The Jesus Of Uncool Is Risen: ELO Live, By Simon Price
, September 16th, 2014 08:13
Simon Price has written some beautiful words about this year's significant musical live returns. But, he says, the unfairly derided ELO playing the BBC's Prom in Hyde Park was the one that'd get the tears flowing
Of all the mythic heroes rock & roll has thrown up, the lead singer of the Electric Light Orchestra may, on the face of it, seem an unlikely candidate to adopt as a role model. Nevertheless, when I was a child and I imagined myself as a grown-up, Jeff Lynne was the grown-up I imagined being. In my mind's eye, I saw the curly perm (l already had the wavy hair, halfway there), well-kept beard, aviator sunglasses, denim flares, serenely laid back and blissfully benign countenance. A Christ in shades.
It didn't quite turn out that way. At the age of ten, I was utterly unaware that fashions would change, and had no clue that such a thing as Youth Culture would get its claws into me when the hormones kicked in. In 1978 - the year of 'Mr Blue Sky' - my listening habits chiefly involved Blondie, Boney M, Bee Gees, The Boomtown Rats (it was a very Letter B year), as well as ABBA and ELO. This was the last moment of innocence, before 1979, before Tubeway Army on Top Of The Pops and The Specials on the Top 40 countdown, before having my head turned by the New Wave. The last moment of not giving a flying fuck about COOL. I miss it terribly.
The Electric Light Orchestra were arguably the most uncool, even defiantly anti-cool, of the lot, and have been the slowest to be rehabilitated since, their name raising lip-curled sneers among musical cognoscenti, the punchline to bad jokes. This is why they, along with Wings, are forever associated with Alan Partridge, who claimed to have seen them at the Birmingham NEC in 1976 (a gig which, as any ELO nerd will tell you, never happened: the band played the Town Hall that year). It's why, if you express a liking for them, strangers will invariably assume you're plugging into the kitsch Guilty Pleasures mindset. (If you meet one who doesn't, you've got a friend for life.)
Not that it's prevented their legacy from leaking through into popular culture. They've been sampled by dozens upon dozens of acts, from Company Flow to the Pussycat Dolls, if you go looking. Every now and then, in my journalistic career, it's been possible to coax a contemporary band to admit to an ELO influence, The Flaming Lips and Super Furry Animals being two examples. But the band in whom I perceive the greatest amount of ELO DNA are outside the rock genre altogether: Daft Punk. ELO's Universalism and Utopianism, free from the 70s disease of autobiographical self-expression, is all over their landmark album Discovery (non-coincidentally, also an ELO album title; Bangalter and Homem-Christo even sample ELO on 'Face To Face'). Not to say that ELO dealt purely in cosmic positivity: many of their songs are desperately sad and deeply heartfelt. But, crucially, the 'heart' in 'heartfelt' was always primarily that of the listener, not the artist. Which is how all great pop should be.
Even at the time, being an ELO fan wasn't easy. My dad, and other serious music heads of his generation, dismissed ELO as mere Beatles copyists. Of course, The Beatles themselves took a more positive view: John Lennon called them "Sons of The Beatles", and the other three members would later collaborate with Lynne several times, even bringing him in to be George Martin's stunt double by completing production on the unreleased demos 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love'. The comparison was, of course, an undeniable one: ELO's early material fulfilled their stated intention to carry on where 'I Am The Walrus' left off. But it was also an irrelevant one, to a child growing up in the 70s. The Beatles belonged to a black-and-white world before I even existed. ELO belonged to the now, when I could buy 'Sweet Talkin' Woman' on thrilling grape-coloured vinyl.
Everything's been done before, if you search hard enough. See that "Jesus Of Uncool" Nick Lowe-based pun at the top? Rolling Stone's Chris Martin cover, 2008. See that "Man From U.N.C.O.O.L." call-back at the bottom? An unscreened Micky Flanagan TV pilot, 2012. It ain't what you do. It's the way that you do it. And the way ELO did it - ultra-melodic symphonic pomp-rock with sci-fi overtones - was jubilantly, irresistibly effervescent.
