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Many people in the music biz have recorded 'solo' albums. It's not hard to do with the right recording software, programmable keyboards et al, but it wasn't always that way. Some forty years ago the lead guitarist and songwriter with one of Britain's then most popular groups was writing material which seemed hardly suitable for said group, and recording it on his days off, playing pretty well every instrument that couldn't jump out of his way first. He also sang all lead and backing vocals, and painted the self-portrait on the front (even if he didn't finish it - apparently EMI Records rather liked the unfinished version).
Step forward Roy Wood, of The Move, later briefly ELO and then Wizzard. I was a huge fan of all groups, so maybe I was biased. But 'Boulders' completely bowled (bouldered?) me over when I first heard it. Close on four decades after its release in 1973, when it peaked at No. 15 in the album chart, and beautifully remastered for the 2007 reissue, it still sounds just as wonderful - if anything, slightly better.
Put the CD on, and you will hear a strange hum. Fear not. In a few seconds it becomes the warm tone of a harmonium (the sole instrument Roy does not play on the record himself), joined by acoustic guitar, tambourine and drums on the opener, 'Songs of Praise'. It's a joyous gospelly song, his lead vocal supplemented by many multi-tracked Roys on an almost surreal echoing choral backing.
'Wake Up' is gentle, folksy even. Plaintive, quite high vocals, acoustic guitar, recorders and cello are the main instruments on this one, plus percussion courtesy of a watersplash bucket. That's right - the 'beats' are water splashes. Own up, who said it was a wet idea?
A few seconds of deep bass and high treble choral vocal, plus recorder which sounds like the tape has been reversed, segue into a snatch of rock'n'roll. 'Rock Down Low', if you can imagine such a thing, is almost Chuck Berry (though more than three chords) but without lead guitar, substituting saxes and cello to punch out the riffs. Listen on a good set of headphones and you can also not only hear both those instruments clearly on different channels, but also some playful flourishes on the piano.
'Nancy, Sing Me a Song' is another slightly folksy number, or what they used to call 'pastoral', with acoustic guitar, cellos and that astonishing choral effect. Then straight into the album's loveliest song and hit single, 'Dear Elaine' (No. 18, September 1973). His lute-like guitar has never sounded sweeter, or the cello and recorders more gorgeous on this. Someone once described it as 'Tudor folk', and yes, you can almost close your eyes and hear it playing in the background of a 16th century costume drama. Drums are kept out of the picture (or the music) until the final verse. You'd never know this was the same guy whose group had just topped the charts with the magnificent 'See My Baby Jive'.
'All The Way Over The Hill' brings yet more acoustic folksiness, but to ring the changes, about halfway through the cellos are joined by what sounds like jazz played on a sitar for the instrumental break. Then back to the song, and just as the last chorus finishes, cue drum roll for 'The Irish Loafer (And His Hen)' a minutes'-worth of Irish jig on violin and cello. This will assuredly send you dancing over the hill - and back again.
'Miss Clarke And The Computer' is weird. It's also Roy's own favourite track. This tells the story of a piece of hardware developing feelings and falling for the lady engineer who comes to fix him, then tells the story in a distorted voice. The instruments include Welsh harp, string bass, glockenspiel and sitar. Note that it was recorded around 1971-72, years before PCs and laptops, and a computer was usually the size of a large desk.
'When Gran'ma Plays The Banjo' - yee-haw, Roy turns into a real mid-west cowboy here. (Personally I think he sounds a bit like John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival here). Gran'ma may have silver hair, but when she goes to a festival she puts the others to shame with her bluegrass skills, not least a guy who is all fingers and thumbs and moans in self-defence that he hasn't played for a couple of weeks.
To finish off, a seven-minute 'Rock Medley' segueing three songs together. 'Rockin' Shoes' is pure country, foot-tapping rock'n'roll with pedal steel guitar, leading into 'She's Too Good For Me', on which Roy sounds more like the Everly Brothers than they do themselves. Finally, 'Locomotive' takes us into late Move and Wizzard territory, with more steel guitar and saxophones. Wizzard used to play this one onstage at their earliest gigs.
As a bonus track, we have a rough mix of 'Dear Elaine'. There's very little difference between this and the issued version, apart from minor differences in the instruments, and also (again, on very good headphones) what sounds like a bit of studio chat in some of the quieter moments - plus Roy at the end modestly asking the studio engineer 'Was that OK?'
Most of Wizzard's records were renowned for that very busy, slightly distorted, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink wall of sound. This is not the case on 'Boulders', where everything you hear is as clear as the proverbial bell.
A 16-page booklet includes photographs, shots of the original press pack sent to music writers with the initial vinyl release, quotes from some of the critics, and an overview by longtime journalist and fan Gill. There are also two pages of musings from the man himself, who says in conclusion that 'it's old, but still weird enough to be different.' He also says that if he could have done so he would have called it 'B*ll*cks', but in those days he wouldn't have been allowed to get away with it. Johnny Rotten & Co appeared four years too late.
It really is an astonishingly good record. The production, playing and vocals are great, and it's not only an extremely accomplished album but also brimming with good humour. Many fans are agreed that it remains the best thing Roy Wood ever did. Ask me to choose three favourite albums of all time, and this would certainly be one of them. At £5 or less, it's a giveaway.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]