Looking Back At The Cosmic Career Of The Electric Light Orchestra

Nothing says quality like a man with a beard playing a see-through cello. Interplanetary scribe Joe Stannard picks the best of ELO's back catalogue . . . by picking nearly their entire back catalogue.

Okay, so this is where I’m obliged to rattle on about how The Electric Light Orchestra suffered years of critical opprobrium, only to feel the benefit of a ‘reappraisal’ after fuckwitted hacks decided that Jeff Lynne and his band of merry beards were worthy of their attention after all. Well, fuck that. If you need to be told what to like by some friendless drug addict on a less-than-minimum wage, there’s no hope for you, and if the timeless glory of ELO isn’t already somewhat fucking obvious, then you need your ear holes hollowed out with wire wool and a blowtorch.

If you’re seeking a point of entry to their body of work, however, look no further. Initially formed as a side-project of 60s mod-psych savants The Move, ELO rapidly outgrew their initial brief as a kind of rock ‘n’ roll chamber group to become world-dominating starship travellers armed with some of the greatest full-cream pop music ever assembled. Like their contemporaries Queen, ELO sang a simple song but festooned it with baroque detail and virtuosic flash, their incorrigible penchant for hooks always apparent through a sugared miasma of strings, synths and stacked harmonies. These words are dedicated to ex-ELO bassist Kelly Groucutt, who died on February 19 this year, aged 63.

1. The Move – ‘Message From The Country’ from Message From The Country (Harvest, 1971)

You don’t need to worry about most of The Move’s final record, the real gem is the title track. A last hurrah for one of the 60s’ greatest unsung beat groups, ‘Message From The Country’ is essentially a dry-run for ELO’s more ornate ‘10538 Overture’ and witnesses the band slowly drifting over the horizon as they make way for their next incarnation. “Hear the roar a coming,” they sing, blissfully unaware of just how prescient those words would prove to be. Beatlesque descending chords, thickly layered harmonies, vaguely dreamlike lyrical conceits, all the parts were gradually falling into place – even if chief songwriters Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne had yet to locate the string section.

2. ‘10538 Overture’ from The Electric Light Orchestra (Harvest, 1972)

“Did you see your friend/Crying from his eyes today?” Where else would he cry from? His knees? Lyrical conundrums aside, this is easily the best song on the patchy first ELO album, and the first hint of the band’s incipient greatness, which would only be fully realised once Roy Wood fucked off to form rock ‘n’ roll clown troupe Wizzard (no offense, Roy, love your work!). The song follows the same formula as ‘Message To The Country’ but this time it’s enhanced by questing French horn and no less than 15 layers of doom-laden, sawing cello. This song is the aural equivalent of being pursued by a bearded shark while howling Brummie banshees offer useless laments from the shore. That’s right, it’s that good.

3. On The Third Day (Warner Bros, 1973)

The first consistently brilliant ELO album, and one that few people seem to even know exists. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as such a surprise, though, as there are NO FUCKING HITS on it (well, okay, ‘Ma-Ma-Ma Belle’ is here, and ‘Showdown’ appeared on the US issue). What it does have is a side-long suite about, I dunno, being God or something, made entirely irrelevant by the sheer brilliance of the songs, which err towards the progwise end of the 70s rock spectrum while remaining memorable and often moving. ‘King Of The Universe’ is an aching cosmic lament, Lynne sounding like a lonely studio demiurge presiding over the endless possibilities at his command now he’s finally rid of Roy. Elsewhere, ‘New World Rising-/Ocean Breakup’ kicks eight shades of doo-doo out of Abbey Road and ‘Daybreaker’ straps on some wobbly synth for a rough gallop over the morning horizon. The closing version of Grieg’s ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ is ooo-kay, but let’s face it, ELO were at their best when they abandoned the ‘Classics On 45’ schtick and concentrated on gloriously calorific pop.

4. ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head’ from Eldorado, A Symphony (Warner Bros, 1974)

Soft pop revisionists always gabble on about Fleetwood Mac leader Lindsey Buckingham’s sussurating waves of sound, but that irascible Californian had nothing on our Jeff. This song is a case in point. ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head’ sounds like it was recorded underwater by a band of hirsute mermen in seaweed-strewn codpieces, and it’s a near-perfect evocation of unrequited love, aquatic or otherwise. Lynne did ‘wistful’ extremely well, perhaps informed by a lifetime of emotional distance from objects of desire caused by his dogged refusal to remove those bleedin’ sunglasses, even for those, um, intimate moments.

