When Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood formed Electric Light Orchestra in 1970, their goal was to carry the torch of the recently disbanded Beatles, expanding that band’s psychedelic blueprint for “I Am The Walrus” with a classical-rock scope. Their actual trajectory was slightly different. Despite operating at opposite ends of the rock spectrum – Lynne the studious craftsman, Wood the cello-bashing oddball – the duo clearly couldn’t align their talents to a Lennon/McCartney level, and Wood left the band after only recording one full LP: their self-titled debut, which cracked the UK Top 40 but flew totally under the radar in America. But as Lynne took over the reigns as ELO’s chief songwriter, producer, and sonic architect, it became clear that he operated best without a co-writer. He was Lennon and McCartney in one package.
“It’s hard to say how The Beatles would have evolved,” Lynne told The Guardian in 2014. “I suppose they might have gone in an ELO way: They’d have had to leave the three-guitars-and-drums thing to expand their sound. That was why we did ELO in the first place – to get away from the three guitars and drums.”
The strings remained, separating ELO from their ’70s rock contemporaries. But their overall direction naturally evolved throughout the decade – spanning progressive rock, soft-rock, even disco. Few mainstream songwriters have covered as much stylistic territory as Lynne – more impressive is that he managed to combine those elements across single albums, even songs. The band reached their creative peak in the mid-to-late ’70s: The stretch from 1974’s Eldorado to 1979’s Discovery rivals the consistency of contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and the Who. But for some weird reason, ELO are rarely mentioned in the same breath as those rock giants.
Of course, the band floundered in the MTV age, as Lynne struggled to reconcile his grandiose arrangements with synth-pop-leaning production. The end was clearly at hand by 1985’s limp Balance Of Power, and ELO didn’t release another album until their 2001 comeback, Zoom, which hearkened back to the classic ’70s sound but failed to generate the same spark from fans. Lynne booked a wide-scale arena tour to promote the LP, but the jaunt was canceled due to lackluster ticket sales. “That showed me I probably shouldn’t even bother,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “My manager spared me the details of everything, but I wasn’t too demoralized because I got some tunes in films and I just love recording.”
But all music trends are cyclical, and Lynne is currently inspired to make a second attempt. In September 2014, Lynne played his first major ELO show since 1986, at London’s Hyde Park, and positive feedback encouraged him to write and record Alone In The Universe, credited to “Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra,” for which he played everything but the shaker and tambourine. This is some of his most sure-footed material since the band’s classic run, spanning intricate rockers, hypnotic blues (“Love And Rain”), and some of his most Beatles-esque ballads (the melancholy backward glance “When I Was A Boy”).
It’s a good time to look back at the ELO catalog, one of rock’s most under-appreciated, and round up the band’s best songs. But that’s no easy task since Lynne hardly wrote a dud in the ’70s. Perhaps inevitably, this list is populated with unimpeachable hits – and since Lynne wrote way more than 10, we couldn’t keep them all. (Yes, “Turn To Stone” is a fucking classic. As is “Do Ya.”) Soft-pop balladry, funk-rock, symphonic prog suites … Lynne’s ambition remains staggering as ever.
10. “Fire On High” (from Face The Music, 1975)
Jeff Lynne crafted some of the ’70s’ hookiest classic rock songs, but people forget he’s also a first-rate art-rocker – most ELO LPs feature at least one extended prog excursion, packed with dense arrangements and instrumental fireworks. Face The Music opener “Fire On High” presents ELO at their most excessive, which is precisely what makes it a forgotten classic. Like Ian Anderson on Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, Lynne offers a winking, tongue-in-cheek celebration of the genre. The soaring choral voices, the sawing cellos, the breathless tempo shifts, the “Hallelujah” nods to Handel’s Messiah, Bev Bevan’s pummeling triplet tom-toms: “Fire” displays the complexity and widescreen scope of symphonic prog, but with a playfulness that many of the era’s legends often lacked.
9. “10538 Overture” (from The Electric Light Orchestra, 1970)
It’s easy to sleep on ELO’s self-titled 1971 debut LP. With its messy production values and the haphazard writing style of co-founder Roy Wood, the songs rarely sound like the same band that dominated mid-’70s FM radio. The Electric Light Orchestra is a minor work in their catalog, but opener “10538 Overture” solidified the project’s classical-rock aim straight out of the gate. The late-’60s Beatles influence was never more apparent – from the metallic, descending electric guitar riff (shades of “I Want You”) to the Indian-tinted cello lines and disjointed stereo panning. ELO would quickly shed this psychedelic skin, but they wore it beautifully here.
8. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” (from Out Of The Blue, 1977)
An art-disco anthem so perfectly sculpted that Mutt Lange blatantly pilfered it for Huey Lewis’ 1982 hit “Do You Believe In Love,” Out Of The Blue standout “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” is four minutes of blissful melodic sass. The verses are as catchy as the chorus, which is as catchy as any chorus Lynne ever wrote, with its galloping groove and spiraling strings. But dude rarely stopped at a simple verse-chorus pattern: The dreamy pre-chorus breakdown and vocoder-heavy bridge illustrate the intricacy of Lynne’s songwriting – and his ambition to fashion pop songs as works of high art.
