The Move were one of those psyche-pop acts of the late 60s that were able to release great singles, but albums success always seemed to elude them. Originally formed in the middle of the decade from what were perceived to be the top guys from the best three or four local Birmingham beat groups, The Move’s career had been punctuated by amazing single penned by Roy Wood, frequent personnel changes, legal wranglings and some seriously dubious publicity stunts courtesy of their management. By 1970, The Move were reduced Roy Wood, original drummer Bev Bevan, and bass player Rick Price. To lighten the load of expectation on him, Wood recruited old Birmingham friend and fellow songwriter Jeff Lynne assist as co-frontman. Lynne agreed to join on the proviso that he and Wood could explore an idea that they had discussed as an offshoot of The Move, a concept they referred to as The Electric Light Orchestra.
The Move kept releasing healthily charting singles into the new decade, while also kicking around the Electric Light Orchestra idea, and things came to a head while working on a B-side to a Move single when Wood decided that what the song needed was some guitar riffs played on a cheap cello he had recently acquired. Thus the first tentative steps of Electric Light Orchestra were taken, and the resulting number would become their debut single.
The Harvest Years
“10538 Overture” is the opening track on The Electric Light Orchestra’s eponymous debut, and sounds like no other single they ever released. In fact, the whole of the debut album sounds curiously lo-fi, especially by the standards of the band’s later recordings. That is not to say that “10538 Overture” is not a great tune, because it absolutely is, and it never fails to raise a smile from me, particularly when I consider the royalty cheque that Paul Weller has to pen every time “Changing Man plays.
Sadly, beyond this, The Electric Light Orchestra struggles to get out of the conceptual stage, as Lynne and Wood’s ambition massively out weighed their abilities to translate that into concise and accessible pop music. There are moments of musical genius, which given the pedigree of both songwriters, is the minimum you could expect really. There are pretty melodies dotted throughout the album, but “10538 Overture” is the album’s most commercial moment, although “Mr Radio” had been ear-marked as a second single, however it was never released.
Relying heavily on instrumentals, The Electric Light Orchestra is unique in The Electric Light Orchestra catalogue, as it is the only one that features much in the way of brass or woodwind, is relatively light on accessible tunes, and no future album would ever feature anything as flat out daft as “The Battle of Marston Moor”, with it’s ridiculous amateur dramatic introduction. The whole album suffers from the band being a great idea in theory, but no one really being sure how to execute the idea without it sounding like they were just randomly throwing ideas against the wall.
Apparently early live appearances by The Electric Light Orchestra were a shambles, with the string players not being amplified, and thus drowned out by the more traditional rock and roll elements of the band, and neither band or audience able to hear what they were playing half of the time. Still, with a proven hit maker like Roy Wood in the band, and Jeff Lynne as his lesser known, but eager to prove himself, co-bandleader, the future of The Electric Light Orchestra looked bright as long as they could figure out how to execute the idea behind the band.
Early during the sessions for the imaginatively titled ELO II, Roy Wood would up and leave The Electric Light Orchestra with their brass and wind players, as well as cellist Hugh McDowell, to form The Electric Light Orchestra’s grease-paint smeared reflection, Wizzard, who would score a string of hit singles in the UK, but the intensive recording methods required for their wall of sound indebted style ensured that their albums would never quite match up to the quality of their singles. Meanwhile Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan were making the most of a bad situation and pulling together The Electric Light Orchestra’s second album, which by and large was more of the same as their debut, just with longer songs, and the whole thing just sounding a whole lot more dense and even stodgy in places. The new album would lean more heavily on Richard Tandy’s keyboard work (Tandy having been the bass player in the final incarnation of The Move) and Lynne starting to get his head around the processes for getting a decent multi-tracked string sound.
A sheen of increased technical competence aside, on the whole ELO II lacked even the creaky charm of its predecessor. It is saved solely by one individual track. While it may have been an obvious cliché for a group called The Electric Light Orchestra to fuse Beethoven and Chuck Berry by way of a cover of Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, the result is utterly glorious, and even more so om the full-bananas album version rather than the single edit. If The Electric Light Orchestra had disbanded and never recorded another note after ELO II, then their reputation would still have been saved by this ludicrously fun reworking of a rock and roll classic, with Lynne doing nothing to tame Berry’s original riff, and Bev Bevan sounding like he’s having the time of his life. It is the outstanding highlight of their early career, and utterly towers over everything else on ELO II. In any other circumstance I would recommend giving that particular album a miss, but it is worth seeking out on the strength of “Roll Over Beethoven” alone.
