February 2013 is the big one. It’s the comeback of the century. It’s the return of the king. It’s the second coming of Bonehead, back with a new album in Parlour Flames. At this point, some of our younger readers may be wondering who or what a ‘Bonehead’ is. It has the ring of a nasty scalp condition, the Elephant Man’s secondary-school nickname, or a particularly vile euphemism for an erection. It’s none of these. Paul ‘Bonehead’ Arthurs was the Oasis rhythm guitarist from 1991 to 1999. Pattern-bald in his twenties, his index finger permanently locked into an artless barre-chord, he was the epitome of the rock ‘n’ roll drone bee, writing no songs, stirring no loins. I’m not really selling him to you, am I?
That’s Bonehead on the left if you didn’t know
The point is, Bonehead was more important than anybody realised. Every truly great band has one. He’s the beating heart. The Manc-next-door. The musician who would be laughed out of any session gig for not being able to play in 6/8 time, but whose presence makes the band feel real and romantic, epitomising the critical difference between a lineup of friends who’d take a bullet for each other, and some cut-and-shut X Factor abomination, spliced at Boot Camp, with the stitches still visible. When you see the black-and-white Pennie Smith shot of the four young punks, backs to the brick wall, howling at some in-joke, you’re seeing a gang before you see a band. It’s them against the world. Similarly, when you hear, say, Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite For Destruction’, you’re hearing collusion and chemistry (both kinds).
Sadly, most bands shed their Boneheads, generally after their debut album, typically to be replaced by some technically impeccable session wizard, who plays, laughs and shits to order. Within five years of ‘Definitely Maybe’, Oasis had lost three of them – which to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, might be seen as carelessness – when you factor in founding bassist Paul ‘Guigsy’ McGuigan and drummer Tony McCarroll.
People don’t care about dotted minims and sticking to the click-track. They care about four friends from a former mill town, sitting in the gutter eating cheesy chips and looking at the stars
Now, you don’t need to be a musicologist to appreciate that Gem Archer, Andy Bell and (in that period) Alan White were superior players. A shaven monkey could have done Bonehead’s job (and indeed some unkind observers might have suggested that a shaven monkey was doing it). Likewise, Matt Sorum has better ‘chops’ than Steven Adler (best mates with Slash at high-school, but booted from GN’R in 1990). Javier Weyler is tighter than the late Stuart Cable (ejected from the Stereophonics in 2003, despite growing up on the same street as Kelly Jones). Whoever replaced Bill Ward in this summer’s half-arsed Black Sabbath reunion was presumably a paradiddle monster.
No one can replace Bill Ward
But as we saw from the forum reaction to that last example, nobody gives a toss about that stuff. People don’t care about dotted minims and sticking to the click-track. They care about four friends from a former mill town, sitting in the gutter eating cheesy chips and looking at the stars, linking arms and marching on London with a fistful of tunes drawn from their school days, scraps and underage fags. As Andy Nicholson – the epitome of pre-Chung Sheffield authenticity, but out of Arctic Monkeys on his arse by 2006 – put it: “We don’t look like superstars. I think people look at us and think, ‘They’re just normal people making good music. I’m sure I could do it’.”
The Boneheads might seem like ballast, but don’t be fooled. They’re a vital strand of any band’s DNA, defusing arguments on the tourbus, challenging the new jazz-polka direction, mocking the frontman when he starts wearing a diamanté cape. They’re the cogs of the lineup, and without them, the wheels duly fall off. When a band ditches its supposedly least-important member, it’s like losing a secondary appendage in a bear-trap; they might stagger on for a while, but eventually they’ll bleed to death. Oasis felt like a two-headed solo project post-1999. GN’R recorded ever-bigger albums, but meant increasingly less. For me, the Monkeys never had quite the same twinkle in their eye after ‘Whatever People Say I Am’.
By contrast, Led Zeppelin totally understood this, rightly calling time after the death of John Bonham (never ‘just the drummer’). In retrospect, Slash did too, citing the exit of Adler and, later, Izzy Stradlin, as killer blows in his autobiography: “[They] were such an integral part of the band’s sound and personality… without them, the band no longer had its original chemistry”.
A lifetime’s wry observation of rock ‘n’ roll has taught me a few things. Don’t let the dogs out. Don’t fight the law (the law will win). If you like it, then you should probably put a ring on it. Most of all, as Morrissey once put it – albeit slightly hypocritically – hold onto your friends.