Guilty pleasures: Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra

by Something Else Reviews

It’s true, as Randy Newman once impishly sang, they were six fine English boys who knew each other in Birmingham. After that, things got tricky for the Electric Light Orchestra. Despite an impressive string of 1970s hits, they became an easy target. People knocked the strings. The Beatlemania. Jeff Lynne’s spaceman fro. We won’t even get into ELO Part II.

Newman, in this dead-on parody of their orchestral bombast called “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” from 1979’s Born Again, winked his way through a few of the group’s more memorable earworms: “I love their ‘Mr. Blue Sky.’ Almost my favorite is ‘Turn to Stone,'” Newman adds, “and how ’bout ‘Telephone Line?’ I love that ELO.”

Once we stopped laughing, though, there was something to admit. Thing is, we do too. No, really:

“DO YA'” (A NEW WORLD RECORD, 1976): The last single by Jeff Lynne’s prior band The Move and the only one to chart in the U.S. (No. 93 on the Hot 100) ends up being the seventh charted single for the group spun off from The Move, the Electric Light Orchestra. This time, it reached No. 24 in April of 1977.

ELO had never rocked harder. At least, not on radio. With its violin/cello players and even a full orchestra supplementing the normal four piece rock band, it managed to become uniquely ELO. So yeah, a new, symphonic coda was added, but the crunch of the original carried over intact.

By this time, Lynne had achieved complete mastery of the delicate balance between rock and orchestral arrangements, and even the heavy presence of strings didn’t do anything to take away from the song’s raw, cocksure bent, with Lynne growling and boasting to his target for affections about all the things he’s seen “but never seen nuttin’ like you.”

Interestingly, it was Todd Rundgren who was the first to cover this song (Utopia’s 1975 release Another Live) before Lynne revisited his own tune for ELO. Rundgren was the guy who took a near-hit (“Hello It’s Me”) for his former band (The Nazz) and later made it into a major hit for himself. Lynne would soon follow the same strategy with “Do Ya,'” and got the same results. — by S. Victor Aaron

“MR. BLUE SKY” (OUT OF THE BLUE, 1977): John Lennon once called ELO the “son of the Beatles.” It’s unclear whether he meant that as praise or put down. Either way, their DNA is all over this one. In fact, for a band often accused of being nothing more than an obvious Fab Four pastiche, “Mr. Blue Sky” was the Electric Light Orchestra’s pastich-iest of them all. You have an invariable, thudding bassline straight out of “Hello Goodbye”; an anvil-banging rhythm from Abbey Road; verses trailing along to the same two notes, like “I Am The Walrus”; then a calling card-eccentric construction of sudden shifts, from the dizzying harmonic interplay to a sharply buoyant guitar. The background vocalists, at one point, even pant along in a direct reference to “A Day in the Life.”

To me, though, “Mr. Blue Sky” suffers most from its proximity. The Beatles, circa the mid-1970s, were still a looming presence in the rearview. Some, like the big-spending Lorne Michaels of SNL (and, well, me — minus the million-dollar guarantee to appear on my late-night comedy show) were holding out hopes for a reunion.

Long past the expiration date for such conceits, Jeff Lynne’s loving-care studiocraft can now rightly be called canny homage. You’ll find more than mimicry at work, as ELO so perfectly incorporates the decade’s signature rock-band devices -– things that have moved into the collective consciousness, but once had a pretty-cool-back-then verve: There’s the very contemporaneous spaceship cover imagery, of course, but also the song’s vocoded treatment of its title and a positively tornadic combination of chorus and strings. Longtime drummer Bev Bevan was credited in the liner notes with “fire extinguisher” on this track. Too, in keeping with the grandiose prog-pedantry of the day, “Mr. Blue Sky” is the final song in a four-piece “Concerto for a Rainy Day” on side three of the original two-LP edition of Out of the Blue. (The stormy weather effects included on the opening segment “Standin’ in the Rain” were reportedly recorded by Lynne outside the chalet where he composed the album. Dude!)

