337. Wizzard – Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) (1973)

Glam rock’s debt to rock’n’roll continued apace in the autumn of 1973, as Wizzard enjoyed their second number 1 within months with Roy Wood’s lesser-known paen to his 50s youth with Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad).

I mentioned in my blog for See My Baby Jive that Wizzard’s debut album, Wizzard Brew, wasn’t anything like their singles. Released just before that single, it wasn’t very much like anything before or since. A lo-fi kaleidoscopic trawl through psychedelia, blues, rock, brass, metal, it’s a much underrated piece of work and I urge you to find it.

Inbetween Wizzard’s two number 1s, Wood also released solo album Boulders. Recorded between 1969-71, he wrote every song, played every instrument and drew the artwork. This is also considered a lost classic.

Although all Wizzard’s singles harked back to the 50s, Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) is Wood’s most overt tribute. The clue, not that you need one here, is in the bracketed part of the title. The lyrics are full of romantic 50s teen imagery, including Wood driving a motorbike to a cafe, a Dion poster on his girlfriends’s wall, a record playing… It’s as if Bruce Springsteen grew up in Birmingham in the 50s.

Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) may not be as instant as See My Baby Jive or I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, but it’s a lovely track with a real yearning quality, as Wood strives to capture the feeling of young love, rock’n’roll and those magical teenage years. It’s also slightly less cluttered, which gives the poignancy more of a chance to shine through. Spector would be impressed. Or would have threatened to shoot him, depending on how much cocaine he had in his system.

And then came I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday. One of the best festive songs of all time, Wood took See My Baby Jive and added extra tinsel, in yet another tribute to Spector’s Wall of Sound. Unfortunately for Wood, it was up against one of the other greatest yuletide anthems, and Wizzard lost out to Slade. Incredibly, it wasn’t even number two in the top 10 that Christmas, lagging behind Gary Glitter and The New Seekers. This is very, very wrong.

It’s worth noting that nobody hears the 1973 version of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday anymore. It doesn’t exist. In 1981, EMI contacted Wood to say they wanted to give the single another crack at the Christmas charts, but they couldn’t find the master tapes. They were never found, and Wood had to re-record the song in a week with Muff Murfin producing. Murfin recalled Wood painstakingly recreated the original, and played every single instrument. The original choristers, from Stockland Green Bilateral School in Birmingham, were replaced by pupils at Kempsey Primary School. So the only way to hear the original is if you have a copy of the original 1973 vinyl. And if the versions on YouTube that are 1973 versions are real, there is no discernible difference. Which makes Wood’s remake an amazing feat, really.

1973 was intense for Wood, and it took its toll the following year. Several live dates were cancelled and the single Rock’n’Roll Winter (Looney’s Tune) was delayed until the spring. Second album Introducing Eddy and the Falcons was another tribute to the 50s, a concept album about a fictional band, inspired, no doubt by The Beatles. It was supposed to be a double LP, with the second half an experimental jazz-rock collection, but this material didn’t see the light of day until 2000’s Main Street.

The early momentum of Wizzard soon dissipated. Wood struggled to afford such a large line-up and ran up huge studio costs. Bassist Rick Price once recalled a rumour that the group spent more time recording their last number 1 than Paul McCartney & Wings spent on the whole of the Band On the Run album. Cellist Hugh McDowell departed in 1973 to return to the Electric Light Orchestra, and keyboardist Bill Hunt left a year later. In 1975, Wood split Wizzard up. Farewell single Rattlesnake Roll failed to chart.

Saxophonist Mike Burney went on to work with The Syd Lawrence Orchestra and The Old Horns Band, which was a joint venture with other former Wizzard members. He was also a session player for a wide variety of stars including Chaka Khan, The Beach Boys and Cliff Richard. Burney died in 2014. After ELO, McDowell joined new wave group Radio Stars and featured on albums by Saint Etienne and Asia. He died in 2018.

Price joined Wood in his short-lived project Wizzo Band after Wizzard, a jazz-rock project that was ill-received critically and commercially, with only one album, Super Active Wizzo in 1977. They split the following year. He married Diane Lee of Peters and Lee in the 90s, and they tour performing hits and new material. He’s also a member of The Rockin’ Berries.

Wood released a second solo LP, Mustard, in 1975, which featured Phil Everly. It wasn’t as successful as his first however, and his third, On the Road Again, didn’t even get a UK release in 1979. After The Wizzo Band’s demise he largely disappeared from the public eye. He led Roy Wood’s Helicopters between 1980 and 1982, and the following year recorded with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Chas Hodges as The Rockers. 1986 saw him record the ABBA song Waterloo with Doctor and the Medics. In 1987 came another solo album, Starting Up, and then another group, Roy Wood’s Army. Two years later he recorded with his former ELO bandmate Jeff Lynne, but the songs never saw the light of day.

Like Slade, Wood will always be associated with Christmas, and it helps that he looks rather like Santa Claus. There was a remake of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday in 1995, credited to Roy Wood’s Big Band. Weirdly, he and Mike Batt’s The Wombles teamed up in 2000 for an ill-advised mash-up called I Wish It Could Be A Wombling Merry Christmas Everyday. It was awful. Seven years later, thanks to his appearance in an Argos Christmas advert, it reached number 16. In 2010, Wood featured in a cameo on the Christmas special of ITV comedy drama Benidorm.

