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Lost In Time: ELO’s Forgotten Masterpiece 40 Years On
David Bennun , July 26th, 2021 07:21

Everything that made ELO great is in plentiful evidence on their little remembered 1981 pomp-pop opus Time, says David Bennun. The odd thing is that nobody seems keener it be forgotten than the man who created it

Great Lost Albums become lost for all manner of reasons. Commercial failure on release. Accidents of timing. A label or distributor going bust. Plain collective forgetfulness. But it's hard to think of many that are lost because, despite being successful in their day, they are then consigned to the memory hole by their still popular creators. In truth, I can think of only one. This is it.

That’s the remarkable thing about Time, the ninth album by Electric Light Orchestra (henceforth, as we all call them anyway, ELO), and the final chart-topper of their original run of hit LPs. Not that it’s overlooked by posterity, but that it’s overlooked by its originator. If has it right, since reviving ELO as a going concern in 2014, Jeff Lynne has played just one full song (‘Twilight’) from Time, and that on only four occasions out of 94 shows. Even its genuinely iffy follow-up, Secret Messages (1983), gets as much stage time. What, one wonders, has Lynne got against it?

Lynne does have form for cutting out chunks of history. The title of a 2012 BBC-screened documentary, Mr Blue Sky: The Story Of Jeff Lynne & ELO, was a blatant piece of bait-and-switch mis-selling; Mr Blue Sky: The Story Of Jeff Lynne's Production Career And Some Plugs For The Redundant Re-Recorded ELO Albums With Which He Presumably Intends To Improve His Rights Situation, But Next To Fuck-All About ELO Itself would have been less pithy but more accurate. This is not to blame its director, Martyn Atkins, who surely had his terrain mapped out for him by his subject. Lynne evidently remembers what he chooses to remember. As do all of us. It’s just our selectivity doesn’t matter as much as that of an outstanding pop musician.

What a shame, then, that Lynne should have chosen to forget Time – a terrific, eccentric sci-fi electro/synth-pop album – when he’s had a chance to revive its reputation. Perhaps it’s the eccentricity that bothers him. But in truth, all of ELO’s work is eccentric, and that’s a large part of its greatness; Time was just differently eccentric to an eccentricity that had become so familiar it started to feel normal (see also: Fleetwood Mac in the Lindsey Buckingham era). Maybe he’s embarrassed about it having been a rare attempt to keep up with fashion; but then, having entirely and doubtless sensibly ignored punk and new wave, ELO did embrace disco on Time’s delightful and much undervalued predecessor, Discovery (1979), and that remains in the Lynne-approved catalogue. Or it could be he sees it as simply too off-brand – but there, again, that sells his own work short, because Time is as ELO-y an album as Lynne ever made, and as strong a set of songs as he ever wrote. Time is no Trans; Lynne’s record company was never going to sue him for sounding too little like himself.

It’s unusual that an album manages to be at once so much of its moment, yet so much outside it. Time was unmistakably a response to the electronic and synth waves that rose in the wake of punk. It was also a concept album about time travel, which couldn’t have been more pre-punk had it been focus-grouped that way. According to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s book The Time Traveller’s Almanac (2013, or so it claims), it is – surprisingly – “the first major concept album devoted entirely to time travel”. The VanderMeers note, “it only makes sense that the 80s bands most conversant with time travel were comprised of actual 70s holdovers”. Certainly, you can see why, at the dawn of the 1980s, the idea of a man trapped in an age not his own would resonate, even if subconsciously, with a bandleader accustomed to performing mega-gigs with an in-house string section from a giant spaceship rig.

