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ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA (ELO)
The ELO were formed by Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne of The Move as an ambitious fusion of rock and classically-inspired music and released this first album in 1971. Due to personal and musical differences and 'managerial political issues' which would take a short book to describe in detail; Wood departed a few months later to form Wizzard, leaving Lynne solely in charge.
In their early days, ELO were a rather experimental, even eccentric act, quite different from the very slick, commercial and increasingly predictable mainstream pop/rock combo they became in the late 1970s. If you enjoyed their latter incarnation, you might find this debut an acquired taste.
Five tracks were written by Lynne, four by Wood. Although it probably wasn't intentional, all of Lynne's, and one of Wood's, show something of a later Beatles influence. The other musicians were Bev Bevan (drums), Bill Hunt (horn, French horn) and Steve Woolam (violin). Lynne played piano, electric guitar, bass, Wood everything else - cello, oboe, acoustic and slide guitar, bass, string bass, bassoon, clarinet, and recorders.
'10538 Overture' (Lynne), the only single (No. 9, summer 1972), is the best-known and undoubtedly the best track. Opening with Lynne's electric guitar playing a short descending chord sequence, after a few seconds it is joined by Wood's extraordinary yet wonderful multi-tracked cello riffs. Listen to this on headphones to get the full flavour, and the way in which those cello phrases complement each other, and the way in which they cut out every now and then just to leave a few seconds of guitar and drums. Later on horn and hunting horn join in. The lyrics are vaguely about an escaped prisoner on the run. By the way, the single edit fades out quickly after the last verse at four minutes or so, but on this full (and better) album version, there is an extra 90 seconds or so of improvisation over the basic chord sequence.
'Look At Me Now' (Wood), quite 'Eleanor Rigby'-like in feel, has some wonderful evocative lyrics - 'Someone is waiting lurking in the trees...The King of the Castle brought her to her knees'. The unusual backing is mostly multi-tracked cello, with woodwind and horns coming in later, sounding like a medieval crumhorn, and just a few seconds of acoustic guitar shortly before the end.
'Nellie Takes Her Bow' (Lynne), which is about a girl who realises her ambitions on Broadway, starts off quietly with mainly cello behind the echo-soaked vocal. Then it suddenly becomes almost a different piece altogether, with a brisk drum roll, some striking violin work which sounds half-oriental, half like a 1930s Palm Court ensemble, before the horns and cello come in, playing riffs like variations on a theme of 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen'. Very strange, but rather endearing.
'The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd, 1644)' (Wood) is something else again. Opening with a speech from Roy 'Oliver' Wood berating King Charles II (and managing to mask his Brummie accent), it then goes into an instrumental with mainly cello, horns and drums - which Wood played as Bevan refused to because he disliked it so much. (Fans likewise tend to regard this as their least favourite track as well). Multi-tracked recorders add a slightly Jethro Tull-like flavour. I could indeed imagine hearing this as incidental music on a Civil War film-related soundtrack.
Another instrumental, 'First Movement (Jumping Biz)' (Wood), comes next. If you remember the glorious 1968 Top 10 hit 'Classical Gas' by Mason Williams, well - so did Wood, who admitted unashamedly that it had been an influence on this. One of the most commercial tracks on the album, it's a glorious mix of melody, acoustic guitar, drums, strings and woodwind.
'Mr Radio' (Lynne) starts with a few seconds of sound effects from a radio being tuned in on the dial, before Lynne's piano and echoing John Lennon-like vocal, on a song about a man who has just his radio for company now his wife has left him. More inventive strings join in later on, part of which sound like they are being played on a reversed tape, and part very reminiscent of one of Beethoven's string quartets - don't ask me which, but it is that kind of feel.
'Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)' (Lynne) is a third instrumental, which starts sounding like a rather martial piece of film music, mostly piano with cello and drums providing a kind of stately rhythm, woodwinds plus horns producing a brass effect. Then the tempo changes completely, and the piano suddenly seems to be playing a tune from an old music box, after which more jazz age tunes take over. If this sounds weird, then it is - but it's anything but dull. Really, you have to hear it - it's hard trying to sum it up in words.
