Search
  • Tony Harris

OLYMPIC STANDARD


In the course of my travels since leaving the UK, I have been fortunate still to see some of my favourite artists in concert and these gigs bring an added level of enjoyment because the relationships with the audiences are completely different.


They have different entry points, different favourites and different memories.


Who knew for instance that Tears For Fears were the most popular band in The Philippines during the 80s and 90s? They certainly didn't and were blown away by the reception they received to the point they came back the following year to play more dates and crafted a setlist around their audience requests.


I also had the privilege of being in the front row at The Budokan to see Duran Duran and Chic play together in Tokyo in front of an initially respectful audience that grew ever more excitable as the evening played out.


Admittedly, the reception is not always so exuberant as Morrissey's "Meat Is Murder" promo film accompanying his set-closer, would prove to an initially delighted and then deeply traumatised crowd.


Nevertheless, the opportunity to see some real milestone concerts back in London is one of the things I miss the most. I was reminded of this when I sat through the "Wembley Or Bust" film that was made to commemorate the headline gig at Wembley Stadium by Jeff Lynne's ELO.


I don't honestly believe anybody who came upon pop music around the time I did in the late 70s can have failed to feel the absolute joy that this performance managed to conjure for a hugely appreciative audience. If you're of a certain age, The Electric Light Orchestra may well have been, as they were for me, the first band you were "into".


What was so lovely about the show is how genuinely touched Jeff Lynne seemed to be that so many were happy to turn out to see him - not only that but they were word-perfect too.


He was obviously humbled at the outpouring of unfettered enthusiasm the audience had for him and his songs.


Of course, it had not always been so and Jeff's last attempt at putting himself out there had not ended well. He had initially split the band in 1986 after the release and poor reception of the "Balance Of Power" album which felt out of synch with the records of the time. He would go on and become heavily involved in production and of course, the Traveling Wilburys but was no longer really creating music of his own.


Until 2001, when he dusted off the Electric Light Orchestra moniker and recorded the "Zoom" album. It did not really make much of a sales dent and the tour that was due to accompany it was cancelled due to poor sales. After becoming victim to public apathy for a second time, Jeff Lynne largely withdrew from the industry.


It seems inconceivable that a man with such an incredible back-catalogue could be allowed to drift away


All of which makes his reaction at Wembley and indeed in the previous year at Hyde Park so utterly heart-warming. He was clearly quite over-whelmed at just how much public support there was for his work. Radio stations had pushed for him to play again; there were high-profile guest spots; re-issues and new albums were released; and finally the induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. It could not have happened to a more deserving and more charming character.


Nor indeed to his work. The Electric Light Orchestra remain the act to have the most Top 20 hits in America without a number one single and so the airwaves happily welcomed him back both in his old and new guises.


Nobody could begrudge Jeff Lynne and the Electric Light Orchestra their deserved recognition albeit late in the day. But clearly, despite all this revived interest, the acclaim he felt from the audience back in his homeland meant everything to him.


This was not the first time that he had been re-clasped to his nation's bosom because after an initial burst of excitement with the launch of the original Electric Light Orchestra with Roy Wood, their incursions into the UK charts under Lynne's leadership had been sporadic.


That was until the launch of our latest vinyl voyage, 1976's "A New World Record" which turned the band into chart regulars for the next six years.


The criticism that was always levelled at the Electric Light Orchestra, was their obsession with the Beatles, particularly around the later years with "I Am The Walrus" particularly cited as their key inspiration. Let's be honest if you are going to have a model to emulate, The Beatles are a pretty high bar for which to aim.


At the end of the 60s, Jeff had been in one of the nearly bands, the excellent Idle Race, who are very much the forerunners (if a touch more psychedelic) for ELO. They were instrumentally quite experimental and as with so many of Lynne's songs quite narrative in their nature - such as the hugely enjoyable "The Skellington and The Roundabout". However, if you have a copy of their second album "The Birthday Party", the inner gatefold was a retouched picture of the band's dream guest list for their titular event - unsurprisingly all of The Fab Four were to be found at their sumptuous affair.


