Sunday 20 December 2015

Roy Wood isn't just for Christmas - he's a musical genius for all seasons

I wish it could be Christmas every day. Roy Wood is pretty ubiquitous at this time of the year, every year. He's still active as a musician, and appeared on the 2014 Christmas Celebrity "Pointless", closing the show with a great live rendition of his 1973 festive classic. I was thrilled last Christmas when he even "liked" one of my tweets: I'm enough of a starry-eyed big kid to still get excited if a celebrity interacts with me on Twitter.

But in fact, I didn't need reminding of Roy Wood. I have admired him as a musical genius since 1968 when I discovered his band The Move. Sometimes an established band comes up with a song that moves them to another level, and for me the Move's 1969 Number One, Blackberry Way, written by Roy Wood, was one such song. Often said to be inspired by the Beatles' brilliant Penny Lane, both songs have wonderful observational lyrics allied to unusual key changes within an original and unpredictable melody. Yet they are strikingly different songs: Penny Lane's upbeat major key changes evoke sunny skies and the optimism of suburbia in the swinging 60's, whereas Blackberry Way's bleak minor key changes evoke a dull winter day in a chilly park hit by spending cuts. Never was a January Number One so well-timed. If it doesn't sound daft, Blackberry Way is the most upliftingly depressing song ever written.

But look at the Move's back catalogue and it's full of pop genius. Flowers in the Rain was famously the first song played on Radio One in 1967, a dose of Flower Power at the end of the Summer of Love; Fire Brigade was lyrically innovative and brilliantly produced; Curly gave a foretaste of Wood's use of unusual instrumentation with its use of the recorder; and California Man is as good a piece of Rock and Roll as anything from the 50's.

Roy Wood's influence grew as the Move evolved and others left, but it was only when he left to form Wizzard and to produce solo work that his full genius as a composer, lyricist, arranger, producer and multi-instrumentalist was fully revealed. In late 1972, Ball Park Incident displayed for the first time Wood's love of a "big" sound created by multiple instrumentation with a prominent use of brass, especially saxophones, and his distinctively syncopated turn of melodic phrase. 1973 was Wizzard's annus mirabilis, and their early summer Number One See my Baby Jive feels as fresh today as it did when that unmistakable opening drum burst first hit the airwaves. They repeated the trick with the often forgotten Angel Fingers, then ended the year with the Christmas song which has given him immortality in the English-speaking world. Many music critics have in recent years drawn attention to the very obvious debt owed by Abba to Roy Wood's Wizzard: listen to their Gold standards Waterloo and Dancing Queen and the influence is hard not to recognise.

It's easy to forget how blessed we were with proper Christmas hits back in the 70's and 80's. Wizzard had to fight it out with Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody for the Christmas No 1 in 1973,  the year of the 3 day week, 10:30 TV shutdown and football without floodlights. And in the charts that same month were Elton John's Step into Christmas, Steeleye Span's Gaudete (one of only two UK chart hits in Latin) and the Beach Boys' re-released Little Saint Nick, all now staple ingredients of every Now That's What I call Christmas compilation. Slade's song is often regarded - rightly - as the best expression of the tipsy frivolity that is our modern secular Christmas, but Wizzard's song is in many ways the perfect expression of a child's take on Christmas, yet written and performed by a slightly scary-looking man with a multicoloured beard wearing tartan trousers. A kind of hippy-trippy Santa if you like. Musically, it's a pastiche of that year's two other Number One hits he had written and performed, but why not? That Spectoresque  saxophone-driven wall of sound, anarchic-sounding yet carefully crafted, provided the perfect antidote to a gloomy year in the outside world, as Ted Heath's ailing Tory government grappled with enemies without - OPEC, and within - the NUM.

Roy Wood was a very busy man in 1973. As well as Wizzard, he had just left the newly formed ELO, leaving it in the capable hands of fellow Brummie Jeff Lynne, and was also writing and performing as a solo artist. His album Boulders, also released in 1973, but recorded four years earlier, is about as solo as a solo album gets: he wrote the songs, played all the instruments and even drew the artwork for the cover. There was only one minor hit single, Dear Elaine, but that alone sums up all that is clever and original about the album in particular and Wood's work in general. It's one of the saddest lost-love songs I know, as his plaintive vocal pleads for forgiveness backed by mandolin and French horn, both played by him of course. Contrast that with When Gran'ma plays the Banjo, a frivolous hillbilly singalong song, and you realise what a gloriously schizophrenic album it is.

He carried on in the same vein in the following years with more solo work: Forever sounds like something from the early 60's by someone like  Neil Sedaka, whilst minor hits like Going Down the Road and Oh What a Shame were also musically and lyrically original tributes to other styles. Early in 1975, Wizzard had one last chart hurrah with Are You Ready to Rock which reminds us once again that he can write and perform pure rock and roll as well as any of the greats.

I hope that readers of this post who only knew "that" Christmas song will agree that Roy Wood has given us far, far more than just one song. On Twitter, he is known as Dr Roy Wood, thanks to his honorary degree from the University of Derby, an entirely fitting honour. He deserves to be better known for the full scope of his work, as well as his most successful song.

Note: all bits of text in colour are links to relevant Spotify or Wikipedia pages.

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