Russell Webb is a thread that runs through three decades of music. Moving from teenyboppers Slik through to Public Image Ltd is quite a journey. Even more so if it takes in The Skids, Pete Townsend and The Armoury Show.
Although he may have stayed out of the spotlight relatively well, he has played an integral part in the story of punk and post punk.
Likening himself to emergency fire fighter Red Adair, Webb tells us of his role as an ‘emergency bass player’ and of a life made up of brave steps into the unknown and a willingness to not only spot opportunities, but to grasp them with both hands.
Russell Webb is an easy conversationalist and someone who has a wealth of stories to tell. Perhaps because he has not been centre stage, it feels that we are tapping into new viewpoints that have not been brought to our attention as strongly as they deserve to be. His is a tale of life in the frontline but away from the spotlight, a unique trip through the musical landscape of Britain from the 70s onwards.
I ask him whether this seems like on continuous career or if he thinks of it as being broken into different phases. He tells us, “Do you remember Red Adair? He was a troubleshooter, putting out oil well fires and things like that. That’s kind of how I felt. With Slik, which was when I first started playing properly, I felt like my career seemed to follow that kind of path, troubleshooting. If bands had lost a bass player I would get pulled in to support them and ended up becoming a full member rather than a session player. I was too lazy really to be a session player.”
Given the nature of Russell’s career path, I thought that a linear approach would be the best way to approach his story, so discussing his days with Slik would be a good place to start.
Slik were a Bay City Rollers type pop band who had some success, including a number one single with Forever and Ever. They also gave a young Midge Ure his first taste of fame. Russell Webb was drafted in as their bass player in March of 1977, just as the musical tide was turning as punk spread to the provinces.
Sun 13: How do you view your Slik days? It seems like a generation ago, it was a completely different world back then.
Russell Webb: “Absolutely. 1977, it was the end of the Glam era, which is the era I grew up in, it was one of the things that mapped out my musical heritage. I had many and varied tastes, I think that’s what enabled me to slot in quite seamlessly with the various different projects that I got involved in.
“I was filling in for [original bassist] Jim McGinlay when he left and helping the band to finish a tour they had booked. It was just crazy. My first real live gig, apart from working men’s clubs and doing a talent contest, was six thousand screaming teenage girls in Berlin. We went on an airplane, I’d never been out of Glasgow before, apart from Manchester for my holidays.
“And the plane stopped, I didn’t think planes stopped, I thought you got on them and got off where you were going, but this one stopped, I think it was in Munich. Everyone stayed on the plane and these soldiers came on and started checking everyone’s passports and I thought “What is going on?”
S13: This must have changed your life.
RW: “It was pretty fundamental yeah. From looking out of my bedroom window to see if the bus was there so I could get a ride into town to looking out of my bedroom window and seeing fans. But it kind of saved my bacon I think. I was at University in Glasgow studying to be an engineer. And I think that mathematical mind helped my musical development as well. I was about to fail my exams because when I was at University I spent all my time looking for women and drinking and playing darts and stuff like that.
“It was a really weird experience. Everywhere we went there would be huddled groups of teenage girls waiting for Midge and stuff like that. It was a bit of a shock I’ve got to say. It was very short lived, it didn’t last very long, but it did transform my way of looking at the world. I knew there were other places you could go to.”
S13: It must have widened your view of the world.
RW: “Even just touring Britain, going to London. I’d never been to London before. It was a massive turnaround.”
S13: And from there it was PVC2. Was that Slik under a different name or was there a personnel change?
RW: “After the tour, Midge had been speaking to Glen Matlock and he was looking to join the Rich Kids, so we were going to end the band, but try and do it not as teenybop, but take it on a new road, a different trajectory. Midge said, ‘let’s get some original songs together and we’ll put out an EP.’
“Kenny wrote Deranged, Demented and Free, Billy wrote We’re No Angels and I wrote Stuck With You. And it just fucks my head up, it’s really bizarre that my song became the A side of the PVC2 single. I honestly didn’t know where my feet were and the ground was, they didn’t seem connected anymore. I was playing copy guitars you could buy for about 25 quid and now I was playing a Fender and I had a Fender amp. It’s too difficult quantify, for a young person it was all happening before I could catch up to it, it was running away from me in lots of ways. But it was a hell of a time.”
