I have been too hard on Jeff Lynne and Electric Light Orchestra over the years. The thickly-layered sound of many instruments, the underwhelming production of bass and drums, the harmonies that would be impossible for anyone but a record full of Queen-clones--all of these traits shielded the songs from me. But while I might praise a Tom Waits for how his gruff voice and gymnasium percussion might mask a beautiful melody and pronounce that genius, I have not been forgiving of how, at the other end of the rock spectrum, lush production can make a song seem slick and slight.
I stand corrected. I worked through a good bit of ELO's catalogue on Spotify recently, and what jumped out at me were the songs. "Evil Woman," "Do Ya" ( which I eschewed in favor of the original version), and other songs impressed me with their craftsmanship.
Indeed, it was always only "Can't Get It Out Of My Head" that always got a pass from me. For it was in that song that Lynne's vocal got passionate enough that he broke beyond the smooth production. Limited vocal overlays, minimal overproduction, yes, that's what got me. I couldn't find that honesty anywhere else in the canon.
But I forgot, I forget, that this is "prog Rock", or, better put, orchestral rock, and as such, that kind of raw rock influences are supposed to be minimized.
This week, I attended a Chattanooga Symphony performance for the first time in probably 25 or more years. We went for the expressed purpose of hearing Renee Fleming, "The People's Diva," and while her performances were spectacular, if all too brief, it is not her presence that left the dominant impression that evening.
It is more than once in these pages that I have stated in one form or another, "Live music is always worth making the effort to see." How funny, in a way, that my vision forgot to include classical music.
While we might enjoy the light classical sounds piping overhead when we are shopping in The Fresh Market or in any other setting that wants to sound sophisticated, the reality is that classical music is never better than when experienced live.
Like most cities of any size these days, Chattanooga is blessed with a crackerjack symphony where the conductors are more than competent and the musicians are crisp and precise. Certainly, that was on display the other night. While I'm not excited to hear them perform Beatles' tunes or Big Band numbers, which they must do to appeal to the popular crowd, when our symphony goes straight classical, nailing instrumental pieces by Mozart or backing the last songs written by Strauss or the like, their live "vibe" is as soaring and spectacular as a rock show. We just forget that, don't we?
And so I celebrate ELO tonight. I celebrate Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Procol Harum and all of the other bands that ventured into rock while pulling the classical touches (and sometimes entire orchestras) with them. That move can seem pompous, pretentious, or pandering, but tonight it feels like they knew the power of the live symphony, the live soprano. The music that has survived for centuries.
Those of us who have celebrated rock's many influences for many decades have, most likely, left the classical influence out of that celebration. ELO's biggest commercial moment was likely providing the theme song for years for ABC's Wide World Of Sports. The other prog rockers get little love these days. In fact, it was their influence, as much as anything, that led to the punk rebellion which changed rock forever (or at least from strings to synthesizers).
If you have the chance to hear a symphony live, take it. What other group that large plays so cohesively, so beautifully, so precisely? That's what ELO tried to superimpose on their sound with some, otherworldly success. That's what your local symphony does as a matter of course. And all music is worth hearing live, including classical. Especially classical. Rockingly classical.