Well, I'm sorry, I do. As an infant I used to hang around the out-of-chart singles box in my local Woolworths, and 'twas there I picked up a copy of ELO's "Sweet Talkin' Woman" - a Beatlesque tune (not that I knew what Beatlesque was at the time), strings, strange backing vocals, it sounded like a strange amalgam of Abba and the Smurfs. They were the first band whose albums I collected and the first band I saw live (at the tender age of seven). What follows is a highly subjective assessment of their albums, presented in the hope that it'll persuade some of you to check out this truly unique band:
THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA - 1971
Their first album, when the band consisted of professional eccentric and Kiss prototype Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan. The cover featured an arty photo of a Habitat lamp (how seventies), the music included such chart-bound gems (erm...not) as "Nellie Takes Her Bow", "The Battle Of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644)" and "Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)". The instrumentation included such non-rock 'n' roll additions as cello, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, recorders (all played by Wood), French horn, hunting horn and violin.
Perhaps ridiculous on paper, today it sounds, like most albums in which two group members are trying to take their music to opposite extremes, fascinating. Roy Wood's tracks are grand, expressive, admittedly pretentious attempts to fuse rock with classical music. Although doomed to failure their naive charm makes them interesting, and the whole album sounds quite proggy. Jeff Lynne, in contrast, was already pursuing commercial success - he wrote the album's only single, "10538 Overture", in retrospect a transparent send-up of what Wood was trying to achieve, and the use of effects and backwards tapes on "Mr Radio" was a foretaste of the production wizardry to grace future albums. Sadly, the debut was the only one to feature Roy Wood, who left to form Wizzard.
E.L.O.2 - 1973
In which Lynne gets left to his own devices and responds with the band's most musically successful album, in my opinion. Bev Bevan remains (apart from Lynne the only constant up to the band's final split), joined by new members Wilf Gibson (violin), Mike Edwards (cello), Michael D'Albuquerque (bass), Richard Tandy (keyboards) and Colin Walker (cello). Lynne wrote four of the album's five lengthy tracks, the exception being their Chuck meets Ludwig cover of "Roll Over Beethoven", which cunningly begins with the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.
Elsewhere, traces of the proggery of the debut remain, especially in the lyrics: "He's heard people shouting from the towers in the city/While their babies grow in test tubes overnight", for example - "Sweet Talkin' Woman" it isn't. The music ranges from the string-driven riffing of "In Old England Town" to the simple pop melodies of "Momma", probably the most accurate harbinger of what was to come. The album's best track is "Kuiama", at over eleven minutes it's also the longest the band ever attempted. A fable against war (I think), like quite a few of their album tracks it's an undiscovered gem, with strings, primitive synths and Jeff's own guitar involved in some pretty heavy riffing. A memorable end to an excellent album.
ON THE THIRD DAY - 1973
Released hot on the heels of "E.L.O.2" on the band's new record label United Artists (the first two albums were on Harvest), it almost inevitably suffers in comparison with its predecessor. The players are: Jeff, Bev, Richard, Michael de Albuquerque, Mike Edwards and new member Mik Kaminski (violin), later to enjoy a solo hit, as Violinski, with "Clog Dance". (Hugh McDowall, a cellist who remained with the band throughout the decade, is pictured on the cover but not mentioned in the credits).
Musically things get slimmed down, the longest track (another 'cover', this one being an adaptation of Grieg's "In The Hall Of The Mountain King") lasting less than seven minutes. Some of the songs seem too throwaway, "Ocean Breakup/King Of The Universe" and "Oh No Not Susan" for example, but the sparser instrumentation helps basic, bluesy rock like "Bluebird Is Dead" and the single"Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle". The instrumental "Daybreaker" impresses, and even the prog hangover of "Dreaming Of 4000" is good. There's even a fine few seconds of drum solo in "In The Hall Of...", but the unfortunate overall impression is of a band marking time, and dabbling half-heartedly with the thought of a concept album...
ELDORADO - 1974
...which would be more thoroughly explored in the follow-up. Subtitled "A symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra", this was the first album to use massed strings, arranged by Louis Clark (later the 'brains' behind the interminable series of "Hooked On Classics" albums - a sort of highbrow Jive Bunny), instead of heavily overdubbing the band's own violinist and cellists. The results display a new confidence after the temporary lapse that was "On The Third Day", and although not every track is a certified classic there's enough class on display here to make me wonder why more people don't own a copy.
