By odd co-incidence, I just recently wrote a page about another of my favorite bands of the 1970s and 80s, Cheap Trick, and they share an influence with ELO in the 60s British band The Move. If you have a taste for British Invasion-style pop from the 60s and you haven't heard The Move (which, if you're American, you probably haven't), you owe it to yourself to hear some of their music. I highly recommend the album Shazam, but nearly everything they did is pretty good.
Anyway, in ELO's case the influence was about as direct as it can get - most of the original line-up came from The Move. Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Roy Wood had wanted his friend Jeff Lynne to join The Move for a while, but Lynne was leading his own band, The Idle Race (who are also worth hearing if you can track anything of theirs down). When that band failed to hit the big time, Lynne finally agreed to join The Move. It wasn't long before Wood and Lynne wanted to branch out and try something new, so they eventually formed a side project called the Electric Light Orchestra.
Inspired by the Beatles' latter day output, particularly the song "I am the Walrus", the two pop craftsmen had developed an interest in using orchestral instruments in rock music, especially the cello. ELO was formed to explore that idea. I have to admit that it was years before I got the pun in the band's name - they were using orchestral instruments, but they weren't a full-sized orchestra, more of a "light orchestra". And they were using electric instruments as well, thus the Electric Light Orchestra.
Eventually they scraped together a demo of the song "10538 Overture", and that was the tipping point. They decided they were more interested in pursuing the ELO project than continuing on as The Move, so after completing the contractual obligations of that group they put it to bed and became ELO full time. Coming along for the ride was The Move's drummer, Bev Bevan.
That trio gathered together some musicians who could play orchestral instruments, finalized the band's initial line-up and recorded their debut album. Unfortunately, having both Wood and Lynne in the band proved to be a case of too many cooks, so Wood decided to move on and form a new band called Wizzard. That left Lynne as the main creative force behind ELO, and he ran with it, eventually turning the group into one of the most creative and commercially successful bands of the 1970s.
Enough overview - let's move on to the individual albums:
The album is full of scratchy cellos, honking horns, falsetto vocals and baroque sounding arrangements. It sounds very little like what the band would eventually become, but after getting over the initial surprise, this album has grown on me a lot over the years. It's still probably my least favorite of the early ELO albums, but it has a lot going for it.
First there's the aforementioned "10538 Overture", which inexplicably became a hit song, at least in England. If you go for extended instrumental passages (and I certainly do), "Battle of Marston Moor" and "Manhattan Rumble" are great tracks. The acoustic guitar workout "First Movement" is a pretty blatant rip-off of "Classical Gas", but it's still a wonderful piece of music. Jeff Lynne wrote the most pop-friendly track on the album, "Mr. Radio". The album closes with what are probably its two oddest tracks, "Queen of the Hours" and "Whisper in the Night", which feature sparse instrumentation and falsetto vocals - those are definitely an acquired taste, but I like 'em.
I should mention the oft-repeated story of how this album got its American title. In England, it's simply known as Electric Light Orchestra. But in the U.S. it was released as No Answer. Legend has it that an executive from the American record company had his secretary call the British label to find out what the album's title was going to be. The secretary couldn't get through to anyone, so she just jotted down a note that said "no answer", and that became the album title.
I became obsessed with this album during my college years, and it has remained one of my favorite albums by any band. When I was a kid, my parents had an 8-track tape of the early hits album Ole' ELO, and while "Roll Over Beethoven" was an immediate favorite, I eventually came to really love the song "Kuiama", despite the fact that the 8-track would fade out in the middle of the violin solo, make a super-loud KA-CHUNK noise as it changed tracks and then fade back in.
I can't remember how I first heard ELO II - my memory is telling me that I copied the cassette from a guy I knew in college (which is how I initially built a good bit of my music collection until I had enough money to start buying CDs), but I think that memory is faulty. I think said guy was just another ELO fan who shared my love of this album. At any rate, when I finally heard the whole album, I quickly came to enjoy the songs "Mama" and especially "From the Sun to the World" as much as the tracks I had already heard on Ole' ELO. Oddly, the track "In Old England Town" (which seems like it was an attempt to duplicate the success of "10538 Overture") never really grew on me - it's an OK song, but it's easily my least favorite track on the disc.
The real masterpiece here is "Kuiama". I remember reading an on-line review someone had written that called the song "Lynne's wandering anti-war epic", and that describes it about as well as anything could. The lyrics seem to be about a soldier who is trying to explain to a war orphan who he has fallen in love with why he became a killer for his country. That's some deep stuff right there, but then couple it with over ten minutes of dark, epic sounding music that builds up to an amazing conclusion and you've got one of the best pieces of rock music to come out of a decade that created a lot of great rock music. Jeff Lynne really outdid himself on that song.