With “Roll Over Beethoven” charting as a hit single, it showed that there was life in the Electric Light Orchestra yet, and thus emboldened, they opted to drop the definitive article from their name, sign a deal with Warner Brothers, and opt for a change of creative direction midway through sessions for On the Third Day, where they were joined by violin play Mik Kaminski, who would become a vital element of the Electric Light Orchestra sound for the rest of the 70s.
Perversely, it is the material from the first set of sessions which is superior, resulting in album highlights like “Showdown”, “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” and an enthusiastic, but not too over the top stab at “In The Hall of the Mountain King”. The second set of sessions resulted in the ambitious but dense suite of songs that make up the first half On the Third Day, handily pointing in the direction that Electric Light Orchestra would head on their next studio album.
Before that though was the diversion that was The Night the Light Went on in Long Beach, a seven track live album which just didn’t quite capture the band at their best for a myriad of reasons. Not even released in the USA, by now the big emerging market for Electric Light Orchestra, it did solid business as an import, and was eventually given official release in the UK in the 80s. In retrospect, it’s a live document that tries to capture the band before they had reached their peak, and perhaps even before the technology was available to record the full on ELO live experience. Frustratingly, despite a couple more attempts during the peak of Electric Light Orchestra’s career, a truly satisfying live album featuring the classic line up remains an omission from their catalogue.
The following studio album, Eldorado, (or to give it it’s full title, Eldorado, A Symphony), was the album where Jeff Lynne, having felt he had mastered the multi-tracking in the studio thing with the trio of string player in the band (at this point the previously mentioned Mik Kaminski, and cellists Mike Edwards and a returning Hugh McDowell), went all in and recruited the services of an orchestra and choir, as well as conductor Louis Clark. This was a key moment in the evolution of ELO, as Clark’s arrangements would become a key part of the band’s sound for the next five years, with full orchestra’s used on studio recordings, and Edwards, Kaminski and McDowell doing the duty on live gigs, though eventually, orchestras would semi-regularly become part of the live shows too.
A concept album, Eldorado would see Electric Light Orchestra explore more fully the idea of a unified suite of music, with “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” being the album’s most accessible moment and one big hit. Stand out songs were not a huge concern though, as Eldorado was intended to be listened to as a whole. This has resulted in it being an album that doesn’t make as much sense in the modern download culture we have today, but over two sides of vinyl, it was the sound of ELO hitting their stride in a big way.
Eldorado would turn out to be the last album appearance by Mike Edwards and the wonderfully named bass player Michael de Albuquerque, a shame as they had both served the band well through their lean years, and things were starting to improve for Electric Light Orchestra. The unusual name quota was maintained though, with the arrival of cellist Melvyn Gale and de Albuquerque being replaced by Kelly Groucutt. Groucutt in particular would be a key part of the ELO sound going forward, not just for his bass playing, but for his backing vocals, as the combination of his voice with Lynne’s made for an instantly recognisable and easily identifiable sound.
With Gale and Groucutt recruited, what many consider the classic Electric Light Orchestra line up of Lynne, Tandy, Groucutt, Gale, Kaminski, McDowell and Bevan was in place. Of course, the band themselves couldn’t have known this at the time, however it didn’t stop them approaching their next album with a renewed sense of focus, signing to Jet Records as they did so.
Face the Music is not an album that receives a tremendous amount of attention from anyone except Electric Light Orchestra fans, so it can come as a genuine surprise when you hear it for the first time. While ELO had been demonstrating that they could provide instrumental thrills for a while, Face the Music’s opener “Fire on High” took them to a whole new level, with a backward masked message lampooning the conservative paranoia at kids playing rock albums backwards and a sense of drama and dynamics that set the bar for the album almost impossibly high. From there “Waterfall” is a key album track in the band’s songbook, “Evil Woman” one of their strongest singles, and the good stuff just keeps on coming until the penultimate track on the album, which drops the ball a bit, and closing track “…..” is good, but it doesn’t quite regain the heights of the first three quarters of the album.
Face the Music would herald the start of Electric Light Orchestra’s imperial phase, where they held a strangle hold on the single and album charts, while managing to join the likes of Queen, 10CC and Supertramp in managing the neat trick of achieving a blend of progressive rock with commercial rock singles, while still retaining their distinctly unique identity. While Lynne’s oft mentioned ambition to continue where the Beatles had left off with Sergeant Pepper was a bit off the mark, history has proven that Electric Light Orchestra released some of the most durable pop rock tunes of the 70s, and released a string of top draw albums.