Kicking off with "Eldorado Overture", which features a spoken introduction by Peter Ford-Robertson (who he?), the whole album is loaded with mock-historical imagery and a vague feeling of a search for the eponymous Eldorado. Never much of a happy chap in these early albums, here Lynne sounds as maudlin as ever, his voice changing in character from track to track. "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" is as foggy as the shoreline in the lyrics, "Boy Blue", another forgotten classic in which the warrior title character renounces violence, is joyously, and unusually, optimistic, "Mister Kingdom" is a claustrophobic cry for help, and the title track a confrontation of death: "I sail away on a voyage of no return to see/If eternal life is meant for me". Grim maybe, but there's a cosseting warmth to the instrumentation and arrangements that was absent from "On The Third Day" which helps make it, after "E.L.O.2", my second favourite album by the band.
FACE THE MUSIC - 1975
Another great album. No concept this time, but a renewed musical diversity, "a Womble-like propensity to try anything out", as it's been rather disparagingly called. By now a seven-piece, featuring Jeff, Bev, Richard, Kelly Groucutt (bass), Mik Kaminski, Hugh McDowall and Melvyn Gale (cello), this lineup remained unaltered until the release of "Discovery".
The atmospheric opening instrumental "Fire On High" begins with distant string ensembles, backwards tapes and far-off choirs singing Handel's "Hallelujah" before turning into a fast-paced guitar and string tussle. It still sounds incredible almost 20 years later, and its fresh sound is a tribute to Jeff Lynne's production skills. "Waterfall" is a slow ballad which features the strange, muted vocals Lynne used in "Can't Get It Out Of My Head". "Poker" is another fast rocker, almost punkish in its energy. "Down Home Town" is ELO plays country and western, yet successful against the odds, and "One Summer Dream" is as wistful a closer as you could realistically hope for. Amidst such quality, the singles "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic" look little more than standard, if excellent, fare.
A NEW WORLD RECORD - 1976
An apt title for the album with which ELO hit the big time. Despite having several substantial hit singles they hadn't graced the album chart since "E.L.O.2" reached number 35 for one week. "A New World Record" reached number 6, stayed on the lists for almost two years, and spawned three hit singles. It also became the first album to sport the familiar spaceship logo, and featured in Radio 1's recent "Classic Albums" series.
Unquestionably it's a classic of its type. Jeff Lynne's songwriting now openly acknowledged it's debt to Lennon and McCartmey, the band got lots of new instruments to play with (what exactly is a Univox Univibe? Or an SLM Concert Spectrum?), and the production gained an extra layer of polish. There isn't really a duff track: you might know the singles, "Telephone Line", "Rockaria!" and "Livin' Thing", but the remainder are far from filler-standard, especially "Mission (A World Record)", "So Fine" and the hard-rock (ish) revival of The Move's "Do Ya". The whole package radiates confidence and ability in the same way something like "Brothers In Arms" does, perhaps at the expense of emotion. Nevertheless, if you only want to buy one ELO album, this is available on CD for about £5 (and, assuming you can find it, even less on vinyl), and is as good an introduction as any.
OUT OF THE BLUE - 1977
Another apt title: "Out Of The Blue" took the successful formula of its predecessor and expanded it to universe-strangling proportions. Despite being released in the same week as "Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols" it was another huge success, reaching number 4 and spending 108 weeks on the chart. Equally vast in length, its seventeen fine tracks took up four side of vinyl, and even the spaceship logo had been developed. Compare the evolutionary changes between this and "A New World Record" to those taking place between "Fleetwood Mac" and "Rumours", for example, or "Talking Book" and "Innervisions" and you'll understand how it couldn't fail.
The songs help too: singles aplenty, including "Turn To Stone", "Sweet Talkin' Woman", "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Wild West Hero", both these and the remaining album tracks showing how diverse Lynne's songwriting had become, all of them finished and produced to perfection. There's the jungle rhythms of (ahem) "Jungle", the instrumental "The Whale" which has been used in countless television programmes, the four-movement "Concerto For A Rainy Day" which harks back to the early albums, and good old-fashioned quality songs in abundance. Apparently taking 1,127 hours to mix, the results vindicate such attention to detail. In commercial terms their finest achievement, in musical terms their most polished, although not my favourite ELO album "Out Of The Blue" still sounds great today. Besides which, it was the first album I ever bought!