S13: But also, the leap from Slik to PVC2 was a giant leap culturally, almost from the past into the future.
RW: “It was, it was definitely a transitional moment. I didn’t have the past that I had to kind of leave behind, Kenny Hyslop told me that Midge gave me the job in Slik because, and he used to say this about members of the band, because my troosers fitted me.
“Everybody wanted that gig. I was in a queue of about 25 bass players, I was at the end. They were in the street and I could hear it all happening, I could hear all these incredible players doing all the slapping and plucking and that sort of stuff. So I had an idea of what songs they were playing, and it gave me an advantage in the end, because I had my head around the kind of thing they were playing.
“But by the time I got in, I’d lost my nerve and I didn’t know how to play anymore, so I ended up doing the whole audition on one string. It was the last thing I expected, but Midge call me that night and said ‘if you want the job it’s yours.’”
S13: Do you think it helped perhaps coming across as less of a ‘musician’ than the others?
RW: “Yeah, there was definitely a trajectory set at that point into non-pretentiousness I suppose, or rawness, something real. It was just one of those bizarre magical mystery things, all these things converged at the same time.”
S13: Do you ever think that about life, that some things were just fated to happen?
RW: “I’m a huge believer that miracles happen all the time, it’s just how you dress them up in your mind. It might be something not very nice, but it’s still a miracle. You can tell yourself it was an accident or the devil or something else, but I believe it happens all the time.
“Coincidences, you meet people you marry them, you realise you’ve got all this stuff in common that you had no idea you could possibly have in common, you couldn’t describe it. You might say it’s a coincidence, but I think that happens a lot.”
S13: After all this, how much did you throw yourself into the punk scene? Would you look back at and think ‘I was a punk’?
RW: “That’s a tricky one, because there was a lot happening at the time and my tastes were really eclectic. I was really into Kraftwerk and I was really into Bob Marley and the Wailers, I was really into Black Uhuru, a lot of reggae music actually. I was still into ABBA, because I loved the craftmanship of their work. I started listening to Brian Eno after he left Roxy Music. I was like a sponge and music was a god, it was my guiding light, it was the only thing that kept me sane.
“And I was a huge fan of The Who, Quadrophenia, Out Of My Brain and that kind of stuff. Teenage angst expressing itself through anger and frustration. But very rock ‘n’ roll.
“And the word punk comes from America, it’s like a young kid who think they’re better than anybody else and is about to learn a lesson the hard way. And I suppose that was me, I was angry and Glasgow was an uncomfortable place to be. There was a lot of unemployment there and things were looking bleak. Then suddenly I fell into a train that was hurtling past and I grabbed it with both hands.
“The punk thing didn’t last, it only lasted about 9 months full on, then it was new wave and post punk after that.”
S13: And post punk to me was where the experimental side of things took place and Ultravox, Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division were all playing the punk clubs at the time.
RW: “Yeah. But alongside that I remember going to a bar where a lot of bands played and seeing The Police opening up for Dire Straits with about 250 people. When The Zones started, Midge did a recce to see what music was in Glasgow and he came across Willie Gardner playing in a pub with his mates, in a band called Hot Valve, something like that. He came back and said ’I’ve found this guy, I think he can replace me, let’s go and see him’ and we thought ‘Yeah’, he had charisma, he had his own songs, a guitar and synth, so we went for that.
“He had started out with lots of other interesting musicians and performers and it’s kind of like they were set free by the punk explosion. They found they did have a voice.”
S13: And after The Zones you did your Gun For Hire thing with The Skids.
RW: “Yeah, The Zones split up. Going back to what you were saying earlier, The Skids and The Zones crossed paths so many times, even playing the same gigs, The Zones would be opening up for The Skids.
“After The Zones broke up I moved to London, because I’d had it with Glasgow, I couldn’t imagine myself in Glasgow anymore after the experience that I’d had. So I got my bag, I got my bass and I got my amp and I got on a bus, and that was it, I never went back.
