Saturday, July 20, 2024

A beginner’s guide to: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)

From the ashes of The Move, the Electric Light Orchestra took the psychedelic sonic experiments of late 60s Beatles and added lush orchestration, giving colour, pomp and spectacle to the 70s.


When the Idle Race’s Jeff Lynne and The Move’s Roy Wood met on the 60’s Birmingham club circuit they formed an instant friendship. Taking their inspiration from the futuristic sounds of The Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’, they shared a desire to explore the use of strings and orchestration in songs, something which was lacking in the late 60s colourful musical palette. So when Carl Wayne left The Move in Jan 1969, Wood saw an opportunity to invite Lynne to join with the focus on exploring this experimental new sound – far removed from the recognised “Move” sound. In July of the same year when Wood added cellos to the Lynne-penned, originally intended Move B-side ‘10352 Overture’ – which made it into the UK top 10 – the Electric Light Orchestra was born and The Move was no more.

The Electric Light Orchestra’s debut concert took place on 16 April 1972 at the Greyhound Pub in Croydon, Surrey with a line-up of Wood, Lynne, original Move drummer Bev Bevan, Bill Hunt (keyboards), Andy Craig (cello), Mike Edwards (cello), Wilfred Gibson (violin), Hugh McDowell (cello), and Richard Tandy (bass). But this line-up was not to last. Craig left very soon after this and only a few months post their self-titled debut album release that same year, Wood donned his platform boots and left to form Wizzard, taking Hunt and McDowell with him.

Supposed ructions with their manager Don Arden after a bad tour of Italy and complaints of the violins and cellos being drowned out by the electric instruments, had instigated the departure. Lynne was left to follow his muse and write and produce for the band, with Richard Tandy switching from bass to keyboards and Mike de Albuquerque and Colin Walker joining them on bass and cello respectively. Sound issues resolved, the new line-up played at Reading Festival. With this lush orchestral enhancement breathing new life into the band, they released the art rock The Electric Light Orchestra II in 1973, which produced their second UK top 10 single and their first US chart single – a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.


This was followed in 1974 by On The Third Day, which showcased Lynne’s talent for melody as demonstrated on ‘Showdown’, a song written in Lynne’s parents’ living room in Birmingham. During the recording, Wilfrid Gibson was let go over a financial dispute and Colin Walker left citing touring pressures on his family life. Mik Kaminski joined on violin and original cellist Hugh McDowell came back from Wizzard, taking up the role that Walker had vacated.

As the albums increased so did the experimentation. Their fourth in 1974, Eldorado, A Symphony was a concept album about a daydreamer with added choir. The first single from it ‘Can’t’ Get It Out Of My Head’ was their first US top 10 hit and the album went gold. Mike de Albuquerque left during recording citing touring pressures on his family life. As a result, Lynne played most of the bass on the album. Kelly Groucutt took up this role shortly after the album’s release and Melvyn Gale replaced Edwards on cello at the start of 1975. The band hit the big time in the US playing tirelessly in the arenas and stadia. This kept them busy until the release of their next album the same year Face the Music which produced their third top 10 hit single ‘Evil Woman’. The US’ love affair with the band continued as the album’s opening instrumental track ‘Fire On High’ was adopted as the theme tune to the CBS Sports Spectacular programme.

By their sixth album, 1976’s platinum selling A New World Record, the band had hit their stride and were entering their purple patch. The album was their first in the UK top 10 and spawned a handful of hit singles most notably ‘Livin’ Thing’ and ‘Telephone Line’, which was written on an old out-of-tune upright piano. After another tour of the US they released the multi-platinum double album and arguably their best: Out of the Blue with the hits ‘Turn to Stone’, ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’, ‘Mr Blue Sky’ and ‘Wild West Hero’ being some of their most celebrated and iconic songs. The success of the album heralded a huge show-stopping world tour in 1978 comprising of space ships and laser shows. Billed as the Big Night in the US the gigs became the highest grossing live concert tour up to that point. They also set another record by selling out Wembley Stadium on eight consecutive nights.


In 1979 they released their eighth studio album Discovery (or Disco? Very! as it was known to fans). The album marked a transition for the band, both due to the change in musical direction (it’s heavy disco influence didn’t sit too well with their fans) and it lacked the resident strings trio of Kaminski, McDowell and Gale, whom Lynne deemed “superfluous to requirements” The biggest hit from it though ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ was decidedly rock fuelled.  By the end of the year ELO had reached their commercial peak; selling out the biggest venues in the US and the UK and shifting millions of records. After turning down the headline slot at Knebworth (Led Zeppelin were more than worthy stand ins!) Lynne turned his hand to musicals, co-writing the soundtrack to Xanadu starring Olivia Newton John of Grease fame. The film was a box office flop but the soundtrack went double platinum. The album produced the hits ‘All Over The World’ and the title track which went to #1 in the UK, the band’s only single to reach the top spot.

Synths replaced strings for the 1981 SC-FI concept album Time which topped the UK album charts for 2 weeks. A world tour followed with new synth members Louis Clark and Dave Morgan and Mik Kaminski called back into the fold. Lynne wanted to produce another double-album but this was deemed too costly by the record company CBS so Secret Messages was therefore a 1983 single disc release, which reached the top 5 in the UK but was dogged by rumours of the band splitting up. Drummer Bev Bevan had started playing for Black Sabbath and bassist Kelly Groucutt had left during the recording, leaving Lynne to again play the majority of the bass on the record. Bevan returned and due to contractual obligations, went into the studio again with Lynne and Tandy in 1985 to record Balance of Power released the following year. Only one track ‘Calling America’ made it into the top 30 in the UK with the rest of the singles failing to chart. Kaminski, Clark and Morgan re-joined the band with Martin Smith enlisted on bass. A few shows in the UK and the US, including one in Birmingham which saw George Harrison make a guest appearance for the encore led to their final gig for several years in Stuttgart where they supported Rod Stewart.

