Friday, October 24, 2008

Listen w/o Prejudice: Electric Light Orchestra

The first in a series. Click here for the Preamble.

Electric Light Orchestra has been quite the advertising catch lately. In the last five years, I've seen ads using "Mr. Blue Sky," "Do Ya," and "Hold on Tight." Advertisers use these hits to sell their product mostly to folks in their 30s and 40s, who have heard these songs in our past lives as teens or pre-teens. So I'm kinda surprised at how many people I know don't really know that ELO sang all the songs they sang. They know the songs; they just never really cared who sang them.

More tragic, most of the people who are aware of Electric Light Orchestra and their musical past hate their ever-lovin' guts. For my generation, I can't immediately think of many other legitimately talented bands who earn the level of vitriol thrust on ELO. In a musical universe where practically everyone rips off the Beatles for profit, John Lennon described ELO as the "Sons of the Beatles."

I'd like to think that, when someone bigger than Jesus makes a declaration like that, it's worth pause. No matter how stoned he might have been when he said it.

Their number one proof that ELO sucks? Xanadu. Dude, even the Beatles and Bob Dylan farted out a bad apple every once in a while. That doesn't ruin their entire oeuvre. Not to mention that, um, some of us actually kinda enjoy the soundtrack to Xanadu. I haven't found anyone else yet who does, but I'm holding onto my faith that they're out there somewhere. (And mostly I'm talking about heteros here, 'cuz it's been made very clear that Xanadu is some kind of gay Panacea.)

[NOTE: Olivia Newton-John was my first crush. I was in lust with her before I even understood what the hell lust was. In both Grease and Xanadu, she's this wholesome princess who brings the movie to climax by turning into a ball-rockin' sex goddess... I had to believe she was magic.] 

The central creative force behind ELO was Jeff Lynne, easily one of the the more influential musical presences in pop music in the late '80s. He formed the Traveling Wilburys, thus sneaking his way into a group of four kick-ass legends and making a darn fine album to boot. He produced Tom Petty's rocket-shot beyond Heartbreaker stratosphere, Full Moon Fever (and co-wrote almost all the songs). He also produced the most successful 80s fare from Dave Edmunds, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Randy Newman. So, although Xanadu put his "band" in an iron lung, Lynne kept on making waves.

To remind folks like me of his pop brilliance, he came out with one last album, Armchair Theater, his only blatantly solo effort ever. While a flawed collection -- as were almost all of ELO's albums -- there are some genuinely great pop moments in there.

My all-time Top 10 ELO/Jeff Lynne songs (in alphabetical order, 'cuz I can't rank things without constantly changing my mind):
  • Calling America
  • Don't Bring Me Down
  • Don't Walk Away
    Remove this song from Xanadu, and forget that it was played during a particularly uninspired animated portion of said awful film, and what you have is an adorably sappy break-up song with killer orchestral flourishes, classic '60s backup singer repetition, and just enough falsetto to make any masculine man jittery. One of the great devices of pop song greatness is the ability to keep a song building in intensity, with an increasingly complicated arrangement, and it works wonderfully here.
  • The Diary of Horace Wimp
    OK, so the verses of this song take some getting used to, but by God the chorus is catchy. And when I say "by God," I mean Lynne throws that booming God voice in the background. I'm kinda surprised conservatives haven't adopted this one for it's "Marriage = One Man + One Woman" message... straight from the voice of God! Also, I'm a sucker for songs that follow the days of the week (Sting's "Seven Days" immediately comes to mind).
  • Last Train to London
  • Lift Me Up
    From Lynne's 1990 solo album, I've actually overheard this song on a couple of movie trailers in the past few years. It's not a transcendent pop song, but it's damn fine. More than 30 years after starting in the biz, Lynne still shows his gift for mixing mild electronica, those adorable background vocals, and a catchy-as-hell pop hook.
  • Mr. Blue Sky
  • Turn to Stone
  • Twilight
  • Wild West Hero
    This song doesn't belong on Out of the Blue. I like that album a lot, and I loooove this song, but it's totally out of place. What's a songwriting genius to do, though, when he writes a song to honor the soul and spirit of his childhood, maybe one of the coolest orchestral-electric-pop-western songs ever. It was written for boys who were my age when I first played it some 5,000 times on my turntable. I didn't love this song because I wanted to be a cowboy. I loved it because it spoke of yearnings so powerful you feel dizzy, of wishes you wish knowing damn well they're not gonna come true, but you just keep wishin' 'em anyway, 'cuz what are we if not creatures made of cells, tissue and wishes?
 Any number of ELO compilations and albums can be found on iTunes and's mp3 site.