“It took some time to establish somewhere to stay, my girlfriend was Harriet Bakewell, Joan Bakewell’s daughter and I lived in a house with her mum for a couple of months while I found somewhere else, a flat of my own. One day I’m walking along Kensington High Street and I hear my name getting called. I thought ‘I’m standing in the middle of fucking London and someone’s shouting my name, what’s going on?’ and it’s Jobson on the other side of the street.
“He runs across the road, towards me this time, usually he walks on the other side of the road if I’m coming along, but he ran over towards me. He was desperate I think, Willy Simpson and Stuart had fallen out and I think Stuart had sacked him. And they had demos to do for their next album. They didn’t have any songs but Stuart had some rough ideas, Stuart always had ideas, he was very prolific.
“They needed a bass player and we’d got on well together, so he ran across and asked me if I wanted to come and help out in the studio, which I did. And in there we wrote A Woman In Winter, I think we wrote Hurry On Boys and I think we wrote Goodbye Civilian. And me and Stuart just clicked, it was just like we were in totally the same place. We listened to lots of different stuff still, he was more Be Bop Deluxe and things like that and I was listening to, I call it Scottish soul.
“So me and Stuart just clicked and that’s something I guess Stuart had been missing in some ways, him and Billy Simpson were really good friends but musically I don’t think they were feeding each other, if that makes sense. In that session Stuart and I were feeding off each other and it was working. I was playing harmonies on the bass to his guitar lines and I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. And the drummer, Mike Baillie, we just hit it off straight away as well. He had a different approach to playing drums, which was right up my street, wanting to do different things. It was a stunning two days without very much sleep.”
S13: One thing that stands out from what you’ve been saying is that we can use the word fate or we can use the word coincidence, but a lot of this has involved some brave moves on your part. There are a lot of brave steps forward from you that have got you where you are.
RW: “I just shut my eyes and jumped off the bridge. The first thing I did when I got to London, I don’t know how this came about, was with Lora Logic, so I had a fusion jazz band going. That was very interesting to deal with, because I’m some tenement kid from Glasgow who was in a teenybop band and a semi-punk band and now I’m playing jazz with Lora Logic. And that would have probably carried on had it not been for Richard running across the road.
“I’m not saying it was brave because I knew somebody who could put me up for a few weeks until I got my feet on the ground and started getting some work, but yeah it was a really scary thing to do. It was a midnight bus as well, so it was a new dawn.”
S13: And then after The Skids, you moved on to The Armoury Show, who remain one of my favourite bands.
RW: “I worked with Pete Townsend first, in his studio in Soho. It was great, because when Pete went home I had all these toys to play with so I started messing about. Richard got wind of it and got in touch with me again.
“We had quite an acrimonious split after the Joy album [their first without Stuart Adamson], which should never have been called a Skids album, but we had to for contractual reasons. I produced that album. The single Iona was a Radio One single of the Week, but we didn’t have a manager. Richard was kind of unmanageable in a lot of ways so we were struggling to get the kind of back room push that bands really need.
“You might be good at what you do, but without the mechanics behind you you’re not really going to get anywhere. Even though we had a record of the week, it just wasn’t enough.
“When The Zones were supporting Magazine on their first tour, I met John [McGeoch] and it was one of those miracles where you know somebody but you don’t know them.”
S13: You’ve worked with some very difficult frontmen, with Richard Jobson and John Lydon, how did you cope with that?
RW: “You haven’t met my mother, have you? They were like pussycats in the bigger picture.
“It was still really hard work, I never wrote with John Lydon, I was just like a hired accomplice while they finished their farewell tour. “
S13: Did that make it easier for you?
RW: “Yeah, there was a distance there which was nice and comfortable. And John [McGeoch] wasn’t really very well so I was holding him as a mate would. By then he’d really succumbed to the demon drink, it was painful to see. But I think in some ways he got me in for that reason, to be there with him so he could just make it through.
