Electric Light Orchestra: Too Much at Once Can Blow the Fuse

Electric Light Orchestra
On the Third Day

ELO was formed in 1972 when the remaining members of the Move — multi-instrumentalist and songwriting genius Roy Wood, drummer Bev Bevan and late arrival Jeff Lynne, who had originally made his name with another English group from Birmingham, the Idle Race — were ready to move on, as it were, to better explore the proggish ideas that were already surfacing on such albums as Shazam! and Looking On. The band was a proven hit-maker in England (though mysteriously not in America, despite being the equal of any other British Invasion band), and the record company was perhaps puzzled that the same band members should want to toss away the established name for one rather unwieldy and pretentious.

The band’s intention of incorporating ideas from classical music seemed a bit grandiose and hubristic, as well (“my tunes are just like Bach’s!”). But what this all amounted to in practice was condensing such ideas as orchestrated rock riffs played on violas and song snippets sewn into extensive suites and presenting them as big, unsubtle hooks. When this strategy works, it makes for a brilliant, intuitive synthesis — and the immediately familiar hits from ELO’s juggernaut years in the mid-’70s bear this out. But when it doesn’t, it’s indulgent schlock (think Rick Wakeman), or worse, well-wrought but emotionally vacant showpieces that typify the soulless product of corporate rock.

It wasn’t as though ELO was setting out for entirely new territory. Though known for helping define the propulsive style now called freakbeat, the Move had also toyed with baroque pop on such songs as “Blackberry Way” and “Something”, and had scored a hit with “Night of Fear”, which borrows directly from Tchaikovsky’s “1058 Overture”. But Wood and Lynne wanted to take the next step and incorporate an actual string section and feature it equally with the rock instrumentation rather than use it merely for fills and accents. The new band name would reinforce the idea of this equal partnership. (ELO would be sort of a reverse image of Blood, Sweat and Tears: the original BS&T added horns to blues-based songs; ELO would add strings to pop).

Of course, the Beatles had experimented with orchestration as well, and the first ELO single, “10538 Overture”, with its extended “Frère Jacques” string outro, sounds a lot like something from Magical Mystery Tour. (It would hardly be the last time that Lynne would co-opt the Beatles’ sound; the word Beatlesque may well have been coined to pigeonhole Lynne’s songwriting strategies.) A success in England, the single would turn out to be the pinnacle for the original ELO configuration. Wood grew restless with the concept and left after the first album to form Wizzard (a band that sounds something like a rockabilly 10cc), leaving Lynne in creative control of the band.

It took him some time to nail down what he wanted the band to sound like. The single from ELO II, a ham-fisted version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” augmented with themes from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, epitomizes the foibles of the classical music approach to rock. Even Lynne now admits this clumsy amalgam was “corny”. (Wizzard parodied the concept with its single “Bend Over Beethoven”, which also gives one a sense of the terms on which Wood departed). Nevertheless it achieved modest success, particularly in the US, setting the stage for the band’s emergence in America.

Following a successful American tour, ELO finished recording its third album, On the Third Day, which has now been reissued in America with bonus tracks (including demo versions of “Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”, and outtake “Everyone’s Born to Die”, featuring Marc Bolan on guitar) and with the UK cover replacing the original American cover, a black-and-white photo of the band dressed ordinarily but exposing their navels. Presumably that peculiar image tied in to the vague creation theme that unifies the songs on the first side, which marked one of Lynne’s early attempts at making a sidelong suite of interconnected tracks, à la side two of Abbey Road.

The suite opens plenty bombastically with “Ocean Breakup”, which features tense pizzicato strings melded with a telegraph bleating morse code, then shifts to a warbling synthesizer passage and back to morse code before settling into “King of the Universe”, a cozy mid-tempo track that finely balances strings with electronic effects and Lynne’s customarily drawn-out vocals — I must say, he sounds pretty lazy and laid-back for someone pronouncing himself king of the sky. “Bluebird Is Dead” begins as a fine Beatles pastiche, with Lennonesque vocals and melting “I Am the Walrus” cello touches, but has a synthesizer and guitar break in the middle that moves it beyond its apparent source of inspiration. It ends with a spastic explosion of violin sawing before shifting to the very similar “Oh No Not Susan”. The suite finishes with “New World Rising”, which features faux old-time radio effects, mewling synths, a climax of contrapuntal melody lines, and an obligatory reprise of the ominous opening theme. The whole thing hangs together reasonably well musically but conceptually remains a bit of a mystery. It doesn’t help that the lyrics are mostly incomprehensible; Lynne seems committed to creating a mood that he doesn’t want to be disrupted by a listener’s interpretation or comprehension.

