Buyer's Guide: Electric Light Orchestra

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For a few lucky people – people like Jeff Lynne – dreams really do come true. As a teenager growing up in Birmingham in the early 60s, Lynne, like so many other aspiring musicians, worshipped The Beatles.

But unlike so many other dreamers, Lynne not only made it as a rock star but also ended up working with the mop-tops themselves. As co-producer of two long-lost Fab Four songs, Free As A Bird and Real Love, released in the mid-90s on their Anthology series, Lynne made a boyhood fantasy real.

Lynne has enjoyed a lengthy, varied and hugely successful career spanning five decades. His first big break came in 1970 when he joined friend Roy Wood in The Move, rated by Paul Stanley of Kiss as one of the great British pop rock groups. But it was with his next venture, the Electric Light Orchestra, in which Wood also briefly featured, that Lynne truly found his voice.

As that arch, punning name indicated, ELO fused electric rock and pop with classical influences, creating a sound that was truly unique. Their classic line-up had Lynne backed by six musicians, including a violinist and two cellists – which, in 1977, was somewhat out of step with the rising tide of punk rock. But Lynne’s grand vision extended far beyond punk’s narrow parameters. In their pomp – and in ELO’s case, there really is no other word for it – they sold over 50 million albums in 11 years and performed on stage beneath a giant spaceship.

It couldn’t last, of course. By 1986, with sales dwindling, Lynne disbanded ELO to work as a producer for George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, with whom he also starred, alongside Bob Dylan, in that most unlikely super-supergroup The Travelling Wilburys.

ELO would rise again, without Lynne, as ELO II. And in 2001 Lynne revived the name once more for Zoom, a solo album in all but name. But that was where the ELO story ended.

Lynne remains active. He produced four tracks on singer-songwriter Regina Spektor’s 2009 album Far, and is currently working on a solo album proper. But the music he made with ELO is still his finest work: songs such as Mr Blue Sky, Livin’ Thing and Evil Woman; songs that led Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield to proclaim: “ELO are better than The Beatles!”. Even Jeff Lynne never dreamed he’d hear that.

ESSENTIAL Out Of The Blue Jet, 1977

Jeff Lynne’s magnum opus is one of the classic double albums, his answer to The Beatles’ White Album, and ELO’s crowning glory. Lynne wrote the whole of Out Of The Blue, 17 songs, in just four weeks, alone at a Swiss Alpine retreat. He later recalled: “The mountains were lit up, and I came up with Mr Blue Sky.”

A mini-symphony in itself, Mr Blue Sky was the touchtone for an album on which Lynne gave full rein to his ambitions: a deluxe rock odyssey incorporating dazzling arrangements, state-of-the-art studio wizardry and, most importantly, great songwriting. Selling eight million copies in a year, it was a global smash.

ESSENTIAL A New World Record Jet, 1976

ELO’s sixth album was their big international breakthrough. Hitting the top ten in every country in which it was released, A New World Record sold five million units worldwide.

Its title, inspired by the Montreal Olympics, which held the world’s attention while the band were recording in Munich, was fitting for an album that elevated ELO to global fame.

At home, the album produced three top ten singles with Livin’ Thing, Telephone Line and Rockaria!, the last being a prime example of Lynne’s classical/ rock style, complete with boogie riff, sawing strings, trilling opera singer and references to Wagner.

SUPERIOR Face The Music Jet, 1975

1975 was a strange year for ELO. Face The Music, their fifth album, reached the top ten in the US, but in the UK it didn’t even chart.

It did, however, produce a UK hit single, albeit belatedly. Evil Woman, a song initially dismissed as filler by Jeff Lynne, gave ELO their first domestic top ten hit in three years, and set them up nicely for the next album, A New World Record.

Evil Woman remains one of ELO’s best-loved songs, a genuine 70s pop classic and the highlight of an album that includes several great songs (Strange Magic, Waterfall) and one outright turkey, the daft Down Home Town.

SUPERIOR On The Third Day Jet, 1973

Although it bombed in the UK, ELO’s third album was a minor hit in America, where “the English guys with the big fiddles” were a major concert draw.