The Imperial Phase
With Eldorado and Face the Music having been massive leaps forward, 1976’s A New World Record found Electric Light Orchestra at the height of their powers. While the high points on the album were not quite as lofty as those on Face the Music, it was generally a more consistent release, with stand out singles like “Telephone Line”, “Rockaria” and “Do Ya”. Granted, the latter of those being one of Lynne’s Move tunes recycled and updated might have hinted at the creative force of ELO running low on inspiration, in truth it’s a fun rock number that deserved a far wider audience, and it doesn’t sound out of place at all as part of A New World Record. Potentially more problematic is closing track “Shangrila”, a nice number dragged down by a clumsy and rather forced effort to The Beatles. While Lynne had never hidden his ambition to emulate Liverpool’s finest, he seemed to do so without realising that he was creating an enviable songbook of his own that didn’t need he heavy-handed tributes to The Fab Four to enhance it.
A New World Record is pretty much peak Electric Light Orchestra, and was quite rightly the album which re-established them in the UK charts, after the previous three albums had failed to chart. A nine song distillation as to everything that made Electric Light Orchestra the pop rock phenomena that they were, and it is perhaps the studio album that any newcomer to the band should reach for first. Some albums have some stronger material, while some others may have narrower appeal. A New World Record covers all aspects of ELO and does it well, making it one of their strongest sellers in the decades since.
So how do you follow up an album that cements your place as a popular music phenomena? Do the same again, but do it twice.
As double albums go, Out of the Blue avoids a lot of the pitfalls that blight that particular format, but still stumbles into a few. An expansion of what A New World Record did so well, it also revives the conceptual side-long suite of tunes, and includes a handful of key big pop-rock hits in opener “Turn to Stone”, emphatic closer “Wild West Hero,” and general crowd pleasing ELO standard “Mr Blue Sky”. It’s an album that worked well on American rock radio stations, and as a smart alternative to punk and disco here in the UK.
Where Out of the Blue stumbles slightly is the fact that it’s too long (though to be fair, precious few double albums don’t suffer from this), there’s a few tracks that could only be described as inoffensive filler, and a few which probably just seemed like a good idea at the time (“Jungle”, “The Whale”, “Birmingham Blues”), that history has subsequently proven otherwise. On the whole though, Out of the Blue does exactly what a double album from Electric Light Orchestra should do, and that is why it is another of the band’s best sellers, one of their truly iconic albums, and a release which consolidated their position as one of rock music’s premier acts on the world stage. Out of the Blue had landed Electric Light Orchestra on top of the world, with a stable line up and a global audience hungry for more. From here, nothing could go wrong.
Having concluded the tour to promote Out of the Blue, Electric Light Orchestra could rest easy that their place at the top of the pop rock pantheon was secure, and that it would take a lot to knock them off their spot. Perhaps this feeling of security meant that a few things were taken for granted. As they headed into the studio to record Out of The Blue’s follow up, they did so without Kaminski, McDowell or Gale, Lynne seemingly having made the decision to slim the studio band down to the four piece of Bevan, Tandy, Groucutt and himself, and that what new fangled synthesisers couldn’t handle, then a few well placed orchestrations could. Also, the previous flirtations with Disco became a fully fledged distraction, resulting in Discovery, an album which must have sounded cutting edge at the time, but in retrospect has become the Electric Light Orchestra which has dated the worst outside of their two early albums for Harvest.
Not that you would know this from Discovery’s initial commercial impact, as it became ELO’s first chart topper, and featured no less than four hit singles (one of which was a double A-side). Listening to those five songs now, three of them have distinct Disco stylings, with the other two being the Beatlesy opinion-splitting “The Diary of Horace Wimp” and the synth-poppy “Confusion”, which sees Lynne channeling another of his heroes, Roy Orbison. The remaining four tracks are a hodge podge of styles, with Lynne seemingly unsure which way to lead the band having already achieved everything he could using the orchestral pop rock format and wanting to experiment more with synthesiser technology, resulting in Discovery being a rather fragmented pop rock album, which dated rapidly.
The Electric Light Orchestra’s next release would not be a standard studio album, but a soundtrack to musical film Xanadu, on which the film’s star Olivia Newton-John had one side of vinyl, while Electric Light Orchestra had the other, before they would back Newton-John on the closing title track which ironically would become ELO’s only chart topping single, “Xanadu”.