The track most people probably know from this album is the lengthy, orchestrated cover of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven", complete with an intro that quotes Beethoven's fifth. There's also the moody ballad "Mama" and the multi-part "From the Sun to the World" which features various sections that range from introspective piano to rockin' boogie. I like to think of it as a musical interpretation of a sunbeam's journey from its origin to Earth, but that's just how I hear it. I have no idea what the song is actually supposed to be about.
This is really just a great album from start to finish. It's a little too weird to have found mainstream success, and the band's later pop reputation probably keeps away some prog/art rock fans, so this is a sadly under-appreciated disc. It doesn't help that if you look this album up on Amazon, most of the reviews are actually for the debut "ELO Part 2" album, and make it sound like this disc is awful. Don't be fooled - this one is definitely worth picking up if you've never heard it. Modern rock music fans might be wondering why the album is made up of just five tracks - most of the tracks are in the eight to ten minute range. Remember, the early 70s were an era when British bands like Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd and others were putting out albums with side-long tracks, so as Jeff Lynne put it, long songs were the style at the time.
This album continues in the art/progressive rock style of ELO II. Side one is a suite of music - it's really just four pop songs, but Lynne tied them together by having instrumental interludes segue each song into the next, and by wrapping the whole thing in the "Ocean Breakup" intro/outro. The songs all range from good to very good, but taken individually I don't know that any of them would be amongst my list of personal favorite ELO songs. But the whole block taken together adds up to one of my favorite album sides. I find myself continually turning the volume up as this side progresses until by the time it gets to the thunderous "Ocean Breakup Reprise", I've got it cranked. Lynne would repeat this side-long suite idea again on Out of the Blue and Secret Messages.
Side two kicks off with an early minor hit for the band, the song "Showdown". Not really a favorite song of mine, but I dig the funky little keyboard part in the background. The side continues with a rollicking instrumental called "Daybreaker", which is mostly just a three note pattern repeated up and down the scale on a keyboard with various interludes and variations. After that we get the other track from this album that shows up on most ELO hits compilations, "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle". Catchy song with some mean sounding guitar and Jeff really belts those lyrics out...but what the heck are the lyrics supposed to mean?
"Dreaming of 4000" is a decent song with music that ranges all over the place and apocalyptic sounding lyrics ("Take heed of the warning, or you know it's gonna be too late!"), but overall it feels like kind of a filler track, similar to "Daybreaker". The album concludes with a big finale - a lengthy, orchestrated rock version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King". Sort of the flip side of "Roll Over Beethoven" - where that song created an epic by adding orchestration to a famous rock song, this one adds a rock element to a famous orchestral piece. "Hall" isn't quite as successful, but it's an interesting listen.
Overall, On the Third Day seems like the weak link amongst the band's art rock period (i.e. the first four albums), but it's still a solid record with several highlights and its own charm. If you liked ELO II or Eldorado but haven't heard this one, give it a try.
Although ELO did their fair share of touring, especially in the early days, Jeff Lynne has always said that he much preferred working in the studio to playing live. As if to reinforce that point, this was the only official live album that ELO released during their heyday, and it was only released in Europe. If I hadn't stumbled across an import copy at a CD megastore in the late 90s, I probably still wouldn't even know this album exists.
After years of reading about how ELO wasn't a good live band, I was very pleasantly surprised by this album. These guys were a smokin' good live band and added quite a bit to the live performances of their songs (not to mention doing some interesting covers). I just wish I had gotten a chance to see them in their prime.
The album starts with "Daybreaker", and while it seemed like a filler track on Third Day, it makes a great concert opener for getting the crowd fired up. The band then moves into a spirited rendition of "Showdown" (complete with extended instrumental ending) before shifting into a crowd-pleasing cover of the Beatles' "Daytripper" (complete with what sounds like Bach and Mozart musical quotes and some saltier lyrics than the original). Other highlights include a violin solo piece that leads into a blistering "Orange Blossom Special", a great live performance of "Hall of the Mountain King" and the obligatory encore of "Roll Over Beethoven".
I loaned this album to a co-worker who liked 70s rock but wasn't particularly an ELO fan, and after one listen he went online and ordered himself a copy. It's a great live disc.
Eldorado is a loose concept album about legendary lands and heroes, and a dreamer who aspires to those legends. After an orchestral overture track (complete with narration), the album settles into the first song, the addictive hit ballad "Can't Get It Out of My Head". The pace then picks up with "Boy Blue", a track about the homecoming of a war hero who swears that he'll not take up arms again (and an early instance of Lynne using "Blue" in a title). From there we move into a bluesy song called "Laredo Tornado" and then wrap up side one with "Poorboy (The Greenwood)", which is pretty clearly a song about Robin Hood, although it doesn't specify him by name. It's also one heck of a catchy, upbeat song.