Jeff Lynne has always loved the Beatles and has never cared that it bothered anyone.


I have always liked the fact that the Electric Light Orchestra had a clear vision of what they wanted to produce a combination of orchestral instrumentation with the more expected rock combination. Likewise, although they wrote strong songs (and therefore singles), their emphasis was always on putting together a complete piece that connected a la "Sgt Pepper" or indeed a classical piece.


The real breakthrough in ELO's sound came from Lynne's musical decision to use string sections in order to play parts that were not just sonic washes but instead themes that might normally be undertaken by guitars. Therefore, they were very consciously trying to ally their pop sensibility to the energy of rock and the craft of classical and, in so doing, created a signature sound which nobody has managed to emulate.


Like a great recipe, this took experimentation.


"Eldorado" was their first concept piece but lacked engagement whilst "Face The Music" despite having some very strong tracks such as "Strange Magic", "Evil Woman" and the thunderous instrumental "Fire On High" did not have the consistency throughout the album.


With the release of "A New World Record" in Autumn 1976, the band found the blend that they had been searching for and with this, their sixth release, created the most complete record of their career; the record that was the best summation of their vision.


From the operatic strings and choir that open up before the switch into a rocking groove for the opening track, "Tightrope", it becomes very clear that this is going to be a real musical adventure. It is still a hugely popular track that has featured on every tour since then more often than not as the opener. So good are its powers to set the scene for what's to follow.



Only really confident albums can set their stall out so quickly. A good example would be (the now terribly unfashionable) Coldplay's "A Rush Of Blood To The Head", whereby the energy, excitement and style is set from the first notes of "Politik" and create the desired intensity.


And Jeff Lynne was tremendously confident at this time. During the mastering stage of the album - a time when really all should have been put to bed -, he decided to tinker with "Telephone Line" and so was born the phone effect created on a Moog that so memorably introduces the song. However because their popularity was higher in the US, it is the American ringtone that's used.


Normally, an album might wait a little longer before slowing the pace down, especially after such a mighty opening, but this subtle opening creates a segue that is breathtaking and a song that is probably the most Beatles-esque on the album.



My first introduction to this album was on cassette and the order was different with "Telephone Line" being the album closer rather than "Shangri-La" which they moved to close side 1. So when rediscovering it on vinyl later, I went back to check. It seems an obvious closer but I think it is a braver choice at #2 as it seems to follow more of a classical sequence than a traditional rock one. A time to reset after the overture but with a song of strong emotional connection rather than filler. Like opera, the plot is set early.


And it's not even the best track.


Following that comes another of the hit singles, "Rockaria" which for several years I mispronounced "Rocker-ear" until being put right for such foolishness by a fellow in the class above. If a visitor from another world were to land on our planet (a concept that would appeal to Mr Lynne) and asked you to describe ELO you would play them this track. It is the archetype of what ELO were all about - the fusion of the rock and classical worlds.


Again, the opening of the record is crucial, as they use the operatic singer, Mary Thomas's false start and keep it in the mix. I find this incredibly important because it helps bring humanity to the narrative of the opera singer who switches sides to sing Chuck Berry. It is a moment sadly missing from the promo film but not the record.


What is particularly fascinating and may well be at the root of Jeff Lynne's continual appeal is that so many of his songs do have a narrative at their heart. This could well be attributed to the fact he always created his melodies and backing tracks and wrote his lyrics afterwards. Even he insists it is unusual but means he already knows his beginning middle and end already, and writes accordingly.



This is true also of his title track "Mission. A New World Record" which took up the science fiction theme that he would explore much more fully on their 1981 album "Time" but seems also to have acted as the inspiration for the spaceship that would go on to become their key piece of iconography and a mainstay of their live show.


Here, he writes of a race of alien invaders who come to Earth simply to observe human life From their vantage point, they see that although Earth may look beautiful when you put it under a microscope, there is a lot more suffering and the wonder is lost. It is actually a very different and surprisingly compelling way to look at a fairly well-worn theme.