All of which explains why I approach Hyde Park, where BBC Radio 2 have lured Lynne out of semi-retirement to headline this year's Proms In The Park gig some 28 years since the last proper ELO show, with even more excitement than I have for any of this year's other notable live comebacks (sorry Kate, sorry Prince).
Already, I hear the distant moan of naysayers. Is this really ELO? For some, the prefix "Jeff Lynne's" before the official billing sets alarm bells ringing. There will always be "I prefer the early stuff" snobs who bang on about Roy Wood (even though he was only involved in one and a half albums). And it's easy to say, from the outside, that it would've been nice if Lynne had rebuilt bridges with 70s ELO alumni like bassist Kelly Groucutt before he died of a heart attack in 2009 and Mike Edwards before he was killed by a runaway hay bale in 2010. Or to cross your fingers for the involvement of Mik 'Violinski' Kaminski or cellist Hugh McDowell (both of whom, along with Groucutt, toured for many years in ELO continuation/tribute acts ELO Part II and The Orchestra), or drummer Bev Bevan (perhaps unlikely, after the legal wranglings caused by his launching of ELO Part II).
But ELO, apart from reluctant frontman Lynne, were never about the individual faces. Instead, they were represented by that neon flying saucer logo (based on the rainbow arc of a Wurlitzer jukebox). And, as it turns out, this incarnation does feature pianist Richard Tandy from the classic 70s line-ups, and the BBC Concert Orchestra do an extraordinary job of nailing the majesty of the original recordings. This is, in so many senses, as good as it's going to get, and it's good enough for me.
By showtime, There Ain't A Cloud In Sight has triumphed over It's Raining All Over The World, and even the landgrabs by the territorial picnickers, stalking their little squares of turf with checked blankets, can't kill the buzz. When Jeff Lynne - who couldn't look more like Jeff Lynne if he tried - steps out and strikes up 'All Over The World' (the only pop song ever to mention the Birmingham district of Shard End) and that logo appears, I completely lose my shit, and almost start crying. Suddenly, I am that kid who bought the blue vinyl 10 inch from Kelly's in Cardiff indoor market, all the troublesome, tricky, awkward, angsty stuff that music and life threw at me subsequently is erased, and I'm basking in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.
Misogyny-rock masterpiece 'Evil Woman' follows, with just a slight autocue malfunction pock-marking the perfection, and it's clear that anyone who was hoping for a clever-clever set of album tracks will be disappointed: Lynne is in Greatest Hits mode, and that's fine by me. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle', whose original recording featured the guitar of Lynne's old mate Marc Bolan (who happened to be in the studio next door), proves that ELO could seriously ROCK, and the utterly sublime 'Showdown' shows their versatility: incorporating funk and soul into their sound (a couple of years, incidentally, ahead of Bowie).
Lynne, who seems like one of the world's loveliest men, appears genuinely humbled and amazed by the rapturous reception, all thumbs-aloft and "you're fantastic" and "you're marvellous". I don't know who's more emotional: him, or us.
The run of hits continues. There's 'Livin' Thing', now indelibly associated with the unfurling of Dirk Diggler's monster cock at the end of Boogie Nights. There's 'Strange Magic', one of ELO's lesser tunes, but still sumptuous and intoxicating in its way. And, at last, something for the Roy Wood fan club. "This is the first one we ever 'ad an 'it with...", he announces, still West-Midlands-as-anything despite decades in Hampstead and Hollywood, before '10538 Overture'. The escaped-prisoner epic (as ripped off by Paul Weller on 'The Changing Man') is a piece of mournful Brummie depression rock that's up there - or way down there - with anything Sabbath ever did. (Close your eyes and imagine Ozzy on vocals. It totally works.)
