INTERVIEW: Bill Hunt “I’m a bit of a B-side specialist”

Through music’s mists of time emerges a player of considerable and curious eminence, a Birmingham soul with the sort of records sales and teaching career under his belt that would make his average peer blanch a whiter shade of green. Enter stage left, Bill Hunt of ELO and Wizzard fame, back in the fold with a new single that cocks a snook at an industry still busily trying to eat itself extinct.

As a keyboard and French horn session player for The Move and figuring in the original line ups of ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) and Wizzard, Bill is back to “test the waters with a record that is a tribute to ELO and the sound of the Seventies”.

First sticking with Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood in ELO, and then following Roy Wood into Wizzard when Lynne and Wood fell out, Bill succeeded in playing on two signature records that have, by twists and turns, managed to sink into the nation’s collective consciousness: namely, ELO’s ‘Overture 10538’ (1972) and Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ (1973). Certainly diverse by intent, these two prismatic songs nevertheless still provide routes by which one can scrutinise post-1960s British music. Things had changed by the early 1970s and bands were beginning to stretch out as prog and glam rock took shape.

“It was a golden era,” says Bill, “probably down to the importance of the art school system.” And with Roy Wood, Pete Townshend, John Lennon et al having gone down that route, it’s hard to disagree. “But funnily enough I didn’t go down that way. I went to the Birmingham School of Music. From the age of 8 I was sent to piano lessons. In those days, coming from a Birmingham working class background, our parents were trying to give us something to keep us out of the factory.”

And they succeeded. It was the French horn that got him into ELO because “they were looking for classically trained musicians. Jeff [Lynne] wanted to fuse rock music with orchestral music. He lived on the next council estate to me so as it happened I had my audition in his front room”.

So with the band having coalesced around Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, their first single, ‘Overture 10538’, defined and cemented ELO’s sound, a sound compelling enough for Paul Weller to sample ‘10538’’s classic signature for his 1995 hit, ‘The Changingman’. “That was a nice acknowledgement of us, and it came as a compliment,” says Bill.

His love of fusion borne of ELO’s endeavour has sustained Bill’s interest in music and with his new single ‘El Original Brew’ (spot the ELO reference), he has refound his mojo. “In 1972, I wrote The Carlsberg Special (Pianos Demolished Phone 021 373 4472)’ which was the B-side to the first Wizzard single, Ball Park Incident’,” he tells me. “It sold more than 250,000 copies, as they did in those days, and it was a harpsichord instrumental, which was quite unusual.”

But recently, having found a new keyboard and a new harpsichord sound he liked, he struck upon a plan. “My son had a recording contract with CBS, and the Sundae Club produced for him an interpretation of ‘Overture 10538’. And I have to say I was very impressed with that, so I thought ‘The Carlsberg Special’ deserved a follow up… what with me being a bit of a B-side specialist.”

‘El Original Brew’ by Bill Hunt with the backing of a new Midlands supergroup, The Ancient Order Of Froth Blowers, will be released in a limited edition, vinyl format and on “Side 2” will be a Sundae Club-ed version of singer-songwriter Will Hunt’s (Bill’s son) homage to Kentish Town called ‘Drums N Bass’, with producers Ridware and Mille having created an arrangement in the style of ‘Overture 10538′, which makes the vinyl version perhaps the only single ever to be released as a double B-side.

He’s a musician who feels he still has something left to give at a time, perhaps, when the public feels its hasn’t the time to listen. But the past still affects the future. “People with the talent of Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood were always going to have a difficulty with people who were trying to get their percentages. You know, managers! But with two big talents like Roy and Jeff, there was some jealousy. There was friction.” 

But from friction comes heat and light and songs that last down the ages. Bill agrees. “In the old days the bands could stretch out more and didn’t have to pander to the record companies.” So is it worth pandering to the majors these days? “It seems that young bands are happy to do their own thing via the internet now,” he says of the natural groundswell of talent that knows it’s being cold shouldered by the mainstream. “But I’m a little bit removed from the new media to be emotionally involved. Yes, you can try and be ‘with it’ but it’s best to plough your own furrow.” And having sprung from Birmingham’s music scene, will Bill forever be steeped in a musical eccentricity associated with that city? “I don’t know, maybe musicians from this area have been so prolific because of their desperation to get out of Birmingham,” he laughs. And by way of a coda, he adds: “It’s safety in numbers too. They can still certainly do their apprenticeship in the city’s pubs and clubs. And there’s still a lot of opportunity there. There are so many people there that you’re going to get some talent, somewhere.”

Jason Holmes