5. A New World Record (Jet, 1976)

Skipping over the majority of Eldorado, A Symphony and all of 1975’s Face The Music – because despite their reputations and the fact that the latter features ‘Strange Magic’ and national anthem of Misogynia, ‘Evil Woman’, they’re mostly really boring records – here we find Lynne catching on to the fact that with a bit of streamlining, he could make even more cuzzash out of his undeniable talents as a songwriter and producer. And his gain is our, um, gain, because this is a ruthlessly focused, aggressively POP album, reining in the conceptual excess proving a successful strategy for raking in the greenbacks. Put simply, everything on this album rules apart from the truly foul ‘Rockaria’, which indicates Lynne’s unwillingness to step away from the classical music racks of his local Woolies. Why try to stuff an opera diva into Chuck Berry’s peg-legged pants when you’ve got songs as deathlessly brilliant as ‘Livin’ Thing’, ‘So Fine’, ‘Mission (A World Record)’ and ‘Telephone Line’? Jesus, Jeff. The sleeve art marks the first appearance of the iconic ELO jukebox spaceship designed by John Kosh; highly appropriate considering the band were about to blast off into the stratosphere, as Paul Gambaccini might say.

6. Out Of The Blue (Jet, 1977)

The big fucking kahuna as far as ELO are concerned, Out Of The Blue is their White Album, their Pet Sounds, their Rumours. Written by Lynne in three and a half fucking weeks, this double album has shifted more units than all the other records in the world combined and squared (um, possibly) and features some of the band’s best-loved songs. ‘Turn To Stone’ is like being vigorously humped by a lovesick falsetto planetoid, ‘Sweet Talking Woman’ is so tuneful and winsome it’s actually kind of fascistic and ‘Mr Blue Sky’ is such an infectious, all-conquering paean to the sunshine, it made Brian Wilson shit his sandbox. Twice. But that’s not all! ‘Mr Blue Sky’ is part of the ‘Concerto For A Rainy Day’, which also encompasses the rampant squiggle of ‘Standin’ In The Rain’ and the mercilessly melancholic ‘Big Wheels’. Elsewhere, ‘Night In The City’ may be the most exciting song ever recorded, from its parping musique concrète intro to it’s POWWWW!!! clarion powerchords and ‘Wild West Hero’ ends the album on a bittersweet note, unusual for such a massive, punk-fucking multi-platinum beast of an album. There’s the odd misstep here and there, but nothing disastrous; ‘Jungle’ for example is pretty crass, but it draws from the same well of ethnotronic idiocy as Joni Mitchell’s ‘The Jungle Line’ and is also maddeningly catchy. The album’s best kept secret is a truly stunning instrumental entitled ‘The Whale’ in which Jeff Lynne inadvertently invents Air (the French band, not the clear gas which forms our planet’s atmosphere… he’s not that kind of genius).

7. Discovery (Jet, 1979)

Ideally, Discovery would live up to its title and showcase Lynne’s wholehearted embrace of disco, thumbing his nose to the rockist screed of the times and… oh, you know. Unfortunately, only two tracks really justify the allusive title; fortunately, they happen to be ‘Shine A Little Love’ and ‘Last Train To London’, two of the finest fusions of metronomic groove and shiny pop songcraft ever created. Lynne clearly relished the challenge of getting booties shaking to his overwrought melodic masterpieces, but didn’t feel quite confident enough to stage a full-blown crossover. Thankfully, the best of the rest of this album is even better than Out Of The Blue. ‘The Diary Of Horace Wimp’ is a majestic ‘A Day In The Life’ rewrite, scaling back the self-conscious trippiness of Lennon and McCartney’s original to focus on the mundane trials and tribs of poor feckless fuck Horace. He ends up in love and married, so that’s all cool, but the huge relief engendered by that revelation is overshadowed by the song’s enormous symphonic outro. ‘Confusion’ is one of the least confusing songs about being confused I’ve ever heard and also one of the most affecting.’On The Run’ is approximately the 1,400,000th song called ‘On The Run’, but has a wonderful, stuttering high-pitched squeak for a chorus. The album concludes in epic fashion with the sound of a bunch of Midlands musicians kicking your head in while offering you sweets aka ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ (“Brrrrrrrrrruce!”). If I were a total prick, I’d say this album was ‘Made of WIN’. Because it really is, whatever that actually means.