If side one was in keeping with ELO’s grand ambitions, side two is a primer in what became the group’s various hit-making styles. It opens with the quintessential “Showdown”, possibly the band’s finest moment. Lynne’s singing is clear and completely engaged, and the song’s puzzle pieces fit together perfectly All the hallmarks of the Lynne’s later approach are here: a concise orchestral overture of a few seconds, falsetto backing vocals, seamless blending of synthetic and acoustic instruments, soul-influenced arrangements and an R&B groove, fixations on “raining” and evil women and “turning to stone”. What Lynne managed to do was anticipate, if not create, was the disco-rock formula that would be everywhere from Bee Gees singles to Stones records in late ’70s. (This would perhaps explain the band’s later soundtrack work on the roller-skating fantasia Xanadu.)

The instrumental “Daybreaker” encapsulates another of ELO’s characteristic styles, but one far less successful aesthetically. The relentless song, bleating its syncopation-free synth riff over and over again without remorse, sounds as though it were made specifically to serve as background music for sports highlights; you can imagine the leaping slow-motion football catches as the spiraling arpeggios ascend to the heavens. It’s secular inspirational music suitable for management conferences and the interstices of infomercials. Similar is On the Third Day‘s rock version of “Hall of the Mountain King” (a pulsing, repetitive instrumental with a nagging melody), only it’s redeemed by the fact that it’s far, far cheesier. Those delighted by Wakeman’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth or early ’70s Moody Blues records (you know who you are) will probably enjoy it; it’s unapologetically over-the-top, reminding us that great pop music can also move us by making us laugh.

Rounding the album out is “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”, which, in the vein of latter-day Move singles like “Lightning Never Strikes Twice” and “Brontosaurus”, is about as hard rock as ELO gets, and “Dreaming of 4000” which has a cacophonous mix of tempo changes, slow-burn buildups, Thin Lizzy-style twin-guitar riffs, murky vocals submerged in various effects, and the customary complement of pizzicato strings and orchestral flourishes. So much is going on that there’s little chance for a listener to figure out what the song is supposed to be about; instead one realizes that like so many ELO songs, it’s about its own sonic excess and not much more. Not only does this tendency make ELO albums exhausting to listen to (try keeping up with the hyperactive 32nd notes in song after song), but you begin to sense an emotional void at the heart of these songs that the hooks and the bombast strain to conceal or simulate.

This problem also plagues Face the Music, the 1975 follow-up to the symphonic concept album Eldorado, which yielded the US breakthrough hit “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”. Eldorado is perhaps the most coherent ELO record, one in which the alleged unifying theme — the world of dreams — is actually palpable and comprehensible, augmented by Lynne’s musical refinements, which no longer sound arbitrary but integral to the overall concept. Face the Music, by contrast, sounds like Lynne revisiting a variety of past ideas and consolidating his strengths in the confidence platinum record sales must bring.

His songwriting machine was so well honed at this point that he could toss off a generic song like “Evil Woman” in an afternoon, dress it up with the production techniques he had been working toward all decade, and have it go straight to the top 10 all over the world. The song is a compendium of clichés — “You took my body and played to win”, “A fool and his money soon go separate ways” — but the commanding piano opening, the burping riff after each iteration of the chorus, and the backward crescendo break make it irresistible anyway. (The reissue includes a “stripped down mix” that removes the female backing vocals and the orchestra overdubs. This allows the piano solo to come through much more clearly but deprives the song of some of the towering preposterousness that made it magical.)

A similar attention to frills lifts the rest of Face the Music as well. The album’s other huge hit, “Strange Magic”, uses phase effects and string glissandos judiciously and gets surprising mileage from the simple tactic of repeating the tagline in different vocal registers. I still get goose bumps when Lynne hits the first pleading “Got a . . . strange magic!” even though he’s already said the line half a dozen times before and I have no idea what the hell it means. Maybe it refers to the band’s own music, because this seems to me a typical ELO listening experience: Your ears suddenly respond powerfully to an emotional cue and you forget about all the other appeals that failed to reach you, that seemed silly or obvious.

