In Praise of Roy Wood

Who is Roy Wood? I thought you’d never ask… Roy Wood was the main songwriter-singer for the 1960s group The Move, co-founder of the Electric Light Orchestra and the resident eccentric hit-maker for the 1970s band Wizzard. He is a multi-instrumentalist. On one of his solo albums, Boulders, he was literally a one man band: he played every single instrument on the record; for instruments on which he was not proficient, he recorded each note separately and then assembled the track in the studio. He even plays the bagpipes. He is the neglected genius of British pop music, a whipper-upper of pop confections every bit as delicious as those of Lennon and McCartney. His melodies enter your brain and melt immediately into your amygdala, where they generate all kinds of lovely, lively sensations. And I finally got to see him in concert, just before Christmas, something that I have wanted to do for nigh on a decade now.

Wood looks a lot like he did in the 1970s. Then, he was a scruffy Ziggy Stardust, with a scraggly beard, hair (which was colored a variety of scalding hues) down to his ass, rose-tinted spectacles of the kind John Lennon was wont to wear, and strange, vaguely totemic make-up scrawled all over his face. Today, he hasn’t cut his hair (and no longer wears make-up) but his dress sense has calmed down a bit: black pants and a black shirt over a long black tailcoat. He’s still got the glasses, too, which kind of makes him look like a portly, avuncular Charles Manson.

I first got into The Move, and hence Roy Wood, in the early 1970s, after becoming deeply enamored of the first few albums by the Electric Light Orchestra. In the 1960s, The Move was almost as popular as the Beatles, at least in England. They were notorious for their live shows, during which various household appliances (as well as, in one case, an entire automobile) were violently dismantled. The Wood songs from the ’60s are still vibrant and catchy today, some of the finest pop songs ever written: I Can Hear the Grass Grow, Wave Your Flag and Stop the Train, Flowers in the Rain, Fire Brigade and Blackberry Way. Wood is not an aphorist-lyricist, but comes close with these lines from one of my favorite songs, Useless Information:

Turn your ears to the weatherman
Saying it will be colder in December
Get your boots and your astro-cam [?]
It’s been the same for years, so why remember?

In concert, Wood plays guitar (and bagpipes!) and is backed up by a resplendent four-piece horn section, a vivid, soulful female back-up singer, a bouncing bassist and a drummer of whom one is never sure whether he’s throwing a tantrum or simply playing his instrument. Wood is these days best remembered for a 1970s seasonal hit, I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. It’s a good song, but doesn’t seem to me worthy of the veneration the English have bestowed on it, certainly not at the expense of classics like See My Baby Jive, in which Wood manages to encompass and incorporate almost every sound in popular music history since 1940, from the Andrew Sisters through Elvis and on to Frank Zappa. The audience, mostly people who looked to be in their fifties and perhaps even early sixties, Wood’s contemporaries, got into the festive spirit by donning tinsel wigs and wearing fake antlers with Christmas tree lights on them. Christmas really brings out the kitsch in the English, don’t it?

Anyway, Wood was fantastic in concert. He bantered around with the audience between every number, and put on a stunning display of musicianship. I used to listen to my Move records as a teenager, with the headphones on as I fell asleep at night. When he played the opening chords of Blackberry Way, a fixture of my teenage listening, I actually gasped. Wood doesn’t have a very high profile anymore. His insistence on sticking with his unique brand of classical- and jazz-inflected rock, with roots in 1950s bubble gum music, isn’t very commercial these days. If you ask me, though, Roy Wood is one of the greatest pop songwriters—ever. Move over Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Chiefs; make room for Roy Wood!