For Brighton’s Bobby Ward, life has revolved around music. Listening to it, playing it and singing it. For over four decades he’s been rocking around the world, working with some of the greatest artists in history and hanging out with the political elite. Now, he is about to usher in the latest chapter of a fascinating career.
It seems like he’s always wanted to work in music, and the obsession goes right back to his childhood. In 1965, a young Ward attended Hove College, at a time when Beatlemania was sweeping the land. Ringo Starr had just married his first wife Maureen, and the happy pair were spending a few days at a house on Prince’s Square – mere yards from the school. “A lot of us walked over there to have a look.” Finding the world’s press camped outside, Ward tried a side gate to catch a glimpse of his hero but found his advance blocked. Undeterred, he went around to the back of the property and climbed up on a wall. Stood just below him on the other side was the legendary drummer, who looked up and said hello. “I asked him what it was like being a Beatle. He said: ‘You don’t get any peace’ I said: No, but you’ve got fame and fortune though…’ And he cracked up.” After chatting for a while, about his new dog and music, Starr had to go indoors – so Ward promised not to tell anyone he’d seen him. “You don’t forget something like that. The moral of the story is you don’t give up.”
A short time later, he was hitching a lift to school. Getting in a car, he realised to his horror the two occupants were police officers. “Then one of them mentioned he’d had a parcel from John & Yoko sent to his house instead of John’s father’s.” Later Ward was walking down a neighbourhood street, when he bumped into Fred Lennon. It turned out the Beatles star’s father lived nearby on Ladies Mile Road. “He was a nice guy. “We had quite a few chats.”
Immersing in music with the drums at the tender age of eight, Ward migrated to bass guitar in his teenage years. By the time he was 16, Ward had formed his first group, The USA Band – moving on to support nascent acts like Supertramp, something emerging from his regular jam sessions with fellow mucisians like Dave Greenfield, who lived in Hove.
He’s certain about the appeal of 60s and 70s legends like The Faces, Beatles, The Kinks and The Downliners Sect, and why more contemporary artists can lack a bit of sparkle. “They were so good because they had to hone their craft. You had to sleep in vans and travel across England. You had to work the floorboards, you had to prove your staying power by going hungry, and want it so much you put all of your energy into it.”
It’s often been about taking a few chances and being in the right place at the right time. In 1977, a paparazzi friend called him, saying Jimmy Page and Ronnie Wood might be playing at Plumpton’s Half Moon.
Heading down there, he found the Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones guitarists sitting in the pub’s beer garden (along with legendary sports commentator Jimmy Hill) “Page and Wood got on stage with the house band. They must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven. There was only about 30 people there! My friend gave me his original photos from that evening.”
Fast forward to 1982, and Ward is doing some tidy business with his band Hayleys Comet. He’s also found himself hanging out in Paris at The Château d’Hérouville recording studios with the Michael Schenker Group, as he was good friends with bassist Chris Glenn and Graham Bonnet (pictured centre, with Bobby and Michael Schenker). Heading back to Britain, it was arranged meet up again at London’s Air Studios. Arriving there early, he was chatting with mates when Paul McCartney came in for recording sessions towards his next album. “I thought: ‘That is so cool’ He came over and said hello, and we ended up sitting and chatting for over an hour. I had to treat him as my equal, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to speak.” Just after 3pm, when Ward had met with MSG and played pool with his mate Cozy Powell and Paul Weller, everyone who wasn’t working in a studio was asked to leave the building. Around 100 photographers were coming in to take shots of McCartney. “I took the lift down to meet my driver, and the doors opened on the ground level, and there was loads of people with cameras about to take pictures of me. They thought I was McCartney! I was like: ‘No! I’m not Paul’” Getting home to his wife, he was almost delirious at the prospect of meeting the legend and having made a loose arrangement to catch up soon. A few days the phone rang. Ward’s wife answered, to be met with a broad Liverpudlian accent asking for Bob. “She said: ‘Is that Ian the builder?’ Suddenly she’s pointing at the phone, mouthing: ‘I think it’s Paul McCartney!’ I picked up the phone and said: ‘Hello’ and we got talking. I never thought he’d call me in a million years. Bless him, he did.”
