For the last few years (well, close on twenty, if the truth was to be told), Roy Wood has played occasional gigs, mainly festivals and pre-Christmas tours, with his Rock'n'Roll Big Band. Frustratingly, he has written and premiered a few new songs onstage, as well as written and recorded two with his old mate Jeff Lynne. But if you want to hear them, they aren't here. After he had complained vociferously about the lack of any personal input on recent compilation CDs, EMI Records allowed him to make his own choice of a career retrospective. Released in November 2011, this is the result.
Here is a collection of two CDs and 36 tracks, 67 and 71 minutes playing time respectively, from all stages of a lengthy career. They do not appear in any chronological order, so my guess is that this is the way their creator wanted them to be sequenced. For the most part, it is a kind of 'greatest hits plus', albeit a rather uneven one.
It gets off to an excellent start with a live recording of 'California Man' by Roy and his current band. This has been the opening number in their set since he returned to live work about twenty years ago, and it starts off with the guitar riff from The Move's 1970 hit 'Brontosaurus' [see below], gradually augmented by the rest of the big band on brass. I was very disappointed by Wood's 1977 Wizzo Band LP, but that was largely down to what I thought were the sub-standard, overlong songs and excessively protracted jazz-funk riffing. Where the latter tendency is kept relatively within bounds and where there's a decent song to work on, the results are great. After nearly 1½ minutes, a compere requests a warm welcome for the main man before it breaks into a slightly jazzier version of what for me was always a Move classic.
All the remaining tracks are studio recordings. A lengthy track-by-track commentary would make for an unnecessarily long and dare I say it even exhausting review (how many weeks have you got to spare?). So I'll mention what is here, and keep the spotlight more on the lesser-known fare.
Wizzard are represented by eight tracks. Six are the major hits, in chronological order being 'Ball Park Incident' (my personal favourite, and possibly the greatest British rock'n'roll single ever), the chart-toppers 'See My Baby Jive' and 'Angel Fingers' with their glorious everything-but-the-kitchen sink production and Phil Spector-inspired wall of sound, the perennial festive number 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday', the less successful ballad 'This Is The Story Of My Love', 'R U Red E2 Rock' ('Are You Ready To Rock', their final Top 10 hit from Christmas 1974, now with a Prince-style title), which sounds like Bill Haley's 'Rock Around The Clock', with bagpipes, and from the long-lost album 'Main Street' released in 2000 after 24 years, the title track and 'French Perfume'. These are both more sophisticated jazzy numbers which might be clever and less poppy, but for me they lack the sparkle and inventiveness which marked everything else he had done with the band up until then. The Wizzard hits are all classics, showing a degree of inventiveness yet fun, and for me they'll never date.
Five songs are drawn from The Move's glory days, pre-Wizzard, between 1968 and 1971. There's a newly-refurbished 'Blackberry Way', which features about twenty seconds of strings before leading into what sounds like the original 1968 recording. The late Carl Wayne is represented on that and on the non-single track, the lovely string quartet-backed 'Beautiful Daughter.' From their latter phase, after Wayne had left and Wood was lead vocalist as well as guitarist, come the hits 'Brontosaurus', the first of their chart excursions into heavy rock with a magnificently growling guitar and bass, ending with that distinctive frantic slide guitar and piano workout, the semi-acoustic 'Tonight', and the oriental-flavoured 'Chinatown'. Wood was only with ELO for the first album, and from that comes one of his own contributions, 'First Movement', an instrumental featuring his acoustic guitar and cello work.
Eighteen tracks, in other words 50%, are credited to Wood as a soloist. Pride of place goes to his first solo success, the exquisite lute and cello-driven ballad, 'Dear Elaine', and the unashamedly Beach Boys-influenced 'Forever' and 'Oh What A Shame', all of which were hits in the mid-1970s. The others are a batch of unsuccessful singles and album tracks. Among the most notable is 'Keep Your Hands On The Wheel', enlivened by a sprightly change in tempo part of the way through as twenty seconds of sitar jig break in, and a massive drum sound courtesy of Wood's hero, Led Zeppelin sticksman John Bonham. Some of the others have a melancholy feel to them, notably the rather charming 'Raining In The City' and the wistful 'Why Does Such A Pretty Girl Sing Those Sad Songs'.
By and large, though, his 1970s output remains the strongest. His songwriting muse, with a flair for a strong chorus, was very much in evidence on 'Look Thru' The Eyes Of a Fool' and 'Any Old Time Will Do', and the quirky 'Miss Clarke And The Computer'. Yet the 1980s electro-pop, mostly synthesiser and drum-machine backed 'Givin' Your Heart Away', and 'Green Glass Windows' seemed to be lacking something, as did the instrumental 'Olympic Flyer', which was OK he said grudgingly as a B-side but frankly is little more than filler. On the other hand, 'Down To Zero' and the title track of the 1986 album 'Starting Up' overcame the rather machine-like limitations to deliver the goods. Likewise, while the slightly discofied 'Aerial Pictures', scheduled as a single release in 1982 but cancelled, doesn't quite scale past glories but is pleasant enough.