Side two starts with a big swoop of synthesizer that settles into the somewhat morose and dreamy "Mister Kingdom". As that song builds towards its big conclusion, the orchestral part gets so shrill and repetitive that I was always hesitant about playing this album for other people. But when I tried it out on my sophomore roommate in college (who I thought would hate it), he said he actually really liked the album. So you never know. Next, the disc goes through a couple clichéd songs - there's the slinky, suggestive blues of "Nobody's Child" which jumps directly into the bouncy rocker "Illusions in G Major". Finally the album concludes with the overwrought (in a good way) title track, in which the dreamer looks back at all the album has shown him and decides to stay in Eldorado. That segues into "Eldorado Finale", in which the deep-voiced narrator repeats his line about the dreamer being a fool, high on a hill in Eldorado.
Overall this is kind of a hard album to describe, but it hangs together and works well as a concept piece. If you're a fan of 70s art rock or progressive rock, there's a lot to like about the first four ELO studio albums.
This was a transitional album for the band. The opening track, "Fire on High" is an artsy, high-octane instrumental with a fairly psychedelic intro section, and would have fit in well on the band's proggier early albums. The songs "Waterfall" and "One Summer Dream" are also kind of atmospheric and borderline art rock, but the rest of the album is straight-out rock and pop. With just eight tracks, none of them particularly long, this was a really short disc - only around 36 minutes of music. One wonders if the grind of recording six albums in four years and touring a lot to promote those albums was starting to wear down Jeff Lynne's creativity a bit.
In addition to the excellent "Fire on High", this album features the hit song "Evil Woman" which has made a lot of appearances in movies and on TV. In fact, starting with "Hold On Tight" from the Time album being used in coffee commercials in the 80s, I've noticed that ELO's music seems to be used in commercials and movie soundtracks more than any other band from the 1970s, at least here in the US. I wonder if Jeff Lynne has just let it be known that he'll gladly accept royalties for the use of his music in just about any context.
Anyway, both "Nightrider" (named after one of Lynne's early bands) and "Poker" (a song about the world of high-stakes gambling) are good rockers. "Strange Magic" was another hit, and "Down Home Town" is about the most twisted country song you'll ever hear. It sounds like a song written by a Brit who had seen one episode of Dukes of Hazzard and decided to write a song that was a semi-parody of the country genre.
All in all, this is a fairly good album, but for some reason it's not one that I've ever been all that wild about or have listened to excessively, like I have with the first four albums and some of the later albums. It's good, but other than the two hit songs and "Fire on High", it's not outstanding.
The first song is a great version of "Fire on High" - any band that could pull that song off live gets my respect. They immediately follow that up by tearing through high-energy versions of "Poker" and "Nightrider", getting the album off to a strong start. While making their way through the hits "Showdown", "Strange Magic", "Evil Woman", "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" and "Do Ya", they also work in a 13 minute medley of highlights from the Eldorado album. And of course, the encore is "Roll Over Beethoven".
Whatever the origins of this disc are, it's worth picking up if you're an ELO fan (and if you can still find it). This one should be combined with The Night The Light Went On (in Long Beach) to make a great two-disc live album of early ELO performances. I think there's only a couple songs that were on both albums, so you could even edit out the duplicates and fit it all on one CD. Someone get on that.
This is another short album - Face the Music was just 36 minutes and 24 seconds long, and this album is actually a couple seconds shorter than that! This is also another one that I just don't listen to very often, although when I do, I'm often surprised to find that there's a lot that I like here. The band had gone entirely pop by this point - there's nothing even as proggy as "Fire on High" on this one. But if you like bubblegum pop that practically came to define the sound of the mid-70s, this album has it in spades.
It's almost like Lynne saved up all of the stranger songs he had written for this album. There's the moody "Telephone Line", which starts with a synthesizer imitating a touch-tone phone (which I guess was high technology at the time) and then gets to our heartbroken protagonist, trying to will the telephone to put him in contact with his lost love while violins saw away in the background. Then there's "Rockaria!", a song that attempts to mix energetic rock music with opera. I can't say it's one of my favorites, but it's...interesting. Not to be outdone in the weird department, "Mission" is sung from the point of view of a homesick alien who was sent to observe the Earth. In lesser hands, these songs could have turned out really cheesy, but Lynne somehow pulls them off.
"So Fine" and "Livin' Thing" were both hits, and both sound to me like songs that could only have been popular in the 70s. There was a movie in early 80s called "So Fine" about a fashion trend of jeans with clear plastic back pockets (revealing the wearer's butt) - I have no idea if the movie was inspired in any way by the song, but I've always associated the two in my mind. The biggest hit song from this album was "Do Ya", which was actually an orchestrated remake of a song Lynne had recorded with The Move. The ELO version is good, but the Move's version was better.
