Thursday, January 10, 2008

Unsung Hero of the Week – Peter Wood


I'm not surprised if that name doesn't ring a bell.

For every big-time solo musician out there with a recognizable name and face, there are hundreds of studio musicians who labor in obscurity. Yet they are just as essential to the artist's oeuvre as the guy on the record cover himself.

A perfect example: Peter Wood.

If you've got an old vinyl version of the 1976 Al Stewart album Year of the Cat, you'll find a picture of him on the inner cover. More importantly, you'll hear his beautifully understated piano solo at the beginning of the title track and throughout the song. He is, in fact, credited as the song's co-writer with Stewart. So there's a bit of trivia for you.

Download "Year of the Cat"

Yes, Stewart's poetic lyrics have a lot to do with why this hit song was so good and kickstarted the mainstream career of this formerly obscure British folkie. So does Phil Kenzie's epic saxophone solo at the 4:12 mark. But Wood's underlying keyboards are what make it for me.

You can get an even better sense of Wood's contributions by watching this old video clip of Wood performing "Year of the Cat" with Stewart. Taking a cue from the opening lyrics, he starts out playing "As Time Goes By" before launching into the classic opening stanzas.

My favorite music is music that I just wallow in. It describes the state I feel when I hear music by people such as Vienna Teng, Sarah McLachlan and Bill Evans. I lose track of my surroundings and just become engulfed by the song - particularly if it is in my headphones. For me, "Year of the Cat" is definitely a wallowing song.

Wood would go on to work with extensively with Roger Waters, backing the Pink Floyd lead singer during "The Wall" tour and continuing to work with him when Waters went solo. You'll also find him on albums by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Cyndi Lauper (Believe it or not, you may have heard him play synthesizers on "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun").

One of the only times Wood put himself front and center was on the soundtrack of the obscure 1982 French farce Ils Apellent Ça Un Accident (They Call It An Accident). Collaborating with British vocalist Jess Roden, the duo contributed two tracks. The best is the spooky-sounding "Future Soon."

Download "Future Soon"

No keyboard wonderfulness here, just a really nice song with a message. How it fit into the film, I don't know. I've never seen it. But I do have a cassette of the soundtrack, an Island Records release that also features contributions from the likes of Steve Winwood, Marianne Faithfull and U2.

About the same time I started listening to the soundtrack (I even reviewed it in the pages of my college newspaper at Georgetown University), I was heading backstage for a concert. My dad and I entered the elevator with a ordinary looking man in his 40s. He introduced himself to us as Peter Wood. I instantly asked him whether he was the same Peter Wood who co-wrote "Year of The Cat." A short pause. Yes, he was. I told him how much I liked the songs on "They Call It an Accident." He thanked me.

Throughout the brief conversation, there was kind of a stunned look on Wood's face. What a crazy coincidence. Here was a rock 'n' roll sessionman who had gotten used to a life of obscurity. And he happened to have stepped onto the elevator with someone who not only knew who he was, but could list some of his major accomplishments.

Not much else to the story. I didn't see him again at the concert. But I'm glad I was able to do a little fawning. Everybody deserves a moment of glory in some way.

According to Wikipedia, Wood died in late 1993. The Google research I've done indicates that the death of the 53-year-old Wood was ruled a suicide. Here's a link to a page that attempts to list all the albums and tours that featured Wood. (Who is also, for some reason, sometimes billed as "Peter Woods.")

Here's to you, Peter. Hope all is well in rock 'n' roll heaven.


smacky said...

Aw, that's sad to hear about the suicide. It reminds me of the lead singer of Boston. Everyone knows his voice instantly, but you couldn't pick him out of a line-up if you tried. He was playing in a bar band doing Beatles covers before he committed suicide.

Here's to the unsung musicians whose talent made the world a better place. Too bad so many talentless freaks get most of the press nowadays.

StL Mike said...

That is actually Robert Alpert on piano in that performance.

Anonymous said...


