It’s easy to hold on to insults past thrown. They tend to adhere to you like an old sticker on your car’s rear windshield, and are often just as much of a pain to scrape off.
So, yeah. I’ve heard plenty of them when it comes to the Electric Light Orchestra. Pretentious. Derivative. Too poppy. Too proggy. Too stringy. Too synthy. Overproduced rubbish. And despite the (ironic?) embrace of “Mr. Blue Sky” by seemingly every movie trailer and commercial editor on the face of the planet, as well as Jeff Lynne’s emergence as a fairly successful producer of other people’s works (though, again, tied fairly specifically to a particular time: the late ‘80s to early ‘90s), ELO have never managed to get the critical re-evaluation that they deserve.
Follow me below the “continue reading” link, and I’ll proceed to do just that.
The Electric Light Orchestra started as a side project of two members of UK psych/pop legends the Move: Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne. Jeff and Roy had been talking, before Jeff had even agreed to join the Move, about putting together a project that would craft pop music with classical overtones. When a slot opened in the Move, Jeff agreed to join on the condition that they also focus on this new idea. So, while the Move were still a functioning band (at this point, existing primarily to fund the fledgling recording sessions of this new project), Roy and Jeff along with Move drummer Bev Bevan, began to assemble the Electric Light Orchestra.
The first album was titled, simply, The Electric Light Orchestra in the UK on Harvest Records. When the band’s US label, United Artists, had a secretary attempt to call a representative at Harvest to find out the name of the album, the person wasn’t available. The secretary jotted down “no answer” on the memo, and, inadvertently, the album was released stateside as No Answer. The album focused primarily on the central trio of Wood, Lynne and Bevan, with Lynne and Wood splitting songwriting duties fairly down the middle (Jeff wound up with one more song credit) and Wood directing the arrangements (and overdubbing much of the instrumentation himself). However, as Roy Wood was the leader of the Move, and as the sound of this first album wasn’t far removed from the direction the Move were heading in, ELO were widely regarded as by and large Wood’s band. The Move Mach 2, as it were.
A rift between Wood and Lynne, centered on the musical direction of the band and the band’s management, fractured the band, and Wood departed with cellist Hugh McDowell and horn/keyboard player Bill Hunt to form Wizzard. Everyone predicted that, with Wood’s departure, the band would simply cease to be. Instead, Jeff Lynne took the reins and proceeded in his own direction. Wizzard’s first album (Wizzard Brew) and initial singles seemed a logical outgrowth of the first ELO record, moving into more experimental terrain. However, Jeff Lynne decided to further emphasize the Beatles-inspired pop direction he favored, taking the band down the path he imagined the Beatles would have pursued if they’d decided that “I Am the Walrus” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were the musical template they should further follow.
…And this is where a lot of people draw the line insofar as acceptance of ELO is concerned. People like an obscure, crazed madman. Hell, I like an obscure, crazed madman. And Roy Wood, being overshadowed by the enormous monolith that was the commercial success of ELO in the 1970s, is clearly an obscure, crazed madman. So you’ll get a handful of music snobs who’ll go as far as to say that the Move were great, and that the first ELO album was great, but Jeff Lynne went and screwed everything up. He’s the Paul McCartney to Wood’s John Lennon. The David Gilmour to Wood’s Syd Barrett.
I know, I keep saying it, but…
THESE PEOPLE ARE IDIOTS.
I mean, sure, I like Wood’s stuff enough. That first Wizzard album is fine (it doesn’t seem to go anywhere, but it’s fine enough). The first singles are better. The Move were great. But for me, it’s the Lynne-led ELO all the way.
Granted, their second and third albums (ELO 2 and On the Third Day) are largely the sound of the band finding its legs again, exploring the extended song lengths and complex arrangements of prog rock, yet moving closer to the polished perfectionism of the albums that would follow. “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Showdown” were indications of where the band would soon find itself. (And On the Third Day featured an uncredited Marc Bolan on guitar!)
Eldorado: A Symphony, was both the culmination of what the band had been doing on previous records (the elaborate arrangements, recurring musical motifs and conceptual unity of prog) and a fully-formed statement of what the band was going to accomplish (tightly-constructed pop songcraft with the orchestral elements supporting—rather than replacing—the “rock” framework of the band). Eldorado is a concept album, about a man who relies on his dreams to escape the mundane, workaday life he trudges through. It was a huge success in the States (curiously, not the case in the UK), spawning the hit single “Can’t Get It out of My Head,” and later (in 1978) inspiring underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger to re-cut his film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome to sync with the album, in an edit referred to as the “Magic Mushroom Edition.”
