Today you’re more likely to meet this elegant and somewhat flamboyant man at Comic-Con or other fan gathering, where he takes pictures with and gets posters signed by celebrities who have no idea it’s a star of sorts beside them, rather than on-stage wielding a bass. Not that William Bath sees himself as a star, although rather recently autographed promo photos of him started selling at online auctions for quite hilarious money. All because William used to be in ROUGH DIAMOND – a ’70s supergroup who were bound for glory only to bomb – although Bath later stint with Peter Green’s band speaks as eloquently of his talents. Yet his talents aren’t limited to music, which the veteran seems to have quit for good… Or did he? That was but one of the little mysteries we tried to unravel during our conversation.
– These days you prefer to be called William as opposed to Willie…
Oh yeah. That’s because I’m getting older. If I was still playing professionally, then I might have probably still been Willie.
– Does this mean that your rock ‘n’ roll days are over?
Pretty much… Every dog has its day, and I had 20-odd years of professional playing, and I was tired of all that traveling and touring, which was why I stopped.
– Most people heard about you when you joined ROUGH DIAMOND, but what did you do before that?
What I did immediately prior to that was playing in a rock ‘n’ roll revival band called THE WILD ANGELS. That’s where I met Geoff Britton before he went to join Paul McCartney. Well, I didn’t play a lot of gigs with him; I played with his replacement Jim Russell, an excellent drummer. They all still kept in touch, as the ANGELS were a bit of a family – they’d still be in touch now, all these years later: if you’ve been in THE ANGELS, then you’re part of the club. Anyway, Geoff recommended me to come to the auditions [for DIAMOND], but it took me a long time to get the gig, I’ll tell you that. It was quite tough, they tried out all sorts of people – they even flew Tim Bogert over from America to try him out: great musician, but totally unsuited for them. I don’t know what they were thinking: he was a superstar name, and I was the only unknown in the band, and I think they didn’t want any unknowns; it was supposed to be a group of people who were already very well established.
– To my ears, your contribution to their music was that funky thing. Perhaps, they were looking for a funky bass player?
To a degree. I’d like to think I’m a bluesy bass player but I had played a lot of soul in the past. Once you’ve played in rock ‘n’ roll revival bands, it’s hard to get out because people phone you when they know you know every rock ‘n’ roll and soul song, all those English people who were quite well known in the ’50s and the ’60s, people like Tommy Bruce, Heinz, Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Wee Willie Harris, Screaming Lord Sutch… They wouldn’t do so many gigs, so they called you out when they wanted to splash a band together, and then you’re into it for ages. It was a good fun, though, and when THE WILD ANGELS toured Scandinavia – they were very big out there; they’d had a Number One hit record just before I joined them. Other than that, I don’t know if my playing was particularly funky.
– When you got the gig, you already had your groove in a rhythm section with Geoff, but how did you build relationships with Clem Clempson and, especially, David Byron?
Well, Byron was very simple to build a relationship with, because he was a charming guy. He’d had a lot of bad press that said he drank a lot when he was in URIAH HEEP but he was perfectly well when he was with us, so he was easy to get to know. Clem was very quiet, so it took a while to get to know him, but we had a lot of fun when we were traveling around together, more fun than you should be allowed to have. (Laughs and then become serious.) What I did do is, before I was officially getting the gig, when they were trying other people out as well, including the bass player from HUMBLE PIE [Greg Ridley], I was still coming to the rehearsals every day, so it was like one long audition. Eventually, Geoff just phoned me up one day and said, “We stop mucking about. Come back up tomorrow. You’re in. The gig’s on!” Then, we got signed up, and that was it: off we went.
– So there was no prima donna for you to deal with?
Nobody was like that in the band. People probably thought that Byron was going to be like that – but he wasn’t! Certainly not to us. I was asked to write a foreword to the book about him written by Jeff Perkins, and I mentioned there his chance meeting with somebody on a train to London and how David who had a first-class ticket moved into second class just to spend time with his mate. He was very proud of the band, though he was very rich at that time – big house, Rolls Royce and a chauffeur… because he’d lost his license. The saddest thing for me was the argument we had, an unhappy one, about one of the songs on there, “End Of The Line”: I was there when we wrote that and put it together during those auditions, and then they decided that I wasn’t there, that it was completed when another bass player was in, so I couldn’t get through and I didn’t get my credit on there. I was really upset because that was one of the songs that I really liked. But “Scared” was written when we started recording – Geoff and I had started working on that, and the next day Byron had written some words for it.
– What was touring with the band like?
