Wednesday, 7 November 2012

ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: Discovery


(#210: 16 June 1979, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Shine A Little Love/Confusion/Need Her Love/The Diary Of Horace Wimp/Last Train To London/Midnight Blue/On The Run/Wishing/Don’t Bring Me Down

As Birmingham art-rockers go, ELO occupied a useful gap between the Moody Blues and Duran Duran, and were probably better at producing sharp, punchy pop songs than either. The story is well-known enough; how the Move wanted to develop “I Am The Walrus” (something they had actually wanted to do since “Cherry Blossom Clinic” on the first Move album) how the one frontman that was left eventually learned not to be afraid of pop, how they got big in the States first because…well, they put on a show, a spectacle, in an era of reflective denim (and the Moody Blues being midway through an extended sabbatical didn’t damage their chances either) and, in addition, plenty of American punters hadn’t really got over the Beatles. The red shoes and bricked yellow road on the front of Eldorado pointed a way out, if not something way out. In a land that in the mid-seventies didn’t really know what or where or how it was any more, ELO in their own way suggested that their listeners were not alone in feeling lost or in the dark.

The double Out Of The Blue, from 1977, was their definitive record; virtually an anthology of everything Jeff Lynne had learned in the preceding twenty years. Get past the hits, though, and maybe even look deeper into the hits, and the picture is not exactly a welcoming one. At their sparkiest, they were capable of pop-soul crossovers with gentle deviations that suggested 1977 Hall and Oates done in the style of 1971 George Harrison (“Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Starlight”). But, as with the White Album, there are many dark cloisters concealed in the record’s curves, shadows of, if not the Shadows, then ghosts summoned by someone who once was a teenager in Birmingham, being entranced by Del Shannon or Roy Orbison; not for nothing is one track entitled “It’s Over,” or that Lynne’s voice, on the concluding “Wild West Hero” (a song that is effectively a coded message, i.e. “I Wish I Was In America (Away From Strikes, 83% Tax Rates, Etc.)”), sounds in places like the Big O.

So many of Out Of The Blue’s songs concern themselves with being lost, or stranded very far from home, in a dark and wet limbo (one song is even entitled “Birmingham Blues”). “Mr Blue Sky” comes at the end of a very arduous side three, grouped together as a “Concerto For A Rainy Day,” where the gruelling cumulative impact of woebegone laments makes the final sunny catharsis seem harder won, and therefore more effective. Lynne wants us to understand how hard he has fought for “Mr Blue Sky” to appear (“Please tell us why/You had to hide away for so long/Where did we go wrong?” – a metaphor for “The Sixties”). But there are other, sinister crevices; the “Day In The Life” ascension that rises out of the end of “Turn To Stone”; the zigzagging atonalities midway through “Night In The City,” the strange electro-percussive workout of “Jungle,” the doomy brevity of “Believe Me Now,” the huge, aching lament that is the instrumental, “The Whale” – haven’t we slipped through a time warp to late nineties France? Out Of The Blue is more foreboding than it might initially seem, and doesn’t uniformly hang together as a coherent record, but does have something of an idea where it is going and why, and that was important enough for sufficient numbers of people to keep the album in our charts for over two years (although it only peaked at #4).

In reality, Out Of The Blue was probably the last record ELO ever needed to make, and by the time 1979 had rolled around, Lynne was getting a little bored with them; the endless tours (in which he himself noted that the giant spaceship got a better reaction from audiences than the group did), the irksome contractual obligations to keep putting out ELO albums, the blind alley into which he felt the band were being steered. No tours were undertaken to promote Discovery, and on finding out that, with “Don’t Bring Me Down,” he could make a perfectly decent ELO record without any strings, the band’s permanent string section was laid off, to make way for Louis Clark’s forty-piece orchestrations and the fab new Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser Lynne had just gone out and bought.

In other ways the record also represented a reduction in scope; the enormous craft dominating the cover of Out Of The Blue was revealed to be only the jewel in the hands of a spellbound young fellow in a turban - the ELO logo as aesthetic frisbee. In addition, the band, who were now down to a quartet, seem to be there for the sole purpose of performing Lynne’s songs; apart from the occasional Bev Bevan drum flourish, there is no real feeling of individual personalities on Discovery, other than that of Lynne, and the strings which as recently as Out Of The Blue were an integral part of the group’s music now seemed pasted on, superfluous, sidelined.

