The Essential Electric Light Orchestra: The Not So Perfect Twenty

In celebration of Jeff Lynne and ELO: a super sized Not So Perfect Ten

What a difference three years makes. Especially if your name is Jeff Lynne (and you realise how popular you are with your audience after a lengthy hiatus). In the last three weeks I have become the proud owner of his latest work, Alone In The Universe. A somewhat ironic title given NASA’s news of life on other planets, and possible Earth like bodies in the cosmos.

In the last two months we have had a backlog of Not So Perfect Tens, hence this double helping. With my recent acquisition, and Jeff Lynne’s birthday being today, a chance to make ELO this month’s subject.

Here’s our countdown. Please note that album titles are depicted in italic type.

  1. Prologue/Twilight (Time, 1981);
  2. Standing in the Rain (Out of the Blue, 1977);
  3. 10538 Overture (The Electric Light Orchestra, 1972);
  4. Calling America (Balance of Power, 1986);
  5. The Diary of Horace Wimp (Discovery, 1979);
  6. Showdown (On The Third Day, 1973);
  7. All Over The World (Xanadu official soundtrack album, 1980);
  8. Rockaria (A New World Record, 1976);
  9. Wild West Hero (Out of the Blue, 1977);
  10. Don’t Bring Me Down (Discovery, 1979);
  11. Secret Messages (Secret Messages, 1983);
  12. Hold on Tight (Time, 1981);
  13. Strange Magic (Face The Music, 1975);
  14. Livin’ Thing (A New World Record, 1976);
  15. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (Eldorado, 1974);
  16. Shine a Little Love (Discovery, 1979);
  17. Daybreaker (On The Third Day, 1973);
  18. One Step At A Time (Alone in the Universe, 2015);
  19. Mr Blue Sky (Out of the Blue, 1977);
  20. Roll Over Beethoven (ELO 2, 1973).

1. Prologue/Twilight (Time, 1981)

ELO’s 1981 album was based around the concept of time travel. In the album, it was claimed that 21st Century Man was a tribute to John Lennon. Whereas string instruments was ELO’s forte from the off, they dispensed with the cellos and violins in favour of synthesizers. In spite of this, it topped the album charts later on in ’81 (before losing that spot to K-Tel’s Chart Hits ’81 compilation).

The real cherry on the Bakewell Tart in this superb album was the second song Twilight. It was a statement of intent by Messrs Lynne, Groucutt, Bevan and Tandy that synths were more than a passing fad. Twilight is best enjoyed with the Prologue, a vocoded section which segues into Twilight. Typical of progressive rock concept albums, each track segued after another, with the album demanding your full attention.

2. Standing in the Rain (Out of the Blue, 1977)

Used as the opening song at ELO’s Wembley Arena gig in 1978 (where the 65 feet spaceship made its debut), Standing in the Rain is one quarter of Concerto For A Rainy Day, which takes up the whole of side three of their 1977 double album. I would say it is the best part of their seminal work, with Standing in the Rain making great use of the strings and Kelly Groucutt’s vocals.

Though one of the shortest tracks it neatly segues into Big Wheels which is the quieter piece of the concerto.

3. 10538 Overture (The Electric Light Orchestra, 1972)

The Great British record buying public may have wondered what hit them when a head rush of violins, double basses and cello marked the début of what was Roy Wood’s studio project. On their self titled debut album, this was seen as following on from where The Beatles left off.

Most strident alongside the string backing is Roy Wood’s vocals, whom for the first two albums was lead vocalist and songwriter. 10538 Overture was written by Jeff Lynne. It was originally going to be a track for The Move, hitherto the group of Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan (who returned in later line ups of The Move).

4. Calling America (Balance of Power, 1986)

1986 wasn’t a happy time for ELO. In March of that year, they were a trio (Lynne, Bevan, Tandy) after Groucutt sued for back pay. By the end of ’86 the group was no more; Lynne would form The Travelling Wilburys with Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison. Some former ELO members formed ELO Part II.

Even so, Balance of Power was a competent album by any stretch, though insipid for ELO standards. The stand out track was Calling America, which also did pretty well as a chart single. It is a synth heavy piece with a healthy amount of gear changing and vocoded effects.

5. The Diary of Horace Wimp (Discovery, 1979)

Of all tracks, The Diary of Horace Wimp first endeared me to ELO. For me, it was the lyric structure and the story telling approach which Jeff Lynne majors in by the truckload. Also the vocoded effects with a healthy dose of strings. For the uninitiated, it is the Solomon Grundy approach to dating and marriage: true love found in a matter of days. Instead of dying on Sunday, Horace and his suitor find true love by then.

Though on the opposite side of the LP, it goes well with Last Train to London. Which, in the Mike Mansfield produced video version of the Discovery album (available on DVD, though at one time on VHS, Betamax and Laserdisc), sees the wedded couple give way to a set of railway lines.

Mr. Mansfield’s video is surpassed only by this work from DallArt: Origins (seen below). This is used as part of the visual effects for The ELO Experience’s gigs. (Which if you love your tribute bands, are the best ELO tribute act I have had the joy of seeing).

