Life at 33 1/3: ELO: Close to perfection

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Electric Light Orchestra: A New World Record (Jet)

I was an Electric Light Orchestra follower from the moment I read about the project.  After all, they were The Move in disguise, and I loved The Move.  There’s no denying that I struggled with the first ELO- album.  The music sounded unstructured and weird, and to my surprise this was particulary due to Roy Wood.  Jeff Lynne was responsible for the album’s more accessible moments, including the  hit single with the enigmatic title “10538 Overture”.  I was in for another shock as Wood suddenly left the band, taking some key players with him, and formed Wizzard.

Wizzard got off to a flying start with a stack of brilliant hit singles that stuffed 50’s rock’n’roll, 60’s pop, 70’s glam, blasting woodwind and see-sawing cellos into a Spectorian “wall of sound”, topping it all with sing-along-choruses that even a goldfish could hum.

(L-R) Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan are flashed by the scribe in 1982.

Jeff Lynne struggled on with the residual ELO-members, adding some new names to the line-up.  “ELO 2” was certainly more striking than the debut, but most of it sounded hesitant and lacked direction.  The fun, but very obvious cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (incorporating the famous riff from Beethoven’s 5th symphony) saved the day, providing the band with a sorely needed hit single.

The struggle continued with “On The Third Day,” still out of focus, the bait this time being a not very exciting rock’n’roll pastiche, “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”.  They could do better.  And they did as Lynne wrote “Showdown” during the sessions (the track was included on the US version of the album), and with this recording everything finally fell into place.  The strings, the Beatles references, the soaring chorus, the suggestive undercurrents of the rhythm section, the ingredients were masterly combined into a unique piece of music that was definitely Jeff Lynne’s work.  At last he saw the light and the future of ELO.

In September 1974 the real Electric Light Orchestra, as we know them, introduced themselves to the world with the album “Eldorado”.  The perfect combination of prog rock, symphonic rock and unveiled pop, led by the wonderful Lennon-pastiche “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.”  The sequel, “Face The Music” (recorded in Munich), caught the disco trend, but without sounding neither as a genuflection nor a compromise.  Lynne’s endowment is his ability to experiment and absorb, without losing sight of the original plan.  “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic”, both massive hit singles, are unmistakable, timeless ELO, and yet back in 1975 they were perceived as 100% contemporary.

And so we arrive at “A New World Record”, the album that turned ELO into international superstars, even back home in recalcitrant UK.  I couldn’t wait for its release, my expectations were sky high.  And when it arrived, wow what a nice sleeve!  The stylish and colourful ELO-logo made its debut, hovering under a glossy night sky.  The moment you saw that sleeve you instantly knew that the music would be sensational.

And yes, the first encounter was overwhelming, intoxicating, almost Beatles-like.  Everything is right in your ear, shamefully catchy, but simultaneously the arrangements offers such a resistance that you’re not done with the songs after the first couple of sittings, it’s an album to explore.

The prog- and sympho elements are essential to the overall experience.  The string arrangements have a certain oriental sway to them that the Beatles and especially John Lennon loved, the choral arrangements (the finale of “Shangri-La” touches classic opera) are extremely powerful, the  operatic details in “Rockaria!” lifts the song from good to gorgeous.  There’s the sleepy Lynne vocals enclosed by Beatle like harmony voices.  The rasping riffs and colossal punch of electric guitars make sure the music never loses contact with its rock’n’roll roots.  The soundscape is huge, there’s lots of everything.  It was the most powerful pop music money could buy in 1976.

There were of course hit singles: “Telephone Line,” “Rockaria!”, “Living Thing” and an over the top heavy rocking version of The Move classic “Do Ya”.  Actually, the album was brim full with great ideas and phenomenal solutions to them.  Every track could have been a hit single.  And even so you could not accuse ELO of selling their souls to the devil.  It takes a musical genius to get away with songs that are so overtly catchy.  But Lynne and the band did, God bless ‘em.

To me, “A New World Record” is the definitive ELO album.  The sequel, “Out Of The Blue,” is at its best just as good, but even then it can’t escape the fact that it never reaches above “more of the same”, bordering on overdose.  Lynne’s problem was that the group had fulfilled its potential and achieved perfection.  There weren’t many places left to go after this, as the subsequent albums proved.  However, to be fair, none of these later records were at all bad.  Lynne’s quality as a songwriter is indisputable.

I saw Wizzard live in Oslo in 1973, and my ears were bleeding.  Five years later I finally got to see ELO.  It was a little boring.  My glorious The Move-moment didn’t happen until 1982, in Birmingham.  I had time to kill before my train left for London.  So I entered a pub not far from the station.  I couldn’t believe my luck, because there, at the counter, stood three recognisable guys involved in a pleasant conversation: Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan, all wearing sunglasses.  They didn’t mind me interfering, and grouped up for a photo. Not being too familiar with the flash (I had borrowed it from a college who forgot to give me instructions), I gave them a blast they probably still remember. “Jesus!” cried Roy Wood, his hair and beard on the brink of catching fire.  I was so embarrassed I didn’t dare to ask neither for another shot nor their autographs.  I just wanted to die.

Back home in Norway I got the photo developed.  The only part exposed correctly was Bev Bevans eyes.  Probably because his glasses were the darkest.  I bet the bartender already was on the phone to the fire brigade.

Released: September 11, 1976

Produced by: Jeff Lynne

(All songs written by Jeff Lynne)

Contents: Tightrope/Telephone Line/Rockaria!/Mission (A World Record)/So Fine/Livin’ Thing/the Clouds /Do Ya/Shangri-La

Personnel:

Jeff Lynne – vocals, lead, rhythm and slide guitars, percussion, Wurlitzer electric piano, Minimoog, acoustic guitar, twelve-string acoustic guitar

Bev Bevan – drums, Minimoog drum, percussion, timpani, gong, backing vocals

Richard Tandy – piano, Minimoog, Micromoog, electric guitars, clavinet, Concert Spectrum strings, Mellotron, Wurlitzer electric piano, percussion, vocals

Kelly Groucutt – vocals, bass guitar, percussion, backing vocals

Mik Kaminski – violin

Hugh McDowell – cello

Melvyn Gale – cello

Additional Personnel:

Mary Thomas – operatic vocals

Patti Quatro – uncredited vocals

Brie Brandt – uncredited vocals

Addie Lee – uncredited vocals

Orchestra and choral arrangements – Jeff Lynne, Richard Tandy, Louis Clark

Orchestra conducted by Louis Clark