Today is the birthday of producer/songwriter/ performer Jeff Lynne (b. 1947) best known for his project Electric Light Orchestra (1970-1986), and for producing chart-topping records by George Harrison (1987), Roy Orbison (1988), Tom Petty (1989) each solo, and then all together (with Bob Dylan) as the Traveling Wilburies (1989-1990)…as well as the Beatles Anthology reunion tracks (1994).
I liked E.L.O. well enough when I was a kid, at least up through the Xanadu mishigas (1980), but have really never listened to them since. My taste changed (I acquired some!) and listening to his music became basically something I would never do, at least on purpose. But recently, I have been cautiously revisiting the 70s, for a couple of reasons. One: I am doing some autobiographical writing, and music can be like a wormhole for visiting other time periods. And two, over the past several years I have been confronting my bugbears and prejudices (e.g., Broadway, disco etc) in order to be more fair in my criticisms. “Why don’t I like something?” is a question worth asking. Sometimes it tells you something about art; very often it tells you something about yourself.
So, a few months back I posted as a status: “[I’m] Listening to Electric Light Orchestra…and I’m okay with that.” Ha! Many, perhaps most, readers immediately get why I make the apology. But some were like, “Why wouldn’t it be okay?” So as not to step on toes I backed away from the answer at the time — but I’ll spill a little ink on it today. I’m sure it won’t spoil Lynne’s birthday way up there in his mansion!
First let’s talk about what’s cool about his music. I knew briefly when I was a kid I guess (but forgot later), that “Electric Light Orchestra” wasn’t just a name. The band included an entire string section of its own, with all those violin and cellos and so forth arranged by Lynne. So that’s undeniably impressive. At the time, the band claimed in doing so to be taking pop music “beyond the Beatles”. But I don’t think Lynne’s compositions are anywhere near up to the level of Lennon and McCartney, nor are his orchestrations up to the level of George Martin, so no, not really. But it’s still impressive.
And in going back and listening to their singles, I admit I like many of them a lot (especially ones from the mid 70s), although it must be admitted, I regard them as guilty pleasures.
The pinnacle for me is the 1975 single “Evil Woman” — which Lynne reportedly wrote in just a few minutes (isn’t that always the way?). It’s a much more soulful-sounding record than almost anything he’s done before or since, — there’s an attitude to it that’s very cocky and funky, and there are little touches (like the cowbell, and that cheesy little riff on the clavinet) that make it sound like THE anthem of 1975…just as much at home on the dance floor as background music for Starsky and Hutch.
After this, on my list of personal favorites, I would probably put the 1977 single “Turn to Stone”, because of its energy and its very catchy melody and a mood which manages to be melancholy and kind of frenetic at the same time. Is this what it’s like when you’re sad but also on cocaine? I also really like a million things about the haunting, moody “Livin’ Thing” (1976), which I would either tie with “Turn to Stone” or make third, because I’m all hierarchical like that. But already with these two tunes, we get impinging elements, the myriad touches Lynne adds which take us away from the relative balance of tunes like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” a couple of years before.
Mainly the issue is excess. This is what makes nearly all of his tunes cross the line into kitsch. When he hits upon some pleasing element he beats it to death. He loves bells and whistles and gimmicks and toys, and one isn’t enough, he’ll cram twelve of them into the same song. Some of these elements (auto-correct for harmonies, synthesizers, voices distorted into robot sounds) are best used sparingly if at all, EVER. In short, he has no taste.
Later, when he went for a stripped down rockabilly thing (“Don’t Bring Me Down”, “Hold On Tight”, and that late 80s, early 90s stuff) he gets so anal and squeaky clean in the production that it winds up about as much like true rock and roll as a player piano mechanically essaying the works of Jerry Lee Lewis.
As a songwriter he has a way with a hook and a melody, and that’s why one (even me) might be tempted to listen to him. But even then, his songs often seem assembled from other people’s songs. They feel like amalgamations of gimmicks and techniques lifted from everything and everywhere.”Telephone Line” for example (1977), which got credit at the time for being innovative and is undeniably performed well, but steals all its ideas from songs like Harry Nilsson’s “One” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello, It’s Me” (for that matter, there are a million goddamn telephone songs).
Also, Jeff Lynne bears an unfortunate resemblance to tv painting teacher Bob Ross. Interestingly, Lynne’s music is a sort of sonic equivalent to Ross’s painting:
ELO songs have come to be characterized as guilty pleasures; they tend to get used ironically in films, when wants to generate emotions, but with just a hint of edge or light mockery: “Showdown” was used in King Pin (1996), “Livin’ Thing” was in Boogie Nights (1997), and “Mr. Blue Sky” in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). These movies more than anything probably brought this music back onto my radar. “Oh, yeah. I kind of like that!”
What’s on my turntable? Electric Light Orchestra. But sh! Don’t tell anybody (and I skip over two thirds of the songs).
At any rate, here’s the one single of their’s I can pretty much sign off on with no reservations whatsoever:
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc