The Wacky Wizzard

Is Phil Sutcliffe keeping this man from watching TV? Or stopping him from doing his impressions of Dusty Springfield? Is this man an ordinary person? Or is he…

 

Roy Wood is: the wild man of Brummio who terrifies your parents whenever he's let loose on the antiseptic air-time of Top Of The Pops with his neanderthal hairstyle, tribal warpaint and the loony look in his eye.

They think: he hasn't washed for a month!

Roy Wood is: the guy sitting in the corner of a dressing-room after a gig, saying little except what civility requires as the assembled fans, liggers and journalists wax boisterous with the rest of the band.

They think: what's he thinking about us?

Roy Wood is: the neanderthal man, minus warpaint, sitting opposite me it; the publicist's interview room, having just completed one hour's grilling from someone whose name he can't recall, welcoming me to my place in the queue with a smile I have to call radiant.

I think: how friendly, this could be pleasant.

Though why I should have doubted it I don't know. The occasion of our meeting, the EMI double album compilation 'The Roy Wood Story', is as cheering a bunch of songs as you could wish to hear.

'I Can Hear The Grass Grow', 'Fire Brigade', 'Brontosaurus', 'Ball Park Incident', 'Forever'. They are songs you enjoyed in those golden days of ... (perm any one from '67 to '73) and they bring back happy memories. Or, if you can't exactly recall where you were and what you were doing at the time, they convince you that it must have been fun anyway, they're so up and carefree.

If you just wanna bop they're fine. If you take any interest or pleasure in the progress of good pop/rock from banal tunes and simplistic guitars and drums arrangements to more elaborate structures and orchestral instrumentation they're vairy eenteresting.

But although they express the constant change behind Roy Wood's constant stream of hits they also talk to you as one identifiable musical character.

Of course I'd never heard all these songs brought together before and what I suddenly realised was that his distinctive tone is the Brummie accent in music: Roy's own nasal voice matched by guitars in their lower registers blending with the bass, strings featuring stentorian cellos, horns featuring adenoidal reeds.

Well, maybe that's fanciful but to me it's the natural outcome of his down-to-earth, practical craftsman approach to the music behind the on-stage anarchy.

Like any man-of-the-people his aims have been to have a good time and make money, which meant writing songs that he could enjoy playing and which the public would pay to listen to. It's a compromise he has sustained more consistently than most who have pursued the Lennon-McCartney impossible dream of ideal pop.

We are expected to start adulthood as idealists and gradually be ground down into sensible cynics. The Roy Wood Story boldly vice versas that.

The opening track of the album is the first Wood composition ever recorded, 'Make Them Understand', a '65 B-side from Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders. It was his first regular band and it didn't exactly give his potential much scope.

"We were in competition with about five local bands playing the Cedar Club and the Silver Blades Ice Rink. You'd be playing just chart material and sometimes be a bit original and sort out a B-side of some obscure soul record.

"We did impressions as well. Mike had a big repertoire and I did Donovan and Dusty Springfield(!). It was just to get us through the night. It was like being a human juke box."

Uninspiring as that scene was he retained his interest in that old show biz word 'entertainment', and the pursuit of it took him in some bizarre directions. There was the legendary on-stage TV smashing – and a couple of years later the backlash when the Move donned smooth suits and hit the cabaret circuit.

"That was supposed to be a 'Clean Up The Move’ campaign. Agents used to take advantage of our violent image by saying we had smashed up the dressing rooms and refusing to pay us. But in truth we weren’t like that at all off-stage."

*******

Most of these ideas, including the mad axeman routine, came from the Move's manager Tony Secunda. The band had been quite distinctive and making a steady name with an unusual front line of four singer/guitarists alternating leads and "moving together like a soul group", as Roy put it.

But Roy saw the commercial advantages of the Secunda methods, believed "the music didn’t suffer" and was right there, tongue-in-cheek, to turn out some of the neatest pseudo-flower-child anthems like 'Flowers In The Rain' and 'I Can Hear The Grass Grow' (remember what a sensational double-entendre 'grass' was in '67?).

It was a typical combination of natural rock instinct and commercial calculation. And his creative will was never dulled by cash and screamies: "Even from the 'Fire Brigade' era I was thinking about the Electric Light Orchestra. But at that time it was unheard of to use classically-trained string and horn players in pop. Either they would charge too much for the sessions or they were too stuffed-shirt."

Circumstances were gradually creating the present multi-instrumentalist and maker of working-man's now-music (culturally not politically: folk and classical are both essentially middle-class museums aren't they?).

The breadth of his taste came from childhood: "I'd take my parents' old classical records and my brother's old jazz records out to the shed and play them on this wind-up gramophone. And when he realised that what he needed was to blend some classical features into rock the only practical way was Do-It-Yourself.

"I'd always played guitar, bass and drums and I could honk a bit on a battered old baritone sax but I got this disease for buying musical instruments. It started when I bought this oboe in a second-hand shop. It was a ridiculously low price. I couldn't play it but I thought 'Knickers, I'll, have it".