Towards the end of the disc we get "Above the Clouds" and "Shangri-La", a couple of my favorites. The former is, as the title hints, and airy, atmospheric piece that is very melodic and catchy. The latter sounds like it might be a leftover from the Eldorado era, at least thematically.
So overall not a bad album - there are definitely a few highlights here, and several tracks that always show up on ELO compilation albums, but for some reason this is just a disc that never really grabbed me.
The story goes that Lynne rented a remote cabin and holed himself up for weeks in order to write this album, only to discover that he had writer's block. Then, with the deadline looming to start recording, he suddenly was inspired to create a double album's worth of new music in just a few days. Given that, it's surprising how consistently good this album is - it's not my favorite ELO disc, but it's up there. While the album may not contain a lot of home runs, it wins with a series of solid base hits.
Jeff Lynne has always been good at grouping together a set of songs into a solid album side, and on Out of the Blue he did it four times. Side one starts out strong with the irresistibly catchy hits "Turn to Stone" and "Sweet Talking Woman" and the beautifully melancholy "It's Over", but the highlight of the side might actually be the upbeat, Spanish-influenced track that closes the side, "Across the Border". There's not a weak song to be found on side one - it's a heck of a way to kick off a double album.
The energy on side two picks up right where side one left off with the rambunctious "Night in the City". That's followed by the mellow, dreamy "Starlight", the odd "Jungle" (complete with growling lion sound effects and tribal percussion) and the brief plea of "Believe Me Now". The first half of the album is wrapped up by the melodramatic "Steppin' Out". Time to get up and switch records.
The third side contains another of Lynne's side-long suites, this time with a title for the suite as a whole - "Concerto For a Rainy Day". It's made up of four songs. The first three, "Standin' in the Rain", "Big Wheels" and "Summer and Lightning" all summon up various feelings and images inspired by rainy days, and then the skys clear for the closer, the snappy little hit "Mr. Blue Sky" (which is another song that crops up in movies and commercials with regularity).
The final side kicks off with a syrupy love ballad, "Sweet is the Night". A sort-of-sequel to "Jungle" follows in "The Whale", a really cool underwater-sounding instrumental complete with guitar-generated whale song. "Birmingham Blues" pays tribute to Jeff's home town, and then "Wild West Hero" ends the album with harmony vocals that are sure to stick in your head.
If someone who had never heard any 1970s pop music were to ask me for one album to represent the genre, I'd be likely to go with Out of the Blue. I was tempted to say it's the best pop album of the mid-70s, but I could probably think of a few that I like better. That said, this is definitely one that fans of ELO or 70s pop need to hear.
This disc documents the hugely successful Out of the Blue tour and apparently was also released as a DVD. I should have bought the DVD because it sounds like this spectacle of a show was definitely something that should be seen and not heard. Don't waste your time with the CD.
While I'm not a huge fan of disco (OK, I pretty much despise it and can fully sympathize with the rock fans who wore "disco sucks" t-shirts in the 80s), I have to admit that most of this album is disturbingly catchy - "Shine a Little Love", "On the Run" and the hit "Don't Bring Me Down" are amazing earworms. As an aside - there's a Mystery Science Theater episode where they watch a lame 70s movie that was a total rip-off of Charlie's Angels, and one of the lead characters is a singer whose hit song is a total rip-off called "Shine Your Love". Joel comments that the 70s were a different era, when you could have a hit pop song based around an abstract concept like shining your love. Anyway, back to the album...
Remember up in A New World Record when I said that some of the songs were borderline cheesy? Well "The Diary of Horace Wimp" vaults over that line into pure cheesiness, and yet it's still a guilty pleasure. If "Last Train to London" wasn't a huge disco hit, it should have been - that bass line is amazing. In fact the bass playing on most of the album is pretty great, which makes me wonder if Jeff didn't bring in some uncredited session musician who was an expert in disco bass lines.
When the album isn't being all dancey and discoish, it swings to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, with "Confusion" and "Wishing" being wispy, melancholy ballads. "Midnight Blue" is the love song that "Sweet is the Night" was trying to be on Out of the Blue.
So if you're not adverse to a little disco, have a thing for ballads and/or have a high cheese tolerance, you might find a lot to like on Discovery. Otherwise, this is probably one to avoid.
Fortunately the soundtrack album is a little better than the movie it came from. ELO provided side one, and even though it's not Lynne's best work, there are still a couple decent songs. "All Over the World" was the hit single, and is actually a pretty fun little party song. "I'm Alive" was another hit, but is claw-your-ears-off repetitive. I remember someone playing that on the jukebox at my home town's community swimming pool a lot in the summer of 1980, and I'd try to stay underwater as long as I could to avoid it. "The Fall" and "Don't Walk Away" are OK, if somewhat overwrought ballads. And then there was the big hit title song, "Xanadu", which was written by Lynne, performed by ELO and sung by Olivia Newton John.
