Published: Record Collector, circa mid 2004
‘Hard Times In Newquay, If You’ve Got Long Hair’ was the endearingly absurd refrain performed by that Zelig of British acoustic music, Raymond ‘Wizz’ Jones, when Alan Wicker went down to Cornwall in 1960 for BBC television to report on the area’s worrying upsurge of beatnik activity. Jones is still ’big in Cornwall’, and a collossus in the history of British folk-blues and ‘acid folk‘ but, incredibly, real success has somehow always eluded him.
‘I’ve put my whole life into this,’ he says, ‘and then at the end of it I’ve got nothing. I’m still in the same financial state I was in in 1958! But I’m not complaining. I was there at the very beginning, I had all those opportunities – I just didn’t make the right moves. Maybe I wasn’t talented enough, maybe I wasn’t good-looking enough, maybe I wasn’t clever – who knows? I can only blame myself, so I’m happy, you know. I’m still doing it, I still enjoy playing and the people still clap – so, fair enough!’
A regular cameo player in biographies of Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton and a crucial mentor to ‘60s folk royalty like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Ralph McTell, the speedy sell-out in April of a 65th birthday show at the Half Moon, Putney was a timely turning of the spotlight on the man himself. And what a privilege it was to hear the man still performing as well as ever, still mesmerising in his combination of lyrical poignancy, sweet, langourous vocal delivery and that incomparable swinging guitar – as singular as the styles of BB King, The Edge or Jeff Beck. Wizz may not be in that league, but the stadium’s loss is the folk world’s gain. Famously self-deprecating, Wizz seems relaxed about his lot:
‘Well, it’s not really through choice,’ he says. ‘When Ralph McTell became quite famous [in 1974] I remember people saying to me, ‘Oh, you’ve still got your street cred, you wouldn’t compromise…’ And I’d say, ‘Well, hang on a minute, given the same opportunity I would!’ There was a short period [in the 70s] when Bruce May, Ralph McTell’s brother, tried to manage me. But it didn’t last long. He said, ‘I’ll put your fee up for a start,’ so he put my fee up… and I didn’t get any work!
‘There was a period in my forties, I suppose, when I was a little bit bitter. I wanted to be a great guitar player and I couldn’t be. It took me a long time to realise that what I do is adequate – the combination of voice, guitar and material works. Having said that, there’s probably quite a few younger people who assume that I actually did have some success way back – otherwise, why are people still mentioning me, why am I still around? I mean, Clapton bandies my name around in interviews – he’s always doing it. It doesn’t do my reputation any harm, but it doesn’t do my bank balance any good!’
Wizz started out playing skiffle in the ‘50s, with his band The Wranglers recording for Radio Luxembourg in 1957. Learning his trade alongside the likes of Davy Graham, Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry, Wizz busked around Europe Europe in the early ‘60s, before opting for a pretty left-field direction:
‘When I came back to England and discovered there was a folk circuit going, I almost immediately dropped into playing bluegrass music with Pete Stanley. Pete and I had a good act, for its time. We were trailblazers in a way. Musically, though, it was quite limiting for me. So after four years travelling with Pete I finally couldn’t stand it any more and went back to doing solo gigs. I then started working, from about 1969, in Germany, during their economic boom, and throughout the ‘70s played thousands of smoky German bars and I guess that’s where my thing really came together.’
The sole Wizz Jones & Pete Stanley album, Sixteen Tons Of Bluegrass (EMI, 1966), has recently had the deluxe reissue treatment from Rollercoaster. But the classic Wizz sound first appears on record with the £80 rated Wizz Jones album (United Artists, 1969), closely followed by The Legendary Me (Village Thing, 1970) and Right Now (CBS 1972, now available on CD). An interesting curio from this era was ‘Easy Rider’, recorded with American band Formerly Fat Harry and designed as a crack at singles success. Though rejected by United Artists at the time, it appeared as a one-sided vinyl single on Nigel Cross’ Shagrat label in 1994. Along with such gems as 1977’s Magical Flight – currently available on CD on the Scenescof label via American Brit-folk entrepreneur Charles Reynolds’ website www.rockinworld.com – these recordings have cemented Jones’ categorisation as an ‘acid folk’ man. But for Wizz – a family man even in the ‘60s – the tag is unfortunate:
‘My youngest son took acid as a teenager, blew his mind and consequently he’s schizophrenic. My daughter Bonnie has made a documentary film about him and the family and it’s won loads of student television awards. But I do a bit of everything, and its very hard to market that. If I was to make an album ‘Wizz Jones Plays Blues’ or ‘Wizz Jones: Songwriter’, or ‘Wizz Jones: Folksinger’ you could market those. Really, I’m a frustrated pop singer!’
While Jones’ own songs are always sublime, they are relatively rare. Most of his albums, however, feature consistently fabulous material from the elusive, enigmatic Alan Tunbridge:
‘Alan was writing original songs long before anybody else really – even The Beatles. I’d taught him a few chords and he immediately started setting his poems to music, but he wasn’t really a performer so I was his mouthpiece really. Years ago he moved to Australia so the last song I got from him was a long, long time ago. Ralph [McTell] has always been aware of the quality of Alan’s stuff and recently he’s bought most of his catalogue – spread around numerous different publishing companies. He’s planning an album of Alan’s songs – which is great for Alan, ‘cos finally he’ll make some money. I feel quite guilty really that I’ve championed his songs all over the world but I’ve never really made any money for him.’
Bad luck seems to dog Jones’ career, but he can always laugh about it: ‘The classic story is that I managed to get some gigs supporting Sonic Youth in America – three or four gigs, with good money – and I thought, ‘This is the breakthrough I’ve been waiting for…’ I got on the plane – and it was September 11th! We got half way across the Atlantic and had to turn back. John Renbourn fell off his chair laughing when he heard that one.’
An icon to various US alt-rockers, Wizz has recorded a few songs with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, destined for a forthcoming album on Scenescof. The same label released Wizz’s most recent studio album, the magnificent Lucky The Man, in 2001 – featuring both John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee from the Pentangle and as good a starting point for the curious as any. Both Scenescof and Rollercoaster plan further expanded reissues from Wizz’s past, while various bootlegs are available from Germany: ‘There are people going round videoing and recording my gigs then flogging them,’ he says, ‘but I’m flattered by all that – it’s not really going to do my career any harm now, is it!’
Most excitingly the man himself, through his new website www.wizzjones.com, set up by his multi-instrumentalist, pro web designer son Simeon, has also entered the reissue fray:
‘The Late Nights And Long Days album [recorded with Simeon for Fellside, 1993] is coming out with two extra tracks on my own label. So I’ve realised my dream as a teenager with Wizzydisc Records! The website’s getting a lot of reaction – and gigs are coming through that I wouldn’t otherwise have got, so it’s good. There’s a lot more stuff I could put on there – all very anoraky things! But it’s a joy to work with Simeon. He sees that time’s running out for me and he wants to do as much as he can with me – if we only had the time. We haven’t rehearsed for, oh, fourteen years! We just do the odd gig and have to learn it as we do it.’
And finally, surely Wizz must have something positive to say?
‘Quite recently, shortly before he died, I heard a radio interview with Larry Adler. They asked him his definition of a real musician, and I thought he was going to say, ‘A person who has complete mastery of their instrument, can read music’ and all that stuff. But he didn’t say that. He said, ‘My definition of a real musician is when you hear him play for the first few seconds, you know who it is’. I thought, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…’ At least my limited style is recognisable!’