Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Electric Light Orchestra

The Beatles (typically referred to as The White Album) was in many ways a Bildungsroman, an album in which each Beatle was discovering a sense of self; and it feels that way.  Based on its shear lack of concept or continuity, The White Album was essentially the first of The Beatles' solo efforts; as if The Beatles, in spite of their continued triumph, were unraveling before our eyes.  The solo albums before the breakup (Wonderwall, Sentimental Journey, All Things Must Pass, McCartney and Plastic Ono Band) were obviously the work of Beatles, but in each, post April '70 was more than apparent. 

It's interesting that it wasn't the solo careers that plodded on in Beatle fashion, so much as generations of artists with Beatle souls.  From Tears for Fears to Jack's Mannequin and Death Cab for Cutie, the influence is palpable and appreciated.  The most underrated and overlooked of these is ELO, Electric Light Orchestra.  Originally a side-project of The Move, founding Members Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan found themselves devoting all their time to the new concept and soon the The Move was no longer. More so than Klaatu or even Badfinger, ELO was heavily inspired by The Beatles, setting out to develop a style combining rock and classical elements. The Moody Blues had done it popularly with Days of Future Past, and the Beatles had been mixing it up since Rubber Soul, but it was Electric Light Orchestra that integrated the classical aspect fully into a rock band.

The first two, somewhat uneven, albums exhibited concept over content, despite minor hits in "10538 Overture" and "Roll Over Beethoven," but it wasn’t until On The Third Day (AM7), in 1973, and Eldorado (AM8) in '74, that the band came into its own.  On The Third Day was a culmination of ELO's early period. Jeff Lynne's vision of the rock band and chamber ensemble was fully realized. The suite that makes up side one is a marvel of eclectic experimentation and a natural extension of the medley from Abbey Road, however dissimilar the concepts.  Of special note are "Showdown" and "Oh No Not Susan" (one of my first exposures in music to the f-word, now commonplace and not so fun anymore).

On the Third Day sounds like canned John Lennon, both literally and figuratively. In the figurative sense, Jeff Lynne writes as though he's picking up a ball that Lennon dropped. Literally speaking, the production values suggest Lennon's Mind Games, with too much compression. Lennon himself liked E.L.O., and I can understand why. He recognized the gimmickry (backwards guitar, orchestration and synthesizer blends, not to mention the Beatle-esque chord changes on virtually everything) as something he originated at a time when his own creativity was scattershot. In 1974, Lennon appeared on WNEW-FM (and KMET in Los Angeles) to play a few songs and to promote the album Walls and Bridges. Spinning songs with DJ Dennis Elsis, Lennon played "Showdown" calling it a combination of Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes" and Marvin Gaye's "Heard It through the Grapevine." He was being honest, and kind. Today, it sounds like a Danger Mouse mash-up of Gaye, Christie, and the Beatles - sort of a "Motown Mystery Tour."

Eldorado, billed as "A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra" was a concept album about the grandiose dreams of a white collar worker with  a humdrum "bank job in the city." "Overture" and "Can't Get it Out of My Head" lay out the foundation for the story, and remind us that, in dreams, "no pain may kiss the brow/the love of ages fills the head." Musically, the "orchestra" is in full bloom throughout the album, a heavenly concoction of strings, synths, and guitar work alternately shimmery and biting. "Mister Kingdom" is a fine prog-rock ballad that simply reeks of “Across the Universe,” and "Eldorado" is nearly majestic, as Lynne's voice ventures into a croony Roy Orbison, singing "I will stay, I'll not be back...I will be free, of the world." Simply a beautiful album.

And if any album cover has begged/hinted to its listeners to simulcast The Wizard of Oz while listening to the record it's this one, right? I haven't done it but I bet it's awesome. Why? Because anything involving Eldorado is awesome. (Also check out The Wizard of Oz, it’s about this girl who gets caught in a tornado and, well I don't want to spoil the rest...) Jeff Lynne considers Eldorado the first album that accomplished the sound he had set out to make when starting E.L.O. and it is indeed start to finish fantastic, it even has a reprise at the end which always makes us think we've come full circle and that we may have missed the bigger picture.