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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Electric Light Orchestra


Review by John Pierpoint

First, a confession: I was a huge ELO fan when I was at school. I thought they were the gods of pop. Yet when I got older and discovered that there was a whole world of rock, psychedelic and prog out there, I soon threw away my loyalty. They became a bit of a “guilty pleasure.” But now, listening to their recent CD re-issues (and with the realisation that the band may never properly reform in what I might consider a legitimate line-up again), I can hear what it was that I loved back in those schooldays. While their career steered a course towards pop sensibility and ultimately a bland, empty tweeness, their early records were prog masterpieces, full of life, invention and power. Frankly, on listening to ELO2 – their second (and last) album for the EMI Harvest label - for the first time in years (decades, probably), I was completely blown away. This is astounding music, every bit as worthy as the albums that King Crimson or Genesis were producing at the time. 

Roy Wood had left the group by this time, but the copious sleeve notes on this CD reissue tell us that he provided some cello and bass parts for the second album, and that there was a crossover period where an expanded line-up played live shows following the success of the debut album. So the transition between the first and second incarnations of the group was a bit more gradual than I remembered it. Regardless, Jeff Lynne was now in sole command, and he had a sizable new group built up around himself and drummer Bev Bevan. The band were really tight, too. Whereas the music on the first album often seemed to be holding together on a wing and a prayer, these guys sounded like they were cooking, and having a ball in the process. The album has a more coherent feel than its predecessor. While much of this undoubtedly due to having a single hand at the helm, it is also helped by the added talents of the new musicians that came on board at this stage. Particularly influential to the new direction is Lynne's future collaborator and keyboard maestro Richard Tandy. Wilf Gibson does a splendid job on the violin, while Mike Edwards and Colin Walker take over the cello roles from Wood. Mike de Albuquerque provides the precise and intricate basswork (listen carefully – it's a treat). Lynne's songwriting can be heard improving, moving away from Beatles influences and beginning to develop a unique voice. For classical music buffs, it's good fun to try and catch all the classical riffs and melodies that they rip off – some appear so fleetingly, that they’re hard to spot!

As with many reissues, the bonus tracks are a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Some are simply snippets of studio out-takes, but I think there are some real gems here. Most unusually, there are early versions of tracks from their next album (which was their first for new label Jet). The final track is a real joy – it's nice to see (well, hear) Lynne letting his hair down and having some fun.

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2013  Volume 5 at

Track by Track Review
In Old England Town (Boogie No. 2)

The grinding cello sounds and Lynne's overly-echoed and distorted vocals are much akin to those heard on the debut album (particularly on “10538 Overture”), but there's a much greater proportion of electric instruments here. This opening tune goes through several changes of pace and style (quoting several classical melodies) before the first verse comes in. Lynne's lyrics are some of his daftest and most cumbersome, although the biting, cynical tone is quite refreshing to ears more attuned to his mellower hits of later years.