8. Xanadu OST (Jet, 1980)

Sound tracking a movie starring immortal song & dance man Gene Kelly alongside perfect singing cyborg Olivia Newton-John at her fembot foxiest (you have not seen destructo-fuck-me-eyes until you’ve seen her in this flick – it’s actually quite terrifying), Lynne and his buds come up with five tracks of total WIN (ah fuck, sorry) in the shape of the sparkling ‘I’m Alive’, ‘Don’t Walk Away’, ‘The Fall’, ‘All Over The World’ and the title tune, featuring Antipodean android Olivia on vocals. Along with ON-J’s subliminally filthy ‘Magic’, they’re the only tracks you need from this album – for god’s sake don’t buy it or anything stupid like that. Great film, though.

9. ‘Twilight’ from Time (Jet, 1981)

Time is a very good album indeed, but nothing on it quite equals the opening track, ‘Twilight’. Remember I said that ‘Night In The City’ from Out Of The Blue may be the most exciting song ever recorded? Well, I was wrong, because this is. Pulsating, momentous, charged with purpose and overstuffed with hooks, counter-hooks, sub-hooks and semi-hooks, ‘Twilight’ makes being abducted by time travellers sound like the most fun you can have without growing a big, bushy beard, getting your hair permed and fronting one of the biggest bands in the universe.

10. Secret Messages (Jet, 1983)

For my money (which isn’t much, admittedly) this is ELO’s great overlooked masterpiece. Barely any filler at all, instead a whole bunch of inspired and frequently unhinged compositions which haven’t been hammered into over-familiarity through endless repetition. At this point, Lynne was more inspired by his roomfuls of synths than he was orchestral textures – one imagines Louis Clark’s string arrangements were carried out with eyes squeezed tight in anticipation of the dreaded P45 – and accordingly, every song is buffed to biomechanical perfection. Two of the least hailed tunes of Lynne’s career, ‘Stranger’ and ‘Bluebird’ constitute the album’s twin peaks, both slightly homesick and enervated yet still immaculately beautiful. ‘Time After Time’ sounds like an anti-war song written and performed by a rogue faction of the machines who take over the world in The Terminator and ‘Secret Messages’ is a chuntering motorik awash with ecstatic synth flourishes, its single edit accompanied by a video of Jeff and his buddies shoddily blue-screened in front of Jodrell Bank, because satellite dishes are right futuristic, like. More crucial ELO ballad action appears in the form of ‘Take Me On And On’, in which Jeff comes over all Dave Bowman, floating on a monolith of soft rock towards the farthest reaches of the cosmos, while the power pop quota is filled by ‘Four Little Diamonds’ and ‘Danger’, the latter of which is the most cheerful harbinger of the apocalypse you could ever hope to hear. The original vinyl LP ends on a bum note with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Is King’ (not anymore it isn’t Jeff, it’s fucking 1983) but the CD reissue glides to a close with ‘After All’, a devastatingly sorrowful instrumental which always reduces me to tears. I’m just no fun at all, am I?

11. Balance Of Power (Jet, 1986)

The final ELO album until 2001’s disappointing comeback effort Zoom, Balance Of Power finds a severely reduced outfit (now a trio comprising Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan and keyboard player Richard Tandy) firing on about two cylinders with toilet paper stuffed up the remaining four. Nevertheless, there are still treats to be had. The album’s opening chug, ‘Heaven Only Knows’, retools McCartney’s ‘You Won’t See Me’ for the digital age, ‘So Serious’ is a masterfully contrived fake grin of a tune and ‘Getting To The Point’ is another awesome blubfest for sentimental bastards. It all feels distinctly smaller and cheaper, though, lyrics like “And all that I can do/Is stand and watch it now/Watch it burn, burn, burn,” compounding the impression that the band had run its course. Lynne has since ‘fessed that his mind was elsewhere at this point, and indeed George Harrison and the other Traveling Wilburys were lurking around the corner like wizened, guitar-wielding muggers. Rather more wholehearted is Lynne’s one and only solo album to date, 1990’s Armchair Theatre, with its stately interpretations of Kurt Weill’s ‘September Song’ and jazz standard ‘Stormy Weather’ plus blissful originals ‘Every Little Thing’ and ‘Lift Me Up’. Zoom aside, Lynne hasn’t put out any new music of his own for far too long. Jeff, if you’re reading this, please come back, and do it properly this time. We miss you. And your big spaceship.

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