We didn’t tour enough. It was great, though. It was the first experience for me of a big-time touring. Obviously, I’d done touring all over Europe with THE WILD ANGELS and with other bands – Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, all that area – and, before that, when I’d just started out, all over England, Wales, Scotland, just non-stop. But it was bigger venues with ROUGH DIAMOND, like “Nassau Colosseum” in Long Island. When we played in Boston, BOSTON – new kids on the block then, with their first album – came to see us, and they were completely in awe of David and Clem. We were on the “Frampton Comes Alive” tour but we weren’t mentioned on the bill, you couldn’t see it anywhere, so when we went on-stage the audience went mad, because they thought Peter was coming on. (Laughs.) Frampton audience were the best audience for us, they loved us. But they couldn’t get our record in the shops.
– Still, you had one of your concerts filmed. How did you manage to do it?
It was filmed at Shepperton Studios, on one of the soundstages. This is how big Island Records thought our album was going to be. We were supposed to be the biggest thing; they wanted it to be a supergroup. But the British press – apart from “The Melody Maker” which now doesn’t exist – absolutely hated us, because they were all into punk and they kept telling that all these “old dinosaurs” should stop playing. And then I found that Debbie Harry was ten years older than me! (Laughs.) It was all just bullshit, it was all just marketing: most punk bands were the same age as me and some were older – THE STRANGLERS and all that lot, they weren’t young kids like THE [SEX] PISTOLS. So it was never going to work for us very well in England. There were two companies chasing us very hard – Island Records, who we signed with, and, I think, Epic, who would later sign CHAMPION – but the boys wanted to stay with Chris Blackwell because, although URIAH HEEP and HUMBLE PIE had been huge in America, they wanted to make it in Europe. But the Island Records promotion was all wrong: as I said, you couldn’t get the album in the shops when we were doing the gigs. And, of course, there wasn’t a decent single on the album.
– Do you think that the album fully realized your potential?
I don’t think so, no, although the album was good and we did write some pretty good songs. Byron and Clempson were the main songwriters, obviously, because they’d been doing it before, but when two people who basically never met each other and have completely different styles get together, you don’t know how it’s going to work out. Steve Smith, who produced the album, wasn’t of much help there. And you have to realize that I was completely inexperienced on this top level, so I kept my mouth shut except for that incident with my writing credit, and I wasn’t try to tell them how to be in a supergroup.
– On-stage, you didn’t play neither HEEP nor PIE material, but you covered “The Hunter”…
That was my idea, strangely! They wanted the number that people knew, and I said, “FREE have done a fantastic version of ‘The Hunter’ and we can absolutely blast this Booker T. piece!” I didn’t think they would listen to my ideas about music or anything like that, but they were all behind it. Byron’s house had a wall covered in gold albums, and I’d be lucky if mine had vinyl on it. (Laughs.)
– And then, Byron left and you formed CHAMPION.
Yeah. Sadly. That’s when I should have opened my mouth. Geoffrey and I talked about this many times over the years: there was the thought that it was just not going to be right, and we left Island Records because we sacked the manager. There was a clause in our contract that said, if any of the five members of the band or the manager split, the contract would be void. So they paid us off, and Gerry Bron wanted to take us on; we had a several meetings at Bronze Records, but it transpired that they’d just hired they A&R man from Island, who said, “No, absolutely not!” and that was the writing on the wall for us. So we found Garry Bell – through our accountant, strangely, who also was Mick Jagger’s accountant and was well-versed in rock music – and it just went on from there, as Bell had a catalogue of songs. That accountant also introduced us to Gary Lyons, who’d just produced the “Foreigner” album and would produce the “Champion” album. He’d got the gig with Epic Records, and they said he could have whoever he wanted, but they went nuts when they found that he’d chosen us, because they thought we were poison after we’d done what we’d done with Island, and they didn’t promote the album – there was one advert in “Melody Maker” saying it was out, and that was it. There was no radio interviews, nothing, while with “Rough Diamond” we did interviews all around the world.
– Did you feel you had more presence in CHAMPION than in DIAMOND?
No, not really. I didn’t. When I think back on it, there were some good songs on there – we did write some good stuff! – but I preferred what we did with ROUGH DIAMOND. We got money to do it, and we toured all over Europe, quite successfully, but without support from the record company we weren’t going to go anywhere. So we didn’t go anywhere. One album, and CHAMPION were done – same as ROUGH DIAMOND. And then Geoff Britton left after the album was made, he never toured with it – Jeff Rich did all the live gigs. I’d known Jeff as we’d worked together in the past, and I got him involved; later, he got famous when he joined STATUS QUO. We also got a new manager, a guy called Abe Hoch who took over from Stephen Barnett when we became CHAMPION. But when we were doing a tour in Spain, I flew home because I wanted to do something and I got to the office in London and saw Abe who said he was going back to America as he couldn’t work in England; he tried to fix some gigs for us there but eventually it all fell by the wayside. Geoffrey joined MANFRED MANN‘S EARTH BAND, and he phoned me and said if I wanted to join as well, to which I should have said “Yes” and given it a go – it could’ve helped my position – but I wanted to work on my own project.
