Electric Light Orchestra: Eldorado

Electric Light Orchestra

“The communion of the saints, in earlier times it was set by painters in a golden heaven, shining, beautiful and full of peace . . . It is the kingdom on the other side of time and appearances. It is there we belong. There is our home. It is that which our heart strives for . . .”
— Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf

“Romance is the deepest thing in life, romance is deeper even than reality.”

G. K. Chesterton

For many, the experience of suddenly waking up in the hereafter will be similar to that of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. Coming out of her Technicolor dream-state, Dorothy, surrounded by loved ones, describes what she saw and felt:

“But it wasn’t a dream…this was a real, truly live place. And I remember some of it wasn’t very nice. But most of it was beautiful. But just the same, all I kept saying to everybody was, ‘I want to go home.’ And they sent me home . . . Oh, but anyway, Toto, we’re home! Home! And this is my room — and you’re all here! And I’m not gonna leave here ever, ever again . . .”

According to one unofficial Electric Light Orchestra web site, the members of ELO were largely unfamiliar with The Wizard of Oz, so much so that they were actually disappointed with the cover art chosen for their fourth album, Eldorado. If that is true, then only the hand of divine providence could have orchestrated the sounds and themes that so perfectly meshed with the still image from the movie: the crooked fingers of the Wicked Witch of the West grasping for the unattainable — Dorothy’s ruby slippers. As it turned out, this Beatles meets the Moody Blues meets Dorothy meets Don Quixote of an album catapulted ELO to literal gold in the US., but fell flat in the band’s home UK. The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (edited in Britain) described ELO as “wildly unfashionable but commercially successful.” The prophet without honor in his homeland was Jeff Lynne, the single-handed mastermind behind nearly all of ELO’s material.

Lynne has endured a hailstorm of slings and arrows ever since taking the reins of ELO from fellow Move member Roy Wood, who went on the form his eccentric Wizzard at the turn of the ’70s. At its conception, ELO declared its purpose to “pick up where the Beatles left off with ‘I Am the Walrus'”. Not a bad place to start. But critics are finicky creatures, and despite their pining for “Beatle-esque pop”, they are quick brand an artist working in that idiom as “derivative” if not altogether “unoriginal”. Happily the masses don’t usually accept these condemnations. Under the canopy of intimidating prog orchestrations, ELO’s music was actually sweet pop as benign as a child’s snow cone. For most of us, Jeff Lynne was, at least at that time if no longer still, a songsmith that combined McCartney’s keen melodic sense with Lennon’s wit and irony. And Eldorado (named for the mythical, gilded king of a golden kingdom) struck a responsive chord, breaking through like sunlight on the buried desires of the discouraged and disillusioned ’70s audience. Thankfully, Sony’s Epic/Legacy label has reissued a gorgeous digital remaster of this album, which will carry its timeless message to another lost generation.

The album opens with an ominous, deep-voiced narration from Peter Ford-Robinson. His is the voice of reason and cynicism. In short, he is a critic. Enveloped in a dreamy, cinematic swirl of orchestration, he speaks of our protagonist (Lynne) as, “the dreamer, the unwoken fool”. This is immediately ironic, for who really is “unwoken”, the dreamer or the rationalist? Annie Dillard once wrote, “we wake, if ever we wake at all, to mystery.” She implies that the real sleepers are the efficient, routine-bound (most of us); those whose lives are too absorbed in temporal pursuits to recognize the beauty and transcendence within their grasp. We generally think of Dorothy’s adventure in the Land of Oz as her “dream”, when in fact it is a vivid and harrowing mirror of reality. The yellow brick road was beset by danger, trials, and temptations. There was a very real adversary, the Wicked Witch who sought to deprive Dorothy of the vehicle that would get her Home.