Their next album, 1975’s Face the Music is what really propelled the band to international stardom, and is where I come in. While I’d always liked what I’d heard of ELO on the radio, getting into the group was really something more of a retroactive thing for me. I was an impressionable youth, it was around 1981 or ‘82, Time had just come out, and I was invited to a sleepover. I was getting pretty heavy into music (DEVO and the Beatles in particular), and a friend of mine had me over on a Saturday night, and I was going to go to a church youth group thing with him the next morning. It wound up being an excuse to have me sit through an “evils of rock ‘n’ roll” video. It was there that I learned about Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath…even some obscure proto-metal bands like Lucifer’s Friend. And I heard the expected stuff about the Beatles (Aleister Crowley is on Sgt. Pepper!) and the Stones (they put out Their Satanic Majesties Request!). But it was the ELO stuff that both surprised the hell out of me (no pun intended) and confirmed to me that these people were nuts. Because apparently there are “satanic messages” encoded in the lyrics to Eldorado’s title track. Seemingly, if you play it backwards, “Here it comes, another lonely day; Playing the game. I’ll sail away; On a voyage of no return to see” becomes “He is the nasty one…Christ you are infernal…It is said we’re dead men…Everyone who has the mark will live.” Now, when this rumor started circulating upon Eldorado’s release, Lynne retaliated by putting an actual backward message in the first song to Face the Music, “Fire on High.” Intending to make fun of these bozos, Lynne had Bev Bevan ominously portend (in a mock-horror movie voice) “The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!” Well, in 1981-82, they still hadn’t gotten the joke, and decided that this message was ELO copping to the fact that there really were backward messages, and that the fundies were right all along. Like that’s something that you would do if you were trying to entice children to the side of the Dark Lord via hidden messages that would imprint on their subconscious minds. Like you’d just admit it and get it out there in the open.
But then, the people that were showing this to me were the same people who tried to raise money to buy the negatives to The Last Temptation of Christ and have them destroyed, so you can imagine the level of intellectual reasoning we had going on in this little klatch. I think they thought that the plot of Halloween III was something actually playing out in real life somewhere. Stupid robots and all.
But since I used this presentation as a shopping list for future purchases more than anything else (I immediately went out and bought Black Sabbath’s We Sold Our Souls for Rock and Roll), I started with Face the Music (it helped that it had the hit songs “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic”…wait…”Evil” and “Magic”??? SATAN!!!), and went from there.
Now that I think about it, Bev Bevan did go on to play drums for Black Sabbath during one of Bill Ward’s absences, and they were both managed by Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s father), so maybe there’s something to this whole Satanic conspiracy thing. I mean, it obviously worked on *me*…Anyway…
Soon, I was up to my eyeballs in ELO vinyl. Out of the Blue, Discovery, A New World Record, Secret Messages (the entire album delivered as a riposte to these lunatics)…I was going back into the catalog of these guys and exploring all the stuff that didn’t make it on the radio, and was unearthing this whole world of over-the-top rock pomp. Plus, they had a flying saucer as their band logo! Played in a replica of it at Wembley! I only wish the fundamentalists had told me about Parliament at this thing so I could have gotten in on that a lot sooner, but I guess because Parliament were black, they wanted to pretend they didn’t exist, or maybe they were afraid that if you said “George Clinton” three times, he’d show up and try to have sex with all the females. Southern Baptists, man. Fun bunch.
Now, all of this was great. I’m no minimalist (I’m a maximalist), and I dig the spaceships, but none of this would matter if (a) Jeff Lynne wasn’t a songwriting genius, and (b) the lyrics didn’t move me. Good thing neither is the case.
Because while Jeff Lynne’s stuff is seriously indebted to the Beatles (even to the point of him aping George Harrison’s guitar sound), there’s some incredible composition going on in there. Serious pop hooks are not easy to write, kids. And every album is full of them. Now, there are misfires here and there. For example, “Down Home Town” is fucking embarrassing. But overall, there’s a wealth of immaculately crafted pop gems in there. And lyrically, Jeff Lynne does a great job of evoking feelings of nostalgia/longing and optimism (both of which are recurring themes in his work—whether it’s the former in songs like “It’s Over” and “Telephone Line” or the latter in songs like “Livin’ Thing” or “Don’t Bring Me Down” or all of them in the Eldorado album) in a simple and direct way. A lot of this comes from Lynne’s close study of classic rock and roll, and his main inspiration (despite the Beatles being what many focus on), Roy Orbison.
Take the aforementioned “It’s Over”: change the instrumentation only slightly and replace Lynne’s vocals with Roy’s, and it’s a perfect Roy Orbison song. And like Lynne, Orbison’s writing style ran to the unorthodox and classical, with compositional structure that went against the norm of pop songwriting. And there’s the inevitable Brian Wilson/Beach Boys influence on songs like “Big Wheels,” which combines the Orbison obsession with a late-period Beach Boys simplicity of expression.
So yeah. ELO. They rule. And they’re not just something to be embraced ironically. Underneath that polished chrome exterior, there beats a heart full of genuine and direct emotion. And they’re fun. And while they can be cheesy as all hell, Jeff Lynne has enough of a sense of humor about the whole thing that he knows that what they’re doing is cheesy as all hell during those moments (I mean, *you* explain that hot dog below).
Except for maybe “Down Home Town.” I think that maybe that’s just a genuine misstep. God, it’s awful. Pretend it’s not there for your own sake.
…And for the record, I love Xanadu. SO THERE. EAT THAT.