In an extremely crowded field of English eccentric pop stars, Roy Wood still stands out with ease. He is very consistently strange, in a Vivian Stanshall kind of way.
Since his time with the Move, he has been as comfortable with writing charting pop hits as with doing over-produced doo wop pastiches. And in the process he has probably managed to alienate both the hit listeners and the Americana aficionados.
Given his incredible talent and musical skill that is no mean feat. It is of course also a terrible shame.
Because, just like his one time band mate Jeff Lynne, he really has total mastery of the beatlesque pop song formula. You get the impression that he can bang out a tune that appeals equally to your feet and to your brain almost without any effort at all. Simultaneously, listening to his albums also becomes an exercise in patience since he has a tendency to fill the spaces between those irresistibly stellar pop songs with homages to 1940s swing era or rock’n’roll medleys.
That is certainly also true for his second solo album, ‘Mustard’, from 1975, which is now it is being reissued by Esoteric in remastered form. Unfortunately, the bonus tracks are the same ones as on the Edsel edition from the late 1990s and the Japanese reissue from 2006 on Air Mail Archive: Given that Roy not only recorded this completely with only the slightest of vocal help (from girlfriend Annie Haslam among others), but also had to movie studios in the middle of everything, resulting in a quite protracted recording period, I am sure that there really is a ton of unused material tucked away on a tape reel in someone’s attic somewhere.
The first bonus track here, ‘Oh What A Shame’ was the last Roy Wood song to bother the charts. Although released in anticipation of ’Mustard’, it is not included on the album – an album that marked the fading away of Roy Wood from the public eye, even though he remained active in some form for more than another decade with his last solo album ‘Starting Up’ being released in 1987.
And listening to ‘Mustard’ now, it is easy to understand why it didn’t sell well. It is really all over the place.
A needle violently hits the run-in groove of a 78 rpm disc, as the album kicks off with Roy expertly mimicking a 1940s swing tune on ‘Mustard’. It is as skilful as it is flabbergasting. But then on second track, ‘Any Old Time Will Do’ we get a typical Roy Wood pop number, slightly nostalgic and eminently hummable. And on ‘The Rain Came DownOn Everything’ continues with pop drama of the highest order, and comparisons with ELO are not difficult to make.
But then we are back to pastiche land again with the boogie of ‘You Sure Got It Now’, followed by a perfect beach Boys homage in ‘Why Does Such A Pretty Girl Sing’. You just have to roll with it. Granted, even that can be a challenge, as ‘The Song’ comes next, with a plaintive, melodramatic vocal couple of minutes followed by four minutes of romantic, classically inspired instrumental stuff than sounds like it was pulled out of some 50s movie.
Although the 50s touch still very much remains, the next song, ‘Look Through The Eyes Of A Fool’, again pulls us firmly back onto irresistible Roy Wood pop ground. Alas, that bliss is only short lived, as Roy ends the album with an extended potpourri that doubles as a musical workout for good and for bad.
It is easy to be confounded by this record, and it really makes you wonder why at many points. But simultaneously, it is difficult not to get smitten by Roy’s genuine love for the various genres he visits, and, in the end, to appreciate all his eccentricity.