Last year we caught up with Rock ‘n’ Rolling Stone royalty Bill Wyman who told us that he was beavering away on a book about Chelsea. Well, now it’s out
Words: Adrian Day
BILL WYMAN is a man who can’t stop. Last year he showed me folders full of material and words that he wanted to gather together in book form as a paean to his beloved Chelsea. It was a dense and sprawling mass that he has remarkably shaped into a must-have guide to the area called Bill Wyman’s Chelsea.
“I started in 2002, actually, but I just did it casually. I wasn’t thinking about a book,” he says of the 240-page tome, which was published last month. “I was taking photos of everything I found interesting. I took 1,800 photos but there’s only like 300 or 250 photos in the book. It’s like a song might be eight minutes long but you have to reduce it to three. Otherwise it won’t get air play.”
The thing about Bill is he has boundless curiosity. In the book there are pages showing displays of unlikely treasures such as coal hole covers and door knockers – he notices everyday objects like that and much more besides.
“I spent four years walking every street,” he says. “If the average person just opened their eyes to what’s around them they could have something really added to their lives. London is a beautiful city – it has so much greenery, which is quite rare for a major city.
“I have always been a bit of a historian. And I am OCD, so that makes me really focused on detail. My best subjects at school were maths and history. So, I carry that through. Music is maths – so there you go again.
“You have to look around. Just take Chelsea Old Church. You’ve got all the names and all the plaques and people that the streets of Chelsea were named after. You can really learn like that.
“I did it musically as well. You know, I went back and did stuff like that with my band, the Rhythm Kings, which was another archaeological dig.”
Bill still regrets that there is no local memorial to John Phene. “He built Margaretta Terrace, the Phene is named after him and he spoke to the council and got them to put trees in the streets to improve the air quality at a time when they were burning coal. There’s not one plaque to him. It is criminal.”
But the book is far removed from a guide penned by someone surrounded by source books – it is clearly written by an author who knows the area intimately. Bill doesn’t just know the facts – he has a love for the streets and a connection with everything. It is erudite but, at the same time, very readable.
“You have to live somewhere to really know it,” says Bill. “I’d love to see the book in Waterstones on the King’s Road and the little John Sandoe bookshop, which I love.”
Bill is keen to share his knowledge too. “Mark Knopfler comes over on his motorbike and we go for a walk. I took him to the Physic Garden and he was absolutely astounded. They’ve got amazing cactus gardens there. I take other people as well.
“All the way up the embankment past Battersea Bridge, on the lefthand side there’s a little garden. And that’s where the James McNeill Whistler statue is. It’s like a seat.
“And then further up is what used to be Cremorne Gardens where they did balloon ascents and stuff. I said to Mark, ‘Look, come in here’ and he said, ‘I’m going to come here with a picnic with my daughter. I never knew this was here.”
But it is also the more recent anecdotal content that entertains and amuses and, of course, Bill was often in the thick of it decades ago as bass guitarist for the Rolling Stones.
“People love the 60s,” he says. “All the bands used to come here and do their shopping – all that dandy fashion. I met Terence Stamp. Well, just seeing him shopping and, you know, not daring to go over and say hello. Then Michael Caine, who I later got to know as a friend.”
He certainly saw the Rolling Stones close up. In the book he describes his audition for the band at the Wetherby Arms – a pub that used to be located at 500 King’s Road.
“There’s a little door where we used to go in to rehearse in the back room,” he says. “That’s where I first met the Stones.”
That meeting led to 30 years of playing on hit records and world tours, as well as worldwide fame with the other band members, most of whom had (and still have) homes locally.
But it’s not just Bill Wyman’s Chelsea that has been keeping him busy – there’s the recent film The Stones and Brian Jones too. “I was historical consultant on that,” he says.
I observe that he is a recorder of life. Without a pause he shoots back: “Yes, mine and other people’s – I’m a nosy bugger.”
Bill certainly isn’t short of things to do: his childhood memoir Billy in the Wars is with the publishers and aiming for an autumn release, as is his solo album.
“It’s almost finished,” he says. “I’ve just done the mixes. Do you like JJ Cale? It’s that kind of mood. It’s getting good reviews, between friends and people. Good stuff. Yeah, it’s never-ending. But that’s the way I like it.”
Bill Wyman’s Chelsea is out now (£16.99, Unicorn)