Marc Bolan played lead guitar on this album’s big rock tune, Ma-Ma-Ma Belle, and to Lynne’s great delight, John Lennon raved about the album’s hit single Showdown, subsequently dubbing ELO “son of Beatles”.

Lynne paid his own tribute to Lennon on Bluebird Is Dead, and went completely overboard with a rocking take of Grieg’s In The Hall Of The Mountain King. But Showdown is Lynne’s favourite song on an album even he admits is “very obscure”.

SUPERIOR Eldorado Jet, 1974

Loftily subtitled A Symphony By The Electric Light Orchestra, the group’s fourth album is described by Lynne as “one of yer actual concept albums.”

The concept itself was somewhat vague. “It’s about a dream world,” said Lynne. But undoubtedly, Eldorado saw a big leap forward for ELO. Working with a full orchestra for the first time, Lynne was finally able to realise the sound that was in his impressively furry head.

The album’s centrepiece, Mister Kingdom, is a grand orchestral take on Across The Universe. But best of all is Can’t Get It Out Of My Head, one of Lynne’s most beautiful songs.

SUPERIOR Discovery Jet, 1979

By 1979 ELO were one of the biggest bands in the world, but Jeff Lynne faced a tricky dilemma: how to follow an album as brilliant and successful as Out Of The Blue?

Lynne’s response was bold, to say the least. With disco music still flourishing, ELO got funky. Amazingly, it worked. Discovery was ELO’s first number one and produced four UK top ten singles: Shine A Little Love, The Diary Of Horace Wimp, Don’t Bring Me Down and Confusion/ Last Train To London. Moreover, ELO’s signature sound remained largely intact. Discovery has its critics, but it’s the last great album of ELO’s golden era.

GOOD Electric Light Orchestra Harvest, 1972

Lynne was still a member of The Move, alongside Roy Wood and future ELO drummer Bev Bevan, when he wrote what became the very first ELO song, 10538 Overture. With Wood playing a cheap Chinese cello, multi- tracked by Lynne, it sounded to Wood like: “a monster heavy metal orchestra”.

10538 Overture soon became the new group’s mission statement, the opening fanfare on a debut album described by Melody Maker as “a gas”. Wood’s leftfield sensibilities led the nascent ELO into what Lynne later called: “some really strange places”, but 10538 Overture was a top ten UK hit.

GOOD ELO II Harvest, 1973

After a promising start, ELO could have fallen at the second fence when Roy Wood quit during the making of this album to form Wizzard. But Lynne carried on with an expanded line-up, and the album was moderately successful, breaking the UK top 40 and yielding the band’s second top ten hit, a cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, a natural fit for ELO.

With just five tracks on its original vinyl format, ELO II has a heavy progressive rock influence, most evident on the King Crimson-Beatles hybrid In Old England Town and the 11-minute Kuiama. But the best song was Mama, the first sign of Lynne’s pop genius.

GOOD Xanadu (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) Jet, 1980

On ELO’s 1981 concept album Time, Jeff Lynne sang in a voice from a far-off age, ‘Remember the good old 1980s/When things were so uncomplicated…’

What he didn’t foresee was ELO’s demise in the coming decade, but they began the 80s with another massive hit, albeit one that alienated many fans.

Xanadu, the soundtrack to a Hollywood musical, featured five songs by the movie’s star Olivia Newton-John, four by ELO, and a camp title track performed by both together. Mercifully, ELO’s songs were all strong, especially All Over The World. But after that, the rot really set in.

AVOID Balance Of Power Epic, 1986

After 15 years of ELO, Jeff Lynne was seeking new challenges. He was recording as a solo artist and working as writer and producer for others. When he returned to ELO (now reduced to a core of three), the whiff of contractual obligation was in the air. He’d already abandoned the classic ELO sound on 1983’s Secret Messages, and Balance Of Power completed a sorry decline into bland soft rock. It wasn’t so much bad as plain average.

“I’m actually quite pleased with the way this one turned out,” Lynne says now. But back in 86, he wasn’t so happy. Shortly after this album’s release, a tour aborted, ELO split up.

This was first published in Classic Rock issue 158.