Ten Great Songs From One Great Year
Electric Light Orchestra (ELO)
With the exception of America and maybe The Eagles, no rock band has meant more to me than the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). I was really first introduced to their music when “Evil Woman” became a hit, in 1975. But that was only when I first realized who they were.
My real infatuation with their music grew in earnest the following year, when they released their breakthrough LP, A New World Record. It was 14 years old and my friends and I started a band (we played one gig and broke up – probably because we weren’t very good) and one of the first songs we attempted was “Telephone Line.”
For some reason, I associate much of their music to trips I took back then. In 1979, Discovery (which was their best selling record) was a common album played in my high school dormitory. My favorite ELO album was Time, which came out n 1981. But everyone of Jeff Lynne’s records, whether they were ELO recordings, George Harrison’s, Tom Petty’s or the Traveling Wilbury’s, has a special place in life’s soundtrack.
It was very hard to choose just 10 songs to post. It seems like every one of their songs has an accompanying video. But the ten I did choose are definitely among my favorites and give a good representation of their body of work.
Showdown – 1973
Jeff Lynne is a huge Beatles fan. On September 28, 1974, John Lennon gave the song quite an endorsement when he appeared on the New York City radio station WNEW. Said Lennon: "'Showdown' I thought was a great record and I was expecting it to be #1 but I don't think UA [United Artists] got their fingers out and pushed it. And it's a nice group - I call them 'Son of Beatles' - although they're doing things we never did, obviously. But I remember a statement they made when they first formed was to carry on from where the Beatles left off with 'Walrus,' and they certainly did. This is a beautiful combination of 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' by Marvin Gaye and 'Lightnin' Strikes' by Lou Christie, and it's a beautiful job with a little 'I Am The Walrus' underneath."
Can't Get It Out Of My Head – 1974
This was the bands’ first top 40 hit (#9) and helped boost public awareness of the band in America; however, back in the UK the single and LP (Eldorado) failed to chart. It was a turning point for them as they had only really enjoyed success in England to this point. Considered a fan favorite, this song has been covered by Velvet Revolver and Fountains of Wayne.
Strange Magic – 1975
In 1975, ELO released their 5th album, Face the Music, which was their first LP to go Platinum (1,000,000 in sales). The first single of the record was “Evil Woman,” which tore up the charts and became their first worldwide hit, reaching #10 in America and Great Britain. This follow up single also hit big, hitting #14 in the US. The song appears in the film The Virgin Suicides featuring the song in the homecoming dance scene but is not on the soundtrack album.
Telephone Line – 1977
Following the success of Face the Music, the band then released a greatest hits package, titled OLE ELO, which was aimed towards the US market in order to introduce their earlier music to American fans. The album went top 40 and it built up anticipation for new music. Their next release, A New World Record, did not disappoint. Considered by critics to be their finest body of work, the album featured four top 25 hits, including this song, which was their highest charting single to date (#7), as well as being their first Gold record (500,000 in sales).
Shangri-La – 1977
Although not released as a single, “Shangri-La” (the final track on A New World Record) is a personal favorite. The song utilizes the same thread that winds through the entire album, most notably the operetta and strings, and places the final touches on what is considered to be their masterpiece. Shangri-La was a fictional paradise from James Hilton's 1933 novel "Lost Horizon." It is often associated as a place of Earthly paradise. This song seems to have two meanings: One referring to a loved one that is never going to come or never come back, the other being that it could be the main characters referring to the mystical lands itself.
Midnight Blue – 1979
1977 to 1980 was considered the “golden years” for ELO. The follow up LP to A New World Record, titled Out of the Blue, was their most commercially successful record and even though it was a double-album, it was written in just three weeks. Jeff Lynne hid away in a Swiss chalet to write it and the LP garnered five hit singles. The next year, they released Discovery (or as band member Richard Tandy calls it, “Disco Very”). Much of the sound the band is known for (especially on Lynne’s side projects) was formulated on this album. This song, while not released as a single, is a personal favorite..
Last Train To London - 1979
This song was the B-side to the hit single “Confusion.” However, because it received such extended play in the states, it was then re-released as a single on its own. Originally, the single (with “Confusion”) reached #8 and was their 7th straight top 10 hit in the UK (their fourth from the Discovery album). Re-released, it still reached the top 40 in the US, stopping at #39. In 2002, the British girl group, Atomic Kitten, recorded this song with new lyrics and titled it “Be With You.”