6. Showdown (On The Third Day, 1973)

John Lennon loved this song. Showdown, third track in on On The Third Day, has the hallmarks of a classic Lynne composition. A story, a healthy dose of strings, and some good bombastic guitar work.

It is a piece which is equally at home on a decent music centre, as well as live. Not only in the theatres, but also in stadia and open air venues.

7. All Over The World (Xanadu official soundtrack album, 1980)

Yes, we all know Xanadu the film is seen as an absolute turkey, but we are not here to discuss the film. The soundtrack album in its Art Deco style sleeve was a joy to behold; one side ELO; then the other side featuring Cliff Richard, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and… The Tubes (yes, Fee Waybill’s group).

All Over The World is a good uplifting number which, in the order of the soundtrack album, is the penultimate track after Don’t Walk Away. All the usual ELO hallmarks, with some great vocal work from Messrs Lynne and Groucutt. Not too demanding, nor does it overwhelm the next track, which is the title track.

8. Rockaria (A New World Record, 1976)

A nod to the Roy Wood era ELO is inherent in this piece. You could say it is a response to Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven. Hence the lyrics, “she’s keen on Wagner/I thought she die for Beethoven…” Their 1976 release is a bridge between pre-Groucutt and Groucutt/Lynne era of ELO, and it works so well.

From A New World Record onwards, we saw the Electric Light Orchestra go from being a cult following towards the musical stratosphere. Yet they say 1976 was about punk music. Forgotten in the annals of music history was the rise in popularity of art-rock groups like ELO and Supertramp – alongside punk and new wave, and ABBA.

9. Wild West Hero (Out of the Blue, 1977)

No Electric Light Orchestra aficionado should be without Out of the Blue, their magnum opus. For this week’s Not So Perfect Ten Double Edition, I could have just listed that album in full, but I didn’t. Wild West Hero closes the album in great style, with Lynne’s yearning as a Wild West Hero – perhaps as an antidote to the Birmingham Blues beforehand (now, what if John Wayne ever caught the 11 Inner Circle bus?).

Why does Wild West Hero kick serious butt? Firstly, the narrative. Secondly, the guitar breaks between versions. Thirdly, the singalong chorus – very much in the mould of The Wonder of You by The King of Rock and Roll.

10. Don’t Bring Me Down (Discovery, 1979)

Continuing the thread of closing album tracks, the relative peace after Last Train To London is disrupted by the bombastic Don’t Bring Me Down. It is the heaviest tune on the LP and – before the release of Xanadu – their highest charting single in the UK, peaking at Number Three. It has also been covered by a number of groups and was their greatest smash on the US Billboard charts.

The end of the song leaves the listener wanting more. Its drum section is actually a tape loop sampled from fellow album track On The Run. Revolutionary, was the lack of a string section. Don’t Bring Me Down was the first track ELO song to dispense with the strings.

11. Secret Messages (Secret Messages, 1983)

One of the great tragedies of ELO’s 1983 album, was how Secret Messages was only released as a single LP. Jeff Lynne insisted on it being a double LP but record company bungling put paid to this. Instead, Secret Messages was a modest success with the album reaching the Top Ten of the UK album charts (peaking at Number Four).

The title track was memorable for its video, with the album version preferable to the 7″ single (due to the intro which is cut off in the latter). For the single, the promo video was set at Jodrell Bank, Chelford. Disappointingly, Secret Messages peaked at #48 in the UK singles chart, though fared better in the Republic of Ireland (peaking at number fourteen).

12. Hold on Tight (Time, 1981)

As a marked contrast to most of the tracks on Time, Hold on Tight has rock ‘n’ roll leanings. It was quite a big hit in mainland Europe, hitting the top spot of the Swiss and Spanish singles charts. In the UK, it peaked at number four.

For me, it is the hook and rock ‘n’ roll style which makes for a good singalong tune. It is a most earworm-tastic number, one that baffles the untrained ear into thinking it is more like Del Shannon than ELO.

13. Strange Magic (Face The Music, 1975)

On Face The Music, this is a good easy listening number. A good Sunday morning tune. It is a huge contrast from the previous track, Poker, which is hailed by some commentators as a proto-punk tune.

Strange Magic could be used to affectionately describe anyone with weird genius. A song dedicated to the builders and dreamers. Jeff Lynne’s genius sees the tune presented as a ballad. What also draws the listener is the teasing string heavy hook.

14. Livin’ Thing (A New World Record, 1976)

Ennio Morricone style strings at the start, thudding percussion and some good vocal action from Messrs Lynne and Groucutt: what is there not to like? This is a tune for singing in the shower or turning up to a good volume in the car.

Among many fans, it is a popular number, one chosen near the end at any ELO tribute act gigs. Before the release of Out of the Blue in 1977, this was their biggest smash hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

15. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (Eldorado, 1974)

Marking a real break with the Roy Wood era of ELO, their 1974 album Eldorado was very loosely based on The Wizard of Oz and similar fairy tales. The back story to their first concept album was written before any of the songs. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head has good orchestral leanings, reflected by the hiring of Louis Clark (of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Hooked on Classics fame).