7. “Evil Woman” (from Face The Music, 1975)
Lynne reportedly wrote this falsetto-fueled sing-along in 30 minutes, aiming to bang out an easy filler track for Face The Music. Suitably, “Evil Woman” is rougher and harder hitting than most ELO tunes, built on a funky guitar jangle and simple, diva-like backing vocals. (Even the arrangement is a bit sloppy: Notice Bevan’s awkwardly timed drum fill at the :33 mark.) The band’s trademark strings swoop in on the chorus and thereafter, adding a subtle elegance – but the thrill here is hearing Lynne work his magic within the confines of a smaller palette. That immediacy paid off in 1975, earning the band their first hit single – a Number 10 chart peak in both the UK and US. Four decades later, it remains a drunken karaoke staple.
6. “Showdown” (from On The Third Day, 1973)
John Lennon famously introduced “Showdown” during a 1974 New York City radio show, calling ELO “son of Beatles” and praising the song as “a beautiful combination” of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and Lou Christie’s “Lightnin’ Strikes,” “with a little [I Am The Walrus] underneath.” No argument: Lynne was a master of splicing together disparate influences, and “Showdown” is a genius hodgepodge with a funky new approach. The verses find the singer exploring his upper register over a Motown-styled bassline, and the chorus nicks the strained drama of Christie’s 1965 pop hit, with the whole track underpinned by those psychedelic “Walrus” strings. But “Showdown” never feels retro, utilizing ’70s-specific instrumentation (like the suspenseful synth, clavinet, and an over-driven guitar solo) to create a sonic landscape outside of linear time.
5. “Livin’ Thing” (from A New World Record, 1976)
In 2006, Q Magazine assembled a list of 115 Guilty Pleasures tracks, including obvious, lovably offensive selections like Gary Glitter’s stomping “Rock ‘N’ Roll Part 2″ (Remember when Jock Jams was a thing?) and Bryan Adams’ cheese-tastic rock sing-along “Summer Of ’69.” Surprisingly, the #1 spot belonged to ELO’s “Livin’ Thing,” the hypnotic centerpiece of A New World Record. What the fuck does everybody feel guilty about? From the dramatic classical opening, incorporating pizzicato strings, to the extended chorus fade-out, this one’s pure pop pleasure. The falsetto chirps and comically bright string arrangement inch the track toward campiness, but “Livin’ Thing” avoids cliches in its harmonic approach, weaving in dissonance and unexpected darkness – like the descending chords in the pre-chorus that swell into the chorus. (Do yourself a favor and watch Lynne discuss how his clever usage of an E minor changed the entire song.)
4. “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” (from Eldorado, 1974)
Upset by his father’s criticisms that ELO songs were tuneless, lacking the elegance of classical music, Lynne composed this lush ballad as a pointed melodic attack. The strategy paid off, as “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” became the band’s first American top 40 single. The song, the most accessible moment from orchestra-assisted concept LP Eldorado, tells the imaginative story of a lonely man daydreaming about a magical life as he wastes his days working as a bank clerk. “Head” opens with Richard Tandy’s soft piano chords, luring us into the fantasy. “I saw the oceans daughter/ walking on a wave’s chicane,” Lynne croons. Eldorado – and, by extension, this song – marks a turning point in the band’s discography, more fluidly blending their classical and rock influences.
3. “Strange Magic” (from Face The Music, 1975)
If “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” hinted toward ELO’s commercial crossover, the polar opposite hit singles on Face The Music – “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” – solidified it. The latter is the band’s second-best ballad, demonstrating Lynne’s mastery of tension and release. The keyboards and strings swell throughout the verses, giving way to a chipmunk falsetto choir on the choruses – exactly the kind of expert contrast Lynne would refine even further throughout the decade. Part of what makes “Strange Magic” so unique is its odd arrangement: the ascending and descending strings, the random jazz accents of the keys. The drums finally kick in halfway through, but with none of the stereotypical bluster rock listeners have been programmed to expect.
2. “Mr. Blue Sky” (from Out Of The Blue, 1977)
The most annoying Grammy Awards tradition is the tag-team performance of a classic artist with a modern artist – almost everybody looks awkward, and the results are rarely revelatory. Last year’s ceremony found Lynne reigniting ELO with a medley of “Evil Woman” and “Mr. Blue Sky,” the latter assisted by … Ed Sheeran. But not even that odd pairing could derail the Out Of The Blue masterpiece, which remains the sonic equivalent of a double rainbow. Lynne bogged the track deep into that double-LP, as the finale of his “Concerto For A Rainy Day” suite. But it functions best as a stand-alone art-pop epic, a sort of engorged “Penny Lane” – built on stomping pianos, manic cowbell (credited as a “fire extinguisher”), and an octave-spanning choral vocal arrangement.
1. “Telephone Line” (from A New World Record, 1976)
“Telephone Line” is more than just the greatest ELO song. It’s a work of staggering pop craftsmanship – a high watermark for harmony, humor, arrangement, production, engineering, and emotion. The subject matter is obvious: a lonely man waiting by a telephone, fantasizing about what he’d tell his sweetheart if only they’d answer. But Lynne’s true genius is making the complex sound simple. The sonic details in “Telephone Line” are lined up with meticulous care – every doo-wop backing vocal, every violin surge, every digital telephone ring, every dramatic chord change. “Hello, how are you?” Lynne asks up front, his voice masked by phone noise. Then the treble fades – “That’s what I’d say” – revealing his question as fantasy. He engages full crooner mode throughout, exploring the full range of his voice with some hammy melisma. “I’m living in twilight,” Lynne sings on the chorus. “Telephone Line” is perpetual twilight – a post-midnight serenade that only grows dreamier as the years pass.
Listen to the playlist on Spotify.