Side two of the album was created by a mishmash of songwriters and performers (including the band the Tubes), and is mostly sung by Newton John. As an ELO fan it irks me to say that I actually like side two of the album a little better than side one - there are some nice tunes here. The moody "Magic" was a hit. "Dancin'" tries to combine sleazy 80s rock and 1940s big band swing music, and actually does a decent job of it. "Suspended in Time" is a beautiful ballad, and "Whenever You're Away From Me" is a great big band duet between Gene Kelly and Newton John.
Avoid the movie at all costs, and to be honest the soundtrack is only worth tracking down if you're a collector. But the mix of ELO songs, Newton John's vocals and big band music add up to an album that's far better than it has any right to be, considering the film that spawned it.
Time was the first ELO album that I bought upon its initial release. I remember listening to it on cassette a lot during the summer of 1981 (or maybe it was 1982...those days are starting to get a little hazy). I just remember being entranced by this album - it still vies with ELO II for my favorite ELO album. I've heard it so many times that it's hard for me to be objective about it anymore.
When I was in college I had a huge poster of the album cover on my wall and met a couple other ELO fans via it. One day while walking across campus I saw a guy wearing a Time t-shirt and commented on how much I liked it. That lead to a fifteen minute conversation about the band and the album. Eventually the owner of the shirt told me he had seen the band play live on the Time tour, and I was understandably jealous. But my favorite Time story happened a few years ago at a progressive rock festival - back at the hotel, I was hanging out with a bunch of other festival attendees, having beers by the pool. Someone brought up the topic of "what album are you secretly a huge fan of?" As we went around the circle naming albums, I was all set to say Time, but then the woman who went just before me picked it.
Anyway, the album starts out strong with the opening prologue, where gurgling sounds and crystalline synthesizers coalesce into a flanged, robotic voice setting up the time travel concept with the words "Just on the border of your waking mind, there lies another time, where darkness and light are one. And as you tread the halls of sanity, you feel so glad that you, are able to go beyond...I have a message from another time..." and then the keyboards swell into the opening number...how's that for a grand opening of an 80s concept album?
The first song is "Twilight", a catchy, keyboard-driven rocker. During my college years I used to hang out with a bunch of guys who were in a band, and after I loaned the keyboardist my copy of Time, he was always trying to talk the rest of the band into playing "Twilight". That's followed up by another strong tune, "Yours Truly, 2095", in which our protagonist (now transported to the future) falls in love with a robot who can't really return his affection.
The sad ballad "Ticket to the Moon" sees our hero fleeing his lost love by taking a flight to the moon. In "The Way Life's Meant to Be" he starts pining for the past and wondering how he ended up where he is. The original side one wrapped up with the fairly dark instrumental "Another Heart Breaks", which sounded surprisingly psychedelic for an 80s synthesizer-heavy song and which features a nice lead guitar line from Lynne.
Side two kicks off with one of Lynne's favorite topics in "Rain is Falling", and then follows our hero through a couple more songs before getting to "Here is the News", which for me is a highlight of the album. It starts off with a beautiful multi-part instrumental introduction and then covers the topic of media oversaturation in a way that was far ahead of its time. Remember this was 1981, most people still only had the three major networks here in the U.S., and Lynne was already picturing dozens of media talking heads all talking over top of each other as they compete to get your attention (and advertising dollars). Brilliant.
The album ends with "21st Century Man", in which the unnamed protagonist realizes that he's made a huge mistake by coming to the future and wishes he had stayed in his own time. Oddly, the hit song from the album, "Hold On Tight", then gives the exact opposite message, telling us to hold on tight to our dreams. To me, it's always felt like "Hold on Tight" was tacked on at the last minute so the album would have a potential hit single. Anyway, that's followed up with an epilogue track that wraps up the album proper.
The remastered CD added a few tracks that had been recorded during the Time sessions, all of which were previously available on the Afterglow boxed set. "Bouncer" was later used as a b-side to a Secret Messages single, "When Time Stood Still" (which would have fit in beautifully with the album's theme - I wonder why it was cut?) became the b-side of the "Hold On Tight" single and "Julie Don't Live Here Anymore" (which also fits the album's theme to a T) was the b-side of "Twilight". If it had been me putting the album together, I think I would have dropped "Hold on Tight" and found some way to shoehorn "When Time Stood Still" and "Julie" in there somehow. Oh well, it's still an amazing album no matter how it's arranged. One of the best releases of the 1980s, in my humble opinion.
1982 was right around the time I was getting heavily into ELO, and for only the second time since 1972, that year didn't see any new releases. So one day I'm wondering around the local mall and I started browsing the cassette section at Kohl's (a department store chain that mostly sells clothes, but back then they had a music section). I found an ELO tape with a cover I had never seen before and a couple song titles I didn't recognize, so I bought it.
It turned out to be a compilation of mostly songs from the band's first few albums, but the really odd part is that it was an import from Belgium. I didn't even know Belgium had a music industry. And how the heck did that tape find its way to a Kohl's department store in rural Pennsylvania? Was it a bootleg?
However it happened, that tape helped to spark my interest in the early ELO albums, so I'm glad I found it. I'll always wonder about the circumstances though.
Just for fun, I rounded up all the tracks (substituting "Video!" for "Beatles Forever") and made a playlist of the original double album in the order that Wikipedia specifies. I was surprised to find that, while I've heard all of those songs before, putting them in the double-album configuration made for a whole that seemed greater than the sum of its parts. It's been rumored for a while now that the original double album (which features other minor edits and changes) could eventually be released as a collector's item - I hope that comes to pass, because I'd really like to hear that original set.
As it is, the single disc version of the album is nothing to sneeze at. While the double disc probably would have been seen as an 80s sequel to Out of the Blue, the 10-track version is remembered by most fans as a pretty decent album that was the last gasp of a once-great band.
The album's title comes from rumors that ELO had been hiding secret satanic messages on their albums for years. Lynne's first response to that came on the Face the Music album, where some backwards "chanting" at the beginning of "Fire on High" when played backwards turns out to be the phrase "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back, turn back." On the album Secret Messages, Lynne put little back-masked messages like that all over the album. The disc starts with such a message, and at the very end of the album the same bit is played in the opposite direction revealing that the message was "Welcome to the Show". Other pieces of the album when played backwards include things like "thank you for buying this album". And the song "Danger Ahead" has one of the choruses sung entirely backwards. If nothing else, this was a brilliant marketing gimmick, because not long after the album came out I ended up buying a second copy on vinyl just so I could try to play it backwards to hear what some of the messages were.
But enough of the album's back story, how is the music? Well, side one is another one of those patented Jeff Lynne side-long suites - it's the only side of the original double album that made it to the final product intact. It kicks off with the aforementioned back-masked message accompanied by what sounds like Morse code that continues in the background throughout the title track. That song segues into the moody "Loser Gone Wild", which bounces between slow blues verses with synthesizer trumpet lead lines and catchy, upbeat choruses. Lynne's favorite color resurfaces in the next song, "Bluebird", which also alternates between being upbeat and catchy for most of the track but then kind of melancholy during the bridge. The side wraps up with "Take Me On and On", a lush, mellow soundscape of a pop song - hard to describe, but one of my favorite ELO tracks.
The original album started side two with the rocker "Four Little Diamonds" (about a man who wants to get a ring back from an unfaithful woman), but the CD inserted the song "Time After Time" before that one. I can see why that song was initially dropped, both because it's fairly weird and a little grating, and because it deals with the topic of nuclear war. I'm glad they reinstated it on the CD though, because I've come to like it. Side two also contains the gorgeous, sweeping, propulsive "Stranger", which is hard to describe but has come to be one of my favorite ELO tracks. The original album continues with the rocking "Danger Ahead" and the atmospheric "Letter From Spain" and "Train of Gold", and comes to an end with the minor rock-a-billy hit "Rock and Roll is King".
As a final note, the remastered CD of this album breaks my heart. The original CD sounded pretty crappy - very "thin", with drums that sometimes sounded like someone whacking a Tupperware container or a cardboard box. So along comes the remastered CD with better sound quality and a bunch of bonus tracks (songs dropped from the original album). The problem is that several of the tracks suffer from "flutter", as if they were played from vinyl and someone bumped the record player every now and then, or from a cassette player where the playback speed fluctuates slightly. It's just enough to make the songs maddening annoying when listening to the remaster through headphones (which is how I do most of my listening). It's most noticeable on the quieter tracks like "Take Me On and On", "Stranger" and "Letter From Spain", which means that it ruins a lot of my favorite songs on the album. Curse you Sony. This isn't the first "remastered" album that they've ruined this way.
As it turns out, Jeff Lynne had grown tired of being in a famous band and the requirements of cranking out new albums and touring, and he just wanted out. In retrospect, the song "Getting to the Point" seems to be Lynne expressing his frustration with being trapped in ELO, and his desire to "watch it burn, burn, burn." He was contractually obligated to create at least one more ELO disc though, so he got Bev Bevan and long-time ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy together and this three man group put together an album that is really Electric Light Orchestra in name only. There's no orchestra - they didn't even attempt to record any strings, they just played everything on synthesizers. And the songs don't sound much like any previous incarnation of ELO. They do sound like Jeff Lynne songs, but a very glossy, robotic, 80s version of Jeff Lynne. Even Bevan's drumming lacks the usual crisp punch of ELO drums - for all I know, he might have been replaced by a drum machine on this album.
