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10 May, 2011

The Many Voices of Roy Wood

By Joan d’Arc

Book Review: Performing Glam Rock : Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music by Philip Auslander (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2006)

This University published book contains chapters on David Bowie, Mark Bolan, Brian Ferry, and my favorite rock musician, Roy Wood. It has been argued, not completely persuasively, that Roy Wood is the grandfather of glam; however, that depends on your definition of glam.

Auslander analyzes glam’s “overt and self-conscious theatricality … in the creation and presentation of performance personae.” Glam is, clearly, theater. He discusses glam in terms of performance art, gender and sexual identity. He states, “Glam rock was the first fully developed post-countercultural (counter-counterculture) genre of rock music”; it constituted a major shift in rock aesthetics. Political activism of the hippie generation was out and theatricality (which Auslander calls "as if") was in. Whereas the counterculture wanted to perceive a seamless unity between performer and audience (a social collective or adhesion), the glam counter-counterculture wanted to differentiate between performer and audience by the creation of a persona. (p. 13)

A TV performance by The Move in 1970 anticipated glam rock with the song Brontosaurus, when Roy first decided to tease out his hair and put on black makeup and a star on his forehead while the rest of the fellas were at the bar. Surprise Surprise! Here’s your gorilla suit and roller skates!

According to Auslander, Roy Wood treated musical styles as “languages in which anyone may choose to speak”. On The Move’s second album, Shazam, the group tried to “shed their image” of 60s psychedelia.

With his band Wizzard in 1973, Wood maintained “no fixed identity” or “a continual shifting of identity.” Although he did sing in his own voice, for instance on songs like The Rain came down on Everything (second solo album, Mustard), Wood had an incredible ability to forge other artists’ identities. He pursued a 1950s revivalism of artists such as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Elvis, the Beach Boys, Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka, Bobby Vee, Duane Eddy, Gene Vincent, Carl Perkins, and Dell Shannon. On Wizzard’s second album, Eddy and the Falcons, the Falcon’s persona is dropped for only one song, “We’re gonna rock and roll tonight.”

Wood later became interested in incorporating orchestral instruments such as the French horn, oboe, bassoon, and cello, played as rock and roll instruments in his group Electric Light Orchestra. His cello droned like a bass guitar, creating a “wall of sound” reminiscent of that of Phil Spector. Although Wood could play Bach if he wanted to, he wished to bring classical music down to the cultural level of rock, rather than bringing rock up to the classical level. (174)

Wood skillfully evokes musical genres and styles rather than a single performer. “Because Wood’s songs sound like those songs but are not those songs, they seem inauthentic” (181). Wood altered the range, timbre and accent of his voice to sound American. On Wood’s first solo album, Boulders, Wood is more of “an absence than a presence.” He often sings in different accents and alters his voice electronically.

Wood had “a protean persona, able to assume a wide range of different identities … constructing artificial performance personae.” (185) By constructing a persona whose very identity resided in its lack of identity, Wood parodied glam rock even as he participated in it.” (185)

According to Auslander, Wizzard's 1973 Top 10 hit "Forever" hits the start button on Wood's recreation of the music of the Beach Boys and Neil Sedaka "with almost scholarly meticulousness", in particular "post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys"; not just imitating but "embodying them vocally." Says Wood: “When I was putting down the vocal tracks on “Forever” I had to visualize that I was those people, otherwise I’d never have been able to come anywhere near the sound I wanted.” (186)

Or, if you prefer, the "live pantomime" version of "Forever" performed with bandmate Rick Price:

Although Roy Wood does sing in his own voice, he often disappears into his vocal embodiments of other artists. We are never aware that Roy Wood is a Brummie (native of Birmingham England) with a very strong Brummie speaking voice.

On his second solo album, Mustard (1973) Wood even alters his voice to sound like the Andrews Sisters (also known as vocal transexualism). Wood sings in voices that are not his own, “voices that belie his sex, race, national origin, and historical era.” (190) Wood’s “signature is his lack of signature, or his appropriation of the signature of others.” (190) He bounces from East Coast to West Coast, from the 1940s to the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

The many voices of Roy Wood

Essentially, Wood plays his voice like an instrument, one of many that he plays with proficiency. And sometimes he sings like Roy Wood of The Move. Isn’t he a sweetheart?