Take Five: Songs on the Road to ELO

Electric Light Orchestra’s third studio album, On the Third Day was released in the U.S. just over a half century ago: on December 14, 1973. Featuring two minor U.S. hit singles (“Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle”) It would be the last of the group’s album’s to “bubble under,” as ELO found major and growing success with each of its albums to follow.

The story of ELO is a convoluted one: most of its members were Brummies (the colloquial term for those hailing from the Northern England industrial city of Birmingham) and had played together in other local-based groups. Here are five tracks that presage the music of Electric Light Orchestra.

The Nightriders – “It’s Only the Dog” (1966)
The ELO story has its origins in a much earlier Birmingham group, Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders. Launched in 1963, in its early days the group featured lead guitarist Roy Wood. After the group failed to score major hits, both Sheridan and Wood left the group (with the latter forming The Move), but the band continued for a time with a new lead guitarist, Jeff Lynne. This single from 1966 would be the group’s final release.

The Idle Race – “Impostors of Life’s Magazine” (1967)
Encouraged by his friend Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne launched a new group after the demise of The Nightriders. The Idle Race’s second single – a Lynne original released only in the UK – combined Who-like power with some of the baroque and psychedelic sounds then in fashion. The track would be featured on the essential 2001 boxed set compilation, Nuggets II: Original Artyfacts from the British Empire and Beyond, 1964–1969.

Denny Laine and the Electric String Band – “Ask the People” (1967)
Another Brummie, Denny Laine had already found fame as lead singer of another local group, r&b combo The Moody Blues. When the original lineup of that band split, Laine formed a group that included The Move’s Trevor Burton and former Pretty Things drummer Viv Prince. With its melding of rock feel and classical instrumentation, the short-lived band hinted at the direction ELO would soon pursue, but released only two singles (credited to Laine) before dissolving.

Balls – “Fight for My Country” (1970)
Laine’s next project was the unfortunately-named Balls, a group that again featured him and Burton, plus Steve Gibbons (soon to join a late-period Idle Race) Richard Tandy (later of ELO), Alan White (later of Yes) and former Apple Records recording artist Jackie Lomax. The group managed only two songs before splitting; Laine went on to Ginger Baker’s Air Force and then – most famously – to Paul McCartney and Wings.

The Move – “California Man” (1972)
Jeff Lynne joined The Move in 1969. The last single released by the group during its time together, “California Man” showcased Wood’s and Lynne’s love of classic ‘50s rock and roll. By this point, the two (with Move drummer Bev Bevan) had already devised a musical side project, ELO. Designed to pick up where the Beatles left off with Sgt. Pepper, that ambitious group would utilize classical instruments but retain a rock foundation. Wood would leave ELO after one album to form Wizzard, but that’s another story. Meanwhile, “California Man” would go on to become a favorite song of American rockers Cheap Trick; they featured their version on their 1978 LP Heaven Tonight.