My Playlist: Electric Light Orchestra

If somebody asked me what I thought about the music by Electric Light Orchestra, I’d say ‘weirdly catchy.’ This may not sound exactly positive, but I’ve actually enjoyed their songs for more than four decades. To me, especially during their early stage, ELO oftentimes feel like a combination of The Beatles with a wall of sound on steroids, featuring classical music and other heavy arrangements. While I generally find big production can be a mixed bag, when it comes to ELO, their brilliant execution won me over a long time ago. Plus, in my book it’s pretty cool when a band manages to develop a sound that’s instantly recognizable and different from pretty much any other group on the planet.

Before getting to some music, I’d like to provide a little bit of background. ELO got their start in 1970 in Birmingham, England, when songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood got together with drummer Bev Bevan as an offshoot of The Move. Lynne was excited about Wood’s concept to create a group to “pick up where The Beatles left off” by combining rock with classical instruments like violins, string basses and woodwinds. In June 1970, the vision came into focus with 10538 Overture, ELO’s first tune and debut single. This was followed by the band’s first UK studio album The Electric Light Orchestra, which came out in December 1971. In the U.S., it was titled No Answer and released in March 1972.

ELO (from left): Roy Wood, Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne

After Wood’s departure in July 1972, Lynne became ELO’s sole leader. In March 1973, the band’s sophomore album ELO 2 appeared in the UK (called Electric Light Orchestra II in the U.S.). Ten additional albums followed until the summer of 1986 when Lynne disbanded ELO, though no formal announcement was made at the time. In 1989, Bevan with Lynne’s blessing picked up the pieces and went on as ELO Part II. Bevan left in 1999, and the remaining members of the band continued under the new name The Orchestra, a formation that exists to this day.

In 2001, Lynne reformed ELO and, mostly relying on guest musicians who included George Harrison and Ringo Starr, released the new album Zoom in June that year. The next 13 years saw reissues of ELO’s back catalog and various mini reunions, which included an appearance as Jeff Lynne and Friends at the Children in Need Rocks concert in London in November 2013. The success of that performance led to a gig at BBC Radio 2’s Festival in a Day at London’s Hyde Park in September 2014 as Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Tickets sold out in 15 minutes after BBC Radio 2 had announced the show.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO have since issued two studio albums and conducted various tours. The supporting tour for the most recent album From Out of Nowhere, which had been scheduled to start in October 2020, was canceled due to COVID-19. Currently, there appears to be no word on when Lynne and his band are planning to hit the road again. Time for some music!

Let’s start where it all began. Here’s 10538 Overture, ELO’s first single from June 1972. Written by Lynne, it was also included on their debut album The Electric Light Orchestra (No Answer).

Many artists have covered Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven. None of these versions come anywhere close to ELO’s cover, which blends elements of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with Berry’s classic rock & roll tune. It’s completely over the top and it’s just brilliant! I was going to include a clip of the original studio recording from ELO’s sophomore album ELO 2 (Electric Light Orchestra II). Then I remembered Lynne’s performance at the 2017 Rock and Hall of Fame induction and thought it’s just too much fun to ignore. Come on, Beethoven, let’s tell Tchaikovsky the news!

In November 1973, ELO released their third studio album On the Third Day. Here’s kickass rocker Ma-Ma-Ma Belle, featuring Marc Bolan on twin lead guitar – my-my-my! Unlike 10538 Overture and Roll Over Beethoven, which peaked at no. 9 and no. 6 in the UK, respectively, ELO’s third single only made it to No. 22. In the U.S., the first top 10 chart success on the Billboard Hot 100 would come with the next tune.

Can’t Get It Out of My Head was the lead single of ELO’s fourth studio album Eldorado from September 1974. It became the band’s first U.S. hit, climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. Apparently, folks were less fond of the ballad in the UK where it failed to chart altogether.

Starting with their fifth studio album Face the Music, ELO began moving away from large-scale orchestral sound to embrace a more radio friendly pop rock style. It paid off and resulted in a series of well-selling albums. Here’s Mr. Blue Sky from Out of the Blue, ELO’s seventh studio release from October 1977. The double LP became one of their most commercially successful records.

ELO first entered my radar screen with Discovery, their eighth studio album that came out in May 1979 when the disco era was in full swing. I got it on vinyl at the time and still own that copy. The record generated five singles that became hits in numerous countries. The most successful one was Don’t Bring Me Down. The track I’d like to feature is Last Train to London, which was included in a playlist served up earlier today by my streaming music provider. It also triggered the idea for finally doing a dedicated post about ELO.

Ticket to the Moon appeared on ELO’s ninth studio album Time from July 1981. It also was released separately as a single in December.

I’d also like to acknowledge some of ELO’s music after Lynne revived the band. Here’s Alright, the opener to the above mentioned Zoom from June 2001, the first official ELO album since Balance of Power, which had come out in February 1986, five months before Lynne had quietly disbanded ELO.

Let’s do two more. First up: When I Was a Boy, the opening track from Alone in the Universe released in November 2015, the first album appearing as Jeff Lynne’s ELO. The 13th studio album overall in the band’s catalog was well received and peaked at an impressive no. 4 on the Official Albums Chart in the UK where it also scored Platinum certification. In the U.S., Alone in the Universe climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums chart.

