In his track notes to the fabulous new Challengers by the New Pornographers, Carl “A.C.” “Ace” “The Man With Too Many Nicknames” Newman observes that the string arrangement in particular on “All the Old Showstoppers” is a tribute to Roy Wood’s “brilliantly primitive string work.” This is unsurprising to me, since I remember thinking that some of the arrangements on Newman’s solo album The Slow Wonder were similar to early ELO. (“My Rights Versus Yours” from Challengers can be heard at the band’s website.)
Wood was the main songwriter with The Move, a band that never received the acclaim here that it should have, being in many ways a link connecting the Beatles, the Who, and Cheap Trick (Cheap Trick covered that band’s “California Man,” in fact). Near the end of The Move’s run, another songwriter from a fellow Birmingham band came in as its guitarist and, eventually, vocalist: Jeff Lynne. Lynne, of course, went on to found Electric Light Orchestra, which went on to become a byword for excessive production in the late ’70s and early ’80s (to the extent that Randy Newman, of all people, wrote a bizarre tribute/roasting called “The Story of ELO” – bizarre not least because even though he uses the real band’s (nick)name, quotes several of its song titles, and parodies those songs in his track, he uses fake names for the band members. (Why Randy Newman felt the need to say anything about ELO is a puzzlement…)
I should have written that Lynne co-founded ELO – since Wood shared singing and songwriting duties on that band’s premier album, amusingly mistitled No Answer in the US (it was supposed to have been self-titled). And the early ELO is quite a different beast from the precision-polished chart machine it became at its commercial peak (and quite different yet from the pathetic embarrassment it later became).
The concept originally was for both groups, The Move and Electric Light Orchestra, to co-exist with the same personnel, distinguished from one another by musical approach. ELO’s prospectus was to mix classical structures and instrumentation with rock energy and personality (this was 1971; that idea was at that time almost a new one). But as Lynne’s more baroque writing style became more prominent in The Move, and as Wood incorporated his developing multi-instrumental capabilities in that band, it became clear that the two acts’ coexistence was rather redundant. Fortuitously, Lynne was itching to be the sole leader of a band – so ELO broke off with Wood and hired an almost entirely new contingent of musicians (retaining drummer Bev Bevan). This new ensemble recorded the album that was to be the beginning of the band’s US success: Electric Light Orchestra II, and its single, a version of “Roll Over Beethoven” that rather incongruously yoked in quotations from Beethoven (primarily the famous opening of his fifth symphony) with the Chuck Berry tune.
That’s where my history with the band begins: I heard the abbreviated single mix of “Roll Over Beethoven” and was entranced with it. So I bought the single, and later ELO II became one of the first LPs I bought with my own money (earned from my paper route). I can’t say now that I think the song works – the long version (linked above) is precariously close to a joke – but: the rock parts rock, and Lynne, no matter what else you can say about him, had a great rock’n’roll voice and sings the hell out of this one. If this was an academic project, it was one he meant.
It wasn’t until many years later that I found out the band’s prehistory with and as The Move (whose music I now prefer, generally, over that of ELO). The band’s next album, On the Third Day, was its most rock’n’roll, with “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” featuring a great Stonesy riff. It was the band’s fourth album Eldorado, though, that became its breakthrough success. The handful of string players was largely supplanted by a full orchestra and choir (eventually, that “classical” business would be reduced largely to window-dressing), and the more chart-friendly, polished sound most people associate with the band became more apparent.
Going backwards, though: On the first album, almost all the “classical” instruments were played by Roy Wood himself. While obviously a talented musician, Wood had only recently taken up the additional instruments he played on this recording (which include cello, oboe, string bass, bassoon, clarinet, and recorders). His rough technique gave the playing on this record a very distinctive sound, most notably the cellos, which sometimes sound more like sawing wood in tune than cellos. (Very rock’n’roll.) His own “Look at Me Now” is a good illustration: judging from that list of instruments (he also plays various guitars and percussion), Wood plays nearly everything on this track: his sometimes precarious pitch and gleefully rough attack complement the lyrical portrait of a man worried he’s about to lose it. Jeff Lynne’s song “Queen of the Hours” exploits Wood’s sawing cello-playing as its distinctive sonic signature (it was also the US b-side of the “Roll Over Beethoven” single, which is where I first heard it). You get a glimpse here of Lynne’s distinctive melodic/harmonic tendencies in the way his opening vocal phrase slides down from the tonic, to the seventh, to a flattened sixth to go with the flatted IV chord (which, in turn, prepares us for the minor turn of the rest of the phrase’s chords).
ELO II is Lynne’s album, and it finds the band at its most prog-influenced: long songs, the occasional odd time signature, suite-like structures featuring extended instrumental introductions, etc. Even though the band now features “real” string players, Lynne was apparently fond of the roughness of Wood’s playing…as the brutally sawed attacks of the cellos that open “In Old England Town (Boogie #2).” Once the song proper starts (and I’m sure some folks would prefer that happen much sooner than it does…), the way Lynne borrows from and extends certain Beatlesque songwriting tricks is apparent. The chord sequence is quite jumpy, exploiting devices ranging from chromatic runs to using both major and minor chords in order to motivate that moving around. The melody cleverly deploys its most keening and plangent accents during chord sequences that are furthest removed from the song’s essential progression, so that when both chords and melody return to predictability, the impact of that return is intensified.
It’s interesting to wonder whether Lynne’s later ability to fold such oddness into songs that still fit traditional structures (and hence, fit audience’s notions of hit songs) would have happened without that prog moment. As excessive and amateur as the kitchen-sink approach might seem, without it I think it’s less likely that his more pop-oriented work in the band’s classic period from Eldorado through Out of the Blue would have been as distinctive as it is.
Electric Light Orchestra “Look At Me Now” (Electric Light Orchestra/No Answer, 1971)
Elecric Light Orchestra “Queen of the Hours” (Electric Light Orchestra/No Answer, 1971)
Electric Light Orchestra “Roll Over Beethoven” (Electric Light Orchestra II, 1973)
Electric Light Orchestra “In Old England Town (Boogie #2)” Electric Light Orchestra II, 1973)