In the 1970s the Electric Light Orchestra were one of the biggest bands in the world.
Often dismissed as Beatles soundalikes, they certainly filled a Moptop-shaped void but then swiftly outgrew it. Disco was coming through at the same time and front man Jeff Lynne’s masterstroke was to combine irresistible melodies to a four-on-the-floor disco beat, then soak everything in rich strings. The Beatles reinvented for the dance floor.
Despite being desparately unfashionable, the ELO were hugely successful. Their unchanging formula has outlasted disco, punk, acid house, britpop and hip hop. Now lauded and much-sampled, they are beloved by all, regardless of age, and through sheer longevity have finally achieved credibility. Perhaps only Abba compare.
And it’s because of the quality of the songs. Lynne’s genius for simple melodies, and love of storytelling, make every song into a little epic. The band originated in Birmingham and, like their Black Country contemporaries Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, a certain drizzle-soaked melancholy can be detected. But unlike those bands there is (nearly) always a happy ending. ELO’s magnum opus is of course Mr. Blue Sky, a complicated six minute rock opera that seems to be about a man coming out of depression and realising life is worth living after all (although I may be reading too much into it). My own favourites are Telephone Line and Wild West Hero: beautiful, unashamedly sentimental tunes that always bring a tear to my eye.
This is one of maybe four comebacks for the band since the 1980s. Now branded as ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’, this album supports a massive world tour (Wembley or Bust – perhaps the laziest title ever used in pop music) and is effectively a live greatest hits album. There are twenty-three tracks – all of them were hits. It is so slickly produced that the only clue it is live is the cheering at the end of each tune. And certain compromises were necessary: whoever is standing in for Olivia Newton John on Xanadu and the late Roy Orbison and Tom Petty on Handle Me With Care are poor substitutes. Unless Lynne had recruited some distinctive cameos (as Queen did with George Michael, Bowie and Liza Minnelli) the inclusion of these songs was only ever going to remind you how good the originals were.
If you like ELO you already have all these tracks, in which case this will act as a nice reminder of the gig. But if you are new to ELO this album is less impressive than the studio versions and I would urge you to seek out a compilation of the original recordings.
Photo courtesy of Carsten Windhorst.
For more on Jeff Lynne’s ELO and their tour click here.