"It's unreal, the suffering"
Prior to On the Third Day, The Electric Light Orchestra looked to be in jeopardy. With co-leader Roy Wood having departed part-way through sessions for the band’s second album, and both of their albums to date being weighed down by some of the stodgiest of stodgy prog rock, things were not exactly looking promising. There he’d been some glimmers of hope though. With sole control of the band’s creative direction, Jeff Lynne was starting to steer the unwieldy concept of Electric Light Orchestra with a little more confidence, and despite the middling commercial success of their two albums to date, both had featured a strong hit single each by way of “10538 Overture” and their obvious, but no less glorious for it, version of “Roll Over Beethoven”. If Lynne could somehow steer ELO on a path that threaded between hit singles and commercial orchestrated pop-prog, then maybe, just maybe, Electric Light Orchestra might be saved. Oh, and getting rid of ‘The’ might help too…
Listening to On the Third Day now, it is very much an album of two halves. Sessions for the album had begun shortly after those for ELO II had concluded, and although the songs were shorter, it was obvious that a change of approach was needed. Violin player Mik Kaminski would join the band for a second bunch of sessions, and Electric Light Orchestra were given a boost as Lynne became ever more confident with the multi-tracking required to make a band like ELO a success.
The first half of On the Third Day was an ambitious, if slightly too dense suite of songs which blended into each other, while the second half included a couple of commercial moments in “Showdown” (which itself was never included on the original UK release, and its inclusion on subsequent releases on CD remains a bone of contention among fans), and “Ma Ma Ma Belle”, with the latter being a glorious number where Lynne and his bandmates briefly put aside their orchestrated ambitions and briefly flirted with the idea of sounding as much like Status Quo as they dare. The album closes with an ambitious stab at “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, something which on paper should have been a disaster, but thanks to Lynne’s production smarts and the fact that each individual member of the band were no slouches on their chosen instrument, meant that it was pulled off with no little style. In some ways “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is a suitable response to the previous album’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, and the two pieces almost scream out for the former to have been the latter’s B-side.
The second half of On the Third Day effectively maps out the route that Electric Light Orchestra would have to take to achieve success through the rest of the decade, so it seems that the second set of sessions were the very tonic needed to set the band on the right path.
Or at least, that’s the perception until you realise that the second half of the album is made up of tracks from the first sessions. Oh.
Listening to On the Third Day with that in mind, you can hear the first half being the band heading towards the orchestrated concept of the following year’s Eldorado, the album with which they would crack the US market, while the second half of the album almost echoes the direction they would head after that to re-establish themselves as a commercial force in the UK. On the Third Day is the sound of ELO part-way through changing direction, though it’s difficult to ascertain where they have come from and where they are going to, particularly if you’re listening to it in isolation without reference to the albums preceding and following it.