Saturday, 28 May 2016

In praise of ELO

Recently I realised the important part that ELO (originally the Electric Light Orchestra) has in the Soundtrack of My Life.

I have never bought nor sat down and knowingly listened to any album by this band. Nor single. Yet so so prolific was its output of airplay-friendly songs, that during my peak radio-listening days (early 1970s to early 1980s) ELO tunes were always there in the background, unavoidable.

No one that I associated in those days with would for one second admit to liking ELO. Especially during the exciting days when punk rock ruled. Here was a band that still wearing flared trousers, with a bearded lead singer with big hair - no. Unacceptable. 1977 was the year of the Pistols, Clash, Ramones, Damned, Stranglers etc - not a year in which one could profess to liking songs like Telephone Line or Turn to Stone and remain fashionable. Yet tune into daytime listening on National Radio 1 (275 and 285 on the medium wave band) and you were far more likely to hear ELO than something to which one could pogo.

No one back then would say to me "I really like ELO". Yet today, in retrospect, I can see that the band had crafted some outstanding tunes that were catchy while not banal - and - Most importantly - had stood the test of time. Take Mr Blue Sky. How many of you who grew up in the 1970s have it in your record collection (as a single, or as a track on the album Out of the Blue, on vinyl, cassette or CD)? Yet how many of you can conjure the song up in your heads now, effects and all, from the beginning right through to the last words, sung through a vocoder - "please turn me over"?

The first two singles were still from a band it was hip to like. 10538 Overture and Roll Over Beethoven - arguably better than Chuck Berry's original. But then trends moved on, fashions changed, and ELO was spectacularly uncool. Song after song entered the charts and my (sub)consciousness. Well-crafted pop tunes that stood head and shoulder among the here-today-gone-tomorrow stuff.

But hey, these guys were from Birmingham. Not Liverpool, not London. Britain's second city had a thriving but disparate music scene that had neither the glamour of the capital nor the right-place-at-the-right-time cachet of Liverpool. ELO was formed by Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, both of The Move, a reasonably successful band. The idea was to add electronically-amplified strings to the rock music, cellos and violins, to create a cross between a Phil Spector-style wall of sound and the intricate production that George Martin gave to the Beatles. Roy Wood left after 10538 Overture to form Wizzard, consigned to the railway sidings of pop history for I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day. (Well that and Ball Park Incident and See My Baby Jive).

ELO songs are philosophically shallow; do not look for poetry in the lyrics, do not look for insights into the human condition, you will find none. The words do what words should do in pop - prevent the tunes from being mere instrumentals. The human voice adds another detail, that's all.

ELO tunes figure strongly among those that Remind Me Of Where I Was When They Were Hits. Livin' Thing, for example, along with Joan Armatrading's Love and Affection and Chicago's If You Leave Me Now were played to death on Radio 1 during my first weeks at university, October 1976. ELO's Livin' Thing was also played incessantly on the jukebox at the Port O' Call, Earlsdon, Coventry, where I'd pop by for a pint of mild and a bag of pork scratchings of an evening.

And when Disco arrived, ELO's singles output subtly embraced the genre, with a danceable beat which any DJ could fade in and out of a Donna Summer or Chic twelve-incher. The hits continued. Until 1983, when the hits petered out and I grew out of listening to daytime radio.

I can say that I've always liked David Bowie, James Brown, early Roxy Music; I can say that certain albums hold a special place in my affections - Trick of the Tail by Genesis, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and Meddle by Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen's bleak Nebraska. Plus much of the punk canon. But ELO - it was just there. Today, it can be appreciated for what it is - extremely good pop that had somehow wormed its way into the library of my consciousness.

Here's a YouTube playlist of 18 ELO songs. [Some may be blocked for copyright reasons in some countries.] If, like me, you lived in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s, memories of those years will come flooding back to you.

Interesting Rock'n'Roll fact. As of today, Chuck Berry (89), Little Richard (83) and Jerry Lee Lewis (80) are still alive.

This time last year:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda

This time four years ago:
Work starts on ul. Gogolińska

This time four years ago:
Waiting for The Man

This time six years ago:
The Flavour of Parallel reviewed

This time eight years ago:
Twilight in the garden

This time nine years ago:
Late May reflections

1 comment:

Neighbour said...

Re. the last sentence of yóur post - life begins after 80. :-)
There is still something in front of us!

Best regards,
Neighbour (50 this Dećember)