That said, most of the tracks on the album range from OK to enjoyable. The single "Calling America" is classic ELO and should have charted higher. Even my wife, who doesn't really like ELO much, bought the 45 of "Calling America" when it came out. Other highlights include the album opener "Heaven Only Knows" and the rapid-fire closer "Send It". "Sorrow About to Fall" includes some saxophone, which just sounds really out of place on an ELO album. The Roy Orbison tribute "Endless Lies" is just a little too over-the-top for my tastes - the original version that was cut from Secret Messages was a little better.
Whereas the remastered CD of Secret Messages ruined that album, the remaster of Balance of Power shows an album that could have been much better than it was. The first bonus track is an alternate opening for the album, which in my opinion would have been a big improvement. There are a few alternate versions of album tracks, with the alternates generally being better than the originals, and the b-side "Destination Unknown" which had already been included on the Afterglow boxed set. The most interesting of the bonus tracks are "Caught in a Trap" and "In For the Kill". I had heard the former before - I think it was the b-side on my wife's 45 of "Calling America". "In For the Kill" is basically the same song, but with different lyrics - now that's a rarity, an alternate version of an obscure b-side. The sad thing is, the album would have been improved by the inclusion of either of those tracks.
As an aide, I've always wondered what the meaning was of this album's title - ELO album titles always seemed so clever or carefully chosen that this one must mean something, but I don't know what. What power was being balanced - between Lynne and the record company? Lynne and Bevan? Who knows.
Anyway, with this somewhat lackluster and out-of-character album, ELO's initial run came to an end. The band keeps being resurrected, first by Bev Bevan and company and later by Jeff Lynne himself, but the full band never got back together again, and it was just never the same after this one.
While most bands of ELO's stature were getting four disc boxed sets in the 90s, for some reason this one only rated three CDs. The band's back catalog could have supported a fourth disc - I wonder if the main reason they went with three was so they could put "E", "L" and "O" on the cover of each of the three discs.
I wanted to like this album, I really did. A couple of the songs aren't terrible, but overall it's pretty obvious that the songwriting talent behind ELO was not present in Part 2. On the plus side, I got to see these guys play live a couple times, and they were really, really good. I took my mom along to one of the shows and she loved them too. I'm still a little bummed I never got to see the band with Lynne in it, but the rest of the lads playing Lynne's music put on a heck of a show.
But that's as may be - what's the deal with this studio album? Well, it starts off with a quick little ditty called "Hello" which musically sounds like a clone of "Mr. Blue Sky" and lyrically welcomes the listener back into the fold after a half-decade away from ELO. That's followed up by the first proper song, "Honest Men", which is probably the highlight of the album. It sounds like they put everything they had into writing a song that would sound exactly like ELO in their prime, complete with full orchestration, and they almost pulled it off. One problem is that the vocals don't sound right without Jeff Lynne, and the other problem is that the music is, well...pretty cheesy. If I had to try to pick out other high points of the album, I'd say the song "Thousand Eyes" also almost sounds like ELO, and "Easy Street" is almost a decent rock song. But overall the whole album just suffers from that generic, cheesy feeling.
This album contains another link to Cheap Trick (odd how that band and members of ELO have indirectly interacted over the years). The song "Kiss Me Red" was written by a professional songwriting team and recorded by both Cheap Trick (on their album The Doctor) and ELO Part 2 on this album. Wikipedia incorrectly lists the track on this album as being a Cheap Trick cover, but they didn't originally write it - they were "covering" it themselves.
There's not a whole lot else to say about this album. To be honest, I probably haven't listened to it more than once or twice in the last couple decades and only dragged it out to write this review. And even now, I find myself clicking the "next track" button a minute or two into each song. "Real" ELO this ain't.
This is a pretty good live album, but as it turns out, the band would release an even better live album a few years later...
So I bought it and one listen was enough to convince me that those people who were praising this album must have been hearing something very different than I was, both in this album and in the "real" ELO. Not only is this album even worse than the first ELO Part 2 disc, it's just embarrassingly bad in places. The worst offender is the ultra-cheesy song "The Fox", which tells the melodramatic tale of a foxhunt, but from the fox's point of view. And, unsurprisingly, that's the song that most people who liked the album were pointing out as a highlight. If I was forced to say something positive about the album, I guess I'd say the song "Power of a Million Lights" isn't that bad. That's just going from memory though - I can't bring myself to listen to this CD again.
I'm assuming that this album is long out of print, but should you get the urge to try to track it down - don't. That's all I can say...just don't. The sad thing is that I saw the band play live in support of this album and actually own a t-shirt with the exploding light bulb logo on it. I don't wear it much anymore.
