Jazzed-up Wood

Tape recorder off, Roy Wood typically loosens up, revealing a few of his franker thoughts. "I've written something like 30 hit songs, you know," he whispers, and I am astounded that his total is so high. "It's not easy now to accept that I'm not a success any more."

Roy Wood has never been recognised as "a good interview". He has many stories to tell; from the heady Sixties to his transformation in the more sophisticated and challenging Seventies, and to management hassles that would give Henry Kissinger a coronary.

But we still have the same retiring, very shy Roy Wood, ready to give vague hints of some of the filth he's been through but never willing to open up completely and say what he really thinks.

An interview with him is sometimes an uncomfortable experience. I remember the last time we spoke, about two years ago, when he seemed to have signed so many contracts that he just didn't have a notion what record company could release what (there were commitments to three, I think; Harvest, Jet and Warner Brothers). I've never seen anybody quite so confused.

This time he has "almost" sorted out the contractual problems, although a couple of bumps have yet to be smoothed and he's not as adamant to discuss them. But there is still a reluctance, the quick glance to the tape when an awkward question is asked, or, as happened on one occasion, a blunt refusal to say anything on the subject.

Not, however, as reticent as his old buddy of Move and Electric Light Orchestra days, Jeff Lynne. On my last encounter with Lynne, he stated categorically that he would not talk about Roy Wood. "Me manager (Don Arden, also Wood's until recently) has asked me not to say anything 'bout that," he murmured.

Even before my meeting with Roy, his first interview in a couple of years, it was suggested to me that I shouldn't refer so much to the past or to the connections with Arden. Roy didn't like talking about them, I was told.

As it was. Wood didn't mind discussing his problems, up to a point, although he diplomatically asks at the end of the interview if he has said enough about his new band, Wizzo.

"I don't want people to think that I'm living on past glories," he says sincerely.

Wood has been out of the public eye now for about three years. His first appearance on a stage was a few months back when he premiered his new band on BBC 2's excellent series, Sight And Sound In Concert. The time, he says, has been spent sorting out managerial problems. At one point, it got to the stage where he was unable to work at all.

This, apparently, stemmed from Roy's desire to add yet another branch to his musical tree by deciding to delve into jazz. As those who saw his band play on Sight And Sound know, he eventually got his own way, but only after a lengthy and frustrating battle.

"I was tied up to Don Arden and we didnít see eye to eye on a lot of things. He didn't want me to form this new band because it was too jazzy. He wanted me to stick to pop songs, y'know, which 1 enjoyed doing occasionally, but you've gotta progress with the times and I enjoy playing this jazz-rock stuff."

Wood was first introduced to jazz when he formed Wizzard. Three members of that band, Nick Pentelow, Mike Burney and Bob Brady, were all seasoned jazz musicians and at soundchecks would get into a bit of a blow, which Wood was eventually drawn into. The result was that Wizzard became more jazz-orientated after its initial poppy appearance.

"A lot of people had been doing jazz-rock stuff. There had been jazz musicians getting into the rock field, like Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke, but it's very rare that you find a band doing it the other way around a rock and roll band getting into jazz, and it's quite interesting. The rhythm section is very heavy, almost Zeppelinish, the horns are very jazzy and the songs are very commercial, so it makes for quite an interesting combination,"

Warners release a new Wood album next month, "Super Active Wizzo." It was completed about four months ago.

"I doubt whether Jet would have released that album," Roy adds cautiously. "They've already got an album that I recorded with Wizzard three years ago which they never released because, as far as I know, they simply didn't like it. It was a bit too jazzy for them, but thatís what spurred me on to form this band.

"Actually, that was really frustrating. There are three songs on that album that I was very pleased with as songs, and we'll be doing them on stage when Wizzo go on the road. Looking back on it, I wish I had saved those songs."

Wood has not been idle during his absence from the spotlight. Apart from sorting out his contractual and managerial difficulties, much of his time has been spent playing modern jazz clubs in Birmingham, learning to play jazz guitar in "clubs in the back of nowhere." The opportunity is now ripe to re-emerge.

"I think it's gradually getting itself sorted out now. I'm not with Don anymore as a manager. Even though he's a good manager, I don't think he was a good manager for me. He took too much on with ELO and everything.

"I think a good manager is, for example, someone like Peter Grant that mainly runs one band which he can throw all his energies into without anyone else suffering. That's my theory anyway."

Woody later accepts that many of his problems were born out of his own naiveté. Now he personally vetoes anything not conducive to his career. It's a pity that such a magnificent artist has been dogged by the trivia, of the business when he has so much to offer.

