I am a sucker for Beatles-based pop music. It’s cliche, but they’re my favorite band. Always have been. I may not listen to them as much as I did when I was younger, but I still know all the words to all the songs. I can sing along to the guitar solos. I can name the albums in order without looking.
You know who else could probably do that? Jeff Lynne of the band Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO, as I’ll be referring to them for the rest of this post). Lynne married the smart pop sensibilities of the Beatles to classical strings and weird keyboards, and created some of the best damn pop music ever.
It’s a tremendously clever idea, and Jeff Lynne is a damn solid songwriter. By turns serious and silly, bombastic and subtle, he wove together disparate elements into cohesive songs. Outside of diehard fans, though, I don’t think many people know who he is (he was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn’t George Harrison, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, or Roy Orbison). Yet he deserves accolades and admiration. The man is meticulous and precise, a perfectionist who tweaks and fiddles until everything is just so.
Lynne’s style, both as a solo artist and with ELO, is glossy and shiny. He takes the Phil Spector Wall of Sound approach and cranks it up to eleven, adding layers of shimmery guitars and soaring strings over odd keyboard riffs and a solid rhythm section. And his vocals . . . Lynne can do the warbling croon of Roy Orbison, then suddenly switch to Del Shannon’s falsetto, and it all sounds amazing.
If you’re interested in getting into ELO, where should you begin? Skip their first couple of records. The sound and the songwriting just aren’t quite there yet. And skip their last couple of albums from the mid-’80s, where the band is almost unrecognizable from its mid-’70s heyday. Start with either Face the Music, A New World Record, or Out of the Blue. They’re all excellent. Out of the Blue is a double album and gets sorta bogged down here and there, but it does feature some of the band’s best-known tunes, like “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” Face the Music starts with the amazing instrumental “Fire on High,” and then goes on to classics like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” It’s probably the least of the three classic-era albums, but it’s still damn solid. A New World Record is just awesome from beginning to end, featuring “Telephone Line,” the opera and classical music name-dropping “Rockaria!,” “Livin’ Thing,” and “Do Ya.” Honestly, I’d just start with that one.
If those three albums whet your appetite and leave you wanting more, the next trio of albums to dig into are Eldorado, Discovery, and Time. Eldorado and Time play as loose concept albums, with Time feeling very much of its, um, time, with the early-’80s production and emphasis on keyboards and weird vocal and guitar effects, but it has some great songs including “Twilight,” “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” “Rain is Falling,” and “Hold on Tight.” Eldorado is lighter on great songs, but the whole thing holds together and flows very well, taking the concept of the Rock Opera and going whole hog with an overture, reprise, and everything. Discovery is the least of these three, honestly, though it does feature the smash hit “Don’t Bring Me Down.” It’s honestly not that great, lacking the strong songwriting and clever hooks of peak-ELO.
From there, I’d suggest the two most recent ELO albums, Zoom and Alone in the Universe. Both feel like classic ELO, though they’re mostly just Jeff Lynne doing everything himself (except for the strings and a couple of slide guitar parts on Zoom provided by George Harrison). There’s nothing particularly memorable about Alone in the Universe; it’s good, and sounds great, but it’s pretty forgettable.
After that, I guess you can pick up their first three albums, No Answer, Electric Light Orchestra II, and On the Third Day, and their mid-’80s work, Secret Messages and Balance of Power, but none of them are particularly essential. No Answer doesn’t even sound like the same band; there’s a lot more emphasis on the strings, and it’s definitely less poppy. I chalk that up to the fact that Lynne wasn’t in charge of the band quite yet (Roy Wood was the driving force initially, but he left after the first album and Lynne took over). Electric Light Orchestra II features ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven,” which is pretty much perfect. On the Third Day starts to sound more like the ELO we know and love; songs like “Showdown,” “Daybreaker,” and “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” are classics, and their cover of the classical tune “In the Halls of the Mountain King” to close out the album is brilliant.
When the band went on hiatus in the mid-’80s, Lynne focused on producing, and helped produce some of the best albums of the era. He did Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever and Petty & the Heartbreakers’ Into the Great Wide Open. He also produced George Harrison’s ’80s comeback Cloud 9, and Roy Orbison’s final studio album, Mystery Girl. He was also one of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup to end all supergroups. Suffice to say, the dude stayed pretty damn busy in the late ’80s.
All in all, you really can’t go wrong with ELO. If you’re intimidated by all the albums, the two-disc Strange Magic compilation is a pretty solid introduction to the band’s work, giving you the decent songs from the crappy albums and the greatest hits from the really good albums. There are other compilations out there, too, but that’s the one I recommend the most.