From Stage to Spaceship
Of all the bands my dad saw in the ‘70s, I’m most jealous that he saw Electric Light Orchestra. He saw them twice, in his words, “before the spaceship and after.” He’s referring to the elaborate UFO set built on tour in the wake of 1977’s hugely successful Out of the Blue album. My dad even has a scrapbook with an article that shows the ship “landing” in Rupp Arena, home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats. During that show, my dad says, the opening band played on a little stage out in front of the spaceship, while ELO appeared inside the thing like visitors from a musical planet. Just a few years before and ELO themselves might’ve been out on that little stage. Despite their early successes, it would be a few years before the band was a true pop juggernaut, touring the globe in a spaceship.
The band was conceived by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood of the late-‘60s group, The Move. In a awkward yet mercifully brief interview on this DVD, Lynne says the two were tired of playing in a standard band with guitars, keyboards and drums. They added a string section to the mix and released their debut album in 1972. Roy Wood left during sessions for the second album, and from then on Lynne was the driving force behind the band.
Buddy Holly used strings on some of his more syrupy numbers in the ‘50s, but ELO took the Orchestra part of the name seriously, integrating not only a string section but layers of synthesizers, keyboards, vocal harmonies and guitars into a sound that initially owed as much to progressive rock as it did classical music. The band’s sound morphed into full-on pop as the ‘70s wore on, and this DVD shows the steady progression of the band’s sound, beginning with a small performance at London’s Brunel University and ending with a concert at London’s New Victoria Theatre, a “posh place” according to Jeff Lynne.
On stage as on record, the band’s sound is huge, a fully realized amalgamation of the rock band-meets-orchestra envisioned by Lynne and Wood. The Brunel show, from 1973, is the shortest on the DVD, and the band is sedate for the first half of the set. They come alive during a cover of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, then segue into “Great Balls of Fire”.
Rockpalast, a German television show, finds the band performing to only a roomful of sound technicians and camera operators. Stage direction and camera angles are discussed in between songs, and there’s a complete lack of crowd noise. Though it appears to only be rehearsal footage, the band is great on well-known cuts like “Showdown” and a cover of “Orange Blossom Special”. The Rockpalast performance repeats three of four tracks from the Brunel show, with little difference between the two.
The band broke big in America with 1975’s Face the Music, featuring both “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic”. The 1976 performance, filed in the New Victoria Theatre in the aftermath of this success, is easily the best and most dynamic on the DVD. The band is energetic, tight and fun, the only blemish being Jeff Lynne’s barely there goatee. Bassist Kelly Groucutt shares vocal duties, and the tracks “Poker” and “Nightrider”, both from Face the Music are irresistible. The low point is a tepid performance of “Do Ya”, from the then-unreleased A New World Record.
In all these performances the band is polished but much more loose than on their records. While not exactly essential viewing, this DVD is great for fans who’ve listened to “Turn to Stone” one too many times but aren’t quite ready to give up on Lynne and company just yet. For the uninitiated, this is a decent enough introduction to a great band, but you’d be better off checking out their recordings. If you can’t find any ELO in your favorite record store, just ask your parents.