The version on Eldorado has extra twiddly bits on the 7″, which charted in the US, yet didn’t in the United Kingdom (on original release). In the UK, it peaked at number 34 as part of The ELO EP in 1978. Other tracks on that release were Ma-Ma-Ma Belle, Strange Magic and Evil Woman.

16. Shine a Little Love (Discovery, 1979)

On the Legacy CD version of Discovery, the inlay notes regard the first track from this album as ELO’s take on disco. The same is also true with Last Train to London, first track on the second side of the LP.

For me, Shine a Little Love starts the album off very well with its brooding intro. Then we’re in disco territory, enhanced by Jeff Lynne’s story telling and vocal dialogue between Jeff and Kelly. With disco leanings and ample strings, very much an ELO product of the highest marque.

17. Daybreaker (On The Third Day, 1973)

An underrated piece of Electric Light Orchestra and a rare beast – an entirely instrumental tune! Daybreaker appeared on their 1973 album, On The Third Day and their 1974 live album The Night The Light Went Down on Long Beach. For me, it is the Minimoog work by Richard Tandy that sets the tone for this piece along with the multi tracked violins.

The piece was written to celebrate Birmingham Town Hall’s progress as a live performance venue. Opening in 1832 for its original use, it became a concert hall from 1870 onwards. By the 1960s and 1970s, it played host to a number of pop and rock group – Electric Light Orchestra among them all.

18. One Step At A Time (Alone in the Universe, 2015)

Following his successful performance at Hyde Park in 2014, and the release of his solo LP Long Wave in 2012, Alone in the Universe was met with great acclaim. A hidden gem on this is One Step At A Time. Though pretty much at home in 2015, it would have fitted well on any of ELO’s late-1970s to mid-1980s works.

Alone in the Universe is a more stripped down work in comparison with previous releases. It is also the first ELO album to have been recorded at Jeff Lynne’s home studio, 2001 – 2012 Bungalow Palace. One Step At A Time happily placates ELO fanatics au fait with Discovery or Time. For the untrained ear, you could be forgiven for thinking “this is a lost B-side” or what could have been on a double LP version of Secret Messages.

19. Mr Blue Sky (Out of the Blue, 1977)

No round up of ELO’s back catalogue is complete without the fourth and final movement of Concerto For A Rainy Day. Even music lovers with Key Stage 1 levels of musical knowledge would associate ELO with Mr Blue Sky. Within its five minutes we hear more of Kelly Groucutt’s vocals with Jeff Lynne taking a more secondary role.

It is instantly hummable and turns the grey sky to blue skies in your disposition. In terms of airplay, hugely successful and used on many TV programmes as incidental music or for programme trailers. One use being at the beginning of Canned Laughter (LWT, 1979) where Rowan Atkinson plays Robert Box, a prototype Mr Bean.

What else do we love about Mr Blue Sky? A healthy dose of vocoder effects and choral arrangement and, the Sparky’s Magic Piano style ending. The ending which says, “please turn me over.” Which in the case of Out of the Blue meant over to side four for Sweet Is The Night. Or the B side for One Summer Dream (final track from their 1975 album Face The Music).

20. Roll Over Beethoven (ELO 2, 1973)

For our final one is another rare beast: a cover version by ELO. Roll Over Beethoven was originally by Chuck Berry, a tune which, by the time you have read this article, will be celebrating its 60th birthday. It name checks three songs – the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle; Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes (covered by Elvis Presley and The Toy Dolls (!)) and Early in the Mornin’ by Louie Jordan.

The Beatles’ cover of Roll Over Beethoven was recorded in late 1963. Ten years later came ELO’s version – which in my opinion is the greatest cover of Chuck Berry’s tune, bar none. What makes ELO’s version so special is the violins arrangement; also the guitar work; and the hook of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. For several years, it was a favourite piece in their live shows, often as the first of a two song encore.

*                   *                  *

Can’t get enough ELO?

It was quite a feat to distill our favourite Electric Light Orchestra numbers down to 20, let alone 10. If there’s any we’ve missed out, feel free to comment. Or elaborate on the 20 we have suggested. I have been a fan of the Electric Light Orchestra’s work for over 25 years now and – as I have also said on the Interests page on StuartVallantine.co.ukOut Of The Blue is the album to go for. Discovery‘s another good album; Time is fantastic; A New World Record is sensational – and a good second album to go for after Out of the Blue.

As for the new stuff, Alone in the Universe is worth downloading or purchasing in physical forms. We are also looking forward to their live tour which opens at Liverpool Echo Arena on the 05 April 2016. If you’re lucky, there might even be a review on East of the M60.

With this being the final East of the M60 blog post of 2015, we would like to wish our readers a Happy New Year. 2016’s first post is likely to be January’s instalment of The Ashton Review of Shops.

S.V., 30 December 2015.

(Also, Happy Birthday to Jeff Lynne, 67 today).

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