Pretty soon he could play it: "Rock oboe that is, like playing through a bag of washers." Then in the later years of the Move he found himself writing the odd song that craved a cello: "I thought I'd give it a bash. I worked on it for months and ended up playing cello instead of guitar on stage with ELO. I was fed up with everyone copying Clapton.

"I played all the string section on the ELO though I can't read or write music in dots. I played cello like a guitar which is why it's so grunty and piggy."

There's something very nice about that. A guy picks up an instrument and finds out what sort of noises he can get out of it, no paperwork, no academics, just sound. The outcome, you may agree in the perspective of the album, is crude, straightforward riffing which proves the cello is as natural a rock instrument as any other if the player is not having to fight his way through the rigid disciplines of classical training.

*******

It helped within ELO because he could always pick up the specialist's instrument and give him an idea of what he wanted. But that led to the itch for an even greater challenge: "I had a lot of spare songs and I thought 'Wouldn't it be nice to do a real solo album?'

"It's a cheek to take all the credit if you've got a load of blokes helping out. So I played everything, which forced me to learn a few more instruments, and I even designed the album cover."

It's an eclectic method of making music and he's never claimed any great intellectual weight for his work. If there's a guiding principle it would seem to be Newness (which can take in nostalgic rehashes), a quality which has no deep or lasting meaning except that right for its time. That's the essence of pop and that's what Roy Wood has been delighting us with for years (and if logic says I therefore should feel disappointed with the old-hat of a retrospective album I can only answer that it comes up fresh as a hunk of the past revisited in Technicolor by time machine).

Anyway, despite EMI's backward look, Roy Wood is as ever about to embark on something new. He's putting together an entirely rebuilt Wizzard, though as usual drawn from his pals in the Midlands: Mike Burney (sax, flute), Billy Paul (likewise), Bob Wilson (trombone, flugelhorn, French horn), Graham Gallery (bass, vocals). That leaves him looking for a super keyboards man who can accommodate jazz, rock and classical styles without batting a semiquaver – and a drummer.

When they hit the road it will be in support of an album recorded by the original line-up and not yet released, which sounds like a slightly awkward situation. And yet when you hear Roy's efforts to describe the indescribable and tell you what his new music is going to be about before you've heard it you have to concede that it will probably be as entertaining as ever.

"I'm trying to use jazz now in way that will work commercially. Not like Herbie Hancock or John McLaughlin just catering for one section of the public.

"Our rock sounds will be Zeppelinish and the jazz side will verge on the Stan Kenton. We don't want people to get confused." The very idea! "I've been most influenced by a band called Supersax who have five saxes playing Charlie Parker bebop stuff in harmony."

He reckons that in their first few gigs the usual degree of Wizzard leaping round could well be restrained by the difficulty of what they're trying to get together. But even to such a commercial thinker it will be worth it because he believes the new Wizzard could at last break Roy Wood in the States, a long-standing ambition he may feel even more frustrated about considering how well the ELO have established themselves over there since he left them.

*******

You will have observed that no lead guitar made the personnel list. Reason being our erstwhile cellist Mr. Wood is returning to his first instrument. More explanations for you to take or leave until you actually hear the music: "I thought a lot about how the guitar should be played when I was having my rest from it with the ELO. What I arrived at was a combination of two extremes. I’m doing Django Reinhardt fast runs with the Hendrix sound and effects like fuzz boxes and Super Screamers – all the stuff you can walk into a guitar shop and buy now.

Heavens to Murgatroyd! Still, no doubt it'll be all right on the night. It always has been. Roy Wood's like that.

Though it seems he will be relieved to be devoting himself to just one project again at last. For most of the last four years he has been engaged in getting out product (you know it's bad news when that word come for two bands at a time (various combinations of The Move, ELO, Wizzard and the Roy Wood solo orchestra).

He hints at awareness of the pressure threatening the quality of his work: "When the Move began I had a lot of children's fairy stories I'd been writing and the songs grew out of them, childlike with a lunatic side like 'Fire Brigade'. I really worked on the words.

"But recently I've been so pushed for time I’ve been writing in the studio and putting in easily singable words afterwards instead of composing it all as one piece as I like to. Though I hope I've never been moronic."

I said that one strange thing about this batch of songs, this Wood’s progress, was that having enjoyed them I lifted the stylus feeling I knew nothing more about the character of Roy Wood than before, that in some way they were rather impersonal.

That turned out to be right in line with his expectations and caused him no grief at all: "I don't write about myself. They're not personal songs. I'm basically a quiet sort of bloke, not exciting at all, a bit too ordinary to write about. I mean I'll go home now and just watch TV. But with the band it's nice to get the make-up on and the coats, get out there and go mad for a couple of hours, climb up the curtains."

Right.

Roy Wood is: 'The Roy Wood Story'.

I think: you'll enjoy listening to it.

Sounds, 8 May 1976

 


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