The scene depicted on the cover of Eldorado symbolizes the dilemma we face in various ways. Are we like the Wicked Witch, grasping for mere objects instead of the transcendence they represent? Are we satisfied to be like Almira Gulch, owning half the county and sending mischievous little dogs to the gas chamber? Or do we emulate Dorothy, shod with those blood-red slippers, sanctified and set apart, having nothing but a singular, consuming purpose of heart — to get Home? Brent Curtis (The Sacred Romance) wrote of “less-wild lovers” (food, drink, sex, career success, religious fanaticism, etc.) that divert us from the pursuit of our true desires. The melancholy hero of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” describes his brush with transcendence:

“Midnight on the water, I saw the ocean’s daughter
Walking on a wave’s chicane, staring as she called my name
And I can’t get it out of my head . . .”

Supply whatever experience gave you that sense that there is something deeper and more romantic to life. We have all tasted it in one form or another, and it will haunt us to our dying day. The question is what will we do with it. In the tragic last verse of the song, the (anti)hero reveals his fate, one that too many of us have succumbed to:

“Bank job in the city
Robinhood, William Tell, Ivanhoe, Lancelot — they don’t envy me
Sitting till the sun goes down
In dreams the world keeps going ’round and ’round”

The song soared into the Billboard Top 10, making it ELO’s first bona fide hit. Lynne once said that the title described people’s reaction to the song. He was more right than he could have imagined. Once we realize what our dream, our true desire is, it becomes an obsession. But the pathway is strewn with trouble. “Boy Blue” was the second single from Eldorado, but it failed make as big an impression. The song is a fitting sequel to the war epic “Kuiama” from Electric Light Orchestra II. It describes the reaction of townspeople to the return of a nameless soldier from a nameless conflict. As the track builds toward the crowd’s adulation, the music shifts from Spanish fanfare to Romanian dance, then climbs a staircase via Richard Tandy’s piano before erupting into a driving, E to C chord change on guitar and strings that never fails to send shudders up my spine. The celebratory mood of the song is quickly deflated by the soldier’s rebuke:

“One thing I have learned through these years
Is that no man should be stricken with fear
It should be that he walks with no care in the world

So my friends who are gathered today
Hear this clear, for I’ll not further say
That no man shall cause me to take up arms again”

A plummeting, descending speed dub of minor chord strings drags the song to a halt. Another obstacle is encountered on “Laredo Tornado”. The tornado in this song is our forgetfulness, the busyness of life that leads to the forfeiture of vision, where “clouds fill the sky / gone is the dream.” Lynne uses imagery from nature — the end of summer, the coming of autumn — to evoke the loss and heartache everyone experiences passing through life. While most kill their desires and harden their hearts, resolved to never be hurt again, Eldorado‘s protagonist refuses to relinquish his purpose. At the center of the album is “Mister Kingdom,” where the heart-cry is most strongly expressed:

“Oh, to sleep, perchance to dream, to live again those joyous scenes
The laughter and the follies that are locked inside my head
Help me, such a lonely soul, in dreams to leave behind the world
Mister Kingdom, help me please to find the rainbow’s end”

At the risk of sounding like the guru spoofed in the Monkees’ motion picture Head, I must say again that we are not speaking of being absorbed by fantasies or daydreams. The issue that Lynne is after, in a mythical way, is the heart. What is it that makes us come alive? It is whatever causes us to exclaim, “I was made for this!” The title track defiantly proclaims:

“Sitting here on top of everywhere, what do I care?
Days never end; I know the voyage’s end will soon be here
No eternal life is here for me
And now I’ve found the key to the eternal dreams
And I will stay; I’ll not be back
Eldorado, I will be free of the world . . .”

The Eldorado re-issue is a wonderful rock fantasia for the listener not afraid to be carried aloft by Jeff Lynne’s sweeping orchestral and choral arrangements. In addition to the original tracks, there is also a marvelous eight-minute instrumental track summarizing the album’s main musical themes. Eldorado was the first of many successful ELO albums that had in mind “the mission of the sacred heart”, a shimmering, purlined call to hold on tight to our dreams.