The Electric Light Orchestra: A Musical Battlefield
Here at Head Full of Snow we love a bit of the Electric Light Orchestra – some might say more than life itself. They may be scowled upon by the hardline of prog rock aficionados, but not here. Repeat after me: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of in liking the Electric Light Orchestra”. Not at all. We even like the 1979 album Discovery, and if you listen closely to that record you may just pick out the exact moment at which they lost their magic, for as the 80s dawned, E.L.O faded. But it’s back eight years and seven studio albums to their cracking debut, for this review.
In June of 1971, when The Move released their final bow in the form of the excellent Message From the Country, they were already finished as a group. Despite returning to the studio in December of the same year to record what would be their last top ten hit, ‘California Man’, the three remaining members, Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan had already released their debut experimental album, the self-titled, The Electric Light Orchestra.
Renamed No Answer in the US, following a bizarre mix-up by a record exec, it was the fruits of Wood and Lynne’s desire to diversify The Move’s sound, and Roy Wood in particular who wanted to mix classical music elements into rock music, that gave birth to the Electric Light Orchestra.
The Electric Light Orchestra kicks off with ’10538 Overture’, a Jeff Lynne song initially pencilled in to be a Move B-side until Roy Wood had the idea of overlaying it with an orchestral arrangement. This spawned the Electric Light Orchestra’s debut single and starts the album in grand style with what is probably the closest you’ll find to the future E.L.O sound throughout.
It’s safe to say that this doesn’t sound like a an Electric Light Orchestra album at all, well certainly not anything from Eldorado onwards. Those expecting the familiarity of the Jeff Lynne led E.L.O that would go on to conquer the world will be in for quite a shock.
Baroque elements prevail throughout, with heavy emphasis on the cello and assorted wind instruments, which had been incorporated into The Move’s final album, Message From the Country, recorded at the same time. These orchestral bursts don’t always weave as seamlessly into the mix as the slick production of future albums managed so effortlessly. But that’s not a bad thing. Instead there’s a slightly raw edge that marks this out as an experimental album, one that sees Roy Wood pushing his love of classical music in as though it’s a challenge to the record company or the rest of the band – or whoever – to see what he could get away with.
And maybe that’s why The Electric Light Orchestra has the feel of musical battlefield to it, and not just in featuring the instrumental track ‘The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1664)’, on which Wood plays nearly all of the instruments. There’s a battle also being fought between the two songwriters, Wood and Lynne.
You could draw a line down the middle of this album and separate the music into two camps, with Jeff Lynne’s being the more ‘conventional’ (if that’s the word) of the songs on offer and Roy Wood’s- well, being Roy Wood. Which is a good thing!
Lynne’s highlights are the aforementioned ’10538 Overture’, ‘Queen of the Hours’ and ‘Mr. Radio’, the beginning of which is reminiscent of ‘Telephone Line’ from E.L.O’s 1976 album, A New World Record. Roy Wood’s crowning glory puts the rest of the album in the shade – the sublime ‘Whisper in the Night’, as unconventional as ballads come with a choir of angels harmonising the chorus and a melody that owes a huge debt to the hymn, ‘Abide With Me’.
This contrast in styles caused ructions between the two songwriters and the differences led to Roy Wood relinquishing control of the group and leaving to form Wizzard within a few months of the debut release.
If you only have a casual acquaintance with E.L.O through their chart-toppers of the late 70s and early 80s then The Electric Light Orchestra might not be the album for you – or certainly not the jump-off point to familiarise yourself with their back catalogue. However, if you’re a lover of all things progressive, experimental and, indeed, Roy Wood, then it’s a must-have.
It took a few listens to earn a place on the coveted playlist, but it can be said that the Electric Light Orchestra’s debut album is now a firm favourite and a permanent fixture on the Head Full of Snow turntable.
The Electric Light Orchestra (No Answer) is available to buy from Amazon.co.uk
The aforementioned ’10538 Overture’ for your viewing pleasure:
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