'Queen of the Hours' (Lynne) is another of his dreamy songs, with mysterious poetic lyrics (who is the Queen of the Hours? A character from a Tennyson epic, maybe?), crunchy sawing cellos and horns, and a faint but very pretty acoustic guitar in one channel if you're listening on phones.
'Whisper in the Night' (Wood) was the final track on the original vinyl release. A lightly-picked acoustic guitar and church bell chime takes us into a hymn-like song, reminiscent of the song which would later become Wood's first solo hit, the enchanting 'Dear Elaine'. Later choral vocals join in softly, and it makes a beautiful peaceful conclusion to the record.
BONUS TRACKS AND MATERIAL
There is also a one-minute segment from an early version of 'Marston Moor', and an earlier version of '10538 Overture', which when added to the foregoing give the record a playing time of around 48 minutes.
Finally there is an enhanced section for your computer, including memorabilia such as press releases for the band and an acetate for the single, plus a promotional video made for TV showing the band miming to '10538', including Wood in his long white Father Time wig and tiny black pebble glasses, Lynne looking almost like a pirate in his costume and eye patch, and one of the roadies pretending to play cello, attired in a pig's mask and shirt with bow tie. All this is accessed through a very elegantly designed page in which the three main members' faces are superimposed on to butterfly wings flapping all over the screen, and have to be dragged onto the menu.
Included in the 24-page booklet are shots from the original photo session at the Banqueting Palace, Whitehall, the front one showing a huge light bulb on the middle of the empty floor, and the others of the three main members dressed in 17th century costume, Bevan in tricorn hat 'playing' a flute. The other pages include photos, memorabilia, lyrics to the songs, full credits, notes on how the original master tracks were retrieved from the studios (I'm fascinated by this stuff, though I know not everybody is), and specially written reminiscences from Wood and Lynne.
BONUS LIMITED CD
On the initial '30th anniversary' CD release in 2001, it was packaged in a card slipcase with a limited edition bonus CD 'First Light'. With a playing time of 58 minutes, the latter includes 11 tracks. One is a radio session version of '10538', preceded by a spoken introduction from Brian Matthew, and three are quadrophonic mixes of other tracks (quad being a shortlived 1970s experiment with playing records through FOUR speakers). The others are alternate takes or live versions, although only two are songs not found on CD 1, namely 'Jeff's Boogie No. 2', which later surfaced as 'In Old England Town' on the band's second album, and a bizarre mock-prog rock version of 'Great Balls of Fire', with cello riffs cropping up where you least expect them. To be honest, their 'Roll Over Beethoven' which followed later was far better! A 16-page booklet with more pics, info, memorabilia and again no attention to detail spared is included.
Although now deleted, complete limited edition sets are often available on Amazon Marketplace and eBay, starting from around £15, sometimes more. The single CD with bonus tracks should be a fraction of that.
This record really was pretty experimental, and quite a bold step at the time. Those of us who had followed Wood and The Move from the start found it took some getting into, but we loved it after a few listens. It sold steadily but not spectacularly, only entering the UK album chart after nine months on the back of the Top 10 success of '10538' as a single, peaking at No. 32 during a four-week run.
In a sense, it's like a very detailed painting - you can go back to it time and time again, and pick out little facets that you overlooked or never noticed before. It is nothing short of fascinating, but if you only know ELO from the occasional 'Best Of' collection from the days when they had become little more than a contract-filling stadium rock combo, you could be forgiven for wondering whether this really was the same outfit.
By the way, although Lynne wrote more than half of it, in my view it is really Wood's quirky experimentation with different instruments which really makes the record. The man was virtually an orchestra in himself. Ideas which the rest of the group thought would never work - he tried them and made sure they did work. If you don't know the record, listen - and prepare to be baffled. In my view it's well worth it. I've been familiar with it almost ever since release and for me it's never grown stale.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]