DISCOVERY - 1979
Heavy touring delayed the recording of the next album, and when it finally appeared it featured a new slimline ELO, consisting of Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy and Kelly Groucutt, a lineup that was to endure for the next three albums. "Discovery" was another instant success, their first number one album, and riddled with singles such as "Shine A Little Love", "Confusion", "The Diary Of Horace Wimp", "Last Train To London" and "Don't Bring Me Down". Despite all this, it seems waylaid by passing trends - "Last Train To London" is blatantly disco orientated, and there are too many ballads. It's certainly a good, professional, commercial album, but in retrospect it seems to be the beginning of the end for the band. Several other projects suggested that things were not at all well: Christmas 1979 saw the release of a greatest hits compilation, less than six months after "Discovery" came out, and much of 1980 was spent contributing to the soundtrack of the film "Xanadu", a roller-skating fantasy (!) that starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. Two years elapsed before the next ELO album proper was unveiled.
TIME - 1981
Fourteen years on Lynne finally turns his attention to "Sgt. Pepper". Well, sort of. No gaps between the (13) tracks, a prologue and an epilogue and a vaguely consistent lyrical theme of the future and technology out of control. Another number one, it's certainly good, but Lynne's songs become perceptibly thinner here. Not that there aren't still some stormers: "Twilight", for example, "Yours Truly, 2095", a song about a man in love with an IBM, "Here Is The News" and "21st Century Man". However, a lot of the lyrical references now look dated, and "Time" hasn't aged as gracefully as many of their albums...especially the basic rock 'n' roll of "Hold On Tight" and the Shakin' Stevens homage (!) "The Lights Go Down". Several hits, but only one ("Hold On Tight") reached the top ten...their last single to climb so high.
SECRET MESSAGES - 1983
By now the rot had really set in. Although seemingly an attempt to appear warmer and more human than on "Time", "Secret Messages" is sunk by Lynne's deteriorating songwriting ability, and just like the stickers on the back cover it's just plain old fashioned. It has its brighter moments - the title track, for example, the mellow "Stranger" and "Letter From Spain", but two sides of AOR cliches do not a classic album make, and wheeling out Mik Kaminski for a violin solo on the dire "Rock 'N' Roll Is King", itself a low-quality retread of "Hold On Tight", smacks of desperation. "Warning: contains secret backward messages" states the cover, rather unnecessarily - I can't see "Welcome to the show...and again" causing an outbreak of satan-worshipping among ELO fans. An album I've never warmed to, but inspirational when set against their last gasp.
BALANCE OF POWER - 1986
Despite a change of label to Epic (from "Discovery" onwards all their albums had been released by Jet) and a new lineup, just Lynne, by now playing bass as well as keyboards, guitar and percussion, Bevan and Tandy, this was to be the weakest of the group's eleven albums. The sleeve is equally dismal, horrible, no doubt computer generated, graphics, and on the inner sleeve none of the band are smiling.
Musically they'd declined even further: squealing synths, sax solos and a complete dearth of emotion, if it weren't for Lynne's distinctive vocals it'd be pure MTV fodder. The opener "Heaven Only Knows" is passable, as are "Is It Alright", "Calling America" and "Send It", but, after keeping their fans waiting for three years four average tracks did not a successful comeback album make.
Fortunately ELO quietly dissolved after the release of "Balance Of Power". Since then, Lynne has made a career as a producer, working with Randy Newman, George Harrison, Dion and Tom Petty among others, and is a Travelling Wilbury. He also released a solo album in 1990, "Armchair Theatre", which, despite positive reviews, failed to sell. Despite the presence of several of the musicians mentioned above an ELO album it wasn't. Neither was the album by ELO Part II, a less-than-authentic cashin established by drummer Bev Bevan and three unknowns, who're now milking the nostalgia circuit in some surprisingly large venues. Still, the genuine ELO's music remains as a testament to their greatness. Until they enjoy a reassessment similar to that which their contemporaries Abba have recently deservedly undergone, anyone who enjoys quality pop music owes it to themselves to give The Electric Light Orchestra a listen.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA Live At Winterland 1976 (Eagle)
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA Live At Wembley 1978 (Eagle)
I was cheered to read Jim's ELO reviews a few issues back, as I'd just picked up this pair of CDs showcasing the live Electric Light Orchestra experience just prior to and following the planetary acclaim they won following the release of "A New World Record". The 1976 Winterland show from the "Face The Music" tour captured here is, as the booklet notes, a far cry from the low-key tours they were playing (to an audience of seven on one occasion in Sunderland) just four years earlier. It saw them become the first band to use lasers in a rock show, and for three weeks at least, made them the highest grossing touring act in America.