Family commitments encouraged Ward to take a break from music in his late 20s. He took the extreme step of burning his guitar in the garden to see off any temptation. “I thought: ‘I can’t cope with this.’ I didn’t even listen to music for about four or five years. If it’s in your DNA, it’s all consuming. You can’t do one or the other.” He eventually returned to the scene with a vengeance in his late 30s, perhaps to the chagrin of his wife. But the music industry can be a cruel and ironic place. He formed a new band named Artful Dodger, which started breaking through after a little help from Phil Collins. “I didn’t bother to copyright the name, and I’d worked really hard to get that off of the ground.” When a bunch of dance music upstarts crashed into the charts with the same moniker, there was not really any place for the endeavour.
A chance jam session in (of all places – Patcham Peace Gardens!) during 1997 would set Ward on a new and exciting adventure though. “My friend said: ‘You sound so much like a rock and roll singer!’ So, we did a few different styles, Bowie, The Beatles and a few Jagger and Richards ones. And he said: ‘No. You sound so good as a rock singer.’ We started rehearsing a few covers and I gradually got a band together.” A chance conversation with local music producer David Courtney gave Ward inspiration for his band’s name and cemented their direction. They were having a laugh about how the Stones’ core audience had changed significantly during the 80s. Now routinely playing stadiums across the world, they were attracting a glamorous ,young and upwardly mobile crowd. Taking a sly nod to the decade’s ‘yuppie’ culture, and its affected accents, Courtney suggested ‘The Railing Stains’ as a perfect name for the new direction.
It seemed like the perfect project, with audiences taking instantly to their sympathetic interpretations of Rolling Stones classics. Although Ward tried to steer clear of the more obvious numbers, delving deeper into the band’s repertoire for inspiration. The Stains would go on to headline the enormous NYE 98 celebrations on the Old Steine, in front of 50,000 people. But, just after this, several bandmates unexpectedly left, thinking things couldn’t get any better.
Soon after, Ward had a call from Pat Andrews, the ex-girlfriend of original Stones guitarist, Brian Jones. She was invited to join the band as a backing singer, and everything started getting quite exciting. With a reinvigorated line-up, they played increasingly larger venues across the UK and Europe.
In 1999, at the top of the tree with The Stains, he obtained the rights to record The Stones’ Midnight Rambler, 2000 Light Years from Home, Sympathy For The Devil and Ruby Tuesday. Although he wasn’t allowed to sell his versions of these compositions, he did have a few pressed onto CD for his own amusement. Which turned out to be fortuitous when Skarbek asked if he had any professional recordings of the band. “He said my vocals were stunning. If it hadn’t been for that CD, we wouldn’t have got signed.”
The following year, they were asked to perform at Cotchford Farm near Hartfield, the former home of Brian Jones. It was a huge event to mark the anniversary of the guitarist’s death. After a storming performance, the Railing Stains all trouped off to sit in his house’s old living room and sat jamming into the night.
“It was really magical. Dick Hattrel came along, who was Brian’s best friend.” Shortly after the show, Ward got a phone call from legendary producer and songwriter Charlie Skarbek, who recently had seen them play. “He is one of the greatest. He came down to hear us rehearse. And afterwards said: ‘I want to sign you for the Rugby World Cup series in 2003’. I was like: ‘OK'”
Nothing is ever simple. After continuing disagreements within the band, Ward was forced to sack their guitarist. Saddled with a huge new deal, but an incomplete line-up, he spoke to Chris Jagger, the younger brother of Stone’s frontman, Mick. The pair had met when The Stains played at a huge Stones convention at Brixton Academy, and got on well. Somehow, Ward persuaded him to join his outfit. “Then I got a phone call from a mate, who said: ‘Why don’t you try Ronnie Wood’s son, Jessie?’ So, he came down and met everyone and joined the band.” It took a year to record an album of songs, which would be used to support the Rugby World Cup shows. They had the perfect line-up, a fresh new attitude and Skarbek backing them all with a multi-million pound contract. “He was old-school. His studio was just adorned with every platinum album you could think of, everything from Dame Shirley Bassey to Charlotte Church. He produced everyone.”
