Electric Light Orchestra

TrackAlbum
DaybreakerOn The Third Day
Fire On HighFace The Music
One Summer DreamFace The Music
Shangri-LaA New World Record
It's OverOut Of The Blue
The FallXanadu
TwilightTime
StrangerSecret Messages
Moment In ParadiseZoom
I'm Leaving YouAlone In The Universe

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Contributor: Damien Spanjer

As readers of my previous contributions will know, I don’t shy away from taking on the big guys. Who else would be crazy enough to do a Toppermost about ABBA, right?

Well, Mamma Mia, here I go again … this time taking on another iconic seventies band … Ladies and Gentlemen, the Electric Light Orchestra!

Electric Light Orchestra photo

Electric Light Orchestra circa 1975 (l to r): Hugh McDowell (cello), Richard Tandy (keyboards), Kelly Groucutt (bass), Jeff Lynne (guitars/vocals etc), Melvyn Gale (cello), Mik Kaminski (violin), Bev Bevan (drums)

Since I had yet to be born when their 2-LP epic, Out Of The Blue was released in 1977, I came to be a fan of ELO long after their heyday. Zoom (2001) was the first ELO album I purchased on the day of release and since Jeff Lynne revived the moniker as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” in late 2015 for Alone In The Universe, this is as good a time as any to revisit the back catalogue and pick out the standout tracks that have meant so much to me since I first boarded the Wurlitzer-inspired neon space ship.

One thing ELO did particularly well in the early days was instrumentals. My selection kicks off with one from their third LP, On The Third Day. The fusion of strings and moog on this track combined with a driving rock shuffle combine to create a track full of excitement and urgency. Daybreaker was somewhat overshadowed by a rocking Grieg rendition on the same album and hasn’t received the recognition it deserves.

The other instrumental among my selections, Fire On High, has a much higher profile having been used extensively as a musical embellishment for television sports coverage, other live events and occasional radio airplay. The track opens ELO’s fifth album, Face The Music, with a Hitchcock-esque eeriness and launches into an epic duel between acoustic guitar and violin.

Face The Music is the only album to feature twice in this Toppermost, as One Summer Dream is an enduring favourite for many fans. During the taping of 2001’s Zoom Live DVD, Jeff and the band surprised us all by performing the song live. It was a completely unexpected inclusion and a truly sublime experience. The song is the sonic equivalent of a warm hug and the lyrics are pure poetry.

Picking a favourite from A New World Record is not an easy task. The landmark 1976 release is packed full of hits and hit-worthy album tracks. I chose the lush-yet-introspective ballad Shangri-La for its nod to Lynne influencers, The Beatles, its beautiful chord progression and its dreamy coda. An underrated pop masterpiece.

Now we’ve reached the point in ELO’s career where things really started to get out of hand. Lynne’s “everything-including-the-kitchen-sink” approach to production was in full flight for Out Of The Blue and spawned five singles, four of which charted well in many territories. I’ve chosen the fifth single, It’s Over, for its (relative) simplicity and those jangly 12-string guitar layers, which bind it all together. It sounds as fresh today as it ever has. A great song well recorded.

Strap on your skates and turn up the volume as it’s time to enter the magical world of Xanadu. Well, not such a magical movie. It has a cult following of (mostly) gay fans (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”), but by all objective measures it’s an abysmal film. The soundtrack, however, is some of the finest pop ever written and produced by both Jeff Lynne and my compatriot John Farrar (Farrar’s eponymous 1980 solo album is worth a listen if you can track it down). I love the contrast in The Fall. Tension builds in the verse narrative, which is then released in a big glossy chorus. Superb.

Fans of today’s electronic genres would do well to listen to Time, possibly the finest synth rock album of its era. The prologue segues into the epic Twilight, which blows my mind every time I hear it. Words really can’t describe this track. It just has to be heard, along with the whole album, in a darkened room while wearing headphones.

Secret Messages was originally conceived as a double album and having heard all of the tracks that would have comprised the album, I am glad it was edited down. I’d still have swapped out a couple of other songs to ensure a place for Hello My Old Friend, but I was only 5 years old and not employed at CBS when that meeting took place so I wasn’t consulted.

But I digress.

As tempting as it was to nominate Hello My Old Friend or even the brilliant title track (the latter track being similar in many ways to Twilight), I have instead given the gong to Stranger. I love the atmosphere of Stranger, evoking a mild winter’s night in a faraway place; almost like a dream sequence. I’ve enjoyed this song so much over the years that I chose it as my contribution to 2010’s Scattered Light, a fan tribute album which sold a few copies and raised some money for charity. Check out my Soundcloud profile to hear the song in a slightly warmer setting.

Moment In Paradise was the first song I heard from 2001’s Zoom, when another fan with access to an advance copy shared the track with me via email, so as my first taste of “brand new ELO” since becoming a fan, the tracks holds a special meaning for me. Zoom was a fine album but ultimately failed to relaunch ELO as was hoped at the time.

Finally, I am including a track from the brand new “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” album, Alone In The Universe. Backed by a superbly executed social media campaign, this album has performed much better than Zoom in the charts and has set the stage for sold-out tour dates this year. The track I’ve chosen is I’m Leaving You, a beautifully written and produced stylistic tribute to Roy Orbison.

A key aspect of Lynne’s songwriting that first caught my ear was his chord progressions. Rather than leaning on predictable I,IV,V progressions or 12 bar blues, he (and others, like Orbison, who inspired him) turned songwriting into a master craft, borrowing from the classical, pre-pop and stage traditions to create music capable of conveying emotion without words, inducing a swoon in response to a sweet chord change in its context. I’m Leaving You is a fine example of this concept in practice.

Fans of the master lyricists (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, etc) tend to miss the point with artists like Lynne and Orbison. Edgy lyrics can only take you so far. Well-crafted melody and harmony transcends language and culture. A song doesn’t have to “say something” to be meaningful. Jeff Lynne has proven this time and again with ELO’s enduring worldwide appeal.

 

 

Jeff Lynne’s ELO

Face The Music – ELO & related artists fanzine

A Jeff Lynne and related blog

Discovery – Jeff Lynne & ELO site

Showdown – The ELO Mailing List

ELO Beatles Forever

Jeff Lynne Song Database

Light Years Ahead – the rarest collection of ELO records

Electric Light Orchestra biography (iTunes)

BAND MEMBERS

Mike Edwards (1948-2010)

Wilfred Gibson (1942-2014)

Kelly Groucutt (1945-2009)

RELATED LINKS

Roy Wood Toppermost #210

The Move Toppermost #198

Traveling Wilburys Toppermost #413

The Idle Race info

Damien Spanjer is a Sydney-based keyboardist/guitarist and founding member of studio outfit Starflight. Check out his Soundcloud page for samples of other works.

TopperPost #501

3 Comments

  1. Simon Sadler
    Feb 5, 2016

    I’ve loved Fire On High ever since I picked up a copy of the Livin’ Thing single, for which it was the b-side. I haven’t delved much into the obscurer reaches of the band’s catalogue but this looks like a good way in.

  2. David Lewis
    Feb 6, 2016

    Telephone Line is a masterpiece of writing and production. I also like their contributions to the Xanadu soundtrack, even if the movie is wretched. A quietly talented man with massive gifts. Or massively gifted man with quite a talent.

  3. Jerry Tenenbaum
    Feb 14, 2016

    ‘Well-crafted melody and harmony transcends language and culture.’ The essence of Jeff Lynne. I’ve admired his work from the start, including his solo projects.

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