ELO – Classic Albums Collection (review)

Electric Light Orchestra – Classic Albums Collection (Epic / Legacy) review

Sony Legacy has begun the “Complete Albums Collection,” an opportunity for fans to acquire an artist’s entire catalog at a reduced price and compact size.  For the ELO set, all eleven of the band’s original albums are included, each in their own paper sleeve, faithfully replicating the original album artwork.  The entire set is housed in a cardboard box, which also contains a booklet featuring the liner notes to all the albums.  The reason this set is not called “complete” is the absence of the ELO comeback in 2001, Zoom.  Also missing are the tracks used in the Xanadu movie (“All Over the World” and “I’m Alive”).

They were one of the most successful bands of the Seventies and early Eighties, with nine Gold and Platinum albums, and 20 Top 40 singles in the US alone.  Yet, ELO never seems to get mentioned with other classic rock bands.  Perhaps, it’s the fact that leader Jeff Lynne, after breaking up the band, has reunited only once in 2001 (rather quietly, I might add), choosing instead to concentrate on producing other bands.  In fact, for awhile, the ELO sound lived on in records by the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty, George Harrison, and Roy Orbison – all produced by Lynne.  The Classic Albums Collection gives us a chance to ingest the entire ELO oeuvre – all eleven albums, including one double LP, all at once.  What we find is some impressive and underappreciated music.  ELO had an unique ability to craft intricate pop songs that were no less accessible.  At the height of their popularity, the band wasn’t really an orchestra – but cleverly sprinkled elements of classical into a delectable pop-rock sound.

ELO may have created some of the most sophisticated pop of the 1970’s, but it didn’t start out that way.  The Electric Light Orchestra began life as a project between Lynne and Roy Wood, who had both been a part of the English band The Move.  Wood’s ideas are a lot more in the avante garde vein – so ELO’s first album, No Answer, sounds a lot more like a classical Frank Zappa, with the emphasis on the strange.  The album has a very dense sound, featuring a great deal more oboes and wind instruments.  “10538 Overture” is easily the most accessible of the tracks.

Wood abandoned ship after the first record, leaving Lynne as the sole leader from here on out.  Yet, their next album, ELO II, isn’t that much of a departure from their debut.   The album is dominated by songs that are just way too long, but things are starting to gel.  Especially good is the ballad “Mama,” yet at over six minutes in length, ELO weren’t quite reaching the masses yet.   The one track that did get airplay was their orchestral take on Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” – which perfectly shows off the band’s intentions:  a driving beat, fiery guitar and growling vocals, with the strings playing Beethoven’s parts and drummer Bev Bevan tearing it up.

On the Third Day continues the growth, with “Bluebird is Dead” another promising ballad.  But it was the rockers, especially the blistering “Ma Ma Ma Belle,” and the driving “Daybreaker,” which showed that the band was beginning to break out of its classical, progressive roots.  This album also produced their first great original single in the moody “Showdown.”

Eldorado is where the classic ELO sound begins to take shape.  Billed as “A Symphony By The Electric Light Orchestra,” and featuring spoken parts by Peter Forbes Robertson, the album isn’t without it’s pretensions.  Yet, it is the first ELO record that plays like a cohesive piece, all the parts fitting together nicely.  The gorgeous ballad “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” was the band’s first Top Ten single.  The majestic “Boy Blue” was another high point, while “Illusions in G Major” gives another nod to Chuck Berry.

Face the Music is probably the best example of ELO straddling the line between classical and rock – all eight tracks are strong and full of melody.  The album opens with “Fire on High,” one of the greatest instrumentals in all of rock.  It also featured their finest single, the clavinet led “Evil Woman.” The ethereal “Strange Magic” was another great ballad, while “Poker” rocked hard, and “Down Home Country” was an odd mix of twang and orchestra.  The wistful “One Summer Dream” closes the album.

A New World Record marked a shift in the band’s approach – the production has a brighter, more commercial feel.  The album opens with “Tightrope,” which actually has a danceable beat.  “Telephone Line” was a pop masterpiece, with its phone sound effects interspersed with soaring strings.  The band reprises an old hit from Lynne’s previous group, the Move, in “Do Ya,” and actually improves it with its downward guitar line.  “Livin’ Thing” introduced the band’s signature sound of acoustic guitars as driving percussion.

Out of the Blue was the peak of ELO’s success – the album went quadruple platinum and yielded several hit singles including the chugging “Turn to Stone,” and the masterful “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” (the new remastering shows just how many edits are present in that song).  The effervescent “Mr. Blue Sky” was not immediately a hit, but eventually would become one of the band’s most familiar songs.  Out of the 17 songs, not everything is essential – “Jungle” with its polyrhythms and goofy lyrics, and “Birmingham Blues,” a by-the-numbers rocker, could both have been omitted.    But “Night in the City” is one of the band’s best rockers and “Sweet is the Night” has soulful background vocals.

Discovery is their last truly great album, spawning two of the band’s biggest hits, the disco-infused “Shine a Little Love,” and the infectious synth drums of “Don’t Bring Me Down,” which both cracked the Top Ten in 1979.  Yet, the surrounding material is equally good, including the urgent “Last Train to London” and the excellent ballad “Wishing.”  Even the goofy “Diary of Horace Wimp” works.

By the time the band released Time in 1981, the pop music scene had changed; strange and different sounds were being beamed into living rooms across America with the advent of MTV, rendering ELO”s blend of orchestra pop as last decade. That’s what probably spurred Lynne to experiment more with the budding synthesizer technology.  But, with each successive album, less emphasis was placed on strings and more on keyboards; and Bev Bevan, who’s monstrous drumming was a key element to the band’s sound,  began to take a lesser role, being replaced on many tracks by a robotic drum machine.  Time did include one fantastic single in the Fifties rock nod “Hold On Tight,” but most of the remaining album comes off more as a Lynne solo project than an actual band.  Ditto for Secret Messages, which contained the “Hold On Tight” rewrite “Rock n’ Roll is King.”  It’s not that these albums are particularly bad, there are some great melodies here – but the increased use of digital instrumentation forever dates these recordings.

The band took three years to release their final record, Balance of Power, in 1986.  In many ways, it’s one of their stronger releases – especially good is the lush ballad “Getting to the Point.”  However, the accompanying single, “Calling America,” barely cracked the Top 20, and Lynne decided to disband the group to concentrate wholly on record producing.  Bevan would later regroup some former members (but not Lynne) into ELO part II, with somewhat dubious results.  After Bevan sold his half of the band back, Lynne released Zoom under the ELO moniker, but performed almost entirely by Lynne himself.  Ironically, it’s probably their best record since Discovery, full of great melodies, it included guest appearances by George Harrison and Ringo Starr.

The Classic Albums Collection proves that ELO were not just a singles band; several of their albums are worth hearing in their entirety.  And, even their weaker releases contain a few surprises.  For those wanting to dig deeper than the obligatory Greatest Hits, this one’s for you.  –Tony Peters