Jeff Lynne has ELO on the road and giving fans, new and old, a crash course in the music of perhaps the best group of the 1970’s. For my money, ELO had the most distinctive sound and you’d be hard pressed to find a group with more hits.
The story of ELO is an interesting one, perhaps I’ll tackle it for a follow-up blog. For now, here is my ranking of albums during the 1970’s.
Face the Music (1975)
Opinions vary on the best ELO album, but this is my vote. It was the first ELO album I bought and it has my favorite ELO song, “Evil Woman.” The first platinum selling ELO album, Lynne approached the album by writing more accessible songs and dialing back the progressive rock influences. Lynne made a big step forward as a songwriter and producer, this might be his most romantic-themed collection of songs. “Strange Magic” and “One Summer Dream” are exquisite songs, bringing a maturity and sensibility to his writing. “Fire On High,” which opens the album, may be Lynne’s best piece of music, an instrumental, it rocks and has a sweeping feel, courtesy of the orchestral backing. “Nightrider” could have been a song from the last album, winsome and aching in style.
There is not a clinker or filler on this album. Lynne covers a lot of ground musically from “Down Home Town” to “Poker” and then back to his pop-romanticism of “One Summer Dream.” ELO would have higher selling and charting albums, but Lynne would never be as loose and willing to take chances. The band’s sound would evolve to an even more commercial stature but it wouldn’t feel as free as this album. A top ten album in the U.S. but strangely did not chart in their home country of England.
Out of the Blue (1977)
A double album, perhaps Jeff Lynne’s best collection of songs. Side three of the set contained four songs known as the Concerto for a Rainy Day, written about the weather. The best known song of the Concerto is “Mr. Blue Sky,” a top 40 hit in the U.S.
The album went on to sell more than 10 million copies, making it their largest seller. “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” were also big chart hits, but there were other album cuts at least as good as those. “Big Wheels” and “Sweet is the Night” could also have been charting singles. The album has a consistent sound and it’s no wonder that four songs make up the Concerto. Radio was dominated by this album.
A New World Record (1976)
Many people consider this to be the band’s high-water mark. Every song on the album is a pop delight. The prog sound was gone, Lynne was writing tight, pop anthems. “Tightrope,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Do Ya” and Telephone Line” are all classics. The album sold five million copies and reached number five on the U.S. charts. ELO has always been compared to the Beatles in sound and songwriting style. This album has the most Beatlesque-sounding songs of ELO’s career. I don’t believe the album has the songwriting depth as Face the Music, but the music has a more pop vernier.
This album introduced me to ELO. “Boy Blue” and “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” were brilliant songs. No one else sounded like this. Lynne fully emerged as a songwriter on this album. The album played thematically, less by subject and more by musical style and production. Lynne went wild in the construction of his songs and the uses of the orchestra and choir to accentuate sections of his songs. Lynne’s production capabilities would be tapped in the next two decades as he became a go-to producer. In the 1970’s, he learned to stack his songs with a variety of musical touches.
The album to end the decade and although a top ten album, it was not as strong as their previous two albums. Although it sold well and continued their streak, fans were split on the album. This was the first album without the string players, as Lynne shrank the band and would rely on synthesizer for the string sound. “Shine a Little Love” and “Don’t Bring Me Down were top ten singles from the album. Neither are my favorites. “Last Train From London” and “The Diary of Horace Whimp” are more ELO-sounding songs, but were only minor hits. This album was a turning point for the band as they would move into the 80’s and weren’t the new kid on the block anymore. Punk and New Wave would be more contemporary sounds.
On the Third Day (1973)
The band stepped forward, mainly it was Lynne who made strides as a songwriter and he became a stronger singer, not his voice, but his performance assumed his signature sound. ELO was developing their commercial chops but also had a progressive rock thing going on. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” and “Showdown” are the familiar tracks. The guitar and orchestra sound together was truly unique.
The Electric Light Orchestra (1971)
I rank this album higher than their follow-up effort, in part because this set of songs has the ying an yang of Lynne’s pop-rock-style and Roy Wood’s rock-classical-style. “10538 Overture” is the winner as the most commercial of the tracks and it hinted at what was to come. The next albums would see the classical influence move to the background and the prog sound would evolve into a more pop groove.
ELO 2 (1973)
“Rollover Beethoven” was the hit off the album and not an ELO-written song, but you get the idea of what the band would be later on. The album sounds more like an electric guitar version of ELP, a truly progressive rock band. In a few short years, ELO would be the sharpest pop-rock band, many miles from this sound.