The string section was gone by then. In keeping with the new times, Lynne had stripped the band down to a core four-piece: himself, bassist Kelly Groucutt, drummer Bev Bevan, and keyboardist Richard Tandy (whose work was crucial here, and who today is Lynne’s sole remaining accomplice from the earlier band; another reason to be puzzled by Time’s marginalisation). The band portrait on the inner sleeve shows a quartet with more than a hint of new wave about it, one that might easily have stepped off the stage at CBGB (a more stylistically diverse platform than history now recognises) a few years previously. Lynne, in leather jacket and regulation dark glasses, is almost clean-cut by his standards, his curls tightly shaped and his beard reduced to a mere chin strap. Why, you can nearly make out his face. Turn the inner over and as a backdrop to the lyric sheet you have one of those endearingly awkward conceptual shots into which acts of ELO’s vintage were so often cajoled: the foursome staring up in mock bafflement at some modern glass-fronted towers, to represent the dwarfing and alienation of the human in the cold, impassive face of the hi-tech future. They look as if they dropped their A To Z on the floor of the bus and now can’t work out in which building they’re supposed to meet their accountant.

But a stripped-down band didn’t mean a stripped-down sound. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Lynne gotta do Jeff Lynne ’til he die – and God love him for it. Strings were out, synths were in, but by and large it was business as usual. Everything that had marked out the band’s sound to that point – lushness, grandeur, a vast and delicious frothiness – remained in place. They were still a giant cappuccino of a pomp-pop group. Perhaps that’s why Time has been displaced from their oeuvre, given fashion dictated they try to fit it all into an espresso shot cup. But interesting though it might be to those of us who care about such things, what with the telescoping of cultural history – the past compressed, its depth of field flattened, its eras foreshortened and compacted against one another – there’s surely no reason for that to matter now to Lynne himself.

Because ELO were frothy, this led – for years, until their recent rehabilitation – to a sneery view among the then gatekeepers of the canon that they were lightweight, frivolous, inconsequential. A textbook example of what one might call “ABBA Syndrome”: the dismissal of an obviously brilliant band for a perceived lack of substance (and, often as not, for having too many of the “wrong” kind of fan). Just as with ABBA and The Bee Gees before them, whose surface jollity likewise harboured a profound tristesse, it’s extraordinary that anyone could listen to ELO and think they carried no emotional or artistic heft. Just about forgivable, perhaps, if all you knew was such signature hits as ‘Mr Blue Sky’ (a marvel, nonetheless; at once gratifyingly heavy and perfectly weightless) and ‘The Diary Of Horace Wimp’ – which is, to be fair, a cloying, clodhopping attempt to repeat the effect; the ‘Happy’ to ‘Mr Blue Sky’’s ‘Get Lucky’. But if you’d heard even in passing such top-ten hits as the exquisite, aching ‘Telephone Line', the tremulous ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’, the stately, melancholic ‘Livin’ Thing’ – or, come to that, the elegiac and faintly mournful quasi-novelty ‘Wild West Hero’ – and concluded that here was mere banality, then surely your soul itself was afflicted with tone-deafness.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously cited the ancient Greek poet Archilochus thus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Some artists are foxes, some hedgehogs. The hedgehogs tend to have a single great subject, and in Jeff Lynne’s case, that subject is loneliness. The story of a man lost in time, separated by the years from all that he ever loved, makes for the most sustained expression of that subject he ever effected.

Time is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. The former might reach Spın̈al Tap/‘Stonehenge’-levels of comic portentousness, if it didn’t pass by so swiftly; the latter offers a choral echo of the album’s motif: “Though you ride on the wheels of tomorrow/ You still wander the fields of your sorrow” (although it’s a lyric from another number, ‘Here Is The News’, that distils both the album’s theme and Lynne’s big subject to its none-more-ELO essence: “I wanna go home/ I want my baby back”). The eleven tracks in between are variously silly, poignant, droll, exciting, gauche – all the things that ELO ever were, that is – and often all at once. A handful of them (‘Twilight’, ‘Yours Truly, 2095’, ‘Hold On Tight’, ‘From The End Of The World’, with its echoes of Elvis and of Lynne’s future fellow Travelling Wilbury, Roy Orbison) are either the kind of lickety-split rock & roll blasters Lynne was always sure to include on any ELO LP, ever since a cover of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ gave them a hit from ELO 2, or ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’-style piledrivers – all pleasingly retooled for retrofuturism.