I am a relative of Peter's, his second cousin in fact. He is my mom's cousin; son of my grandfather John's brother, Rub Wood. My grandfather is an Englishman and moved to South Africa shortly after WW2. He was stationed as a flight mechanic at a Royal Air Force base in Cape Town and stayed in the country to persue a career in catching and milking poisonous snakes (subsequently aiding the development of the boomslang antivenom). Anyhow, both my mom and dad visited Peter Wood at his New York apartment during a trip around the world in about 1984. They spoke about meeting him a few times and when I asked about his music they pointed me to The Wall and Al Stewart's Year of the Cat. And they spoke of him sadly, being so talented and dying so young. But pecularly when they explained his death, they told me he slipped in his kitchen in his New York apartment whilke feeding his dogs, cracked his head open on the tiles and died. Not suicide.

Despite this interesting confliction in his storty, it is really amazing to read about Peter and his impact on teh music industry. I wish now only to see a photograph of him to see the resenblance. Thank you for the article.

David Brits

Rob said...

Thanks for the info, StL mike. The YouTube video seems to identify Peter Wood as the piano player. I will shortly post what I think IS a performance of the song with Wood on the piano. I'll also scan my inner album sleeve of "Year of The Cat" which has a small picture of Wood. Hopefully, this will help me identify the piano player definitely as Wood – and help out Peter's long-lost relative.

Peterbe said...

Definitely not Peter in the YouTube vid.

Thanks, David, for the family info. Peter and I worked a bit together in the 1980's. I often visited he and his wife, Maggie, (and their 2 Corgi dogs) at their Upper East Side apartment in New York. Lost touch as the 80's turned to the 90's and was shocked to learn of Peter's death in 1993.

I was never able to locate Maggie (who likely returned to the UK) to find out definitively what happened. I've always felt the suicide story was bollocks. A very unlikely choice for Peter who was always busy, always engaged, and always thinking about tomorrow.

David - a photographer named Deborah Cheshire knew Peter and has photos of him from the 1970's in a book she published last year. It's called "Everybody I Shot is Dead". You should be able to find her blogspot post via a Google search. I stumbled across it with the Google search, "Peter Wood (keyboard)". On it she has posted two or three pix of Peter that you, no doubt, will be interested to see.

Many thanks, Rob, for this thread. Peter was an exceptional man and a remarkable talent - far more influential in the firmament of popular music and culture than most people know.

Rob said...

The picture (and new videos) are finally up. Click on the Peter Wood tag or go here:

Dave Heasman said...

In early 1976 Pete Wood was the keyboard player for Natural Gas, a band formed by my friend Joey Molland, and Mark Clarke. He sold me his left-hand-drive VW beetle, great car. His other half was nice, had a proper job, I think she was a nurse. They lived in Clapham. On the Natural Gas album (just reissued) his piano playing was stunning, his organ/synth work not so much. I always wondered about his death, got here today via google.

carlyn said...

To end all the confusion. It certainly is Robert Alpert playing YEAR OF THE CAT on the long intro version on You Tube. Peter Wood is on the album. Robert played with Al during a 22 year period. He is seen on the live German concert DVD as well.

Luis Fernando said...

I was looking some old videos on YouTube tonight, then I got into some of the "The Wall Live in Berlin" 1990's concert ... where Peter Wood was an organ/synth player. I've always been "impacted" by Peter's organ solo on "Another Brick in the Wall" ... so wanted to read a little more about his life, I sadly found (yes until now) that he died in '93 ... that's 3 years after that concert. No reason was specified in Wikipedia for his dead, until I found out in this post. Thanks for the info and all for the comments ... great from people that actually met him.

Peter can be seen very good in this video, while playing his solo and Cindy Lauper picking in the back.

Costa Rica

Marjorie Millner said...

