though, had some reservations: he thought we played too similarly. But at this point, the rapport in our styles is perfect; without saying anything, each of us knows when the other is going to cut back to rhythm from a lead, or vice versa. We never even talk about it."

In spite of the spotty Black and Blue (Wood joined during the album's final stages), the Stones seem to be enjoying a creative resurgence since drafting Wood. They have been writing, touring and recording incessantly, and last year they produced one of the decades definitive albums, Some Girls. Several of the band's critics and friends think Woody's chummy restlessness and gritty guitar obsessions have helped fire that rejuvenation, but Wood, typically, discounts his own influence. "I think what I do is give them just a little breathing room, since they know they don't have to accommodate my writing to their playing. With me, it's all just water off a duck's back.

"I'll tell you where my influence really paid off, though, on Some Girls; giving Mick guitar lessons. I encouraged him to play things like 'Respectable,' 'Lies,' 'When the Whip Comes Down' — all that upbeat, punky stuff. Mick felt very punky at the time."

I ask why none of his songs has appeared yet on a Stones album, and Wood draws his face into a bashful shrug. "Because there simply isn't the room," he says. "Whenever I get together with Mick, we play for each other what we've just written, even if it's only a couple of chords toward a song. They're welcome to any of my songs they want; I'm not hoarding them. But coming into the group late, I already had a solo career going, and I thoughtas the rest of the boys did — why sacrifice it? I do have a lot of songs that don't fit the Stones, so why not keep that outlet going? At the moment, it's all very cool — I have a fair opportunity with the Stones."

Theoretically, I point out, Keith Richards is still in jeopardy: Canada's federal crown prosecutor has appealed Keith's sentence to the Supreme Court of Ontario as being "too lenient," seeking six months' imprisonment instead. If Keith had been sentenced to a jail term the first time — or is yet sentenced — where would that leave the Rolling Stones — and Woody?

He peers at the hardwood floor, then answers: There was a time when Keith wasn't showing up much for rehearsals and we had to get used to doing without him. But he spent a lot of time alone in Toronto after that arrest, and faced up to the whole thing. He came out of it with a very confident, clearheaded view of himself, and without a substitute dependency on anything other than his music and his band. I doubt if the group's ever been more solid than it is now. It's a secure feeling knowing the Stones aren't going to be swayed from rock & roll. It's a feeling I need.

"We'll stay onstage for a long time — that's where we feel alive the most. I never want just to make records. That's like being a movie or TV actor — you're never doing it in front of a real audience. I couldn't stand that. You could be seen by millions of people every day and still be the loneliest person in the world."

This is a story from the May 31, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 292: May 31, 1979