March Through Time: Electric Light Orchestra

This month, I’m hitting pause on coverage of new artists and releases, focusing instead for a bit on the bodies of work from some of my favorite artists. — bk

I’ll always have a special place in my heart (and record collection) for Electric Light Orchestra. The first rock concert I ever attended was one of their shows, October 1978, on the “hamburger bun” tour. (You’d know what I mean if you’ve seem photos of the stage setup.) Even then they were considered unhip by many, though I loved ‘em. The big got really big when – in my view – Jeff Lynne jettisoned the characteristics that made ELO interesting. Alas, perhaps in a tacit acknowledgment of that, when Lynne revived the ELO moniker in the 21st century, he re-instituted many of those qualities. But by then – good as the new music could be – it was largely nostalgia. I’m restricting my coverage here to the group’s initial run of albums.

  • The Electric Light Orchestra aka No Answer (1971) – Quite an experimental album; a transitional work, really. Featuring co-founder Roy Wood, it’s a fascinating project. That doesn’t mean it’s full of snappy, catchy tunes; it is not. “10538 Overture” is great, but some of the rest is tough sledding.

  • ELO 2 (1973) – Counter-intutively, when Wood left (to embark upon a wonderful if deeply idiosyncratic career on his own and with Wizzard), ELO seemed to find its footing. Perhaps the most “progressive” of all the band’s albums, with but five lengthy songs, it’s supremely well done. The Chuck Berry cover is beyond inspired.

  • On the Third Day (1973) – The band’s lineup stabilized around this point, too, and Lynne’s knack for writing songs that were both ear-candy catchy and rocking found full flower. An overlooked gem.

  • Eldorado (1974) – ELO was rarely progressive in the conventional sense, and concept albums weren’t really their thing, either. That said, this record has elements of both, with really good songs to boot. You’ll know several of the songs, but the ones you don’t know are nearly as good. Essential.

  • Face the Music (1975) – The group was on a tear by this point. Face the Music is better-sounding than its predecessors (bigger budget?) and the songs are really good, too. The instrumental “Fire on High” hints at a direction ELO could have pursued, but – alas – did not.

  • A New World Record (1976) – The band’s high water mark. Top-notch production, songwriting, production, album packaging, you name it. Every positive quality of the group’s character is at its apotheosis.

  • Out of the Blue (1977) – Another blockbuster, overstuffed with hits. A double album, with the benefit of hindsight it does feel a bit bloated, and hints at going through the motions. Still essential for fans.

  • Discovery (1979) – Many longtime fans despised this record on its release, calling it Verydisco. Lynne dismissed the cellists and violinist, making ELO a conventional four-man group. Bev Bevan’s drumming quickly became a parody of itself, and the group started to sound like a wind-up toy. Some good songs, but a good bit of filler as well. Inevitably, greater success was the result.

  • Xanadu (1980) (with Olivia Newton-John) – Flashes of the old ELO, but more of the same, and only half of the LP is ELO. Side note: why wasn’t The Tubes’ track included?)

  • Time (1981) – In some ways, a slight return to form, with better songwriting. But more Tinkertoy production, and a loss of the orchestral vibe. And more hits.

  • Secret Messages (1983) – It was shocking how quickly ELO seemed to fall out of favor with the general public. Other than the gruesome “oldies” style retread “Rock and Roll is King,” no hits.

  • Balance of Power (1986) – Perhaps this was an attempt to course-correct. Down to a trio, this outfit has none of the qualities that made the early records special. It also had no hits. Not awful in any way, it’s merely irrelevant.