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At the end of the 1970s, ELO were rarely out of the singles (and albums) chart. Ironically band leader Jeff Lynne had given an interview to 'Melody Maker' in 1974 in which he insisted they were not a singles band, and he wasn't 'interested in making horrible hit singles.' When they released this, their second album, in March 1973, they were clearly aiming at the albums market, as were bands like Yes who generally specialized in no more than two or three long tracks per side of a 12" long player. Original founder member Roy Wood had left the previous year (although he played bass on two tracks, uncredited by mutual agreement as he had moved on to his new band Wizzard), and Lynne was totally in control. Ironically the record provided them with one top ten single, while the album spent a solitary week in the album chart at No. 35.
In 2003 it was remastered and reissued on CD with the addition of eight (much shorter) bonus tracks, one featuring another much-loved British pop/rock icon. Read on.
THE ORIGINAL ALBUM
The first of five lengthy tracks, 'In Old England Town' (Boogie No 2) (6 min 51 sec), starts with instruments only for almost two minutes before the vocals come in. Like much of what follows, they aren't really songs, the lyrics being more or less blank verse, integrated with musical passages of different time signatures. (Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but that's the only way of putting it). Sawing cellos and violin, underpinned by drums, guitar chords and a few guitar fills reminiscent of the Beatles' In my view, Lynne was doing a clever job of combining rock and classics. The latter can be heard in the way that musically each track is based on little musical movements constantly varying in light and shade - but then a burst of electric guitar and vocal comes in to remind you that this is a rock group as well.
'Momma' (6.58) is a slow, mournful piece with the same cello and violin figures predominating, plus tinkling piano and synthesizer cutting in. It's pleasant, but less adventurous than the first track, and could have been improved by editing slightly - unlike what comes next, which is -
'Roll Over Beethoven' (7.01), the old Chuck Berry song, the only cover version the group ever recorded on a studio album. A four-minute edited version gave the band a No. 6 hit single. The band take the song outside and give it a good kicking - it's a bombastic, splendidly over-the-top romp, beginning with a few bars of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 before Lynne cuts in with the electric guitar intro and sings his heart out, the cellos and violins are worked like crazy, Bev Bevan punishes the drums good'n'proper, and Richard Tandy hits the ivories like a pub pianist on helium. If you liked the single version, you'll revel in the full helping - and probably not want to hear the edit again.
'From The Sun To The World' (Boogie No 1) (8.17) starts off with tinkling piano and synth again, an idea which Lynne later explored in the 1977 hit 'Telephone Line'. There's plenty of light and shade, with some vocals after the introduction and a gentle passage led by strings and French horn (uncredited in the booklet - probably Wood again), which seems about to bring it to a peaceful ending. Then it starts again with a brisk section led by kinda classical meets boogie-woogie piano (think Rachmaninoff crossed with Jools Holland), before the vocals come back in and the strings join in. Just to complete the party, Lynne adds some forceful lead guitar.
'Kuiama' (11.13), the longest track they ever recorded, has something of an anti-war message in the lyrics. Another gentle piece with verses and instrumental sections alternating, finishing on what sounds like a helicopter (flying out of the war zone?), it's good - but again could have done with a little editing.
Personally, I love this album, but it did take me a few years. I thought it (the original five-track release) rather self-indulgent for the most part at first, and only after listening to it every now and then over a few years did I appreciate how good it was. Somehow, it all fell into place - and as such it is the exact opposite of a record which sounds great at first but then starts to pall.
Some of the remaining tracks sound almost like a different band altogether, one who didn't mind making hit singles (in other words, a band who were told by the record company that they either made hits or kissed their contract goodbye). 'Showdown', a No. 12 hit in autumn 1973, is almost closer to soul than rock, and drew favourable comparisons from various quarters with Marvin Gaye's 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine'. Look on Youtube, and you'll find the audio to a short 1974 US radio interview with an enthusiastic John Lennon who said exactly that.
There's also a short instrumental reprise of 'In Old England Town', and a totally out-of-character song 'Baby I Apologise'. It's a chirpy, poppy number which sounds like Lynne demoed it with multi-tracked vocals, keyboards and handclaps, and could have been meant for another band entirely.
Two versions of 'Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle', a No. 22 hit in 1974, follow, one a brief backing track, the second a full four-minute version. Blistering guitar chords and fierce cellos make this one of the hardest rocking numbers they ever recorded, rather reminiscent of the Rolling Stones' 'Brown Sugar' but without saxophone.
'Mambo' (Dreaming Of 4000) is an early version of a song which would appear in finished form on the third album later that year. Following that is a superb track presumably unreleased at the time for contractual reasons, 'Everyone's Born To Die'. There are no strings on this one, but featured on joint lead guitar with Lynne (and I'd guess backing vocals too) is Marc Bolan, a close friend of his. It would have made a great single. To finish off with is an early version of 'Roll Over Beethoven', but apart from the guys going 'ho-ho ho ho' over the initial Symphony No 5 intro, it's not much different from the finished one.
PACKAGING AND ALTERNATE VERSIONS
The front and back of the 24-page booklet reproduces the original UK vinyl gatefold sleeve design of a lightbulb-cum-spaceship in the night sky; the US design was different. In the rest of the booklet are photographs, three including Bolan, an introduction from Lynne himself, extensive commentary by ELO archivist Rob Caiger who helped supervise the reissue project, and lyrics to the songs.
Ladies - sorry, but if you want that picture of all seven hunky ELO members bare-chested, you'll have to seek out the original vinyl with gatefold sleeve.
A limited edition 30th anniversary double CD was issued in 2003 and has since been deleted, but copies can usually be found on eBay and Amazon Marketplace. The second CD in the card slipcase features alternate takes and BBC sessions of these tracks, plus three songs recorded by the group with not Lynne on lead vocal - but instead the late Carl Wayne, who was originally vocalist with The Move, and ironically whose departure paved the way for Lynne to join them. Wayne was a superb singer, and for these alone it is worth seeking out.
Overblown pomp-prog-rock plus horrible hit singles? No way! (And Lynne would surely eat his words big-time by the end of the decade). I found the slick hit-factory that ELO became in their latter days a little bland for my tastes. Before that they may have been weird, but for my money they were far more interesting. I'll deduct one star for the tendency to spin a couple of tracks out a little too long, but don't let that put you off. If you found 'Secret Messages' or 'Balance Of Power' from the early 1980s too slick or predictable, as I did, maybe you'll prefer this.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 In Old England Town (Boogie No 2) (2003 Digital Remaster)
2 Momma (2003 Digital Remaster)
3 Roll Over Beethoven (2003 Digital Remaster)
4 From The Sun To The World (Boogie No.1) (2003 Digital Remaster)
5 Kuiama (2003 Digital Remaster)
6 Showdown (2003 Digital Remaster)
7 In Old England Town (Instrumental) (2003 Digital Remaster)
8 Baby I Apologise (Session Outtake 1 June 1973) (2003 Digital Remaster)
9 Auntie (Ma-Ma-Ma Belle Take 1)
10 Auntie (Ma-Ma-Ma Belle Take 2)
11 Mambo (Dreaming Of 4000 Take 1)
12 Everyone's Born To Die
13 Roll Over Beethoven (Take 1) (Session Master 8 September 1972)