During this time, they were told the band name would have to be changed. “Jessie and I were walking through this village in Sussex talking about this one day, and I just said: ‘Well, let’s call it Wildkatz.” With a new moniker and an album, they started sorting out some new shows to get the band match-fit. “Jessie phoned me, saying he had a gig at The Half Moon in Putney. But I didn’t really want to do any more gigs in pubs. Then he phoned me a week later, saying: ‘I’ve got another gig, supporting my Dad in Shepherds Bush.’ I was like: ‘That’s a better gig!’” It was shows like these which would bring Ward and Wildkatz into an ever-closer orbit with The Stones and their families, along with raising the band’s profile to the point where success was inevitable.
Then the unthinkable happened. Skarbek, after visiting Australia for meetings around the Rugby World Cup, returned with the news it had somehow all fallen through. “We’d done a whole album, showcases, photo shoots, everything under the sun. We had the best line-up you could ask for, I couldn’t get my head around what had gone wrong.”
Ward says it took about six months to get over the shock and heartbreak, but he wasn’t going to give up. Undeterred, in 2004 he reformed The Railing Stains. “As passion happened, the band took off massively.” They started touring Britain and Europe. It was still a time before streaming music, and demand for the band was huge. Over the following nine years, the band had truly established their immaculate rock credentials, but things were about to take another strange turn.
In 2013, somebody at Glastonbury posted on their blog that the festival might not have the Rolling Stones playing, but had the next best thing – The Railing Stains. “I didn’t pay much attention to it really. It was the first I’d heard of it. Then, two days before Glastonbury started, I had about a hundred telephone calls,” Ward says with a chuckle. The festival had printed a list of 43 things to do over the weekend in their programme. At #2 was ‘See The Railing Stains’. “It was doing my head in. I tried to phone them but couldn’t get through to anybody. The following day, the BBC called asking if they could film our set.” Later, after the festival packed up, Ward had a call from its organiser, Emily Eavis. “She said: ‘I’m terribly sorry, there’s been a bit of a mess-up.’ I said I didn’t understand why we were in the programme and everything. She replied: ‘Don’t worry, can you play next year?’” So, in 2014, they really did perform at the world’s most famous festival. The official line was staff at Glastonbury had made a name up for an inside joke. But who really knows what happened? They dedicated the storming show to Brian Jones, throwing more of those famous CDs out to the crowd.
Soon after, even more weird stuff started happening in the festival’s orbit. Bobby and the band received a call asking if they could get to the south of France within 24 hours. One of Glastonbury’s organisers was having a party and there was a private jet at their disposal. They moved heaven and earth to get everything sorted, but two of the band members had somehow let their passports expire. Then, two weeks later, the band were asked to perform at the debut Urban Glastonbury tour in London. This led them to the prestigious Mode Collective nightclub in Notting Hill, where the band performed to another heaving crowd – having the unusual honour of playing two Glastonbury shows in one year.
