ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE/JEFF LYNNE'S ELO
REVIEW: Jeff Lynne’s ELO: Alone in the Universe.
By Martin Hickes
TO SOME, the late 1970s represented a time of malcontent – the Winter of Discontent was at its height as was the Cold War.
To others, they were halcyon days, ushering in a period of highly melodic, pop/rock far from the dirge style prevalent in British pop in recent years. (Thankfully, a new range of artists in the 2000s seem to be bringing back something of a return to strong chord-based pop/rock, with piano and drum at heart).
ELO were the biggest band in the world in 1977/78, thanks largely to their seminal Out of the Blue album which typified a whole new rock genre – that of British Symphonic Rock - and due largely to master songwriter and performer Jeff Lynne’s working relationship with conductor Louis Clarke. His novel use of strings and a melodic rock beat typified feel-good rock.
Out of the Blue and the equally successful Discovery in 1979 capitalised on melodic chord changes and an upbeat drum/guitar beat that Jeff would later repeat with the Travelling Wilbury’s in the late 1980s.
But both albums were under pinned by a distinctive orchestral backing, and Lynne’s sweepingly romantic chord swooshes and cascading arpeggios and subtle outer space style references.
He also made wondrous use of synthesizer sounds; the sleeve notes to Out of the Blue employed a ‘Systec flanger’ and even a ‘fire extinguisher’ curiously.
ELO had been raised to near global superstardom with A New World Record in 1976 and expectations for their next album just grew.
Under pressure to write a double album in just six weeks, Lynne locked himself away in a chalet in the picturesque village of Bassins in Switzerland, and by his own reports couldn’t write a note for two weeks as the rain came down.
Then, one morning, he woke up to a beautiful sunrise and blue sky and was inspired to write ‘Mr Blue Sky.’
In the sleeve notes to the re-mastered ‘Out of the Blue’ he says: “I just kept coming up with songs then, y’know. They just came real quick and I came up with about 14 in two weeks after the first empty two weeks.’
The resulting album was heralded as one of the greatest of the 1970s – but back then, it has to be remembered, there was an awful lot of high-class competition. Grease was riding high in the charts and soon to come was the Bee Gees’ million selling Saturday Night Fever. Wings were also around as were Queen, Stevie Wonder, Blondie, Genesis, Elton John and Rod Stewart, and many more top melodic acts.
Singles regularly sold in their millions and to get to number one in both the album and singles charts was quite a feat. A single in 1978 usually had to sell about 100,000 copies to get to number one. Today it is probably less than 25,000.
After Discovery, formulated in the same symphonic style, but this time with an upbeat nod to disco, hence the title, ELO again reached the pop stratosphere.
But their 1981 album Time – very much more a concept album based on synths not strings – marked a change in direction. It was again a huge success – and some think a work of genius never bettered by the band since – but in a sense ELO had nowhere to go afterwards.
Secret Messages in 1983 and Balance of Power in 1986 had the feel of contractual albums, and Lynne left to form the highly praised Traveling WIlbury’s – albeit almost by accident, and to turn his multi-talented hand to music producing. He won praise for such from all, including Tom Petty, the remaining Beatles and others.
(John Lennon once remarked had The Beatles kept going, they would have probably turned into ELO).
After drummer Bev Bevan formed the short lived ELO 2, Jeff Lynne went solo and produced a creditable solo album Armchair Theatre which still had many of the wistful chord changes which have become his hallmark. He also brought in a style which clearly had echoes of his association with Roy Orbison, and his love of Del Shannon.
Zoom in 2001 was branded as ELO but might as well have been titled ‘Jeff Lynne 2’ – and for good or bad, the same can be said of the new album ‘Alone in the Universe’. ‘Jeff Lynne 3 or 4’ whichever way you look at it.
While this time titled ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’, presumably for both sentimental and or legal reasons, those purists hoping for a return to the old style ELO string and upbeat rock sound might be disappointed.
Jeff’s new look ELO were particularly successful at Hyde Park and on Children in Need not long ago when they revived much of their old material with superb aplomb. Jeff’s vocals and arrangements on stage, ably backed by Richard Tandy, cannot be faulted.
And while this new album is good – When I Was A Boy, Dirty to the Bone, When the Night Comes, All My Life, and I’m Leaving You are the highlight tracks – there’s a slight sense of downbeat nostalgia about the whole album.
Yes, the tumbling pianos trills are still there but there’s more to the album that is still Jeff Lynne than the old ELO – if that is possible.
Jeff is Mr ELO, but purists/fans will no doubt have noted that he also has his own distinct style – that one which is easily influenced by a Wilbury’s/Orbison style and one which can be a bit mournfully self-indulgent if he isn’t careful.
ELO’s late 70s style was not only highly melodic but positively upbeat; who can forget Horace Wimp, Wild West Hero and the romantically superb Midnight Blue? And dare we mention All Over the World and the sugary pop confectionary of Xanadu? Yes, the latter was a bit saccharine but it got you up and dancing.
If the new album has a failing, it is that the positive upbeat seems to be too sporadic. Maybe the times have changed and Jeff has just got a bit older, and is beginning to contemplate the undiscovered country?
But that’s not to be downbeat about the whole album – One Step at a Time is particularly good, as are the bonus tracks Blue and Fault Line.
Dirty to the Bone’s intro is so close to Zoom’s Moment in Paradise as to be almost indistinguishable.
In summary, the old style ELO it seems can arguably be said to have disappeared in about 1983 – around the time of their Secret Messages album – probably the last time that strings, melody and an upbeat tempo were last wholly together. Balance of Power in 1986 had echoes of the Lynne-solo years to come, with the standout tracks of Calling America and Getting to the Point.
And in this sense, although it has the ELO moniker, Alone in the Universe is very much a Jeff Lynne-solo style album, in the vein of Armchair Theatre, and Zoom, and even his Long Wave album produced not long ago, try as it might not to be.
It also makes you wonder how truly alone Jeff might be, listening to the lyrics.
Let’s hope not – as changed as ELO/Lynne might be, he remains the master producer, lyricist, melodeon, and all round nice-guy, by accounts.
There’s a feeling of afterglow about it all perhaps, to use one of his favourite phrases. But even if for just one song, Mr Blue Sky, and the sonic cathedral that is Out of the Blue, and his contribution to the music pantheon on stage or in the studio, he deserves to be hailed as a pop and rock legend. Long may he continue – and the light shine on.