The year is 1985. Euro-pop has taken hold, but is rapidly giving way to watered-down hard rock “hair” bands. And despite having a fine and, it must be said, multi-colored head of hair, if you’re old school rocker Roy Wood (founding member of The Move and ELO), you fit into neither of these categories.
Not that he didn’t try, mind you. Woody’s always been an advocate of reinventing his sound, of trying to do something that either hasn’t been done before in rock ‘n’ roll or trying to bring back something that’s fallen out of favor. After trying to give rock music a full-time string section with Electric Light Orchestra, he moved on to create groups like Wizzard and Helicopters, centered around a 50s-style wall-of-saxophone sound. (It’s this last permutation that seems to have stuck, as Wood still tours to this day with Roy Wood’s Big Band.) But in ’84, Wood returned briefly to what he did with his underrated 1975 classic Boulders – recording everything by himself – only with much more modern tools at his disposal.
The sole drawback to this: Starting Up probably could have charted in 1980 or 1981, when the sound of synths and drum machines was fresh where the mainstream was concerned. And Wood’s voice isn’t a million miles away from, say, Gary Numan’s. It wouldn’t have been a bad fit for the early days of synth pop. But in 1985, most of the songs on this album already sounded dated, and 20 years later, time hasn’t been much kinder to them.
Oddly enough, one of the only two tracks that stand head and shoulders above the rest suffers (or perhaps benefits) from a near-total sonic disconnect from every other song on the album. Featuring Louis Clark (of Hooked On Classics fame, and longtime orchestral arranger for ELO) and a full orchestra backing, “On Top Of The World” is a catchy song with a snazzy tune, and easily Wood’s best vocals on the whole album. It’s like this song dropped in from a better-written, better-produced album that we’ve never gotten to hear. The other standout track, “Turn Your Body To The Light”, is a nice melding of synths and Wood’s trademark sax, and it’s a catchy tune too. These two songs easily eclipse the rest of the album.
And let’s set one thing straight – drum machines alone don’t doom a song to cheesiness. Two demos Wood recorded with old friend and former bandmate Jeff Lynne circa 1990 have leaked out, very simple, low-tech productions showcasing a couple of beautifully written nuggets of rock ‘n’ roll that most of the world has never gotten to hear. And that’s what Starting Up is really missing: well-written songs. This is the same Roy Wood who gave us “Blackberry Way” and “Fire Brigade” back in the Move days, and has peppered his solo career with lesser-known but equally-worthwhile songs like “Dear Elaine”…not that you could tell from listening to Starting Up. To put the cards on the table: his songs this time around either weren’t as inspired, or the intent got lost in the execution.
A real curate’s egg, this one, and it’s also Woody’s last solo album to date. Considering what his former bandmate was able to accomplish with Zoom under the ELO banner, I’d really like to hear Roy Wood come back and zing us with a solo project now. Because, as hard as I’m sure he tried to accomplish something unique with Starting Up, he’d almost certainly do better with the technology and techniques available today…and he’s had time to write some new songs too.
- Red Cars Are After Me (3:56)
- Raining In The City (4:17)
- Under Fire (4:24)
- Turn Your Body To The Light (4:31)
- Hot Cars (3:13)
- Starting Out (3:20)
- Keep It Steady (3:49)
- On Top Of The World (3:30)
- Ships In The Night (5:04)
Released by: Castle
Release date: 1985
Total running time: 36:04