n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
I’ve been shaving off slices of my musical ignorance for years now. I’ve made crater-sized gashes in genres I swore off as a hardcore-reared teenager; country, funk, disco, I’ve learned to love plenty of music I’d long considered ridiculous.
And still I had huge reservations about Stylus’s Electric Light Orchestra Week. I mean, you’re kidding, right? ELO? Those guys basically invented awful cover art. I knew little of their music, save a surprisingly listenable snippet of “Mr. Blue Sky” from a Volkswagen commercial. But that had to be an anomaly—ELO was straight 70’s indulgence rock, the type of stuff that inspired a bunch of kids wearing clothespins and chains to strip rock music back to its essence as the 70s became the 80s. ELO seemed the sonic equivalent of some dude slicking back his gelled hair in a convertible’s rear-view.
Undeterred, the faction of ELO-loving Stylus folk (a boisterous and growing number) hooked me up with a dozen or so tracks, mostly singles from the mid-to-late period albums. For safety’s sake, I better get the hyper-cynical, unthinking sarcasm out of my system. First, I’ve heard about the first five seconds of every one of these songs; they’re what classic rock has started playing every time I’ve changed the station in the last decade. Second, ELO are basically the UK Eagles, a band of dinosaurs with hundreds of radio hits, above-average musicianship, and almost no following among hipsters. Third, good as much of my ELO sampler is, part of me wonders what sort of horrors lie amidst this band’s album tracks. Excellent as “Mr. Blue Sky” may be, take a look at the cover art for the double-album it calls home, Out of the Blue. I’m just not convinced the quality-standards are held up through the course of two LP’s.
Finally, why didn’t someone get to Jeff Lynne, ELO’s principal songwriter, and implore him to scrap the ham-handed arrangements, shorten the songs, and lose the studio makeup? Too much of ELO’s music reminds me of a pretty girl in way too much eyeliner. Lynne could’ve been Alex Chilton, an under-appreciated power-pop genius living off royalty checks decades after his prime ends. (On the flip side of the coin, if someone had told Chilton he could’ve sold a bazillion records by ditching the personal angst and adding 17 layers of synthesized strings, you think he would’ve turned that down?)
And two weeks into my ELO experience, the arrangements—which all but give the middle finger to modesty—are still my biggest hang-up. “Livin’ Thing,” for instance, has an indelible verse melody and a bouncy gospel-inspired chorus. It’s hard to ruin songwriting this good, but Lynne comes close when he inserts disruptive sitar-inspired interludes. The song clocks in at almost six minutes—cut in half and blessed with a leaner setup and we’re working with an all-time AM radio killer. Ditto “So Fine” and “On the Run.”
It’s fun to play before and after when listening to a new artist, searching for their influences and figuring out who’s been stealing. ELO is easy in that the snake-biting-you-obvious “before” artist is Paul McCartney. In many ways, I feel the same way about ELO as I do about Macca’s solo joints: ELO are intermittently brilliant, but their arrogance and lack of restraint are incredibly frustrating, even in the context of inspired songwriting. Beach Boy harmonies and Who-like keyboard workouts pepper many of these songs as well.
Thinking about what artists have followed in ELO’s footsteps is a blast, if only because so few of the ever-growing hordes would likely feverishly deny any sort of ELO worship. The Super Furry Animals would give up acid to write a song like “Telephone Line,” except they basically already did, with “Rings Around the World.” The disco-influenced “Last Train to London” shows that Blur wasn’t the first band to layer a particularly British satisfaction over succulent disco-pop. The Flaming Lips recent studio compositions—“Do You Realize” chief among them—owe a debt to ELO’s over-production.
It seems pretty clear that “Mr. Blue Sky” is ELO’s most fully-formed composition, the song most comfortable with its flaunted Beatle-isms. Perhaps due to an increased reliance on vocal layering rather than neo-classical arrangement, perhaps due to lyrics that, for once, sound appropriately kitschy, “Mr. Blue Sky” nails the aesthetic. There are plenty of other highlights, however. The machine-gun strings that power the chorus of “Livin’ Thing” actually rock a little, and “Confusion” is the best glam-soul pop ballad David Bowie never wrote. “Telephone Line” surpasses its thoroughly ridiculous intro (hushed silence, misplaced synths, ringing telephone … tortured ballad segment), finally making it to a chorus containing the band’s best lyric, “Doo wop / Dooby doo do wop / Do wha / Do Whaaaaay-eay-eay-eay.”
If it isn’t totally clear by this point, ELO are best when they’re mining—borrowing, stealing, whatever—the AM gold that they helped define in the late 1970’s. And most of the time, at least on the dozen tracks I’ve been pumping, they’re dead on, forcing you to overlook vapid lyrics and Phil Spector-plus production because Lynne’s songs are just that good. Only two tracks—the pillow-soft “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and the Wagner-ian new wave of “Twilight”—didn’t hold up with repeat listens.
Please forgive all of the name-checking here. It’s more than lazy journalism: I’m trying, both as a fan and a critic, to find context for ELO. The context is necessary because for all the things that ELO are—outstanding tunesmiths, overzealous arrangers, spaceship-fetishists—they are not a strikingly original band. They’ve maintained an influence, however subtle, over popular music through an entertaining interpretation of some all-time greats and an overwhelming volume of great singles. At worst, ELO are worthy of more than their joke status as the epitome of 1970’s rock ‘n’ roll folly. At best, they are a criminally underrated band, making up for what the lack in artistic vision with un-fuckwithable hooks. Get over the spaceship thing and you can buy yourself at least a dozen summer-rock classics. Maybe there was nothing that wrong with slicking your hair back in the rear-view after all.