ELO's spaceship still flies high
I hate what producer Jeff Lynne has done to Tom Petty records, but feel no vitriol toward the man when it comes to Electric Light Orchestra. I’m not sure what these split feelings mean. In my mind, for some reason the producer Lynne and the lead singer Lynne are two entirely different people, to be judged by separate criteria. When Lynne added those annoying chirpy vocals to perfectly good Tom Petty songs on Full Moon Fever, I developed a harsh grudge against the man. Just give me Petty snarling over Mike Campbell’s ringing guitar line, and leave the mix well enough alone!
But ELO’s sound is a completely different story—especially Out of the Blue. Personal nostalgia might have something to do with my overwhelmingly positive assessment. I fondly recall playing my 8-track tape (I know, I’m dating myself here) over and over again in my room. Even then, I knew ELO was something special, compared with my otherwise bland Journey/Foreigner/Steve Miller Band AOR world. This was a band that dug ‘50s rock and classical music—at the same time—and somehow combined the two successfully.
One of this disc’s tracks, “Mr. Blue Sky”, has been used many times in commercials and on movie soundtracks recently, and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” is a single most should be familiar with. But there are plenty of other cool reasons to revisit Out of the Blue. Granted, “Jungle”—with its gratuitous Tarzan sound effects—is just a little too experimental, and “Across The Border”, which incorporates horns to give it a Western, Mexican feel, plays too obviously upon Spanish-speaking stereotypes. But if you haven’t heard “Standing in the Rain” with its sweet symphonic string section, you really have not had a true ELO experience. Lynne dearly loves The Beatles and it shows—though not overly worshipfully—on this one. You might say Out of the Blue, which was a double album back in the day, represents Lynne’s attempt to make a Sgt. Peppers-like concept album. And while it isn’t the social statement the Fab Four gave us (and what else is?), it nevertheless shows off Lynne’s studio imagination and wide-ranging musical expertise.
New liner notes explain that the CD’s title was inspired by the multiple times the word “blue” appears in the lyrics. In fact, “Mr. Blue Sky” was Lynne’s joyous reaction to a sunny day, which arrived after far too many rainy Switzerland days in a row. Lynne calls it his greatest ELO achievement. “It captured all what ELO, my vision of ELO, was all about”, he has said. “All the bits that come in and out, the backing vocals, the cellos sliding, all the little naughty bits, the sound effects, everything is exactly what I imagined ELO to be.” “Mr. Blue Sky”, along with “Standin’ in the Rain”, “Big Wheels”, and “Summer and Lightning” are all part of “Concerto for a Rainy Day”, a side long (remember, it was released during LP days) concept composition. Believe me, it’s a whole lot more fun than watching The Weather Channel.
Lynne’s old school rock and roll is best exemplified by “Birmingham Blues”, which may have been inspired by this soccer fan’s love for the Birmingham City Football Club. In contrast to the bulk of the CD, it is a track mostly focused on chugging electric guitars, rather than strings.
ELO in the ‘70s was part of an excessive rock decade. Pink Floyd had floating animal balloons, the Stones had a blow-up penis, and concerts tried awfully hard to be bigger than life. The group even toured behind this release with a giant spaceship, which blasted off in a spectacle of light and smoke to announce the band’s arrival on stage. But the band was playing stadiums after all, so what did you expect?
This reissue also includes three bonus tracks, one of which is “Wild West Hero (Alternate Bridge)”, which clocks in at only 24 seconds. These extra pieces are nice, but they’re hardly a bounty of new music.
Even with all the excessive rock trappings inherent during ELO’s era, Out of the Blue nevertheless stands up well as a creative endeavor. Lynne was at the top of his powers because he and the group put together a double album that wasn’t all filler. It was out of the ordinary then, and is still something special now. Best of all, it has the undiminished ability to break through the clouds with plenty of “Mr. Blue Sky” joy—even now.