By 2016, he was getting a bit worn out. “I’d taken the band all round England and Europe, and I thought: ‘I’ve got the passion, but I don’t know if I’ve got the energy for this.’” The next year he walked away for a while. But you can’t keep a good rocker down. When touring Italy with his band during his 20s, he’d seen a restaurant called Stonewall Gardens, and always thought it would be a lovely name for a band. It became a jumping off point for him to promote the endless quantities of unreleased material he had just sitting on his shelves. Amongst these are songs produced by Skarbeck, along with sessions with Jessie Wood playing some amazing lead guitar. He used the material as a jumping off point to again start composing his own songs, starting with Count Of Monte Cristo last year. “I just threw it out on YouTube, and it got over 100,000 views.” It seemed a natural progression to start drip-feeding all the gems he had locked away. Once again finding joy in his music, he realised he still held the rights to record The Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday. “I spent about 20 hours talking to people at the MCPS, and they said it would be fine to put it up on YouTube. Then, just before lockdown, one guy there said: ‘It’ll probably be fine, but if The Stones see it, you might get sued…”
You don’t get as far in the business as The Rolling Stones have by being glib about intellectual property. The Verve found this out to their cost in 1997, when they ‘adapted’ a Jagger/Richards composition for Bittersweet Symphony. So, Ward needed to get everything sorted before any unpleasant legal interactions. “How do I get this song, officially recognised as my interpretation? That was one mammoth task!” Not wanting to incur the wrath of the world’s greatest rock band, he went down the official route, contacting ABKCO, The Stone’s production company, in New York. It took him a solid two months of correspondence to get written permission, which came in the form of a plethora of documents and official looking letters. Eventually, at the start of May, he got a license signed off by the Chief Operating Officer of ABKCO Music. It gives him permission to get his version of the track out to the world. “They don’t release a certificate like this, unless it’s been approved., That means Jagger has heard it, and he likes the interpretation.”
Giving up doesn’t seem to be in Ward’s vocabulary. He’s prepared to go the extra mile to encourage people to hear his music. There’s one story of playing a show at Brighton Dome’s Pavilion Theatre in 1998, when he hired an open-topped bus, crammed his band onto it and toured around the city, blasting out their songs to promote the show. Or there’s the time he hired Shoreham Airport to film some footage for a project he was working on. Or there’s the recording sessions at Eddie Grant’s studio in Barbados during 2003 with Fuzzy Samuels (above with Bobby), the bassist for Crosby, Nash, Stills and Young. Popping into the nearby Sandy Lane hotel Ward bumped into Simon Cowell. “After a long chat, he suggested I appear on X-Factor. But, I just walked off”
He still considers The Rolling Stones as one of the best rock’n’roll bands of all time. Starting off as a covers band, they offered a fresh take on the emerging blues movement, successfully selling America’s music style back to them – before turning into the bad boys of rock. “But… they held it together. They were so determined. The song-writing was amazing. They deserve everything in the world for the pleasure they bring people.”
Instead of offering vanilla note-perfect replications of The Rolling Stones’ music, Ward has chosen to examine the essence of what makes the songs great. Especially on Ruby Tuesday, where he’s laid bare the composition’s soul. “When I started the band, I thought: ‘I’d love to put my own swing on that song.’ I wanted to do it in a more spiritual, melodic way. The original goes much faster. I decided to take away the layers.” What he’s produced is gentle, organic and expressive, breathing new life into a classic. His version of Ruby Tuesday is dedicated to one of its original creators, Brian Jones. “I do feel sorry for him really. He formed the band, he chose the name and chose the music. Then he was just sacked from his band. I never think he got the full pat on the back that he deserves.”
The video has borrowed from a 1966 vampire film, giving an ethereal accompaniment to the song. “I saw it, and thought: ‘That is so heavenly.’” Now Ward is intending to do some unplugged stuff, as soon as lockdown lifts itself. Then there will be a chance to head out on the road again, to showcase some of Stonewall Garden’s music – especially his upcoming self-penned release Make Me An Offer which is coming soon. He’s also reforming The Stains for a selection of shows, with a new and exciting line-up.
He’s got plenty of advice for anyone hoping to get into the music industry. And it seems belief and perseverance are key. “When I started, you banged on doors. Just don’t give up. If you’ve got passion, drive and a dream, never give up. And, if you’ve got faith, it goes a long way in life. Along the road, I had lots of bumps, but I never gave up. And I haven’t finished with music.”
While Bobby Ward’s musical adventure continues, there’s still plenty to his past. If you want to find out about his incredible photos of Brian Epstein’s house, or his Downing St years, or a wealth of other incredible stories and music, head over to: www.stonewallgardens.uk
All images courtesy of Bobby Ward