Momma. . .
This is a real pointer to how the ELO sound would shape up, and it wouldn't sound out of place on Face the Music or A New World Record. Mournful weeping strings and gentle guitar picking introduce this song, which has a country feel in places. A brief Moog fanfare (one of Richard Tandy's trademark sounds) cuts in at intervals. There's a key change at the end of the chorus that reminds me of early King Crimson.
Roll Over Beethoven
ELO made this Chuck Berry classic their own, using quotes from Ludwig Van's iconic 5th Symphony to introduce the piece, and peppering them throughout. Yet the very start of the track sounds more like the chilling Purcell funeral theme that opened the film A Clockwork Orange. There's even a “Peter Gunn” moment in the instrumental section in the middle (and a rare spotlight moment for Bev Bevan), before the violin gets a solo. This naturally became a high point in the band's live set for many years, with lots of opportunities for the string players to show their stuff.
From the Sun to the World (Boogie No. 1)
Gentle undulating piano introduces this song, topped with rippling synths, before a familiar ripped-off classical melody steams in (which – as a card-carrying Radio 3 listener – I know I ought to be able to identify, but I can’t quite work out what it is - help me out here!). When the main tune emerges, it has a similar feel to “In Old England Town” in the metre and tone of the vocals (indeed, they are obviously linked, as their full titles show). Tandy does a grandiose piano fill that would do Rick Wakeman proud, which introduces a more low-key, introspective section. Then we're back to the main theme, but with a boogie-woogie feel.
For prog-rock fans, this is probably the finest cut on the album, having many classic prog stylistic touches, and bags of emotion and power to boot. The song seems to be about the Vietnam War (or warfare in general). The apocalyptic opening chords give way to sweet country guitar picking, which introduces a laid-back tune. Behind the vocals (which are unfortunately distorted), there's some instrument droning in a low key which I can't identify. It might be a slowed-down distorted guitar, a keyboard or simply a fuzz-tone bass. There's some slowly plucked guitar that lends a Beatles feel to parts of the tune. The middle eight is a real treasure (and I'm someone who normally hates these!), with some of Lynne's best lyrics (“No more silver rain will kiss the ground. . .”). It sounds like there are French horns in the background here, but there are none mentioned in the credits, so it could be keyboards. Later, there's an excellent instrumental section which starts off in low gear, but builds up (drums and piano) behind the strings. Then Gibson's violin takes centre stage with a blisteringly powerful solo – first trembling with emotive vibrato, then performing manic octave leaps. The guitar briefly takes over the lead, bringing down the pace a little before simulated air-raid sirens and a piano cadence call a halt to proceedings. A dark sequence of echoed piano intrudes, bringing to mind the sound of marching boots and the gathering clouds of war. The final verse ends with a reprise of the apocalyptic opening chords, followed by a rising scale of strings which suggests a release from the hell of warfare. The closing synth effects sound like those the band later used to open and close their later live shows (the opening and closing of the huge saucer-ship on the Out of the Blue tour).
Bonus Tracks
This was originally on some versions of their next album On the Third Day (although not on the first vinyl version I owned – much to my disappointment!) and was the band's breakthrough hit. With female backing singers and better production, the sound is much slicker and radio-friendly than the other tracks, and indicates the direction ELO would later take.
In Old England Town (Instrumental)
This is another take of the song, but with Tandy's keyboards taking the melody line (and doing some Keith Emerson fills along the way).
Baby I Apologise
This would fit right in with a Travelling Wilburys set! A bar-room piano starts things off, with Lynne singing a hard-luck story. It's a bit wince-inducing, and things only get cheesier, with organ, hand-claps (not quite in time!) and tambourine. Sounds like the lads were just having a laugh at the end of a session!
Auntie (Ma-Ma-Ma Belle Take 1)
This is an early version of a song that would appear on the next album. It is literally a first take, and it ends abruptly, before the vocals come in. The sleeve notes tell us that none other than Marc Bolan plays guitar on this song!
Auntie (Ma-Ma-Ma Belle Take 2)
This time, it’s a full take, and the guitar's got that double-tracked biting tone that we know and love from the final version. There are some OTT guitar wails on the final chorus, and the whole thing peters out to the sound of a rattling cowbell.
Mambo (Dreaming of 4000 Take 1)
To my ears, this starts off pretty much as the final album track, albeit with another over-zealous lead guitar in places. The main difference is that it's missing Tandy's front-and-centre “Good Vibrations” keyboard wails (they can be barely heard in the background though if you listen hard). It's got all the power and emotion of the final version, just lacking a bit of production polish.
Everyone's Born To Die
This one sounds like another Travelling Wilburys era song, with a vocal line that could easily be delivered by Tom Petty. To my ears, the production and instruments used sound much more modern than on the other tracks, but the sleeve notes (and articles on the web) indicate that this was indeed contemporaneous.
Roll Over Beethoven (Take 1)
They start off just jamming on this one, but then things get a bit weird. Lynne does the Beethoven melody with vocalised “Ha ha ha”s (reminding me of that Blackadder II scene where they're all playing at being sailors), and he throws in squeaks, farts and Goon Show-style silly comments to the control room for good measure. In some ways, this is the best track on the album!
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