The music on "Live At Winterland" is, unsurprisingly, drawn predominately from the then current "Face The Music" album - for example the almost Yes-like complexities of the opening instrumental "Fire On High" and the proto-punk thrash of "Poker" - but the highlight of the CD has to be a 15 minute contraction of the classic "Eldorado" album - possibly their most successful and cohesive work on a purely musical level. The low point has to be Jeff Lynne's infuriating between song banter, which you can always fast forward through.
"Live At Wembley", recorded two years later on the "Out Of The Blue" tour, is a much, much bigger deal. The concert preserved here was the first of eight nights they hosted at the Wembley Empire Pool, as it was then known, a Royal Gala performance held in the presence of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and compered by Tony Curtis, who introduces the band as "The most outstanding rock group in the world today". The lasers are joined this time by 'The Spaceship', a fibreglass and aluminium replica of the flying saucer on the cover of "Out Of The Blue", constructed at a cost of £200,000 (in 1978 money!). None of which, of course, figures very prominently on this CD...
The performances here are brief and economical - they rattle through thirteen songs in under an hour - always professional, but, unlike the Winterland gig it sounds as if there's a missing visual element that's intended to complete the experience. Previously the music was everything, and now it sounds almost like a side-show. The recording quality is also inferior to the earlier CD, although certainly better than bootleg and not sufficiently rough to detract from the music. I suppose it's a question of which phase of ELO's career interests you most, but I'd happily snap up both these and any earlier or later concerts that may be in the pipeline, especially a Wembley show from the 1981 "Time" tour, the only occasion I was fortunate enough to see them live.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA Live At The BBC (Eagle)
More interesting archive dredging from Eagle, following their earlier "Live At Wembley" and "Live At Winterland" issues. This double CD contains (hopefully) everything ELO recorded for the BBC, numbering two relatively brief sets recorded in London during 1973 and 1974, and a longer 1976 concert taped in Portsmouth. And although there are moments of almost embarrassing wobbliness (a rather fraught opening version of "From The Sun To The World", during which Jeff Lynne appears to be making the lyrics up as he goes along, Lynne's grating between-song banter, 'Whispering' Bob Harris) this is an always interesting document charting their journey from lengthy prog workouts to sharp four-minute pop songs. There's a degree of repetition between the sets - much of the "On The Third Day" album gets trotted out at least twice - but for anyone as obsessed with the music of ELO as I was as a small child this package (blessed with surprisingly good sound quality, much better than the murk that clouded "Live At Wembley") is a must-have.
ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA Zoom (Epic)
You could have blinked and missed all the press coverage of the return of one of the most enduring British bands of the seventies. In fact I must have, because I did, and would have been blissfully ignorant of this album's existence had Lars not emailed me with news of its release. And although it really is, as the sticker on the case proclaims, the "first all-new ELO album in 15 years", the credits reveal that, name apart, "Zoom" is about as much - or as little - of an Electric Light Orchestra album as Jeff Lynne's 1990 solo debut, "Armchair Theatre", was. Because, apart from a special guest appearance by Richard Tandy on the opening track, the only member of the 21st century model Electric Light Orchestra is Lynne himself, who writes, produces, sings and practically plays the album all on his lonesome, save for a few celebrity cameos, including half The Beatles and Steely Dan protégé Rosie Vela.
So, despite being only technically an ELO album rather than the second Lynne solo project, what does "Zoom" actually sound like? About as old-fashioned as its very 1982 title, I would suggest. Most of the thirteen tracks would snuggle quite comfortably onto the "Secret Messages" album, being riddled with the same air of tired clichés being recycled in lieu of Lynne having anything interesting or original to say. From the string arrangements to the dull thwack of the drum texture Lynne employs, "Zoom" appropriates the sound of classic Electric Light Orchestra without having the strength of melody to carry the whole charade off. Which doesn't prevent "Zoom" from being a mildly enjoyable if slightly embarrassing exercise in nostalgia, and it does have the odd moment of self-effacing humour on its side, for example when Lynne says (to himself) ahead of the guitar solo on "Easy Money", "Take it, Jeff!". But aside from that "Zoom" almost deserves the collective yawn it seems to have been greeted with by press and public alike, because there really isn't a word or note here that you haven't heard many, many times before.