I don't think anybody, me included, has realised just how important and talented a writer and performer Wood is. I'm equally sure that quite a number of people laughed up their cuffs when Wood and Wizzo played their brand of jazz-rock on Sight And Sound.

We all know, or should know, about the Move's contribution to pop, with songs like " Night Of Fear," " Flowers In The Rain," "Fire Brigade " and the slow development into what was really the embryo of ELO with "Brontosaurus" and "When Alice Comes Back To The Farm". ELO have, of course, gone on to great things since Royís departure.

At the time, and for many years after it, Wood claimed that he left because he felt that Jeff Lynne wasnít getting enough of the credit; but it must take more than that to part a man from his invention, and ELO Ė make no mistake about it Ė was largely Roy Woodís invention to begin with.

Wood still sticks to this explanation about his ELO split, although he has added the clichéd excuse of "personality differences". Talking casually afterwards, I perceive that
there is quite an amount of animosity between Wood and ELO, although both parties have been at pains to stress that there is no such feeling.

Wood seems to feel particularly aggrieved with Jeff Lynne. Lynne said once that he only joined the Move to get into the Don Arden stable,  Wood scoffs at the suggestion. Roy is pained to see that he hasn't got his due credit in the States for ELO, and was annoyed once to see Lynne and Bev Bevan, another former Move man, knock him in a Stateside interview. Wood, it seems, plainly wants just recognition.

Members of Wood's party (not Roy himself, although he nods in agreement) paint a picture of Lynne as a lonely man, with one person going as far as to say that he wanted to do it by himself from the very early days.

Much as I like ELO these days, I have always felt that if Wood had stayed in the band, they would have become more creative. ELO, with Wood on the first two albums, were very much an experiment outfit, taking up where "Strawberry Fields" and "I Am The Walrus" left off. Now they have become much more commercial, with strings being used in a complementary fashion and not half as adventurously.

This, too, was where Wood and Lynne differed. Roy felt that the strings should be played by the band, whereas Lynne has now reached the stage of employing a full orchestra on the recording sessions and not the band itself. And now, as Wood points out, the string arrangements are done by Louis Clark, not Lynne, so that the very essence of the band's original concept is taken into foreign hands.

Wood, however, feels that he is too close to ELO to be objective about what might have happened.

"You can't get past the fact that they have been successful in the States. My personal favourite album is "Eldorado", a great album, which I donít think Jeff has quite matched since. It had good continuity and the songs were very commercial and powerful.

"No, Iíve never really regretted leaving. I regret it in that if I hadn't, I would have been successful with them as they are now in the States. But I suppose thatís all down to meself. I need to get the band together and tour, like they did. Itís the old saying, if you through enough mud at the wallÖ "

Wood is feverishly anxious that Wizzo works and that he regains his old status. He realises that it will be quite a departure for fans to accept, but sees a parallel with the early days of ELO.

"Itís a bit of a risk, but everything is a risk really and this is the sort of music that I can be playing when I'm 50. I can't be a pop singer all my life. Not really."

What was his future then? " It's difficult to explain. I like all sorts of music, classical, jazz, rock and pop. I just fancied forming something with a difference.

"In forming Wizzo, I've taken the same sort of risk I took when we formed ELO. When we first started ELO, it was a hell of a job to get classical cello people that wanted to play rock and roll, so we made the album first and formed the band around the album."

Wood agreed that in forming a band like Wizzo, when his public would be much more satisfied if he returned to out-and-out pop, he was going against what the fans wanted.

"But I've still got an ear for commerciality and for a commercial song: I know that the Wizzo album isn't as commercial as things I have done in the past, but we'll get round to that when we get the actual fusion between jazz and rock sorted out. "This is more of an experimental album in that direction.

"We lost a lot of fans when we formed ELO but they eventually came round to our way of thinking, especially now. Actually, the single we've released, 'The Stroll,' sounds like a Radio One job to me anyway, so weíre gradually getting round to the  commercial aspect."

All is not lost for fans, like me, who would welcome another Roy Wood pop album. The last was "Mustard," and that was a bit of a disappointment. Roy stressed that he had ignored that side of his music and said that he had been writing songs in that mould recently. He is currently producing and playing on a solo album by Annie Haslam, of Renaissance, on which there are a few of his poppier toons.

"I don't think the Wizzo band will ever be purely a pop band, but the next time I do a solo album I'll do stuff like that.

"I'm not ashamed of those songs. I'm not one of those people that says Iím going heavy or progressive. I'm not ashamed of the fact that I am a commercial writer. It's been very gratifying."

Melody Maker, 3 September 1977