The Wal Bass, Neil Finn and me

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The Wal Bass, Neil Finn and me

by Driver 67

I once had a friend named Geoff, who introduced me to his friend Ian. Geoff had been a pop star in Sweden, but never managed to translate that to success in the UK or America. Mind you, he was involved in Kippington Lodge, a group the more severe nerds among you might remember.

Wal BassGeoff’s friend Ian, on the other hand, was a bit of an electronics genius and also built guitars. Everyone called him Wal (his name was Ian Waller). He made the legendary Wal Bass (right). The list above appears to be of orders for the first run of the original bass. Notable names on there include Percy Jones of Brand X, (Phil Collins’ jazz fusion side project away from Genesis); ‘Paul’ of The Clash (obviously Simonon); Nigel Griggs of Split Enz (who morphed into Crowded House); and Pete Zorn, my old music partner and brother in law.

Wal was a friend of mine since 1968. I introduced him to Pete Zorn after Pete and I became friends in 1971. Later, after Pete and I had our hit with Car 67, Wal sent Neil Finn of Split Enz and the group’s manager down to Bexleyheath to ask me to produce them. Little did they know: Pete and I were crazy fans.

When opportunity knocks, do answer!

So we visited the band during a session at a cramped little studio down the road from Kensington. Split Enz was a mad conglomeration of talents who made fabulously off the wall music. And then Tim Finn brought little brother Neil into the band and, voila, they got their first (and only) bona fide hit, I Got You.

Anyway, Pete and I chatted with various members and watched them work. Then we went away to chat. My feeling was that we could bring nothing to this band. They were, simply, brilliant. And they were working on their own and doing a fantastic job. Pete agreed with me.

We went back in to tell them what we thought. They were genuinely puzzled. “Do it yourselves,” we told them. They didn’t. After a period in the doldrums, they re-hired their favourite producer, David Tickle, and the result was their breakthrough album, True Colours. Could Pete and I have done that? My guess is, yes, probably. It’s certainly a decision I wish I hadn’t been so hasty about.

The Manchester scene, first time around

Anyway, back to Wal and his basses. Wal and Geoff were part of an extraordinarily rich time in Manchester culture. They came up alongside The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits (close friends with the group) and Freddia & The Dreamers. Liverpool’s The Beatles were just another group on the circuit.

Here’s a picture of Wal (second left) in The Demons back in the day. Wal Bass

When I met him, he had already built his own acoustic bass guitar, the first I’d ever seen. It was huge, and beautiful. At one point, George Harrison coveted it, but Wal wasn’t keen. I think he’d rather it went to a bona fide and great bass player.

He started studying wood and how it aged, and dreaming up the design of the Wal Bass. To me, wood was wood. But then Wal showed me some birdseye maple and made me study it as he saw it. I  never – to this day – looked at wood the same way again.

When the Wal Bass went into production, Pete Zorn was given a very early model, a massive compliment from Wal. The guitar was later stolen from a dressing room on tour, never to be seen again. Pete bought another, so entranced was he with the first.

Wal died shockingly young. Barely 43, he had a heart attack as he left home one morning in 1988, headed to the factory he and his partner, Pete ‘The Fish’ Stevens, had built with such high hopes for an exciting future.

Well, the future came, and the bass lives on. Wal didn’t get to see it. But the rest of us are proud to have known him.

And Geoff Mullin? He went on to be a very successful producer of radio shows, including Terry Wogan’s. He ushered Radio 2 into the second half of the 20th century.

In 1976, he programmed Wogan to play first Elvis and later other rock gods. Radio 2 had become so set in its ways that All Shook Up out of the 8am news seemed revolutionary. Geoff couldn’t sleep the night before, so tired had Radio 2 become. But he set the template for Radio 2 as we now know it, possibly the biggest radio station in Europe, if not the world.

He also set Melody Radio on its path to becoming Magic 105.4, with a playlist of soft rock for adults – a radio format that has become a template for success for many stations.

Manchester in the early 60s was definitely a match for Manchester in the early 80s. Geoff’s still with us, and he’s still my friend. Well, till he reads this, at least.

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