Lighting up the charts in 1973, Wizzard became one of the biggest bands in glam rock. Literally, too, as there were eight full-time members, creating an all-mighty cacophony of tributes to Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’. They were also visually striking, an explosion of colour, filling the stage with outlandish outfits and make-up. This was all down to their unassuming genius leader, Roy Wood.
Wood, born 8 November 1946 in Kitts Green, Birmingham, was no stranger to pop stardom, having already been at number 1 in 1969 with Blackberry Way in The Move. Their story was covered in greater depth in my review of said song, but prior to that hit, Wood had first learned guitar as a teen, and was a member of various bands in and around Birmingham, the first being The Falcons. He later joined Gerry Levene & the Avengers, who recorded a single before splitting in 1964, then joined Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, later to become The Idle Race. Around this time he as expelled from Moseley Art College.
By 1967 The Move were a constant presence on the singles chart thanks to Wood’s ability to write catchy pop-rock songs with a psychedelic edge. By the end of the decade he was also their lead singer following Carl Wayne’s departure.
Wood was also one of the founders of the Electric Light Orchestra. He came up with the project with the desire to combine classical instruments with a rock sound, picking up where The Beatles had left off. After initially declining, Jeff Lynne of The Idle Race joined The Move on the condition they focused more on ELO. Originally intended to be a B-side for The Move, the epic, excellent 10538 Overture became ELO’s first single.
The Move were supposed to end in 1970, but contractual obligations meant both groups existed until 1972, which proved a pivotal year for all concerned. That March saw the release of Electric Light Orchestra, which would be the only ELO album to feature Wood, who couldn’t see eye-to-eye with their tough manager Don Arden. He departed that July. Wood decided to start a new project, where he could take his ELO experimentation up a notch and see just how many instruments it was possible to add to pop songs.
In addition to being singer in Wizzard, Wood played guitars, saxophone, woodwinds, strings, keyboards and percussion. Also on board were Mike Burney (saxophone, clarinet, flute), Charlie Grima (drums, percussion, vocals), ELO members Bill Hunt (keyboards, French horn) and Hugh McDowell (cello, synthesisers), Rick Price (bass), formerly of The Move, and Keith Smart (drums). Quite a set-up.
Making public Wood’s intention to pay tribute to the rock’n’roll of his youth, Wizzard made their debut at The London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium only a month after leaving ELO. They set to work on their first recordings, and debut single Ball Park Incident reached number six in January 1973.
In his excellent book Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop, Bob Stanley noted that ‘Roy Wood loved pop. He was a superfan. He wanted to be all of pop, all at the same time.’ This is certainly apparent on See My Baby Jive, a joyous audio romp in which a million things are happening all at once. So much so, this song understandably has its critics, who say it’s just too much for their ears to cope with. Not me, I love it, and am fascinated by Wood’s production technique. I thought the reason Wizzard’s singles were so muddy and harsh was down to primitive technology of the time, but apparently he insisted on adding a ring modulator to mess up the quality deliberately. Despite the fact there’s so much going on, and it’s over five minutes long, the tune is so effervescent it seems to be over in a flash.
Wood was of course made for life when he made I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, and I’ve always found See My Baby Jive to be the Christmas song you can enjoy all year round. Try hearing Wood singing ‘Well every one you meet coming down the street/Just to see my baby jive’ and not hear ‘So let the bells ring out for Christmas’. So on that limited knowledge of Wizzard I wondered if this particular project was a one-trick pony. Then I heard their debut LP, Wizzard Brew.
All glam rock is indebted to rock’n’roll to some degree, and became more so as the years went by, but See My Baby Jive is a full-on tribute to the ecstasy of the dancehalls of the 50s, and was also a big influence on ABBA’s first number 1, Waterloo. But you could argue that Wizzard weren’t glam rock at all. If you listen to Wizzard Brew, you get what Stanley meant, and that Wood should be considered one of our greats, not just as a man who got lucky with a Christmas song. More on that when we get to Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad).
Written & produced by: Roy Wood
Vocal backing: The Suedettes
Weeks at number 1: 4 (19 May-15 June)
Comedian Noel Fielding – 21 May
Presenter Dermot O’Leary – 24 May
Comedian Leigh Francis – 30 May
Comedian Iain Lee – 9 June
Painter Montague Dawson – 21 May
Comedian Jimmy Clitheroe – 6 June
20 May: The Royal Navy sent three frigates to protect British fishing vessels from Icelandic ships during the Cod War dispute.
23 May: The Matrimonial Causes Act changed the law of divorce in England and Wales.
29 May: The Princess Royal announced her engagement to Captain Mark Phillips.