High on a symphonic hill
Eldorado - The Electric Light Orchestra
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Eldorado - The Electric Light Orchestra
Advantages: Underrated album from the group's earlier days, long regarded as one of their best
Disadvantages: If you're looking to criticise, arguably a tad pretentious here and there
ELO AND THE ALBUM
'Eldorado' was the fourth ELO album, the third over which Jeff Lynne had complete artistic control after the departure of co-founder Roy Wood, and the first which he wrote entirely on his own. With its subtitle 'A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra', 40-piece orchestra and choir, as well as concept theme, it was probably in a sense their most classical-sounding album. Some fans, myself included, consider it one of their best ever, if not their very best. Ironically it was released at a time, early in 1975, when the band were experiencing a lull in their British fortunes after early success as a hit singles band. It reached #16 in the US but failed to chart on its own in the UK. (It did however appear as part of a boxed set package, 'Three Light Years', with the third and fifth ELO albums in December 1978, by which time they had become hot property, the set reaching No. 38).
'Eldorado' is a concept album based on the experiences of a Walter Mitty-like character who lives in a fantasy world, dreaming that he is high on a hill in the mythical land of Eldorado. (When we say 'high on a hill', I think they're talking about geographical altitude, rather than being out of one's skull on drugs - unless Lynne was, er, havin' a laff). Pretentious? Well, if you must, but if so, pretentiousness rarely sounded better than this.
Track one, 'Eldorado Overture', is a two-minute strings and synth instrumental, that sounds in turn quite spacey and ambient, with a brief spoken prologue by the suitably Shakespearean-sounding Peter Ford-Robertson, introducing us to 'the dreamer, the unwoken fool'. Maybe there's one of those in each of us. It segues seamlessly into the album's best-known track, the single 'Can't Get It Out Of My Head'. There's a slightly 'Imagine'-like feel to this, especially in the wistful lament for a way of his old dreamland, 'my whole world is gone for dead.' It's probably one of the best ballads Lynne ever wrote, and the combination of strings and synth is marvellous. Ironically the band meant so little at the time in Britain that it was their first single to miss the charts completely, yet it made #9 in America. By the way, who is Peter Ford-Robertson? He is thought to be a friend of the band, possibly even one of the string players. A look on google will leave you none the wiser.
A short string quartet fanfare, arranged on a variation of 'The Prince of Denmark's March' (composed about 1700 by Jeremiah Clarke, and for many years mistakenly attributed to his contemporary Henry Purcell), leads into 'Boy Blue'. Superb melody, and the whole gamut of orchestral flourishes with rock guitar and touches of choral vocals, make this one of the strongest tracks.
The tempo slows down on the more majestic 'Laredo Tornado', with plenty of echo on the vocals. There's some moody guitar and almost funky synth work to be heard as well. A change of pace and more up-tempo fare follows on 'Poor Boy (The Greenwood)', with references to maid Marian and a Robin Hood robbing the rich to help the poor theme in the lyrics, plus a few speed-ups and slow-downs supported well by the strings in all their glory.
Another nod to John Lennon comes with 'Mister Kingdom'. You might detect a similarity to the Beatles' 'Across The Universe' in the melody, which ends in a sweeping bombastic strings finale. This segues into another quote from the fanfare which started off 'Boy Blue' earlier on. 'Nobody's Child' is almost a jazzy slow shuffle, with something of a Ray Charles mood.
If most of these songs sound a tad serious, then light relief comes in 'Illusions in G Major'. Jeff Lynne sure knew how to write great Chuck Berry pastiches (you may remember the wonderful 'Rockaria!' from a couple of years later) and alongside almost any Status Quo single you care to name, this is British rock'n'roll at its mid-70s best. Play this one loud and get the air guitar out. It's without doubt the most instantly commercial track to be heard here.
With this our Dreamer comes full circle, and the title track 'Eldorado', another dreamy ballad, reprises the theme. It sounds almost like something out of one of the more restrained not-quite-finale moments from a 1930s or 1940s Hollywood musical, with lush strings and choral vocals behind Lynne's singing. It's not exactly exciting, but not really meant to be. As a kind of peaceful curtain closer, it's rather effective. To close the album is a brief prologue, with another short and rather cleverly distorted voice-over by the mysterious Peter F-R.
The original album had a playing time of 39 minutes. Two bonus tracks, interesting if not exactly essential, boost it to almost 50. 'Eldorado Instrumental Medley' is almost eight minutes' worth, connecting the overture, finale and most of the instrumental passages in between into one extended piece. In a way, it's rather like the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta overtures which reprise a brief snatch of almost every song, and it's rather effective - with none of the irritation factor that often makes you want to hear some of those 'greatest hits' medleys (think of that plague of 'Stars on 45' monstrosities so beloved in the early 1980s, if you recall them, and shudder) no more than once or twice. Finally there's a fragment, 'Dark City', a brief early demo for the number which became 'Laredo Tornado'.
The booklet contains a note of the group line-up, credits, and the song lyrics, as per the original album inner sleeve. The front cover is a still from 'The Wizard of Oz' movie, apparently showing Dorothy's shoes. They had manager Don Arden's daughter Sharon (later Sharon Osbourne, or Mrs Ozzy) to thank for the idea.
OPINION AND SUMMARY
ELO had just got beyond the experimental stage of writing and recording very long tracks, and thanks to string arranger Louis Clark (who would later become a full member), Jeff Lynne was coming up with a very listenable, enjoyable fusion of classical motifs and pop/rock. It was subject to the law of diminishing returns, and towards the end of the 1970s the idea started to become formularised. Don't judge the group on the last three rather tired-sounding, largely contract-filling albums. 'Eldorado' was made when they were at the cutting edge, and they still sounded fresh and innovative. Almost forty years after it was recorded, most of it is still top drawer stuff.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Summary: Classic ELO from the days before they dominated the album chart