Here Is The News – 1981
The following year, Lynne and his band mates were approached about writing songs for a remake of the Rita Heyworth movie, “Down to Earth.” The new film, Xanadu, starred Olivia Newton-John as a muse sent to earth to help a struggling artist. The movie itself was a flop (although it has since become a cult favorite and has spawned a Tony Award winning musical), but the soundtrack was huge. It hit #1 and spawned four top 40 hits (2 by ELO and 2 by Newton-John). After that, Lynne set out to create a concept album about a man who is taken 100 years in the future. The LP, Time, received mixed reviews. Some loved it and yet others felt it was to “out there.” Personally, I loved it and it is one of my all time favorite LPs. In a Rolling Stone interview, rocker Steve Winwood admitted that he was greatly influenced by Time.
Stranger – 1983
The band’s next album was again conceptual. Originally, Secret Messages was to be a double-album. But their record company felt that it would be too expensive for a double vinyl LP due to the early 80's oil crisis. Secret Messages, as its title would suggest, was littered with hidden messages in the form of backmasking, some obvious and others less so. This was Lynne's second tongue-in-cheek response to allegations of hidden satanic messages in earlier Electric Light Orchestra LPs by Christian fundamentalists, which led up to early 1980's American congressional hearings. The LP was not as successful as previous albums and contained only one American top 40 hit (“Rock and Roll is King”). “Stranger” was released as a single, and although it was their lowest charting US single, it was my favorite song from the album.
Calling America – 1986
Balance of Power was ELO’s last studio album (until 2001’s Zoom) and for me, the album seemed like an afterthought. The band was whittled down to just three members – Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy (on Zoom, only Tandy appeared and even then, just on one track – making it more of a Jeff Lynne solo record). However, the LP was introduced with their last top 20 hit, “Calling America,” which musically upbeat and bright but lyrically darker, concerning a dishonest lover. After this album left the charts, the band essentially broke up, although no official announcement was made for the next 2 years, during which George Harrison's Lynne-produced album Cloud Nine and the pair's follow-up (with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty) Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 were released. After that came Roy Orbison’s last record, “You Got It”, which was a huge hit (and pretty much an ELO song) along with Tom Petty’s comeback LP, Full Moon Fever (featuring more ELO-styled recordings). Bevan approached Lynne to make another ELO album in 1988. Lynne was not interested and went on to announce that ELO was no more.
Beatles Forever – 1983
In 1983, Lynne wrote a tribute to his greatest influence, The Beatles. The song, “Beatles Forever,” was intended for the album Secret Messages. When the album was cut from a planned two-disc set to a single LP, "Beatles Forever" was abandoned — and somewhat abruptly, given that it had previously been cited as the likely lead-off single from the intended double LP. It currently remains the only "lost" track from the original Secret Messages album not to appear later as an official bonus track or part of a compilation. However, the chorus part of "Beatles Forever" was used by Jeff Lynne on his "Video!" solo single (see below). At an ELO Fan Club Convention, "Beatles Forever" was played as a treat for fans under strict conditions concerning the presence of recording equipment. These conditions were evidently not strict enough, and a recording was made (somewhat ironically) using a portable video camera. This bootleg recording was subsequently made available as an MP3 download, with predictably low sound quality given the source, format, and date of the recording.
Video – 1984
During a lull between their last two albums (in 1984), Lynne was once again approached to write a song for a movie soundtrack. This time, the movie (Electric Dreams – a film that depicts a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a home computer) AND the soundtrack both flopped. However, the song, “Video” is now forever saved on You Tube. In 1988 ELO drummer Bev Bevan approached Jeff Lynne wanting to do another ELO album. After Lynne declined to participate, Bevan intended to continue the band without him. Lynne objected and lawyers were soon involved. The legal agreement reached between Lynne and Bevan resulted in Bevan forming a new band in 1989 initially called Electric Light Orchestra Part Two. After two curious albums, they disbanded as well. In 2001, Lynne decided to release a new album of original tracks under the ELO name, titled Zoom. It was the first ELO studio album in 15 years and featured a more organic feel with less reliance on electronic effects and a return of strings in the form of cellos. Although billed as a return to the classic ELO sound the album sales were relatively poor and a planned North American concert tour was cancelled.