So far so good. But there are three rather questionable choices on this collection. 'Fire Brigade', a top three hit in 1968, was always one of my favourite Move singles. I think I'm right in saying that the original recording - freely available on several other compilations - was not available for licensing this time for some reason, so the song is represented here by a 2011 re-recording by Wood 'in the shed'. It sounds like it has been done with electric and 12-string acoustic guitars and a drum machine. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and this is nowhere near as good as the 1968 original. Coincidentally, his old mate Jeff Lynne has also recently issued a compilation CD 'Mr Blue Sky', which features re-recordings of ELO greatest hits all re-recorded with him supplying all voices and instruments. Apparently these re-recordings are done by the guys concerned for business reasons as they have 100% control over the licensing rights and so on. But for me, nothing can EVER replace the originals. If you hear 'Fire Brigade' on Radio 2's 'Sounds of the 60s' or 'Pick of the Pops', it will always be the masterful 1968 one - thank goodness.
Not only that, but Wood has picked a couple of what in my view are rather inferior cover versions. Nancy Sinatra's 'Flowers In the Rain' is quite appealing, and his recent tour mates Status Quo's 'I Can Hear The Grass Grow' is a more than passable stab at the song, but they are definitely inferior to The Move's own. Considering the length of time he spent in putting this album together, it would have been an imaginative touch - in fact, the icing on the cake - for him to have re-recorded this with his band punching out the riffs on brass, and invited Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt into the studio (or sent a tape - with modern technology, they could have probably done it down the phone) so all three of them could have traded lead vocals. I can dream...
'Lion's Heart' is one of the more recent songs that he has featured in the band's live set. It would have been good to hear their version, but all we get is what sounds like a demo version recorded by him alone on a MIDI system with keyboards and drum machine. Apart from 'California Man', the only track here featuring the big band behind him is 'New York City', which some fans would be forgiven for suggesting is virtually the only real selling point of this set. This really is the bee's knees - rock'n'roll meets jazz meets swing, with a number that could almost be Little Richard in his prime, and it even quotes cheekily from the 'Batman' theme at one point. At just a pinch over two minutes long, I'd have been happy for it to have lasted twice as much as that.
Want to sample them all first? See the Amazon page for a few seconds of each track.
Now here comes the big gripe. The annoying thing about this record is that it is a huge missed opportunity. Many of us diehard Roy Wood fans were longing for and expecting at least half a dozen other previously unreleased songs which he plays in the current set or has featured live. Instead we have several others which have been available on several CD compilations already, and are still. Nearly all of them, plus the collaborations with Jeff Lynne, can be heard in variable quality on Youtube, and I fear that his omitting them is simply playing into the hands of the bootleggers.
Also, the booklet claims that five tracks are previously unreleased. Oh, come on (said in a Jeremy Paxman tone of voice)! One of these appeared as a bonus cut on a CD single in 1995, while another was on an EMI 'best of' in 2006 and is still on catalogue. If Wood was responsible for the misinformation (as I suspect - the buck stops somewhere), either his memory is at fault or else he's not owning up. Sorry to be picky, but some of us anoraks do know and do care about getting the facts right.
As for the packaging, the 20-page booklet has an entertaining selection of pics from Wood's personal albums, likewise from all stages of his career and beyond - the earliest being of a three-year-old fair-haired lad to the last couple of years or so, and the most recent one of him and his hero Jimmy Page clutching their awards at a recent Mojo magazine ceremony. Even so, a little roll-call naming all the other musicians involved would have been a fitting touch.
In conclusion, for the casual fan, it's a pretty good, value for money retrospective. But for the more demanding of us, it really is a case of 'could have been so much better'.
[A revised version of the review I originally posted on ciao]
"Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 California Man (Roy Wood with his Rock & Roll ""Big Band"") *
2 Ball Park Incident (Wizzard)
3 Forever (Roy Wood)
4 Oh What A Shame (Roy Wood)
5 Fire Brigade (Roy Wood) *
6 French Perfume (Roy Wood with Wizzard)
7 Down To Zero (Roy Wood)
8 Raining In The City (Roy Wood)
9 I Can Hear The Grass Grow (Status Quo)
10 Beautiful Daughter (Roy Wood with Carl Waynes)
11 Tonight (Move)
12 Lion's Heart (Roy Wood) *
13 Look Thru The Eyes Of A Fool (Roy Wood)
14 Dear Elaine (Roy Wood)
15 Main Street (Roy Wood with Wizzard)
16 New York City (Roy Wood Rock & Roll Band) *
17 Givin' Your Heart Away (Roy Wood)
18 Sing Out The Old...Bring In The New (Roy Wood with Kempsey School Choir)
Disc #2 Tracklisting
1 See My Baby Jive (Wizzard)
2 Starting Up (Roy Wood)
3 Any Old Time Will Do (Roy Wood)
4 Miss Clarke And The Computer (Roy Wood)
5 Green Glass Windows (Roy Wood with Kempsey School Choir)
6 R. U. Red E 2 Rock (Wizzard)
7 Chinatown (Move)
8 Flowers In The Rain (Nancy Sinatra)
9 Why Does Such A Pretty Girl (Sing Those Sad Songs) (Roy Wood)
10 Brontosaurus (Move)
11 Olympic Flyer (Roy Wood)
12 Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) (Wizzard)
13 Keep Your Hands On The Wheel (Roy Wood feat John Bonham Drums)
14 Aerial Pictures (Roy Wood) *
15 This Is The Story Of My Love (Wizzard)
16 Blackberry Way (Move with extra strings by Roy Wood) *
17 I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Wizzard)
18 First Movement E.L.O (Roy Wood acoustic guitar & cello)(BONUS TRACK)"