Just found your blog entry on Peter Wood because I was investigating who plays the fabulous piano on "Down to Zero" from Joan Armatrading's album "Joan Armatrading." I had found this video on YouTube and wow that piano just opens that song wide, and continues to be the backbone of the beauty of the track (in my opinion) with the continued tasty riffs throughout. The producer was brilliant to make sure those diamonds were allowed to sparkle! I wanted to share this tune on my facebook page. I usually prefer to "share" live tracks rather than lip synchs, but none of the live versions had keyboards, or keyboards I could really hear. (There's a pretty nice version from Rockpalast in 1979, but the keyboardist there is Red Young I believe. He does an excellent job too, but I don't know if his work really compares to Peter Wood's on the album track, because only the loud parts are audible) so I went off in search of info on who played that great piano on the album and I discovered it was Peter Wood, and I am embarrassed to say that I didn't know his name until now, after enjoying his work on "Joan Armatrading" so much. I listened to that album countless times. How tragic that he died so young! What is it with amazingly talented keyboard session men? (Nicky Hopkins also died young, but then again he had had health problems almost all his life, which was why he was a session artist-- he was invited to join groups and tour but his health couldn't handle it. But I digress.)
I was so happy to find your blog entry and the comments from other fans and even a relative of Peter Wood. He was a piano player's piano player. (I have played since I was 8 years old.) Thanks for all the information.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for "Future soon" and the lovely story of your random meeting with Pete Wood. I have the soundtrack for "They call it an accident" - haven't listened to it since the 80s, but still remember some of the songs.
/Dan Persson

John Rizzo said...

Check out the YouTube video of Elliott Murphy's performance at the Capitol Theater from April 1977. According to Elliott, Peter played the keyboards at that show. He can be seen quite a bit there.

John Rizzo said...

Check out the YouTube video of Elliott Murphy's performance at the Capitol Theater from April 1977. According to Elliott, Peter played the keyboards at that show. He can be seen quite a bit there.

Anonymous said...

No doubt David Brits, all these years later, you've found a long list of items concerning your second cousin. Just in case this one has escaped you, I recommend the 1984 concert by Lou Reed in which Reed himself introduces him as "the amazing Peter Wood on all those keyboards" (or something of that nature. There's quite a bit of footage of his playing during the concert.

A fine musician.


Anonymous said...

Oops, forgot the link

Anonymous said...

I've just picked up on this. I played in Peter Wood's first band when he was 16/17. This was in 1967, a semi pro soul band playing covers. Pete lived with his parents in Egham, Surrey and I lived a couple of miles from him in Staines. The band was called Barney J Barnes and the Intro, and we had one single released on Decca in 1967 - a flop! If you google Barney J Barnes and the Intro, you'll find more info.
Pete left the band shortly after the single and joined a band called Hush (as I recall). He then went on to join Sutherland Brothers and Quiver.
I'm not surprised to see that he went on to have a successful career, as his talent was evident, even at 16. So sad to learn of his premature death.

Bobby Clarke said...

I met Peter through two NYC friends, Rick Stewart, manager/producer and musician Scott Mussmano. Rick was promoting Scott's band and Peter, who was friends with Rick, played keyboard on some demo tracks they cut. Several years later I did a tour with Lou Reed and Peter played keyboards in the band. This was in 1983 I believe. I remember visiting Peter's apartment with Rick and Scott and meeting Maggie. Hockey legend Phil Esposito's wife, who was a neighbor, was also there.

LuGer Wolf said...


Anonymous said...

I know that this is an old post, but I felt the need to comment. I have watched several videos, frozen the frames, listened to the nuances of the playing. There are 2 different piano players. The pianist playing on the Old Grey Whistle 1976 performance is certainly a 26 year old Peter Wood, and he is fabulous. His fluent style and even his facial movements are evident even when he is playing with Lou Reed in 1984. The performance of Year of the Cat in 1979 is Robert Alpert, who plays differently. ...Or you can just freeze-frame and compare. The profiles are completely different. I love to hear Peter Wood's playing; it is haunting. When he can let it go and play freely like in Year of the Cat--- so beautiful. I raise my glass to Mr. Wood. Hope to hear you playing in the Great Beyond when I get there. He left this world too soon. Some people just don't get enough time.