In defence of the Electric Light Orchestra
When Alan Partridge introduced the subject of this piece with the grand enunciation of “Pray silence for the Electric Light Orchestra”, it, as expected, elicited plenty of laughter. But for some of us it was a perfectly reasonable request, to be taken rather seriously. In the pantheon of Big Brummie Bands, ELO, ahem, shine brightly and while the recent reformation (of sorts) lead to a critical revision of their worth, they are still underrated as far as I am concerned. I love ELO.
Nothing says the 70s more than Jeff Lynn’s look. That mop of brown hair, complete with beard framing a face with eyes hiding behind sunburst shades, almost like a disguise hiding a modest man with huge talent. That look, like a shy Gerry Rafferty or Lindsey Buckingham’s twin brother, has prevailed into the new Millennium, where even Brian May has ditched the dye, but for Jeff there is no makeover. Good for him. And it was the 70s where the band he led, following the departure of Roy Wood, became enormous across the planet.
The unique idea of coupling instruments more often seen in a classical setting with rock and roll doesn’t immediately sound like a recipe for success, but throw in a brilliant song writing talent and the public’s taste for colour and something different in the dark days of industrial and political unrest and you see why The Electric Light Orchestra bestrode the planet. They were never easy to pigeon hole, neither heavy rock or out and out prog, and as far from punk as you could imagine. They didn’t fit in anywhere particularly easily and the usual anti-Brum sneering led to an image of a rather naff band built on a “gimmick” and lead by a Beatles wannabe. It’s a good job the critic’s opinions are never reflected in record sales.
When Wood jumped ship to form Wizzard it was thought that the innovative and inventive talent went with him, but while he found further success away from ELO, it was the band he left that would overshadow their former leader. The nucleus of Lynne, and fellow Brummies Bev Bevan, Richard Tandy, augmented by Coseley’s Kelly Grocutt saw the early success of hits “Showdown” and a version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven”, followed up with ever greater success culminating in the double album “Out Of The Blue”. Arguably their career highlight, it was packed with hits, contained what pretty much came to be their signature tune in “Mr Blue Sky” and most thrillingly had a song that referenced Birmingham in its title, a rarity it has to be said.
And one glance at the lyrics will tell that Birmingham Blues is a paean to homesickness rather than any football team. Out Of The Blue spawned numerous hit singles, including my personal favourite “Wild West Hero”, which contained those classic hallmarks of the band: lush harmonies, sweet pop melodies, wistful, longing lyrics, Bevan’s cavernous but still subtle drums and a bostin’ tune.
By late 1977, ELO were superstars, and in true 70s style were never knowingly understated, particularly on stage where they appeared to arrive in a space ship, another instantly recognisable trademark.
In terms of hits, the follow up to Out Of The Blue, Discovery, was an even bigger success featuring no less than five hit singles. Then came the soundtrack to Xanadu where Olivia Newton John was the latest in a long line of beautiful women to fall for Brummie charm before what’s recognised as the last album featuring the classic line up, “Secret Messages” was released in 1986, complete with added 80’s sheen that can be heard in the final hit “Calling America”.
Lynn disbanded ELO and became a renowned producer, member of super group The Traveling Wilburys and resisted all calls to reform his original band. Bev Bevan, amongst other former members featured in an offshoot – ELO 2 – while Lynn and Tandy finally reformed Jeff Lynne’s ELO via Radio 2 and support from Chris Evans which finally gained the band the recognition they deserved. The space ship was dusted down, Wembley Stadium sold out and even new material released but, for me at least, nothing will top that golden time between the early 70s and early 80s for the Electric Light Orchestra. Unmistakably Brummie, unrelentingly brilliant and to this day still somewhat underrated. If you hear “Pray Silence for The Electric Light Orchestra”, do yourself a favour – keep your gob shut and listen.