This set features good renditions of ELO's hits done live (although very similar to the studio versions - they don't "stretch out" like on the Night the Light Went On album), and since it has room to ramble with the longer 2-disc format, they also throw in a few deep album cuts like "Standin' in the Rain", "Confusion" and "Rockaria!" The other selling point is that while Night the Light Went On and Live at Winterland feature the Lynne-led band at their peak, they were both recorded relatively early in the band's career. This set has the luxury of being able to pick hits from later ELO albums, so it includes songs like "Mr. Blue Sky", "Turn to Stone", "Hold On Tight" and "Rock and Roll is King". And remarkably, the encore isn't "Roll Over Beethoven" (although they do play it) - the encore is "Don't Bring Me Down".
The down side is that we get a bunch of tracks from the ELO Part 2 albums - "Don't Wanna" (which is just as horrible as you'd guess a song with that title would be), "Whiskey Girls" (which, again...you get the picture), "One More Tomorrow", etc. No "Honest Men" again though - odd. If you don't find such tracks necessary, the single disc release dropped most of the ELO Part 2 originals to get the concert to fit on one disc. Actually, according to Wikipedia, the band has since sold the rights to this album, so there are probably any number of re-configured versions of it out there.
So what sets this release apart? Well, for one thing it's apparently the first ELO retrospective that Jeff Lynne himself put together. The tracks are remastered (although that's not such a big deal considering that the entire catalog was remastered a few years later), and there are alternate versions of a few songs ("Mama", "Do Ya" and "Mission"). It also contains at least one track from every ELO album, even including an edited song from the long-neglected Night the Light Went On (in Long Beach). The real selling point though was that it includes eight previously unreleased tracks. Apart from that, it's largely the same "best of" set as the Afterglow box, although Lynne did select a few more non-hits for his set.
Of the unreleased tracks, most of them are not that exciting. There's a new version of "Xanadu" with Newton John's vocals replaced by Lynne (what's the point?), and a couple completely forgettable minute-long ditties like the "Indian Queen" demo and "Who's That?" The b-side "After All" would later turn up on the Secret Messages remaster. So that leaves four new songs, a rock version of "Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor", "Tears in Your Life", "Love Changes All" and "Helpless". I don't know if those were newly recorded songs or old unreleased tracks that Lynne spiffed up with 2000-era technology, but either way none of them are all that exciting. Unless you're a serious, hard-core ELO collector, you can safely skip this boxed set. If you just want a three-disc hits collection, get Afterglow instead.
But with Lynne back at the helm and inspired to release the first ELO album in fifteen years, this must be a great album, right? Unfortunately, no. It's passable. It's certainly better than the "ELO Part 2" albums. But it's easily the weakest entry in the official ELO catalog. It basically sounds like a less-creative sequel to Balance of Power. I've seen reviews that call it a real "return to the classic ELO sound", pointing out that it has strings and everything. Well, the strings are barely noticeable for the most part, and everything else sounds like Lynne had been in a deep freeze for the previous decade and a half. This album could have come out in 1987 and it wouldn't have sounded out of place at all, except that it's kind of boring for an ELO album. It apparently didn't sell well at all in the United States, so the North American tour that had been planned to promote it was quickly cancelled.
I shouldn't be so hard on this disc. It's pleasant enough. I enjoyed listening to it a few times when it first came out. There are a few catchy songs, like the opener "Alright" (the title of which bugs me because I was always taught that alright is not a word). "Stranger on a Quiet Street" is a nice tune. I like the clever bit in "Easy Money" where Jeff as vocalist says "Take it Jeff!" and then Jeff as guitarist plays a solo. "Melting in the Sun" has its moments. But...eh, I really just can't work up any enthusiasm for this album. For the most part, the songs all sound the same and none of them measure up to the ELO of old.
There's a DVD and a recently released live CD available from the Zoom tour that never happened. I haven't seen or heard them, but apparently Lynne and company did a "live in the studio" performance that was taped for TV to promote the tour, and that's what was released as the DVD.
Something that really annoys me is that there are several different versions of the Zoom album - a Japanese version, a remastered version, etc, and each has different bonus tracks. Why is it that the North American (and/or European) fans always get shafted by these "Japan only" bonus tracks? And the music industry wonders why people resort to illegal downloads rather than shell out big bucks to buy every conceivable version of an album just to get bonus tracks that probably aren't worth hearing anyway.
I guess ELO is now officially a thing of the past. When the Zoom album came out at the start of the 21st century, it sparked some hope that maybe more new ELO albums would follow, but that never came to pass. The closest we've gotten recently was Jeff Lynne producing the Joe Walsh album Analog Man in and releasing his own solo album Long Wave, both in 2012. Long Wave is a nice enough album, just like the Lynne solo album Armchair Theater was back in 1990, but they're both a far cry from albums like ELO II and Time.
Oh well, I guess I'll just have to live with the dozen studio albums and handful of live discs and soundtrack work that ELO produced between 1972 and 2001. I'd be nice if there was more, but there's a lot of great songs scattered amongst the material that they did release, and it's always fun to go back and dig through them again.