The concept album El Dorado is represented by the impossibly lovely 'Can't Get It Out Of My Head', the inner monologue of a bank worker who's haunted by a Siren-like apparition he's seen on the sea at night. 'Sweet Talkin' Woman' is perhaps the ultimate ELO song, super-dramatic pseudo-classical intro, killer call-and-response verses, hysteric falsetto chorus, and countless breakdowns and reprises custom-built for singalongs and overhead handclaps. The galloping 'Turn To Stone', in which Lynne earns a round of applause for carrying off the high-speed tongue-twisting bridge ("Yes, I'm turning to stone/Cos you ain't coming home/Why ain't you coming home/If I'm turning to stone/You've been gone for so long/And I can't carry on/Yes, I'm turning, I'm turning/I'm turning to stone..."), rewards ELO-nerds with an animation of the city skyline from the Jet label, then there's a brief break in the ELO hits-fest as Lynne pays tribute to George Harrison and Roy Orbison with 'Handle With Care' by The Travelin' Wilburys.
"Hello? How are you? Have you been alright? Through all those lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely nights?" See, Jeff cares. He understands. He knows. OK, it's just a song, and the sentimental impact of those words from 'Telephone Line', taken out of their lyrical context and interpreted as a question directed at us, after such a long absence, looks silly when I look at my notebook scribbles in the cold light of day. But WHAT a song. Martin Carr of The Boo Radleys once named ‘Telephone Line' as his favourite song of all time, and it was difficult to fault the call.
The slightly OCD tendencies which were revealed by BBC4's documentary on Lynne a couple of years ago, which found him attempting to correct the original ELO recordings, are exhibited by the night's only album track, 'Steppin' Out' (from Out Of The Blue). "This is a song I never got right", he explains. "It's better now..."
Then we're back to serious business. 'Don't Bring Me Down' is one of the most pulverising rock & roll records ever made, that earth-shattering robo-boogie beat accompanied on the backscreen by those booty-shaking burlesque figures from the video, and 20,000 people shout "Gruß!!!" in unison. (Note to jokers: it's the German word for 'greeting', and was never "Bruce!".) It's the song that gave ZZ Top an entire career (or at least, a second one), and The Dandy Warhols their basis for 'Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth'. When ELO are on this sort of majestic form, it's as if the mothership from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind has stopped teasing Dreyfuss, Truffaut & co that little five-note soundcheck, and blasted Devil Mountain into gravel with an intergalactic rock & roll spectacular. I never want it to end.
The only moment of full-bodied fromage is 'Rock And Roll Is King'. I'm just grateful that it isn't 'The Diary Of Horace Wimp'. Those songs, like the deliberate imperfections in a Persian carpet, exist to highlight the greatness of the rest of ELO's back catalogue. Lynne, perhaps coincidentally, stands on a Persian rug throughout tonight's show.
'Mr Blue Sky' must be the song in rock history which feels the most like a No.1 without having been a No.1. With its episodic structure and heavy classical overtones, you imagine it as a monolithic 70s chart-topper on a par with 'Bohemian Rhapsody', but - incredibly - it only reached No.6. No matter, it's as close to a signature tune as ELO have got, and it's the logical way to end the show.
It doesn't take many Partridge shouts of "Come back on, ELO, and carry on playing!" before they encore with their brash Ludwig Van Berry re-imagining of 'Roll Over Beethoven' (which, along with 'Rockaria!', set out ELO's rock-classical manifesto), then they're gone for real.
You're left dazed with that precious "yes, this really happened" sensation, and simultaneously feeling slightly selfish for figuring out which other songs you wish Lynne had played. Oh, since you ask: maybe one of the ELO-disco numbers like 'Shine A Little Love' or 'Last Train To London', or - even better - the latter's AA flipside 'Confusion', which has been crying out for a cover version by a Teenage Fanclub or a Silver Sun for the last 35 years. Perhaps it's one for the full ELO tour which Lynne, according to host Chris Evans, has been considering if this try-out show went well. And oh, it went well.
It's been, in the best possible way, Like Punk Never Happened. I want the rest of my record collection to leave me alone for a while. Give it a few days and I'll be ready to listen to Metal Box by PiL or something, but for now, if it doesn't have that multicoloured flying saucer on the front, I don't wanna know. The Man from U.N.C.O.O.L. has triumphed, and everything's alright forever. Hey you with the pretty face. Welcome to the human race.