Like a precocious five-year-old, Face the Music keeps cloying for your attention at every turn even though it has nothing especially interesting to say. “Fire on High”, the highlight-reel-ready instrumental which opens the album, would be just another “Daybreaker” without the “Revolution 9”-lite sound collage intro, the Pink Floydish stabs at sweeping majesty and the dramatic tempo shifts. “Waterfall”, a maudlin mid-tempo number that would have fit right in on McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway, is redeemed by an instrumental bridge that showcases the strings. The slow-building “Nightrider” shifts through enough different catchy parts for several songs, but develops none of them into something truly memorable. “Poker” a throwaway rocker peppered incongruously with outer-space synth parts, has an unexpectedly pensive break that lends it surprising emotional substance. “Down Home Town” is a roots-rock send-up and the melancholy finale, “One Summer Dream” has the mechanistic guitar strumming and metronymic feeling of Lynne’s later production work with Tom Petty and the Traveling Wliburys. As this list may suggest, the album is fairly heterogeneous, in keeping with ELO’s ultimate destiny as a band remembered for singles rather than albums. The density of each song, the palpable amount of craft and musicianship that seems to have gone into each, makes them seem to cry out to stand alone; collected on a record they almost begin to cancel one another out.

Of course, when the singles are as memorable as those on A New World Record, such cavils don’t matter much. At this point Lynne had seemed to have shifted entirely away from the symphonic ambitions of the earlier albums (though that would change with the subsequent double album Out of the Blue). Named for an Olympic announcer cliché, A New World Record is the ELO album where the band became a corporate rock standard bearer — they took on a logo, the familiar rainbow-circular-jukebox spaceship looking thing; and their singles were no longer idiosyncratic offerings but mainstream state-of-the-art productions that defined what radio was supposed to sound like. It stands with Queen’s A Night at the Opera as a testimony to a certain kind of sanctioned excess of the era (and not just because it includes “Rockaria!” one of the few rockabilly songs to name-check Wagner and use opera singing as a decorative element). The album almost suffers from its being such a perfect time capsule for 1976 — songs like the peppy “So Fine” feel dated in the same way Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” does, and “Livin’ Thing”, possibly, in some interpreters’ eyes, the catchiest antiabortion anthem ever, is so reminiscent for me of car rides home from my grandparents house, that it can’t serve as anything other than nostalgia.

The album’s highlight is “Telephone Line” (two alternate versions are included on the reissue, along with rough mixes of a few other tracks, and “Surrender,” an undistinguished outtake), which opens with the talking-through-a-tin-can effect and builds through the doo-wop bridge and call and response passage to the climactic chorus, possibly Lynne’s best Beatles homage. Also excellent is “Do Ya”, a far less subtle remake of Lynne’s earlier Move hit, betters the original with sharper production, more conviction in the vocals (with Queen-style falsettos and layering), and an effective use of the orchestra to build up the song’s dynamics.

The rest of album tracks here present no compelling reason for someone casually interested in ELO to stray from the greatest hits (or the boxed set). “”Shangri-La” is “One Summer Dream” redux, “Mission (A New World Record)” is a cryptic conceptual song about space travel with a weird funk break and one of the worst vocal effects ever employed on the last verse. The disco-ready “So Fine” sounds like it could have come off of one of Bob Welch’s records until the broken-modem meltdown erupts in the middle of it. But I can’t tell if this feeling that hits tower over the filler is a function of looking back with those hits burned into my memory. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like in 1976 to plop A New World Record on a turntable and listen straight through, without knowing of all the times in the future you would hear “Livin’ Thing”.

These reissues would seem an opportunity to do that, to try to reckon with ELO as an album-making band, but ultimately the flimsiness of Lynne’s lyrics militate against that. It’s impossible to take these songs that seriously as an exploration of non-musical ideas; you don’t listen to refine your emotional responsiveness or to gain insight into relationships or politics or even the zeitgeist. The songs demonstrate how Lynne’s aspirations to construct pure pop mini-symphonies succeeded all too well. Alone, they are perfect confections that captivate with their careful sonic details and ear-pleasing melodies and hooks; but in succession they start to seem like generic exercises, cultural commodities. Then, what seemed like an eagerness to please in one isolated song starts to sound uncomfortably like cold indifference to deeper human feeling.