Patriotism, Nostalgia, Cocaine, and a Bunch of Other Things That Have to do with ELO: A Primer, of Sorts
ome time back, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones opened up a kind of critico-pharmacology on his blog, trying to explore analogies between the feelings we experience on certain drugs and their critical/aesthetic counterparts. It sounds abstract, but it wasn’t really; on the subject of cocaine, Mike Barthel made the suggestion that, to use Sasha’s words, the critic’s cocaine is “seeing the present as just an enhanced version of the preferred past.”
A commonly carved route to the heart of ELO is “like the Beatles but really into space mythology and operas.” An exciting proposition, and accurate enough. Really though, ELO had more roots in Chuck Berry, doo-wop, early soul, and Phil Spector, a musical era that pre-dated (with due respect) the self-important poetry of Dylan, the Beatles, and the idea of rock music as something with inherent meaning outside of its function as a cultural phenomenon of youthful abandon, i.e. art, in a sense. It’s also true that ELO was a meticulously produced band that made concept albums and had vaguely proggy tendencies, and plenty of their material sounds just fine next to the cock-led fantasia of 70’s rock. Within that decade though, ELO doesn’t resonate with “More than a Feeling” or Yes nearly as much as it does with greased products of 50’s nostalgia and revisionism, from American Graffiti to Roxy Music.
The ELO that seems fascinating to me is the one that posits them as kids who hid under blankets with their transistor radios to listen to Alan Freed broadcasts and dreamt of rocket ships; the same kids grew up to witness new heights of political, racial, and cultural discord in the late 60’s and found themselves in the 70’s with the Bay of Pigs behind them but in the throbbing uncertainty of the Cold War, when America’s insistence on the strength and myth of its culture seemed stronger than ever. We had walked on the moon and we woke up in Vietnam.
ELO often tried to force itself backwards and forwards, taking the preferred past of Happy Days, a postwar era booming through poodle skirts and muscle cars, and wedding it with a freshened hope for the future. The cover of 1977’s Out of the Blue depicted a spacecraft in mid-flight, believing that the dream really came true, and when we got there, we did the twist to La Boheme, ate cheeseburgers fried on satellites, and never thought about the Soviet Union. Dylan had already reached new heights of bitterness, the Rolling Stones had already Let it Bleed and tied their charm to Bacchus with a narrow rubber hose, Sly had proclaimed There’s A Riot Going On through the fog of mountains of coke, the idealistic Beatles fractured into Wings and the psychotherapy of Plastic Ono Band. In short, the present was looking like utter shit, so they took to the stars and brought the next best past with them.
I mentioned Roxy Music earlier not because they are the same thing as ELO—if anything, they’re like a warped negative image—but because the bands share a framework. Gurgling jellied tears on “Pyjamarama” or fashioning a Pop Art dance craze on “Do the Strand,” Roxy Music was ELO but more avant-garde and soaked in art school cynicism about Tupperware perfection (“In Every Dream Home a Heartache”), but really no more or less over-acted. The point of mentioning them is to highlight the similarities: both obsessed with the 50’s, both with charged but ambiguous nods to the future (“Ladytron” or Eno’s embrace of all things blippy and unnaturally modern-sounding), and as a result, both sounding strangely resistant to their own decade, though it should be acknowledged that Roxy Music more or less figured out how to move on into the late 70’s and 80’s. And sure, ELO had their 70’s radio-rock leanings and Roxy had their glam ones, but the undercurrent of both bands makes them a better match for each other than say, Kansas and the New York Dolls. I might as well mention that Roxy Music is usually taken to be an arch or camp-influenced band; still, Brian Eno wouldn’t have had the nerve to wear all those peacock feathers if Little Richard was never born and Bryan Ferry’s whole persona was drunk on the residual ultra-sexuality of Elvis’ gyrations. And as to acknowledging ELO’s potential earnestness, what’s more dramatically performative than opera?
It’d be impossible to skip on the string-fueled excess of ELO’s shtick. I won’t spend a lot of time on it, but suffice it to say that opera is wild and legitimized; Wagner is deep if a bit of a proto-Nazi, and Puccini is twice as emotionally hysterical as R. Kelly or My Chemical Romance. The 50’s were still fresh in 1975, but in couching “The Twist” in the orchestra pit, ELO gilded the era, made it seem like a monolithic celebration, an explosion of grandeur that, for them, the 60’s and 70’s had veered away from.
This isn’t a fail-safe analysis of ELO, but once the a-temporality of a lot of their material creeps in, it’s hard not to start feeling like the gestalt of the band is just surrendering, perms, and circular shades and all, to this tremendous quivering fantasy. Mind-fucking time warps are strewn like change and debris in the street: run a jazzy scat vocal through a vocoder on “The Diary of Horace Wimp,” stick an operatic vocal break into a Ronettes song and jack the hatching’s veins with neon and you get “Turn to Stone,” even spread for the Volkswagen ad-approved “Mr. Blue Sky,” which is like Paul McCartney punching through brick walls for four minutes and then crying gently to HAL 9000 when everyone’s gone home.
When the week started I thought “Electric Light Orchestra, hem...” and stared at my wall (as I’m wont to do). I had heard the band plenty of times and had loves here and there, but I could never figure out exactly what drew me to them, what set them apart. In 2005, they feel lost, and rightfully so; they were a retro band 30 years ago. It’s slightly humorous and bittersweet that when the 80’s set in, they more or less dried up. The strangely patriotic telecommunication workout song “Calling America” sounds like a parody of ELO if for nothing else than that the time they had so long imagined was clearly making its way closer, but it wasn’t shaping up the way they had wanted it to. ELO spent their era willfully ignoring it, instead creating a present that combined a future fiction and the enhanced version of a preferred past and in doing so, got caught up and left behind in a wonderful place, which sadly, never really existed outside of their music.