From Out of Nowhere, which appeared in November 2019, is the most recent studio album by Jeff Lynne’s ELO. Here’s Down Came the Rain featuring nice Beatle-esque harmony vocals. Like on the predecessor, Lynne played most of the instruments and sang all lead and backing vocals.

During their original 13-year recording period, ELO sold more than 50 million records worldwide. Between 1972 and 1986, they scored 27 top 40 tunes on the UK Official Singles Chart and 15 top 20 hits in the U.S. on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Wikipedia, ELO also hold the distinction for being the only band with the most Billboard Hot 100 top 40 hits (20) in U.S. chart history without having had a no. 1 single – who is tracking this kind of stuff? Last but not least, ELO (Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube

On This Day in Rock & Roll History: December 30

Before this year and decade are finally over, I thought why not throw in another installment of this recurring feature. For first-time visitors, the idea of these posts is simple: Look what happened on a specific date in rock throughout the decades. Admittedly, it’s a rather arbitrary way to cover music history. Moreover, these posts reflect events I find interesting and are not supposed to be comprehensive summaries. Usually, the selections are heavily focused on the ’60s and ’70s, which generally are my favorite music decades. This time, I’m also throwing in two birthdays. With that being said, let’s get to it!

1928: Ellas McDaniel (born Ellas Otha Bates), the American artist who became known as Bo Diddley, was born in the tiny city of McComb, Miss. When he was six years old, the McDaniel family who had adopted him from his mother, moved to Chicago, where the boy studied the trombone and the violin before taking up the guitar. Initially, he played on street corners with friends. By 1951, he had secured a regular gig at Chicago South Side’s 708 Club. In April 1955, then already known as Bo Diddley, he released his namesake tune featuring his signature Bo Diddley beat. Diddley, who passed away on June 2, 2008, influenced many artists, such as early rock & rollers Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, as well as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Here’s Bo Diddley, his only tune to top the Billboard Hot R&B chart.

1947: Jeffrey (Jeff) Lynne was born in the Birmingham suburb of Erdington, England. Jeff got his first (acoustic) guitar as a child from his father Philip Lynne. In 1963, he formed his first band, The Rockin’ Hellcats – that’s when bands still had fun names! Three years later, Jeff joined Birmingham rock group The Idle Race as lead guitarist, keyboarder and vocalist, and played on their first two albums. While the band developed a cult following, it did not achieve commercial success. In 1970, Lynne’s friend Roy Wood invited him to join The Move, the band that eventually morphed into Electric Light Orchestra. After a successful run that lasted 11 albums and 15 years, ELO disbanded in 1986. In 2000, Lynne revived ELO, but until 2013, they mostly released re-issues and played occasional mini-reunions. Since 2014, the band essentially has been a Jeff Lynne project billed as Jeff Lynne’s ELO and released two albums. Lynne also was a co-founder of Traveling Wilburys. In addition to producing for “his” bands, Lynne produced for many other artists, such as Dave Edmunds, Tom Petty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Joe Walsh. Here’s Livin’ Thing from ELO’s sixth studio album A New World Record, released in July 1976. Like most ELO tunes, the song was written by Lynne who turned 72 years today. Happy birthday!

1967: For the 15th time, The Beatles stood at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, this time with Hello, Goodbye. Written by Paul McCartney, the tune was released as a non-album single in November 1967, backed by I’m The Walrus. According to Songfacts, John Lennon wasn’t fond of the tune, calling it “three minutes of contradictions and meaningless juxtapositions.” Apparently, he was also mad that his song I’m The Walrus was relegated to the B-side. While Hello, Goodbye has nice harmony singing and a cool bassline, I have to say I’m with Lennon here. The lyrics are silly and the much stronger I’m The Walrus would have deserved to be an A-side release.

1973: Jim Croce topped the Billboard Hot 100 with Time In A Bottle, his second and last no. 1 hit. Sadly, he didn’t get a chance to witness this milestone. On September 20, 1973, Croce was killed in a plane crash during a tour while taking off from Natchitoches, La.  He was en route to Sherman, Texas for his next scheduled gig at Austin College. All of the other five people who were on board of the chartered Beechcraft E18S died as well. Time In A Bottle was the third single off Croce’s third studio album You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, which had come out in April 1972. The poetic love song is a timeless gem!

1974: Bob Dylan recorded the take of Tangled Up In Blue that ended up on his 1975 album Blood On The Tracks while visiting his brother David for the holidays in Minnesota. Written in the summer of 1974, the tune deals with personal matters Dylan was going through at the time, including his failing marriage to his first wife Sara Dylan (born Shirley Marlin Noznisky). Dylan had first recorded the song with producer Phil Ramone in New York but not released it. During the session that generated the album version, Dylan asked Kevin Odegard, a local singer and guitarist who had been brought in to support the recording, what he thought about the song. Odegard suggested changing the key from G and A. Dylan gave it a try and apparently was satisfied with the outcome. Odegard never received any credit on the record but graciously said the experience was instrumental in launching his own successful music career.

Sources: Wikipedia; This Day In Music; Songfacts; This Day In Rock; YouTube