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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra

Review by John Pierpoint

This 1971 album was apparently entitled No Answer in the USA, although this was due to a misunderstanding between the band and the distributor. In Europe it was eponymously titled. It was the first fruit of the new project by members of Birmingham band The Move – Roy Wood, Bev Bevan and Jeff Lynne - who had decided to strike off in a bold new direction and with a new name, largely influenced by The Beatles’ use of classical instruments in their later recordings. Wood and Lynne are the song-writers, and each brings a different slant to how the disparate musical forces of the rock and classical worlds should be marshaled. The trio are assisted by several guest musicians, but many of the instruments were tackled by Roy Wood himself – in particular, multi-tracking cellos to produce the distinctive heavy tone that pervades much of the album. Production quality is not brilliant, although maybe this can be excused in the general enthusiasm for the new project, and the limitations of multi-track recording techniques at the time.

Alas, Roy Wood left the project soon after this debut album (founding the equally bizarre and memorable band Wizzard), but ELO went on to achieve world domination under the direction of Lynne, with notable album and singles successes.

The CD is enhanced, so running it in a computer brings up a Terry Gilliam style animated presentation, which gives access to videos of “10538 Overture” and others. The sleeve notes include new articles by Lynne and Wood, and press cuttings from the period. Two bonus tracks are provided, although one is only a snippet.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
10538 Overture
A monster guitar riff kicks off the album. French horns and grinding cellos join in, followed by the drums. Lynne’s multi-tracked vocals are somewhat distorted and indistinct. There are gentle string and acoustic guitar interludes between the verses, before that iconic riff returns. It’s strange that the most successful tune on the album is the most mainstream, when so many of the other tracks are so much more interesting. Comparisons with Sergeant Pepper era Beatles are obvious, especially with the horn and trumpet ornaments, although the production isn’t on a par with George Martin’s!
Look At Me Now
Roy Wood sings a medieval-sounding song about loss and contemplation. There are no rock instruments on this one - the strings and an oboe carry the tune - but this gives the song greater impact. The oboe gets a couple of solo spots which conjure up memories of The Beatles’ “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”
Nellie Takes Her Bow
Lynne sings to a distant, distorted piano track (perhaps meant to sound like a radio recording – as used later on in the album). The strings come in soon after. The song is about a faded stage actress, and there is an instrumental intermission, which perhaps represents the stage play. This runs into a spectacular violin solo from Steve Woolam (which morphs into a quote from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). The vocals are very distorted in places, which detracts from the music.
The Battle Of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644)
Wood gives a melodramatic reading of Cromwell’s statement to the King, to a backing of strings and bassoon. This introduces a series of short musical themes that depict the preparation and fighting of the battle, very much like a miniature version of Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and “March Slave” pieces. So many ideas are packed into this short track that it’s quite a staggering feat. At times, the instruments emulate the sounds of cannon and arrow fire. The ending is almost identical to that of Holst’s “Mars.”
First Movement (Jumping Biz)
Wood plays a brilliant instrumental acoustic guitar piece, very similar to Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” backed by the strings and some powerful drumming from Bev Bevan. The oboe takes the lead briefly between verses. I think this has to be my favourite track. I certainly wish I could play the guitar part.
Mr. Radio
This song has a 1920s feel. Radio noises fade in, phased and distorted classical music, to be replaced by Lynne’s distorted (deliberately this time) vocals. After the first verse, the vocals lose their radio-effect treatment, although they are subjected to a lot of reverb. The whole song has a tragic, desperate, lonely feel. One feels that Lynne’s clipped, formal period vocals are going to break down into sobs at any moment. There’s a brief but dramatic piano interlude, before the final two verses. The piano playing on this tune is very fine, which makes me wonder if Richard Tandy (who officially joined the band on the next album) was involved here. The track ends with more phased radio frequency-scanning.
Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)
Staying with the 1920s theme, Lynne’s piano picks out an apocalyptic tune, accompanied by string screeches and sound effects. Partway through, the mood changes, as we hear the sounds of city night-life, complete with jazz clarinet and backing singers (sounding like Lynne and company putting on falsetto voices). It’s a bit like a potted version of Gene Kelly’s “Broadway Melody” dance sequence. The main theme returns for one last verse.
Queen of the Hours
This starts with what sounds like the martial rhythm from Holst’s “Mars,” grinding on cellos, before it changes to a melodic and folky song from Lynne. More than any other track, this points the way to what Lynne would go on to do with ELO on the next few albums, concentrating on excellent song-writing rather than relying on the gimmickery of the unusual instrument blend. There is an instrumental coda, which decelerates to a conclusion.
Whisper in the Night
Following Lynne’s best song, we get Wood’s best song! Delivered on acoustic guitar, backed by the strings, it has the feel of a church hymn, with a powerful melody and moving chorus. Wood’s vocal delivery is superb. There are female (or children’s) voices backing the middle eight, then a brief instrumental interlude, before the main theme returns. This makes a wonderful ending to the original album.
Bonus session track: the Battle of Marston Moor
This is an early take of part of the music for the track, minus Wood’s spoken vocals.
Bonus session track: 10538 Overture
Apart from the “Take one” introduction, and some strange distortion which may be due to overdone digital noise reduction, this is almost identical to the final album version, although to me it sounds brighter in tone and - if anything – better recorded and played! Lynne’s vocals are certainly less distorted. There are a couple of dodgy notes from the cellos near the end, and the whole thing peters out chaotically, which may be why this take wasn’t eventually used.

 

 
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