And it was a fabulous experience. Of all the people I’ve worked with, with the exception of Townsend, John Lydon was probably the only, and I say this with empathy and respect for everybody I’ve worked with, he was the only really true artist I’ve worked with. He was what he was, he wasn’t pretentious. And he could have walked away at any time, he did have the drive of an artist to perform, he wanted to make a show.”
S13: I interviewed John Lydon once and as soon as he answered the phone he seemed to be instantly in character. Would that be a fair thing to say?
RW: “Yeah, but he’s completely real, he wears his heart on his sleeve. We were in Argentina, Buenos Aires and I’m a huge fan of Jorge Luis Borges, he wrote magical stories that talk about things that are coincidences and aren’t coincidences, synchronicity and that sort of stuff. It was great to be in Argentina walking around these streets that Borges would have been walking around.
“But the point of this is that we’re all stranding outside this rock shop, they like their geodites in Argentina, and I looked up and all these girls came running up screaming and Lydon was like ‘Oh no, not again’, and they ran right past him up to Mike Joyce and were going ‘Mike Joyce, Mike Joyce from The Smiths!’. Lydon was gutted. For two days, he locked himself in his dressing room, that really got to him.”
S13: And so how did your time in PiL come to an end?
RW: “Well it was on the paperwork, when the tour dates were done the band was no more, that incarnation was gone. That was my job done because my partner at the time was about to have a kid. It just seemed to be the right time, I didn’t want to miss my kid growing up by being on tour and stuff like that. I knew a few of the people I’d worked with would complain about that, missing time with their kids, so it just seemed the ideal time.
“It was the last of my public name bands and I used the money to buy myself a psychotherapy course and went into business as a psychotherapist. My mother and the loonies I worked with gave me a lot of experience I could take out into the real world.”
S13: Again, that’s another brave step forward.
RW: “I suppose when a risk has to be taken it has to be taken, I don’t think you have a choice in some ways.”
S13: Looking back, which is the happiest version of Russel Webb?
RW: “I’d have to say with my own band, only a short one called The Ring, that’s probably up there. We were opening up for Chris Frantz from Talking Heads, that was a good experience. It was nice to see Chris Frantz’s band developing, I mean they had Carlos Alomar on guitar and I was like ‘wooh, he played with David Bowie!’ I was like a boy in a sweetie shop.
“But it was good to see them nicking bits of what I was doing with my band. It’s not uncommon, believe me it’s not. It’s just nice to watch it. I’m not being egotistical here by the way, this is my mathematical brain.
“Also, producing Joy with Richard, helping Richard to run his thing rather than just falling on Stuart’s awesome guitar lines, trying to get him away from being this football hooligan, trying to get him to express himself in a more passionate way. I knew there is passion in what he achieved. I suppose I was trying to do the producer thing, that was a good experience.
“Virgin had given me the credibility or the at least the trust to produce an album for a band that was big like The Skids. It was a failure commercially, from a passion point of view it was just amazing to work in Britannia Row studios where Pink Floyd had an office, it was their studio. And again, I was just a wee boy in a sweetie shop.”
S13: It’s been a long journey, but you must look back and think that was a hell of a ride.
RW: “It was. In some ways it still is, I’ve got a little set up at home and I still write stuff and I’ve got a wee gig coming up in the middle of August, with Jean Harripaul. He was a fan, he reached out to me as a fan, he wanted me to sign some stuff. I got communicating with them, became quite good friends and he invited me to open up for him, he’s got an album launch coming up. He wants me to play some good songs with him. It was The Armoury Show that switched him on. I’m not saying I ever influenced him, the stuff with Stuart and Richard and John McGeoch inspired him to pick up the guitar and it’s nice that it’s come full circle and he’s got me opening up for him and playing some of the old stuff together.”
And that feels like the ideal time for this conversation to draw to a close, as we come full circle.
Our time spent talking to Russell Webb has been both entertaining and fascinating. He is a man with stories to be told, a pedigree to turn lesser men pure green with envy and with a view on life that deserves to be heard. He is good company. We wish him well with his future endeavours, but we can look back and be grateful for what he has done so far in popular music.
It is people like Russell Webb who have modern music what it is today. And that is a hell of a thing to be able to say of anyone.