This kind of fictional projection can be traced back to Jeff Lynne's early days of listening to space adventures on his dad's crystal set which he would champion in his delightful album "Long Wave" which included covers of songs he heard from the period growing up in Birmingham.


As I wrote earlier, acclaim from the British public was something that the band really craved and with the release of the first single off the album and its subsequent heavy rotation and sales success, they received it manifold. Lynne has talked of his sense of pride in hearing it on the radio with his father, whose radio had inspired him so many years ago.


Of course, this shouldn't really be a surprise because it is probably the finest song the band ever released... "Livin' Thing".


The initial solo violin intro, the pounding crash that follows and the pizzicato strings, lead majestically into the lines of "sailin' away on the crest of a wave". This is exactly what the music feels like as it soars to crescendos and then dips back down before coming up to its wonderful chorus.


It may well be that the music informed the lyrics but the concept of a relationship being as precious as a "livin' thing" is again far more nuanced than you might normally associate with this band.


It is a record where you are lost in its pace and it takes you with it like the tide "floating downstream". You slip, you slide, you roll and you ride - it is a solid-gold triumph.



"So Fine" seems to borrow closely from the style of American Radio hits with a driving tempo that seems similar to something like "Listen To The Music" by the Doobie Brothers. On the other hand, "Above The Clouds" seems to adopt the harmonies of the Beach Boys. There are references all over this record and yet they make something entirely fresh.


Of course, it is the Beatles with whom ELO are most closely associated and, as discussed, this was not something that the band ever chose to hide. In the closing track, "Shangri-la", which is the kind of forlorn but slightly magical record at which Lynne has always excelled, they even use the unlikely but apposite simile of a love "fading away like the Beatles on Hey Jude". If critics thought the heavy Beatles influence was a tar to with which to brush the band, then they were more than happy to embrace it.


John Lennon referred to the band as "the sons of the Beatles" and he meant that without any of his acerbic or derogatory wit. He genuinely felt they were exploring sounds towards which his former band would have headed. Of course, in the following decade he would work with the three (then) remaining Beatles - most especially George - and was, as we know, trusted with the herculean task of piecing together the two Anthology singles from John's old cassettes.


For certain, the Beatles did not think of ELO as a pale imitation or bandwagon jumpers but as a genuine musical force who explored the boundaries, as they would have done - and yet sadly never really chose to do with their own solo work particularly often.


However, it was to his own past that another of the highlights of "A New World Record" comes as they chose to cover "Do Ya" from his time with Roy Wood and The Move. It had originally been the B-side of "California Man", their last UK single whilst ELO was taking shape. The record was flipped for the US, where it was a very minor hit.


This recording though bearing the new hallmarks of the ELO vision still manages to rock up a storm and is probably the heaviest track on the album with some searing guitar hooks. ELO had been playing it live for several years before hand but decided to record it again as everybody thought it was a cover of Todd Rundgren, another purveyor of fine power-pop, who had chosen to play it with Utopia.



Most fans always go immediately to the band's next album "Out Of The Blue" as the zenith of their achievements but I think "A New World Record" is more concise, tighter and has an even higher production value. The songs are designed to segue into each other with all manner of little tricks - which would be repeated on the next album - such as the blues vocal before "Above The Clouds" or his introduction as Yreffej Ennyl at the start of "Mission". There's also the expertly sequenced key change that takes you from "So Fine" into the early strings of "Livin' Thing".


This was an album that was always intended as a whole piece and yet contained nine really powerful stand-alone pop songs. It is a Beatles-esque achievement.


A complete album.


What makes the album - and in truth the band from then on - was that they still had a sense of fun and playfulness; gone was the sonorousness of "The Battle Of Marston Moor". The concept of the band may have seemed quite highbrow and some of the musical references were certainly borrowed from well outside the Top 40 but at their heart was always to bring songs brimming with joyfulness.


I believe this is what has made Jeff Lynne's return so deserved because whilst the execution of his work was indeed complex, the intention was always simply to entertain - as was Mozart if we are to be honest. It could not seem to happen to a more humble and genuine star and the airwaves are better for it.


I only wish I could have been there to cheer him on at Wembley.

49 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All