– What was that?
I invested some of my money with our sound engineer and bought a PA system for hire, for gigs in pubs, clubs and universities. One our clients was Jackie Lynton, whom I’d known for years – it was in his band that I met Jeff Rich – and his bass player had a car accident, so one night when I was doing the sound instead of the guy who usually did it, as I wanted to be a sound engineer as well, and I agreed to join THE JACKIE LYNTON BAND until he got better. I didn’t do all the gigs but it was something I enjoyed. But then something else happened, and I became a permanent replacement, until the drummer [Greg Terry-Short] and I decided to leave and join Peter Green.
– Green’s KOLORS was the last project that I was able to trace your career to.
Well, that was about the last project I was involved in! I did some odd gig with IVORS JIVERS, a great R&B band – really, really good – but then I faded out a bit. The last thing that I spent any amount of time with was THE LUX DE LUX BLUES BAND, I did that semi-pro gig for a few years. We made an album, which we recorded live, and we sold it at gigs – we didn’t try to get it released; same as with Jackie Lynton’s first album. And I never recorded anything with Green. But Peter was my hero – he was the reason I played guitar in the first place – but although at that time you could get just some sense out of him and his playing wasn’t that good, his voice was still amazing. It was a tough gig but to be playing “Black Magic Woman” with the man who wrote it!.. My three favorite guitar players always were Peter, my absolute favorite, then [Eric] Clapton and Clem. I was a fan of Clem long before I joined ROUGH DIAMOND – I couldn’t believe I was actually in a band with him.
– After LUX DE LUX you stopped playing altogether, right?
I lived in Surrey and then in countryside in Dorset, so I had to travel a lot to do gigs, even though various bands asked me to, and occasionally I did a few dates. I kept playing for 49 years – I never did the fiftieth! I play a little bit for myself now, and I’m ready to go.
– So it wouldn’t take much to lure you out and play?
Oh no. No. It’s going to be some drummer in the band, and I’ll be out. Drummers are important to me. I learned more about bass playing from the drummer called Frank Farley who was with Johnny Kidd And THE PIRATES, and I was in a rock ‘n’ roll band with him, and he taught me how to play the bass by playing the drums and showing me what a rhythm section really does. His approach to it was just fantastic.
– What did you do when you quit music?
I was quite fortunate. I followed my hobby, which was trains – railway locomotives restoration. I just love the bloody things! When you’re touring, you get a lot of downtime – three months on the road and then you’re off for six weeks if you’re not recording an album – so I started working with some people I’d met through restoring old steam engines, and I still do that sometimes. I can afford to sit back and do nothing – I’m not that rich! (Laughs.)
– You’re flying all around the world and attending all those fan EXPOs… One would be forgiven for thinking you’re a retired millionaire!
Some people probably do think that, but I’ve been married three times and I lost three houses – lost the third one while still married. (Laughs.) When we were transitioning from ROUGH DIAMOND to CHAMPION, I even rented a house that belonged to Andy Fraser, in England, who couldn’t sell his property and do anything with that money because of exchange controls that Margaret Thatcher scrapped when she came to power in 1979. As for Comic-Cons and other conventions, I love collecting things – always have done. I’ve got collections of all sorts of stuff – the most bizarre things that you could imagine: I’ve got antiques, I’ve got art deco china – I love that period – and so on. And that’s how I started getting involved with other collectors and attending conventions and exhibitions.
– Traveling all over the world and meeting all those beautiful people now, how do you feel about your own old photo appearing on eBay and fetching a lot of money?
Well, I think it’s funny. The thing is, ROUGH DIAMOND have never stood a chance to actually be successful; Island was so pissed off in the end that they’d never make any of our stuff available on digital media at all – neither the video, the copies of which weren’t transferred from the proper 2-inch master, nor the album. You can get it because companies have done it, but they duplicated it from a record player and on one of the tracks you hear a needle jump (laughs) which is really infuriating for me, because I’ve got one of the master tapes. And of course, Epic hated us so much that they never did anything with the “Champion” album.
– When you look back at your career, do you have any regrets? Except for not getting that writing credit…
I can’t have any regrets because I know so many people who would have loved to have done what I did. When I was asked what I wanted out of my musical career, I said, “I’d like to be the least famous member of a famous band” – and I certainly got my wish, didn’t I… except that I’m a completely unknown member of a band that never was famous enough. The other guys were still more famous than the band! (Laughs.)
– Would you like to record a solo album?
What I would like to do is what everybody does I suppose: I would love to record a blues album – with no fixed line-up but with all the people I’ve played with whom I admire – with Geoffrey, Jim Russell and Steve Holley, the only one who I do see regularly, on drums – and some of the people I haven’t played with but admire, like Clapton. It would be interesting. I started playing again now, although for a few years I didn’t want to, so I wouldn’t mind giving it a bit of a go.