For a man who makes such radio-friendly music, Jeff Lynne has led a thankless career. He’s been a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and arranger for countless bands, but photographers have always found a way to position him between George Harrison’s shoulder and Tom Petty’s hat. He gets credit for ruining artists — most recently the late Harrison, as the producer of his swan song Brainwashed — but not often for catapulting them back to stardom.
I’m not sure if Epic/Legacy’s reissues of Lynne’s work in Electric Light Orchestra will spark a reappraisal of his work. Four years ago, the label released four of the band’s later albums with restored artwork and bonus tracks. They didn’t sell. Plans to put out more of the band’s catalogue within a year were shelved, and four fine albums (including the veritable classic Eldorado) slowly went out of print again. But the release of No Answer (released eponymously outside the US) and E.L.O. II turns the spotlight on a different part of Lynne’s career, before he was writing pop symphonies (“Mr. Blue Sky”, “Evil Woman”, “Livin’ Thing”) transmogrified into schlock by decades of movies and TV commercials.
The E.L.O. project has its roots in the Birmingham beat scene of the 1960s. Roy Wood, the songwriter (and eventually singer) for The Move, liked what he heard when strings were added to songs like “Blackberry Way” and mulled over starting a band with classical and rock musicians. The idea lay on the table until Wood started working with Jeff Lynne, the leader of The Idle Race. Listening to “No Answer” today is revelatory: The poppiest aspects of every mod, beat, and psychedelic band have been tossed in a meat grinder and smothered with strings.
Listen to the single “10538 Overture”. It opens with two guitars playing a descending riff that could have come from a lost Creation or The Action song. After four bars we hear a horn playing an odd, “Strawberry Fields Forever”-esque tune. Then a string section gallops in, playing a brand new hook that complements the guitar riff. The lyrics come straight out of the Lynne-Wood misery index, and they’re sung with a desperate whine: “Did you see your friend crying from his eyes today? / Did you see him run through the streets and far away?” It’s a perfect combination of sounds and themes, a deserved hit single that the band was never able to recreate.
There’s a lot here that E.L.O. never managed to recreate, and the chief reason is the presence of Roy Wood. The songs he composed are more fragile and less obviously hooky than Lynne’s. Not that they’re dull – the classical guitar noodling of “First Movement (Jumping Biz)” and the beautiful vocal melody of “Whisper in the Night” foreshadow the classic work Wood was about to release as a solo artist. But Wood produces the only soft spot on the record, the plodding experimental “The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644)”, a collection of orchestral tricks and simple tunes in search of a melody.
Lynne’s songs don’t cover the same kind of range as Wood’s, but they hint at the direction the shameless pop writer wanted to take the band. The piano and strings of “Mr. Radio” successfully disguise a pleasant Lennon-McCartney knockoff. “Nellie Takes Her Bow” is a marathon of key changes and bleating instrumental hooks. Nestled alongside Wood’s songs, they’re great fun. But after touring behind the album in the UK and Italy, Wood left the band in 1972. It was Lynne’s turn to step up to the plate. And when the first ball came, he whiffed it.
E.L.O. II isn’t a disaster, but it’s close. Lynne rebounded from Wood’s departure by hiring a full band that could play his songs in the studio and on tour. It would be the model for the rest of E.L.O.’s career, but here it’s often an atonal experiment. “In Old England Town (Boogie No. 2)” is based on a show-offy, ugly Wagnerian strings hook, anchored by badly distorted vocals and lasting for seven long minutes. The anti-war ballad “Kuiama” is an easier listen for the first few minutes, but it drags on for a fifth of an hour. The length of these shouldn’t torpedo them. The ballad “Mama…” is better than anything Lynne wrote for No Answer, and it makes use of all of its length and instrumental gimmicks. But the brief experiment of E.L.O. as a prog-rock monster wasn’t a rulebook. It was a cautionary lesson that Lynne would never repeat.
It’s easy to recommend No Answer, and not so easy to recommend its sequel. Still, both albums shine a light on the development of an artist who deserves a lot more respect.