“Mr. Blue Sky” would become the third Top 40 single (after “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”) to emerge from Out of the Blue, going to 35 in the U.S. and 6 in Britain. The truth is, it’s absolutely stuffed with details, both cribbed and otherwise -– a much braver attempt at tribute than ELO is often given credit for. They took the Beatles’ own late-period tendency toward symphonic pomposity, and made it their own. — by Nick DeRiso

“FIRE ON HIGH” (FACE THE MUSIC, 1975): It seems like I have to do a lot of admitting in these Something Else! collaborations. An artist is suggested and I dive right in, all excited to revisit the music — only to discover that my collection contains none of their records. Worse, I do have an album, but it’s a greatest-hits thing. (This goes against my long-standing distaste for best-of records, which rip the songs out of their original context. OK, so I’m a nerd. Whatever.)

This time around, I’m happy to report that I do own more than ELO’s Greatest Hits. But here’s the sad admission: I’m almost positive that my first experience with ELO came not from the spectacular Eldorado or its follow up Face The Music, but from the CBS sports magazine show CBS Sports Spectacular. For a few years in the 1970s (76-78), the show’s theme song was an edit of “Fire On High.”

Being the pre-Internet era, I didn’t even know that it was ELO. That moment came a few years later when some kid from my dorm played me Face The Music. I love those kind of surprises. Honestly though, I didn’t really need to associate such a cool song with things like the World’s Strongest Man competition.

And yes, it is a cool song, full of weird orchestration, violently strummed guitar, fusion-esque violin, and even (in the full version) a backwards masked message. Don’t worry, it’s kid safe. Plus, it was done to annoy some Fundamentalist Christians. Extra RockAndRollPoints™ right there.

Wait, I just realized that “Fire On High” isn’t on ELO’s Greatest Hits. What the …? How is that possible? Well, that’s OK. I mean, when I first started writing this, I was certain that the song was the theme song to ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

Insert your favorite 1970s drug joke here. — by Mark Saleski

“STATE OF MIND” (ZOOM, 2001): With its 12th and (so far) final recording, ELO landed at a destination that couldn’t have surprised many: 2001’s richly melodic Zoom was a Jeff Lynne solo project in all but name and, by then, he had taken his Fab obsession to the point of having actual Beatles — both George Harrison and Ringo Starr — in studio.

That doesn’t mean it was an easy sell. ELO’s initial recording since 1986’s Balance of Power barely cracked the Top 100 in America. Still, for those who braved the withering stares of their hipster friends, Lynne fashioned one of his most consistent efforts (solo or otherwise) since 1979’s Discovery.

The album’s high point, for me, was the throwback “State of Mind,” a tune that takes flight during a middle eight owing much to his former Wilbury buddy Roy Orbison. Along the way, it so deftly combines any number of Lynne’s signature musical ticks (lush atmospherics, a rockabilly guitar, some spacy effects and, yeah, cellos) that you’d be hard pressed, listening to the YouTube clip above, to argue that it isn’t a late-1970s outtake. (I can almost, almost, hear a vocoder in the chorus, too. Maybe that’s just sentiment playing tricks on me.) By the time “State of Mind” floats away, buoyed by a dream-sequence fade straight out of Sgt. Pepper’s, Lynne has reminded you of everything that made his recombinant pop hitmaking heyday such a listenable delight.

Long live pomp-rock! — by Nick DeRiso

“SHINE A LITTLE LOVE” (DISCOVERY, 1979): A mirror ball bass pulse, a galloping guitar, exuberant shouts of “wooo!”…and of course, string accoutrements. It’s very disco, ELO style (even the album that spawned it has the words “very” and “disco” in its title, not necessarily in that order). As this single came out in the spring of 1979, ELO could do no wrong on the radio, even though the art-rock element was largely gone from its formula, and production was dense: Instead of the usual small, three-piece string section, Lynne called in a 40 piece, for example.

That head of steam propelled this dance floor ditty up to No. 8 on the American charts, and No. 6 in their native UK. Funny how the commercial peak usually follows the artistic one.

Yet, the parts of the ELO formula that called for the Beatle-esque pop hooks and craftsmanship were still present, and when those cylinders are firing even on a song like “Shine A Little Love,” it’s hard not to get attached to it. The two-clap punctuations that follow each recitation of “You shine a little love on my life” is a cheap trick to get you involved with the song, but, admittedly, it works.

Maybe it’s that going the extra mile to be cheery is what puts it above the more formulaic “Last Train To London”, another disco thumper hit from Discovery. Whatever it is, more than thirty years later, “Shine A Little Love” still shines. — by S. Victor Aaron

Something Else!

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.