There’s a classic Lynne weepie (‘Ticket To The Moon’), which for all its schlocky space-comic lines conveys heartbreak immaculately. There’s the obligatory moody weather song (‘The Rain Is Falling’), another Lynne specialty. Even ‘The Lights Go Down’, while in violation of Bennun’s First And Only Law Of Reggae (“With the exception of Elvis Costello and The Clash, only people who play reggae all the time should be allowed to play reggae at all”), plods but doesn’t grate. It’s yet another cracking selection box of ELO bangers, toe-tappers and ballads, tied up with a conceptual bow. It looks for all the world like a prog LP, but aside from a few curlicued flourishes, it really isn’t – it’s far too crisp and concise. All in all, Time is perhaps the least pretentious futuristic concept album ever made. Which would not ordinarily be a recommendation; you would generally want a futuristic concept album to be pretentious. But the projection of Lynne’s everyman songwriting persona a century into the future is tremendous, sincere fun.

Like the aforementioned endearing awkwardness, that occasional silliness and gaucheness are integral elements of ELO’s charm. They were daffy in a way that, say, The Alan Parsons Project, The Moody Blues, Rush or Muse could never could be, and this is the yeast that makes the dough rise. It is all but impossible to take Time entirely seriously; nor – and this is the beauty part – is it necessary, or even desirable. It’s still moving. It’s still thrilling. It’s still comical for both the wrong and the right reasons: “She has an IQ of 1,001/ She has a jumpsuit on/ She’s also a telephone,” the protagonist sings, not a little presciently, of the fembot who fires his fancy in ‘Yours Truly, 2095’; and, c’mon, that’s funny. Indeed, an inadvertent message of the album appears to be, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The forlorn bewilderment of Lynne’s protagonist is, it turns out, the same forlorn bewilderment of all of Lynne’s protagonists – over cold, absent or conniving women; over homesickness; over the powerful saudade that afflicts them always. To paraphrase slightly a rare piece of hippie wisdom: whenever you go, there you are.

The same is true of the music. Perhaps Lynne aspired to rub padded shoulders with the new breed of synth-poppers and electro kids, but what he succeeded in doing – and in hindsight, this was a preferable outcome – was to kit ELO out in a new set of togs cut just-so for the band’s existing frame. True, the near-instrumental ‘Another Heart Breaks’ has a gorgeous, glacial desolation that even the iciest young guns would have envied. But overall, Time is ELO, only more so. Take one of the standouts, ‘The Way Life's Meant To Be’, an archetypal mid-tempo Lynne stormer that would have fitted in a treat alongside ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ at the recent greatest-hits shows. It has one of those memorable Lynne melodies so ostensibly simple it’s a wonder only he appears able to write them (funny that; it’s almost as if he has a preternatural gift for making something very difficult seem winningly easy.) It opens with trademark ringing acoustic guitar; it features those sugar-psych backing vocals at which he shines; it evokes power ballads, AOR, doo wop, rockabilly, surf, twang and Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound (for which Bev Bevan’s never knowingly understated drumming proves an excellent match); and it does all this in four-and-a-half miraculous minutes that zip by on greased skates. This, in short, was never going to be an LP that marched to the beat of the Tubeway Army. It simply didn’t know how – because it already knew far too much else.

It’s no wonder that Time’s admirers include Flaming Lips (psych-tinged sci-fi tunes about getting marooned in a strange world, you say?), Daft Punk (who weren’t averse to a bit of ‘Discovery’, either), and Ladyhawke, whose glorious opening troika of songs on her Anxiety LP have at least a cousinhood to Lynne’s space-rockin’ electro-boogie. They’ve all heard something special in it, something odd and captivating and loveable – and they’re right. The pity of it is that its creator doesn’t seem to hear it too.