Xanadu wasn’t a complete waste of time for Electric Light Orchestra, as four of their five songs on the soundtrack were released as singles, and demonstrating the lessons learned from Discovery. The 1980 film itself however bombed hugely though , therefore quite why the soundtrack to it was as hugely successful as it was is something of a mystery, regardless of ELO and Olivia Newton-John’s individual star power at the time.
Amazingly, despite a rapidly changing musical landscape that was starting to make them look like yesterday’s heroes, ELO’s next album, 1981’s Time, would also top the album chart.
Looking back, Time was what we might consider a ‘soft reboot’ of Electric Light Orchestra, with the now four piece formally adopting the ELO acronym as an alternative version of their name, and the album itself being a return to the concept album format, albeit one based around time travel, something which hadn’t really been explored up to that point. Combine all this with Lynne’s obsession with contemporary recording technology, and all the signs were there to indicate another Discovery style mis-step, yet against the odds, Time somehow became one of the band’s most enduring albums.
Time’s full on embracing of synth-pop stylings might have de-railed it, but Lynne’s pop and studio smarts ensured that ELO somehow avoided the pitfalls that so many of their contemporaries from the 70s had fallen into, resulting in an album that was ahead of its time, and possibly their most influential when you look at their career as a whole. It wasn’t short of hit single potential either, with “Twilight” and “Hold on Tight” both being exhilarating electro-pop, “The Way Life’s Meant to Be” being a solid straight-up pop number, and “Ticket to the Moon” being one of their most effecting songs.
Against the odds, Time somehow managed to justify the Discovery era changes, and confirmed that that album had just been a blip.
ELO would release two more albums in the 80s, the last of which was classic contractual obligation stuff, before Lynne split the band to concentrate on production for big names like George Harrison and Roy Orbison (odd that..), before forming The Travelling Wilburys with those two personal heroes of his, along with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. Bev Bevan would keep the ELO name alive for a while with some of his former bandmates by way of Electric Light Orchestra Part 2, but through the 90s, the name carried little in the way cool quota (though to be fair, they never really did, even at the height of their success), and by the opening of the new millennium, Lynne had regained rights to the name, releasing a new album, Zoom, to a musical landscape wasn’t asking for a new Electric Light Orchestra album.
It would take until the last few years for Electric Light Orchestra to return, with Jeff Lynne being hailed as the great under-appreciated pop rock genius and a pair of new albums (one masquerading as a greatest hits set) being solo albums in all but name, but with the ever loyal Richard Tandy playing with Lynne and his band of new faces on live performances. Smoke and mirrors stuff for sure, but at least Electric Light Orchestra are finally getting the praise and attention they have always deserved.
Prior to this career rehabilitation, Electric Light Orchestra had long laboured under the label of being something of a guilty pleasure, with a few vocal fans un-ironically claiming them to be a great source of inspiration for their own music, with the likes of Grandaddy’s Jason Lytle and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh coming across as the most genuine.
It’s fair to say that Electric Light Orchestra have been over-compiled down the years, so a newcomer trying chose the right one for them can feel utterly overwhelmed.
Olé ELO was an early attempt to distill their appeal and features 9 tracks from their first five albums, while 1979’s ELO’s Greatest Hits was a big seller at the time.
If you are looking for a true career retrospective, then there are lot of options, but 1997’s Light Years: The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra is probably the best, as it is a comprehensive compilation of their singles, and one of the few that features “Xanadu” and the withdrawn “Across the Border”. ELO singles were often shorter than the album versions of the songs, so even if the newcomer starts here and goes on to explore their full albums, at least you’re getting two alternative versions of those songs you are duplicating.
One other compilation worth mentioning is 2012’s Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, which is not actually a compilation of the original recordings, but the aforementioned album of material that Jeff Lynne had re-recorded. It’s certainly a sonic upgrade, but for all of Lynne’s personal preference for these versions, they aren’t the originals.
From forming Electric Light Orchestra as on offshoot to a psych pop band who were struggling to remain relevant, via symphonic prog rock, to pop-rock, to synth pop, it only seems fair that Jeff Lynne is finally receiving the praise he always deserved for his role as the creative force behind one of the most enduring acts of the 70s. After all, at the height of their success in the late 70s, a hairy symphonic pop-rock act like Electric Light Orchestra just shouldn’t have been able to thrive in the hostile environment that punk had created, yet thrive they did, and that takes real class.