With the news that Jeff Lynne’s ELO are including Liverpool’s Echo arena as part of their much publicised 2016 tour, Getintothis’ Del Pike considers their appeal, importance and influences and comes up with a few surprises.
You would be hard pushed not to notice the excitement surrounding the Electric Light Orchestra 2016 tour over the last week or so, with the legendary Jeff Lynne also releasing the first album of new material since 2001’s Zoom. Alone in the Universe is a solo effort that sounds far from the work of just one man and will be performed by a full new line-up when the tour hits the road next Spring. Its good news for us, ELO will be including The Echo Arena when the tour hits Liverpool in April. It’s a project Lynne has keen to push which is why everywhere you look at the moment his shaggy beard and explosive hair are looming. For those wondering what all the fuss is about, it’s worth considering just how enormous and influential ELO were back in the day. Let’s stow aboard the ELO spaceship and find out.
Times were bleak, it was the early 70s and the 60s dream wagon had long since departed. There was some great music around still of course, but the super-group hole left by The Beatles was desperately waiting to be filled. Birmingham born Jeff Lynne clearly felt he was the man for the job and set to work on fixing that hole. He had been part of the 60s pop scene himself in various bands with dubious names including The Handicaps, The Nightriders and The Idle Race, before joining up with the already successful The Move with Roy Wood in 1970 and it was in this band that he began to show his songwriting talents. Glam rock was looming however and the psychedelic Move were starting to look out-dated. Roy Wood would eventually go on to form the Christmas bothering Wizzard, but first he joined up with Lynne and fellow Move member Bev Bevan to form the original three piece ELO line-up. Their self-titled debut launched in 1971 opened with their first classic track, 10538 Overture and established the sound that was to dominate the rest of their albums within the first 20 seconds. Soaring strings, Phil Spector like echo vocals and multi-tracking are immediately evident. The killer riff was sampled shamelessly by Paul Weller for The Changing Man and the brass section clearly referenced by The Who for most of the Quadrophenia album. The track seals Lynne’s bid for ELO to become the next Beatles as the production by himself and Wood is a constant nod to the George Martin production of Sgt Pepper’s and Strawberry Fields Forever while the coda is pure I Am The Walrus.
Looking back it was possibly the constantly recognisable sound that emanated from every ELO disc that made them the stadium sensations they were, rivalling even Wings. Even their ballads were supported by full string arrangements and luscious over-production that always seemed to work. The success wasn’t overnight however; the first few albums failed to make much of an impact outside of their own cult following. 1976’s A New World Record was the long awaited breakthrough album, partly due to the highly commercial singles it contained. Telephone Line contained all the elements needed to attack the charts in the mid 70s but it was Livin’ Thing that truly made them a household name. Not exactly disco but with the glamour and glitz to fit right into the zeitgeist of the Saturday Night Fever era. As Livin’ Thing plays over Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights, his tribute to the Disco era US porn industry, it just so works.
It’s hard to imagine any household in 1976 that didn’t own a copy of ELO’s follow up, Out of the Blue. If they wanted to be the next Beatles, well this was their Sgt Pepper’s. A double album, it is surefooted from beginning to end and sounds so familiar now that it feels like a greatest hits. Turn to Stone, Sweet Talkin’ Woman, Wild West Hero and It’s Over became instantly recognisable as ELO classics but none came near the sheer majesty of Mr Blue Sky – the ultimate ELO song. The structure of the song is breath-taking, from the opening radio tuning into its instantly recognisable metronomic piano chords waiting for the drums to kick in and then there are those lyrics. The most irresistibly uplifting pop lyrics since Good Day Sunshine.
‘Sun is shinin’ in the sky, there ain’t a cloud in sight. It’s stopped rainin’, everybody’s in a play and don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day’ – guaranteed to cheer up even the most miserable bugger. The whole song is a joy to behold. When night falls, the most incredible choir kick in, we get A Day in the Life strings and then the final rush of an orchestral heaven’s call; we are whisked into the sky and dropped back down to earth before we know it. It’s the most euphoric five minutes of chart pop ever.
If ELO had stopped right there it would have been enough, but consider what was still to come, Don’t Bring Me Down, The Diary of Horace Wimp, Confusion, All Over the World, even Xanadu has its appeal.
In attempting to emulate the fab four, ELO in turn became a huge influence to many, their ground-breaking electronic style of production can clearly be heard in the music of Air and Daft Punk, who sampled ELO’s Evil Woman on Face to Face. Even the ELO spaceship which has become a motif of nearly all of their album artwork is strangely echoed in the pseudo-science fiction of Daft Punk. The escapism inherent in both bands imagery adds to the appeal of their work creating unique simulacra. It is ironic that this most quintessentially English band has been sampled by so many American artists and dance acts. Pussycat Dolls, Lloyd Banks and Dead Prez have all sampled ELO tracks; hearing Tightrope on Young Jeezy’s Grown Ass Man is just surreal.
As the 80s arrived and producers such as Georgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers were taking the mantle of producing new adventures in audio, the once unique ELO sound struggled to keep its head above water, but even those two greats cannot deny the influence of ELO and the difference they made to the world of electronic music and lavish production. The decade wasn’t kind to Lynne and his various collaborators, and only one album, Afterglow, was released in the 90s.
Perhaps Lynne’s proudest moment was when he was invited into the world of The Beatles. Aside from producing various albums for Paul, George and Ringo and standing beside George as one of the Travelling Wilburys, he eventually became a Beatle of sorts, producing and filling in parts on their Anthology singles Free as a Bird and Real Love in the mid-90s. All of these projects, particularly the George Harrison and Anthology tracks, sound more like ELO than who they are meant to, which in some ways shows the power of Lynne.
As the still mysterious and unworldly ELO spaceship hovers around the globe waiting to land on various arenas, it will be interesting to see who the next wave of artists are to succumb to their style. Speaking to a 19 year old DJ, Jack C, this week about the return of ELO, he told us that Eldorado, ELO’s bizarre prog-tinged offering from 1974 was his favourite album ever, the reason being “There’s nothing else that sounds like it”. On returning to listen to it, we have to say that he is right. There is really nothing else like it.
The new single – When I Was a Boy, is understated but has all the hallmarks of classic ELO.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO come to the Echo Arena on April 5 2016, tickets available from usual sources.