ELO: The Secret Of Their Success

If ELO bestrode the 70s like a colossus, then the 1980s and beyond would prove a far different prospect for the band.

Then again, in stylistic terms, 70s prog really only had punk and new wave as antagonists to contend with – 1979’s Discovery was the band’s first No.1 album in the UK and their biggest selling album to date. The 80s, however, was a decade beset with constant stylistic shifts – the perpetual hunt for a new marketable angle hardly conducive to a musician of Jeff Lynne’s pedigree.

That said, Lynne began the decade with change afoot. Discovery was the first ELO album not to feature cellists Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale, or violinist Mik Kaminski, although all three were on the ensuing tour.

When ELO released their first album of the new decade, Time, in 1981, the band were settled a the Lynne/Bevan/Tandy/Groucutt quartet, but many things that had set ELO up as one of the most spectacularly popular bands of the 70s were about to change.

“I’d got fed up with strings by then,” says Lynne. “In those days the unions used to be so mean and strict, they would stop playing as soon as the clock got to the 12. They’d put the gear away, however far through the song you were, which I thought was a rotten trick. Because you wouldn’t do that to anybody. Bloody minded, I’d call it. So I got fed up with using strings and was really glad when the synths came in.”

The synths may have come in, but in Time, ELO released the proggiest album they had done in years: a science fiction-orientated concept album, whose bombastic opening couplet of Prologue and Twilight would later be sampled by Cher. The album topped the UK charts (the band’s only UK No.1 alongside Discovery) and boasted four popular singles, including Hold On Tight, Ticket To The Moon and The Way Life’s Meant To Be. ELO toured, bringing Kaminski back and bolstering their sound with Louis Clark and Dave Morgan on synthesizers. It would be their last tour for over 30 years.

“We toured America and England,” Lynne recalls. “We had the record for Wembley Stadium, until Dire Straits broke it!”

From left: Richard Tandy, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Kelly Groucutt in a studio in Munich, Germany.

From left: Richard Tandy, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Kelly Groucutt in a studio in Munich, Germany. (Image credit: Getty)

Secret Messages followed in 1983. Originally, plans for a double album were deemed over enthusiastic by their record label, and by the time the new album was released, Groucutt had left the band and Bev Bevan was drumming for Black Sabbath, so no tour was undertaken. Despite Secret Messages (the title harked back to the backwards masking on Face The Music) reaching No.4 in the UK charts, and spawning a reasonable hit in Rock’n’Roll Is King, to many observers the wind had been knocked out of the ELO sails. Bevan toured with the new Ian Gillan-fronted Black Sabbath, while Lynne and Richard Tandy worked on tracks for the Electric Dreams soundtrack.

It was something of a surprise when ELO returned with Balance Of Power in 1986. Recorded as a trio of Lynne, Tandy and Bevan, it was more of a contractual obligation, but still featured some fine examples of Lynne’s songcraft in the lead single Calling America, plus So Serious and Getting To The Point. The band even played a handful of live shows, one featuring George Harrison as guest guitarist. By 1988, when Bevan approached Lynne about reforming the band, he found the old band leader uninterested, announcing that ELO were over.

Lynne released his first solo album, Armchair Theatre, in 1990, and was making a name for himself as a producer of note. He worked with George Harrison on 1987’s Cloud Nine (he’d join Harrison alongside Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys), Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever (1989) and Paul McCartney’s excellent Flaming Pie (1997). In-between, Lynne also got to work with the remaining Beatles on the songs Free As A Bird and Real Love for 1994’s Anthology project.

ELO in Stuttgart for the band’s final show in July 1986.

ELO in Stuttgart for the band’s final show in July 1986. (Image credit: ELO & Face The Music Archive www.ftmusic.com)

“I was half frightened to death and half thrilled to bits,” he says. “I had a couple of sleepless nights, thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to get this little voice of John’s – on cassette, in mono, with a piano – into a bloody Beatles track?’ Paul McCartney comes in and gives me a great big hug and says, ‘Well done Jeff – you’ve done it.’ That was a pretty big thing. You never lose that respect.”

In the interim period, Bevan hooked back up with Groucutt, Kaminski and Hugh McDowell for ELO Part II. The band released the Electric Light Orchestra Part Two album in 1991, and toured with The Moscow Symphony Orchestra. 1994’s Moment Of Truth was less impressive and by 2000, any remaining ELO members had left.

Then, in 2001, Jeff Lynne released Zoom under the ELO banner, with a band that only featured Richard Tandy of old, alongside Lynne’s then-girlfriend Rosie Vela on backing vocals, with guest appearances from George Harrison and Ringo Starr. The album was not a success and a subsequent US tour was cancelled.

And that, for many, was the last they thought they’d see of ELO. A band who rose from psychedelia, arrived on the coat-tails of progressive music, and took that sound to the masses with their finely-tuned, prog-friendly pop songs on a maxim of no rules, no fear, no limits… and then some!

This article originally appeared in issue 65 of Prog Magazine.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.