Bob said...

Chalk me up as one of those with a general disdain for Jeff Lynne, though not for the reasons you mention. I knew nothing about Xanadu or ELO's pop downfall.

I just hate the guy's production values--the layers and layers of guitars, the layers and layers of voices, fake sounding drums. Parts of Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever are obviously pretty good representing reined-in Lynne, but by the time he gets ahold of Into The Great Wide Open, not only is the production bloated, it almost feels like he's infected the songwriting itself. How he got into the wilbury's I'll never now. Imagine someone like Ray Davies in his place.

In terms of infecting most everything he touches, I equate Lynne with Phil Collins.

Rant aside, "Can't Get It Out of My Head" (and the whole Eldorado sound)has always been one of my favorite songs. And "Do Ya" rocks, though the original, pre-ELO version is better.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Bob on all points, although ELO is 1 of my favorite guilty pleasures along with Ted Nugent, Head East, ABBA, Bangles, Heart, Kiss, Thomas Dolby, and Berlin. The station never gets changed in the car when I am surprised by "Turn to Stone."

Billy said...

I'm almost positive that Lynne's in the group because he was the brainchild behind it and, because George Harrison was a very close "mate" of his.

As for the "over-produced" accusation, I can't much argue it. Somehow, I struggle to enjoy music on the opposite end, music that feels unpolished and under-produced. Can I blame that on being hit in my formative years with the birth of MTV?

And Anonymous, that's quite the collection of "Guilty Pleasures." I guess my aim with this whole "Listen w/o Prejudice" thing is because I don't care to feel "guilty" about music I enjoy just 'cuz other people say they suck.

With the exception of Britney Spears videos.

John said...

But Billy, you LOVE Livin with Ghosts, as far from the Lynne sound as you're gonna get.

I had the ELO double album and played the crap out of it in high school, often in the dark with the headphones on. Guilty pleasure, indeed. But I have to agree with Bob that Lynne's production approach blows.

Anonymous said...

Billy: Guilty pleasure was probably not the proper term. Maybe second tiered artists would be more fitting. Like in your previous post, I have similar criteria for what constitutes "sucking." I don't think any of the artists I mentioned suck, and I don't feel guilty about liking them, but they ain't going to be confused with Dylan. Well, maybe Ted Nugent. I saw the Motor City Madman play a couple of years ago and the burning arrow through the osama bin ladin effigy brought down the house. Uh, maybe i do feel a little guilty about that 1, but he did play, Great White Buffalo Hunt, Cat Scratch Fever, Stranglehold, Journey to the Center of your mind, and Wang Dang Sweet Poon Tang back to back. Yeah, I still feel a little guilty about Ted.

Bob said...

I don't think we really feel "guilty" about guilty pleasures; it's more like we boast about them in an odd way. Even though we have aesthetic standards, blah, blah, blah, we still get hooked by a sentimental lyric or a rockin' guitar or a sing-along chorus.

As revealed on another message board, my G.P. list includes Bread, but also Goo Goo Dolls, Spice Girls, Tommy James and the Shondells, and Journey, to name a few.

Bob said...

See what I mean? Now I realize I'm competing to have cool Guilty Pleasure list. With no apologies.

By the way, no one should have to apologize for Heart or the Bangles!

Anonymous said...

The complete video commercials with the ELO songs are here: