This is an excerpt from the all-new NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus features on former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s new album, country rebel Dwight Yoakam, electric blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s vintage guitar collection, rare photos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.
NO STONE UNTURNED: Fifty years ago, Ronnie Wood sought success with a band called the Birds. His recently published diary from 1965 reveals a fascinating look at Swinging London’s vibrant music scene during that time.
By Chris Gill | Photos by Justin Borucki
Ronnie Wood’s history with the Rolling Stones over the last 40 years is very well documented. For anyone curious to find out painstaking details about his experiences with “the world’s greatest rock and roll band,” there are numerous books to consult. Similar comprehensive retellings of Wood’s experiences with the Faces between 1969 and 1975 and with the Jeff Beck Group before that are also readily available, but most accounts of Wood’s first professional band, the Birds (a.k.a. the Thunderbirds), who Wood played with for more than four years between 1963 and 1967, generally amount to about a page at most in any of the printed resources about Wood’s background.
Fortunately Wood kept meticulous diaries of his experiences with the Birds during that time, and even more fortunately his mother saved his journals from the dustbin. Genesis Publications recently reproduced Wood’s diary from 1965—a pivotal year for the band as well as rock music in England—with the limited edition book How Can It Be? A Rock and Roll Diary, which is an amazingly detailed reproduction of Wood’s actual diary. In addition to Wood’s handwritten daily notes and illustrations, the book includes rare photos from this era of both the Birds and the bands that were its contemporaries at the time, Wood’s recent footnotes that add further perspective, loose facsimiles of documents and other ephemera, and a seven-inch vinyl record featuring Wood’s newly recorded version of the Birds’ single “How Can It Be?”
“As far as I can remember, I kept diaries of 1963, ’64, ’65, and part of ’66,” says Wood. “The 1965 one, which my brothers kept after my mum looked after them, was the best looking one. It was leather-bound with gold trim and was a beautiful looking book. When I found it again, it looked like lost treasure. It was a lovely little find. We thought it would be a great idea to reproduce it as close as we could to the original.”
As great as the book itself looks, the notes inside are the true treasure for anyone who is a fan of the music that emerged from England during the mid Sixties. “There was a lot going on at that time,” Wood recalls. “The Birds were very busy and trying to get better all the time. We’d gather in the gig wagon and off we’d go to play shows almost every night of the week. I kept my journal to sum up how the audiences were, how we played, and how much money we made. It was a sliding scale that kept rising. We went from making 50 pounds to 75 pounds to 100 pounds. We always would compare what we were making to the Stones, who were making 250 pounds a night back then. We kept going, ‘We’re getting there!’
“We had many miles clocked up and down the motorways of England,” Wood continues. “We had to get a huge Marshall P.A. into the back of the wagon along with the drum kit, all of the other amps and guitars, and all of the band members and our roadie. We worked almost every night of the week. It was quite an adventure. But we were so young that it used to just bounce off of us. We were always on to the next gig.”
In addition to providing a vivid account of Swinging London’s 1965 rock music scene, How Can It Be? reveals that the Birds were a much bigger deal than the footnote-like accounts of the band in most historical books would suggest. While the band never released a full-length album and failed to “invade” the United States like many other popular British rock bands did at the time, they released three singles for the Decca label in 1964 and ’65 and another single for Robert Stigwood’s Reaction label in 1966. As the book displays, the band was a major live attraction, often sharing bills with bands like the Who, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, John Mayall, and the Kinks.
The cast of characters, often discussed nonchalantly in Wood’s 17-year-old voice (example: on February 24, 1965 he wrote, “Discovered first second-hand news about Eric leaving Yardbirds,” a note made two-and-a-half weeks before the widely acknowledged March 13 date of Clapton’s departure), also reveals the Birds’ stature on the scene. Wood writes candidly about his friendship with Keith Moon, who gave him a diamond Piaget watch complete with the receipt and customs forms, likely igniting Wood’s passion for fine watches that continues to this day, and a character named Lemmy is also mentioned several times, who was the band’s roadie and later went on to play with Hawkwind and form the band Motörhead.
Those passages are very entertaining and enlightening, but readers who play guitar will likely find the most enjoyment in Wood’s tales of buying his first Marshall amp and 4×12 cabinet from Jim Marshall’s shop in Hanwell, his thoughts on his early guitars, the daily rigors of traveling to gigs, and his rivalry with the band’s other guitarist, Tony Munroe. “It was a friendly rivalry,” Wood explains. “I’d bounce ideas off of him, and we’d usually end up arguing about them. That still goes on to this day! (laughs) Me and Pete Townshend had a different sort of rivalry back then to see who could get the loudest. We kept on pushing Jim Marshall to make amps with more watts and volume controls that went up to 12!”
Marshall enthusiasts and historians will be surprised to see Wood’s entry for September 24, 1965, where he mentions getting a 100-watt head and 8×12 speaker cabinet from the Marshall shop (“a knockout sound,” he proclaimed). Previously it was thought that Marshall made only six 8×12 cabinets—two for Pete Townshend, two for John Entwistle, and two display models that the Small Faces eventually bought. Wood states in his recent footnote that he suggested the idea of a cabinet with eight speakers to Jim Marshall, and “Pete Townshend came in and went, ‘You bastard!’” The fact that the Who were first seen with their 8×12 cabinets on November 13, 1965 and Wood took delivery of his custom cabinet in September gives his claim that he was the person who conceived the 8×12 considerable legitimacy.
“Jim’s shop was great,” says Wood. “We’d go there all the time to get our guitars and amps fixed or buy new gear. Marshall would build custom amps to your specifications. Terry Slater who worked there used to do us favors and help us out with easy payments. He had a weak spot for me. He’d say, ‘It’s okay, Ronnie. You can take it away and try it out. Just pay me as soon as you can.’ All I needed to do was get permission from my parents as guarantors since I was under 18. Terry used to play with all of the American artists who came to London to play. He’d always play with the Everly Brothers, which I thought was the most incredible thing. He’d say, ‘I’m playing the Albert Hall with the Everly Brothers,’ and I’d go, ‘Wow!’ That was just unheard of…”
This is an excerpt from the all-new NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2015 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this story, plus Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s new album, country rebel Dwight Yoakam, electric blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa’s vintage guitar collection, rare photos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.