Sunday, August 26, 2018

My ELO Singles 2018

Making lists like this is fun for me, although I must mention that such lists: [1] Are mostly arbitrary; [2] Change over time; [3] Are more like snapshots of my tastes in music at a particular point in time.

It also gives me an excuse to expound on one of my favorite bands of all time, Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO.

ELO is one of my difficult-to-defend favorites. True, Jeff Lynne and his fellow bandmates have been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, which accounts for something, I guess. But while Lynne is highly regarded as a producer and composer of music, just take one cursory glance at his songwriting and you’ll immediately realize that he’s not the most gifted of lyricists. He himself acknowledges that.

My introduction to ELO was back in the late 1970s. Around that time, I listened religiously to the radio program American Top 40, which aired (albeit a few days late) over Philippine radio (first at an AM station whose name I now forget, then at 99.5 RT FM). In 1977, “Turn To Stone” entered the AT40, and I was instantly hooked to their sound.

ELO started out in the early 70s as a band of long-haired rockers accompanied by a string section. The orchestral instruments distinguished ELO’s sound from other bands of that era, and paid tribute as well to Lynne’s love of the Beatles sound, especially Sgt. Peppers. In what I arbitrarily call the “classic rock meets classical sound, aka rockestral” phase, ELO churned out 7 album titles, each one more and more successful that the previous. In 1977 they released the double-album Out Of The Blue, which spawned several top 10 hits, including “Turn To Stone.” That was their biggest selling album in that phase.

By mid-70s disco had already exploded into the mainstream, and acts such as the Bee Gees and Donna Summer had disco hits that were either lavishly arranged with a full orchestral backup, or driven by a pulsating electronic beat and rhythm. Lynne must have taken his cues from both, because in 1979 ELO released their aptly-titled “Discovery”. It was their most discofied album. It produced their biggest hit ever, “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which ironically was also the most rocked out song in the album. With drum beats lifted directly from the Sgt. Peppers’ reprise, and flourishes that were more electronic and less orchestral, that thumping rock anthem also featured one of Lynne’s most head-scratching piece of lyric: “Don’t bring me down, groos!” For years I didn’t know if it was “please,” or “froosh,” or (some claimed) “Bruce!”

Lynne’s romance with disco continued on ELO’s half of the soundtrack to the 1980 movie, Xanadu. Success with the hit singles from that soundtrack, including the title track sung by Olivia Newton-John, apparently got into Lynne’s head.

He decided to stretch his talents and released 1981’s Time, a full-concept album about a time traveller who goes from 1981 to 2095. By this time, Lynne toned down the disco elements; instead, he favored the rock-meets-electronic combination. But while Time spawned several hit singles, the overall concept (thanks to his not-so-stellar lyrics) was met with a big “Huh?!” He followed up Time with 1983’s Secret Messages, again highlighting his fascination with technological flourishes meshed with his love for old-fashioned rock and roll (with the likes of Chuck Berry and Del Shannon). That’s why I call their second phase the “techno-rock (with some disco) sound” phase.

Time and Secret Messages shared similar structures, and even ended with two almost identical-sounding songs, “Hold On Tight” and “Rock & Roll Is King” (they’re so instantly mashable, which I suspect is why no one’s done that yet--it’s just too obvious). Lynne was repeating himself. 

It took Lynne 3 years to come up with another album. 1986’s Balance Of Power featured a more pared-down sound of ELO, an aesthetic echoed in the album cover that was simple and stark compared to the elaborate covers of their previous LPs. That album also carried two of Lynne’s most confessional songs to date, “Endless Lies,” which hinted at a love gone sour, and “Send It,” which had Lynne singing:

The dream is gone, the dream is just a memory
If you see my dream, send it back home to me.

Did he fall out of love with ELO? It was around this time that he started producing for other artists, most notably George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. Later on the four added Bob Dylan and formed the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys. Lynne also released his first solo album, Armchair Theater. This is his “pared-down Wilburys sound” phase, which extended into the new millennium with 2001’s Zoom and 2015’s Alone In The Universe (billed as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”). This phase also marked the longest duration between album releases, as there were legal battles between Lynne and his former bandmates over the use of the name “ELO”.

My ELO Singles
Are these songs my favorites? Or are they, in my judgement, the best ELO songs Jeff Lynne has ever written and produced? They’re a bit of both, although it’s just safer to say they’re personal favorites.

Because I was a young, avid, and impressionable listener back then, it’s understandable that the 70s and early 80s stuff dominate my top 10. Only one from 1986 cracked the top 10. ELO was at their best when they successfully combined their rock ‘n roll roots with symphonic and/or synthesizer flourishes, in a seamless blend of catchy melodies with hook-ladened instrumentation.

And so, presenting my Top 10: