Roy Wood: Boulders

I know, this week of all weeks, I should be writing about Bowie. But frankly, other people have managed that far better than I ever could, and so I thought I’d write about another glam rock genius, one who’s still alive and not as recognised as Bowie, and one who always seemed a little more emulable to me, as a bearded bloke with glasses from the provinces, than the Thin White Duke.

Because Roy Wood is a genius, unquestionably. He’s in the very first rank of British songwriters of his generation, just below Lennon and McCartney, but probably on the same level as Ray Davies, and miles ahead of anyone else. The man is, simply, ridiculously talented.

Though he usually only figures in the British consciousness now for one Christmas hit (and doesn’t register with most Americans at all), Wood had an astonishing run of hits from about 1966 to 1974, but those hits came under a variety of names, and in a variety of styles, so it’s hard for people to get a handle on him. With the Move, he wrote and sang on great psych-pop hits that invented the powerpop genre ten years before anyone else clued in to what he was doing, while recording albums that invented heavy rock music, and writing hits for artists such as Amen Corner (Hello Suzie) on the side. Then he formed ELO (whose first line-up was actually the same as the last line-up of The Move), and quit after their first album to form Wizzard, who put out a whole series of perfect Spectoresque pop singles, but also strange jazz-prog albums.

So while he had more than twenty hit singles in a short period of time, they were under so many names that he never really entered the public consciousness as one of the true greats. The fact that since a couple of flop albums in the mid seventies he essentially retired as a creator of new music, only putting out one album in 1987 and a few novelty singles, probably hasn’t helped either.

But the body of work he’s created is absolutely astonishing, and nowhere is that more apparent than on Boulders. Boulders was an album recorded in the late 60s, around the time Wood was working on the last Move and first ELO recordings, but wasn’t released until 1973, because Wood was putting out so much music, on so many labels, it was feared he would compete with himself for sales.

When it was released, it was only a minor hit, although it did produce the hit single “Dear Elaine”, but Boulders, and its follow-up (sadly long out of print) Mustard may be the most singular artistic vision ever released by a mainstream pop act.

Because Boulders is a real solo album. Wood has said that he was annoyed by seeing other people put out solo albums which featured a load of other musicians, saying that hardly counted as a solo album. For his solo album, he wanted to “play every instrument, sing all of the vocals, produce and mix the tracks, paint the album sleeve, drive the van and make the tea”.

And he succeeded in that. Other than a harmonium part on the opening track, played by the album’s engineer John Kurlander, he played everything. And this isn’t just an album of guitar, bass, and drums, either — Wood is credited with banjo, bells, cello, cowbell, double bass, drums, glockenspiel, guitar, bass, harp, harp guitar, piano, recorder, saxophone, sitar, slide guitar, tambourine, trumpet, violin, washboard, water bowl, lead and backing vocals, production, liner notes and cover art. And I don’t think that’s a complete list (for a start, “Miss Clarke and the Computer” has two balalaikas, with different tunings, on it). And nor is it the kind of album where a musician does a quick plunk or squawk on an orchestral instrument to make themselves look clever — Wood worked out full orchestral arrangements, and played them all.

But that wouldn’t matter if Boulders wasn’t any good. But it is. It’s a dazzling collection of eccentric but inspired pop music, to match Ram by Paul McCartney or the Beach Boys’ Friends or Love You. It’s amazingly stylistically diverse — from the Eurovision entry girl-group (with Wood of course being the female backing vocalists) gospel song “Songs of Praise” to the ridiculous country song “When Grandma Plays The Banjo” to “She’s Too Good For Me”, a note-perfect pastiche of the Everly Brothers’ early-60s Warners singles (Wood’s Don Everly impression was spot-on, though his varispeeded Phil Everly was less so).

But the highlights of the album are the ballads. “Wake Up”, a folkish song with percussion from a splashing water bowl, sounds *exactly* like a lost Paul McCartney song from late 1967 or early 1968. It could fit perfectly on the White Album with songs like “I Will”, “Blackbird” or “Mother Nature’s Son”, except it would outshine all of those to the point that they’d sound second-rate.

“Dear Elaine”, with its layers of mandolin and strings, proceeds in a stately, dignified manner that makes the often-overused term “baroque pop” appropriate. It’s a precise, gorgeous, melody that sounds like it couldn’t have been constructed any way except how it is.

But most magnificent of all is “Miss Clarke and the Computer”. This manages to be a ridiculous, hilarious, idea which in practice is one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard. It’s a song sung from the perspective of a computer, one that’s fallen in love with the engineer who is in the process of dismantling it. The melody is almost nursery-rhyme like (apart from the jazz instrumental break that comes out of nowhere), and the song seems to be inspired by the “Daisy, Daisy” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the slowing down and grinding to a halt, but the ending, with Wood singing “screwdriver’s so sharp, now I’m scared Miss Clarke/Miss Clarke, Miss Clarke, don’t take my heart away” wrenches tears even as one has to acknowledge how ridiculous it is. (My wife, Holly, can’t listen to the song because it upsets her so much).

To talk of a “greatest album of all time” is always ludicrous, but I think Boulders has as much of a claim to the title as any of the albums which get it more regularly, and it’s a tragedy that such a bizarre but beautiful and imaginative album remains so relatively obscure.

The album’s available on CD on its own (with a single bonus track, a rough mix of “Dear Elaine”), but the best way to buy it is as part of this box set which came out a little over a year ago. For thirteen pounds, around half the price of the standalone CD, you get the album (minus the bonus track), the last Move album Message From The Country, the eponymous first ELO album, the first Wizzard album Wizzard Brew, and Wood’s lacklustre third solo album On The Road Again. All of these are at least listenable, and the Move and ELO albums are both minor classics in their own right.

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6 Responses to Roy Wood: Boulders

  1. dhanyc says:

    My brain usually refuses to acknowledge that not everyone is aware of Boulders. :-)

    Great tribute to a great album. Thanks!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you. Yes, it’s one of those albums that *should* be getting the 3CD deluxe box set treatment (although whether that would be possible given the multitracked nature of the album I don’t know), not basically ignored…

  2. Larry S. says:

    Andrew, I really love your musical tastes – I didn’t know you were such a Roy Wood fan! I love The Move, purchased all the reissues from a few years back (now sadly all out of print), but never got around to “Boulders” or “Mustard.” I’ll try to pick up that compilation box soon, although I’m not a big ELO fan. I do have the “Wizzard Brew” album, which I think is great, and fairly mad to boot. Happy 2016 to Holly and yourself.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      And to you!
      The first ELO album is a completely different sound to anything they did once Wood left. Jeff Lynne is doing the same stuff he did on the later Move albums, pastiching Wood’s style (rather than the Beatles and Orbison pastiches he did later), and so it sounds like the Move — but a version of the Move where cellos are playing many of the guitar parts. Imagine the last couple of Move albums, but orchestrated like Strawberry Fields or I Am The Walrus. Very different from the later stuff.
      But Boulders and Mustard are both incredible. Sadly, Mustard will set you back stupid amounts of money, but buying Boulders as part of that box set will be one of the best decisions you can make in terms of musical value for money.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (And in case I didn’t make clear, Wood wrote half the first ELO album — the better half)

  3. Excellent review. This has to be on anyone’s list of the greatest albums of all time. The man is a staggering talent, but that talent was rarely if ever bettered on this set.

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