Since my early days as a li’l shaver, Electric Light Orchestra has been one of my favorite groups. Combining harmonies and hooks that would melt Frosty the Snowman’s heart together with jaunty, swashbuckling strings for the old folks, ELO has produced the best mixture of rock and classical music known to humankind.
One common observation about the band is that they continued on with the grand orchestral rock of Sgt. Pepper era Beatles. And yes, their songs are huge. Seemingly infinite string sections (courtesy of overdubbing), blaring French horns, banks of synthesizers… all of these elements contribute to the pomp. Then there’s a bit of Beach Boys in the mix as well. Sugar sweet multi-voice harmonies mix with deep-sea hooks in a candy-coated web of classical complexity. Or something like that.
On their earliest albums ELO focused equally on rock and orchestral influences. For example, their first hit single, 10538 Overture, includes 15 tracks of cello, as well as French horns and a fairly even blend of rock and classical elements. The song is quite catchy and is firmly entrenched in the rock genre, but clearly contains orchestral elements as well.
Their cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven employs the brilliant idea of mixing the iconic rock and roll song with bits and pieces of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. We hear synthesizers playing Beethoven riffs over rock band backings, strings playing rock and roll solos, and a fairly poppy interpretation of Berry’s tune. The combination is magical, showcasing the best of two different worlds.
As we move forward in time, classical elements become less important in ELO’s music. Strings and synths still appear frequently in the music, but within a more pop/rock framework. Strange Magic, off of the group’s fifth album, Face the Music, starts with a string intro that’s purely pop in structure, bearing little resemblance to the classical riffs of earlier songs. This intro quickly shifts to guitar and synth, then vocals and eventually drums. Strings and synth strings continue throughout the song, but more as pop accompaniment than to any classical end. It’s still easy to hear the “orchestra” in Electric Light Orchestra, but their style has forever shifted.
To my mind, Out of the Blue (1977) is the group’s masterpiece. This double album includes one fabulous song after another. Mr. Blue Sky, which is simply a pop masterpiece, is a prime example of the album’s excellence. Once again we hear strings and synth used generously in a pop context, giving the song a spacious, cavernous heft. As it begins to wind down, Mr. Blue Sky finds itself beset with operatic vocals, a sudden shift to new musical ideas, and a gradual dovetailing back to the familiar. The listener is left with an overtly dramatic, somewhat cataclysmic mood swing.
Flashback, a career-spanning retrospective, is a great place to start a relationship with Electric Light Orchestra. Early classical-oriented songs, mid-period pop gems, and late less-to-my-taste tracks can all be found here. So give it a spin in your jukebox, light up the disco ball and prepare to be amazed. Remember, the sweetness content is very high, so be sure to floss when finished.