How Jeff Lynne Reworked the Beatles in His Own Image
There’s something about flawed collections that reveal something about an artist that you really hadn’t quite realized. All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra is that type of flawed collection, favoring weaker album tracks to monster singles such as the gorgeous “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and the glam-rock gem “Do Ya”. All Over the World eschews chronology, throwing early hits and later disco numbers back to back, and the liner notes consist of a half-hearted essay by Jeff Lynne where he essentially says, “Hey, cool, we had a bunch of songs on the album charts.” However, the way this collection sets up Electric Light Orchestra’s work is fascinating, because it really brings into focus Electric Light Orchestra’s (really, Lynne’s) obsession with the Beatles in general, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in particular.
It was Harold Bloom, into kabbalism way before Madonna, who claimed that all forms of rewarding works of literature were the result of creative misreading. In effect, writers would draw influence from predecessors, but get them wrong, thus creating something original. To avoid sheer mimicry, they would have to reinterpret the works of their influence, in essence sort of recreating them in their own images. Bloom would site Shakespeare as an example, perhaps most famously in remarking that Freud’s attempts to “solve” Hamlet really just show how his ideas were formed by a strange rewriting of the Bard’s plays. Whether one believes this is how all art is created, I can’t help but think that in Jeff Lynne’s case, his determination to recreate Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatles led instead to his own unique brand of over-the-top orchestral rock.
This collection sets up the Beatles influence in its very first two songs. “Mr. Blue Sky”, which everybody now knows from the trailer for every Charlie Kaufman-scripted movie ever made, is, in essence, a remake of “A Day in the Life”, the track which I think Lynne saw as the “ultimate” Beatles song. (Note: This, of course, is ridiculous and totally subjective on his part, as the “ultimate” Beatles song is clearly “And Your Bird Can Sing”.) Lynne takes on “A Day in the Life”, a pretty much impossible track to beat on any level, and decides that the Beatles problem was that they were too austere, too timid. What Lynne hears in the Beatles is an exploration of lush, intricate sounds that the Beatles actually only explored occasionally. Instead of exploring the workings of everyday life, Lynne decides to explore the actual life of the day, going through the process where day turns into night, throwing every sonic trick that he can possibly use into the mix to aurally illustrate the process. Starting with the bare-bones vocals and drums opening, the song evolves into a cavalcade of robot voices, synthesizers, and false starts. There are about a dozen or so different hooks just in this one song (not to mention a panting sample that seems to be straight from “A Day in the Life”).
This collection, ingeniously or blindly, follows “Mr. Blue Sky” with the huge hit “Evil Woman”, which, and I never noticed this before, deliberately cribs from “Fixing a Hole”, with the line “there’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in”. It was at this point when I started to realize the ambitious project of Electric Light Orchestra, as ambitious as an attempt to rewrite Shakespeare’s plays in one’s own image: to recreate the Beatles as a bigger and bolder unit, better prepared to survive in the excessive ‘70s.
One of Lynne’s main inspirations in creating the ELO sound comes directly from the McCartney/Lennon split in, where else, “A Day in the Life”, where McCartney’s wistful ballad gets interrupted by the sprightly “got up and got out of bed” bridge. Where usually the Beatles kept their ballads and their fast songs separate, Lynne “corrected” this by including fast-paced rock songs featuring slower choruses (like in the gorgeous and hard-hitting “Turn to Stone”), and ballads that turned into rave-ups somewhere along the way (“Telephone Line”, with its Queen-mocking a capella bridge). For Lynne, the Beatles represented the expansion of the pop song into malleable, adaptable entities that could contain a multitude of tones, sounds, tempos, and even ideas. ELO reflected this with its over-the-top arrangements and overstuffed songs featuring multiple parts. The irony, of course, was that the Beatles were one of the tightest pop acts of the ‘60s, with a few notable exceptions, and George Martin, rather than overlapping as many sounds as possible, was as tasteful as possible with his orchestral accompaniments.
Other than the Beatles influence, the album showcases a strong disco influence, as if to suggest that despite Lynne’s symphonic ambitions, he was aware that rock and roll began as dance music. Like the Bee Gees, which ELO sounds quite a bit a like at times (check out “The Diary of Horace Wimp”), Lynne realized that disco was just another progression of rock and roll, and he also knew that its simplified beats would ground ELO’s elaborate music, making sure that it remained pop music. After all, the Beatles were the definition of a pop act. You’ll never hear “Xanadu”, for instance, at a local Philharmonic.
Ironically, Lynne’s attempt to find the “true Beatles sound” resulted in a sound that was uniquely his own. His failed attempts to resurrect the Beatles on “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” prove this, as his syrupy, melodramatic production, which makes Electric Light Orchestra such a delight to listen to, effectively sabotaged the entire product. Jeff Lynne’s tragedy and triumph was that he was never meant to be the fifth Beatle. He would have to settle for being the fifth Traveling Wilbury, which, all things considered, is a pretty big honor.