Wood’s most recent troupe of musicians call themselves The Roy Wood Rock & Roll Band. In 2018 they made the news when their touring equipment was stolen in a ram-raid on a warehouse in Leeds, but it was later recovered. Sadly, it transpired that he was a hardcore Brexiter. So much so, he joined The Brexit Party in 2019. Ah well, everyone has their flaws, even a musical genius.

It’s a shame Wood is only remembered for one song, even if it is a bona fide classic. From his days in The Move, to forming ELO, to Wizzard, Wood was an eccentric musical magpie in the 60s and 70s, able to turn his hand to most forms of music, but always with an eye for a winning pop tune. Perhaps his unassuming nature and inherent shyness are further reasons he is underappreciated. He’s not bothered about reminding the world about his number 1s Blackberry Way, See My Baby Jive and Angel Fingers (A Teen Ballad) and his other classics like 10538 Overture, he’s content to show up from time to time at Christmas and then he’s gone again. I imagine it will sadly take his death before his resume is reappraised, but until then, the UK remains grateful at least that Wizzard kept the UK smiling during The Troubles and the Three-Day Week.

Written & produced by: Roy Wood

Vocal backing: The Suedettes & The Bleach Boys

Weeks at number 1: 1 (22-28 September)

Deaths:

Peeress Barbara Freyberg, Baroness Freyberg – 24 September
Labour Party MP George Porter – 25 September

285. Norman Greenbaum – Spirit in the Sky (1970)

The devil doesn’t always have the best tunes. Dana’s old-fashioned All Kinds of Everything was booted from the top by one of the most memorable one-hit wonders of all time. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky heralded a new decade with its fuzz-guitar sound and could be considered a forerunner to the glam rock that was to come. This one-hit wonder, combining a riff you’d sell your soul for with holier-than-thou lyrics, was so good, two different versions have been number 1 since. Not bad going for an unassuming, enigmatic Jewish dairy farmer.

Norman Joel Greenbaum was born in Malden, Massachusetts on 20 November 1942. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, and as a teenager in the late 50s and early 60s he fell in love with southern blues and folk music. In high school he began performing in bands and went on to study music at Boston University, but dropped out and moved to Los Angeles in 1965.

In 1966 he formed the psychedelic jug band (think a less intense and more wacky The 13th Floor Elevators) Dr West’s Medicine Show and Junk Band and he penned their novelty single The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. They split in 1968. Clearly, Greenbaum was a unique talent.

Going it alone after signing with Reprise Records, Greenbaum set about writing a religious rock song, getting inspiration from country singer Porter Wagoner and enjoying westerns as a child. There was something in the air in the late 60s, with lots of songs moving away from references to drugs and turning to religion instead. Despite being Jewish, Greenbaum opted to sing about Jesus, because he knew it’d be more marketable then Jehovah. In an interview years later, he said it was ‘the spirit in the sky’ people should be taking notice of in his song, not ‘Jesus’. He took the phrase from a greetings card.

The music took a lot longer than the lyrics (which he claimed were done in 15 minutes), but it was worth the wait, with Greenbaum coming up with a laid-back yet fiery boogie groove in a San Francisco studio. The music provides a stark contrast to the holy lyrics and is so strong, it’s seen the song used in countless films and on TV. When Spirit in the Sky was mixed, he says it was optimised to sound good on car stereos without dynamic range, giving it an earthy, primitive quality.

Joining Greenbaum on the sessions were lead guitarist Russell DaShiell, bassist Doug Killmer from Crowfoot and drummer Norman Mayell, formerly of Sopwith Camel. The backing singers adding the gospel touch were The Stovall Sisters trio from Indiana. Before joining Earth, Wind & Fire, Philip Bailey was their percussionist.

The song became the title track of Greenbaum’s album, but Reprise were unsure this strange, lengthy track would make it as a 7”. Two other singles came out first, and they got nowhere, so they took a punt on Spirit in the Sky, released in the UK in December 1969.

And what a punt. I must have heard Greenbaum’s original a million times and yet I love it as much as ever. It’s a hell (pun intended) of a groove and I love the juxtaposition between the raw production and guitar effects and happy-clappy lyrics. It’s easy to get enveloped in it, and I could happily listen to a 10-minute version, and always feel it’s a shame it fades abruptly as the guitar stretches out. Future glam stars were certainly paying attention, for example Alvin Stardust’s My Coo Ca Choo is pretty similar.

Greenbaum may have never had another hit but some acts could take years to come up with one this good. He didn’t disappear straight away though – this was followed up by the bizarre Canned Ham, and he recorded two further albums – Back Home Again later this year, and the all-acoustic Petaluma in 1972.

Eventually Greenbaum’s music fizzled out, and he went to work in a friend’s café around the start of the 80s. Then in 1986 Doctor and the Medics released their cover, which took everyone by surprise when it reached number 1. The renewed interest sparked its use in films, and Greenbaum never needed to work again.

The one-hit wonder made headlines in 2015 when he was the passenger in a car accident that killed a motorcyclist and left him in a coma for three weeks. With perhaps a new-found appreciation of life, Greenbaum, now 77, returned to performing.

And yes, Spirit in the Sky went to number 1 yet again in 2003, with a version for Comic Relief by Gareth Gates with The Kumars, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m in no rush.

Written by: Norman Greenbaum

Producer: Erik Jacobsen

Weeks at number 1: 2 (2-15 May)

Births:

Cricketer Chris Adams – 6 May

Deaths:

Novelist Jack Jones – 7 May