During the next two years Lynne turned his hand to record producing for the likes of Tom Petty and George Harrison as well as becoming a Travelling Wilbury alongside Petty, Harrison, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. The group officially disbanded in 1988 and with agreement from Lynne, Bevan formed ELO Part II in 1989. He released an album The Electric Light Orchestra Part II in 1990 and toured with Kaminski, Groucutt and McDowell in 1991. McDowell left after the tour and they recorded a second album Moment of Truth in 1994 and toured again. Bevan called it a day in 1999 and sold his share of the ELO name back to Lynne in 2000.

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A retrospective boxset called Flashback marked Lynne’s comeback to ELO in 2000 and a new album Zoom followed suit the next year. Though it was billed as an ELO album only Tandy from the original line-up was on it. The rest were guest appearances including former Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison. Lynne reformed the band with completely new members and announced a tour that was subsequently cancelled. The next decade saw re-issues and live DVD releases but no more performances. It wasn’t until November 2013 that Lynne and Tandy reunited again to perform, under the name Jeff Lynne and Friends at the “Children in Need Rocks” concert at Hammersmith Eventim Apollo, London. On the back of this and buoyed by Chris Evan’s Radio 2 breakfast show, they played as Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio 2’s “Festival in a Day” in Hyde Park the following year. All 50,000 tickets sold out in 15 mins. In November 2015 they released the album Alone In The Universe embarking on a world tour in 2017. That same year, the original members of the band –  Wood, Lynne, Bevan and Tandy – were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jeff Lynne’s ELO are still touring and have recently announced an extensive UK arena tour, which includes three nights at Birmingham Arena.

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Fun fact

In 1995, Jeff Lynne produced The Beatles “Free as a Bird”, a studio re-working of John Lennon’s 1977 home demo recording:

“I came to the first session with George and we were late, which was a bad start. Ringo and Paul were already there. All four of us sat down at a table, the first time they’d all been together for about 20 years. They spent a long time talking about the old days, just reminiscing. I was thrilled to bits. It was what I always dreamed of”. (Rolling Stone)


Studio Albums – 13

Singles – 50

Highest chart position – #1 (Xanadu– 1980)

Best tracks

10352 Overture

The opening salvo from Lynne and Wood’s Beatles inspired sonic journey set out their stall very clearly. The first track to be released from the band’s debut album The Electric Light Orchestra, it wore its late 60s Beatles influences firmly on its sleeve. With psychedelic stereo panning, dramatic cellos and distorted vocal lines there was no question of where they had come from and where they were heading.


Livin’ Thing

Taken from their 1976 A New World Record Album, ‘Livin’ Thing’, with its pizzicato, mariachi string opening and Lynne’s perfect slice of a pop chorus, ticks all the feel good boxes and them some as well as demonstrating what great song craft sounds like. It is no wonder that Q voted it the #1 Guilty Pleasure in 2006. But why feel guilty about loving this?


Mr Blue Sky

Probably the most well known and recognised of all ELO tracks, the song was originally written in Switzerland, where Lynne was staying in a mountain-top chalet. “The sky was misty and cloudy for the first few days until it all suddenly lifted and then there was just blue sky.” Written as the finale of his ‘Concerto For A Rainy Day’ suite off their 1977 epic Out of The Blue album, the track still has universal appeal to young and old alike, again firmly ticking that feel good box with stomping piano and coruscating vocals. Interestingly the cowbell used on the track was credited as a “fire extinguisher” .


Wild West Hero

Again taken from their epic 1977 Out of The Blue album, this was the closing track and the third single release from it, reaching #6 in the UK charts in 1978. Supposedly written in four minutes the song saw Lynne as an aspiring gunslinger with his crescendoing choruses riding off into the sunset. It also had resident cellist Melvyn Gale supplying the Western style piano.


Don’t Bring Me Down

The only rock inspired single and another closing track (noticing a pattern here?) from the disco influenced 1979 album Discovery. The highest ELO single to chart in the US at #4, reaching #3 in the UK top 10. During the recording Lynne decided to fill a gap in the vocals with a made-up word “grooss”, which one of the engineers informed him sounded like the German word for “greetings”. However, when the band sang it live, the audience misheard it as “Bruce” which Lynne eventually took on board and sang as a replacement.


Notable Performances

1 – Greyhound Pub, Croydon, Surrey, April 16th 1972

On Sunday 16 April 1972, ELO played their first gig to an audience of 7 at the Greyhound Pub. Cellist Mike Edwards used an orange and a grapefruit to finger the strings as a gimmick whilst a music magazine wrote “Roy Wood has problems trying to play a large range of instruments, and often trips over various wires”.

2 – The Big Night, Cleveland Municipal Stadium, US, July 15th 1978

In the late 70’s ELO took the US by storm, peaking with a spectacular show in Cleveland to an audience of 62,000. Introduced as “The English guys with big fiddles” ELO brought their spaceship and lasers show to the American masses. With support from Journey and Foreigner, the concerts set a record for the highest grossing concert tour to date.

3 – The Heart Beat 86, NEC Birmingham, March 15th 1986

The Heart Beat 86 was a benefit concert held at the NEC on 15 March 1986, organised by ELO drummer Bev Bevan to raise money for Birmingham Children’s Hospital. The concert featured local bands perform including founding ELO member Roy Wood performing his Christmas hit ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ and ELO performing ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’. The finale featured a surprise appearance from George Harrison playing ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and opened up a new chapter for Lynne as it signposted his route to becoming a Travelling Wilbury and go to record producer of the late 80s.

Read: A beginner’s guide to: The Move

Read: A beginner’s guide to: The Streets