Keyboardist Richard Tandy coined the alternate title Very Disco for the record, but although the album does pay some attention to what was going around it at the time, only two of its songs – “Shine A Little Love” and “Last Train To London” – really qualify as disco. The first, suddenly emerging from a brooding introduction of abstract electronica and Gregorian chants, represents probably the best use of strings on the record; here, forward motion and impetus are everything, and the song canters along with absolute confidence, and completely in keeping with the sleeve’s Arabian Nights fantasy. Amidst its gallop, however, one clearly hears Lynne, in the vocoderised background, chanting the letters “E! L! O!” as if to remind us of the brand he is promoting. “Last Train To London” also works because of subtle rhythmic trickery, despite the obvious debt of Lynne’s falsetto voice to the brothers Gibb and the CS-80 solo which sounds like nothing so much as an interlude from The Organist Entertains.

Elsewhere, “Confusion” sets an early pace for the Traveling Wilburys, with Orbison-esque vocals and tympani as well as rhetorically dramatic piano and a CS-80 thematic motif which sounds like a fairground calliope. “The Diary Of Horace Wimp” is an extremely silly and unutterably hopeless attempt to recreate the magic of “Mr Blue Sky,” freed from its crucial context; the song’s plot is ickily sentimental and beyond improbable, the repeated references to “You will have! A great life plan!” makes the song sound like an insurance commercial (“Horace Wimp! Reclaim your PPIs!”) and the final references to “10538 Overture” are sad – although momentum put the song, as a single, into the UK top ten, it sounded horrendously dated and out of place in a 1979 which (despite the number one album evidence so far) generally could not wait to get as far away from the sixties as possible.

There is a string of undistinguished ballads; “Need Her Love” tries very hard not to be an outtake from All Things Must Pass fed through the Spirits Having Flown distillery. “Midnight Blue” comes across as a slightly superior Chris de Burgh offering, sung in a voice that can’t decide whether it wants to be de Burgh or 1969 Robin Gibb; and, as with “Horace Wimp,” there is far too much vocoder, as if Lynne had only just bought one and was determined to use it on as many songs as possible. “On The Run” speeds matters back up briefly, but once more sinks into the Voulez-Vous/Brotherhood of Man jolly frolics bearpit, despite the surprising atonal guitar twangs which answer Lynne’s various “again”s. Even slowing the song to half-speed has little effect, and the song soon peters out, dissolving in a whirlpool of electronics as though Lynne had decided: “Fook it.” “Wishing” is a gooey gulp of AoR balladic syrup with a “poignant” high note synth motif which is rather drowned out by the succeeding waves of yet more needless vocoder and which the Nolan Sisters would have thought twice about including on their TV-advertised album 20 Giant Hits.

Finally – and, frankly, thank fuck – there’s “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and the band, especially Bevan, get at long last to rock out. The imaginative use of sequencers and drum machine patterns embellishes the song’s basic rocking nature, as do some incongruous John Cale piano plinks from Tandy. And it is here that one senses that Lynne feels liberated, from the burden of being The World’s Greatest Classical Rock Band, and is getting back to what he might have mislaid in 1971; it is a Move song in all but name and Roy Wood. Not surprisingly, it was one of the biggest singles of ELO’s career, and both song and album end with a door being shut; presumably on the past.

What do you mean, Sharon, three more albums?

Yes, Lynne was still stuck, yearning to go to the States and work with his heroes (the main bonus track on the CD version of Discovery is a cover of Del Shannon’s “Little Town Flirt”) and maybe also stuck in 1966, or 1961; this is yet another in a line of what are looking like increasingly interchangeable albums for the ten-records-a-year demographic, and apart from Abba and the Bee Gees (and really Leo Sayer could have sung “Last Train To London”), there is little evidence of Lynne even bothering to pay any attention to what else was happening in the music of 1979. Like the album at number one at the time of writing, it is the familiar story of an essentially likeable artist putting out product by rote because he knows that “the public” will lap it up and because he fundamentally knows that he doesn’t need to work any harder. ELO may well have been Earth, Wind and Fire for white college kids, but there is not one song on Discovery that measures up to “Boogie Wonderland” or “After The Love Has Gone.”

Eventually, as I think you’ve realised, there is only so much of this sort of stuff “the public” will take, or accept, and the inevitable reaction will be violent and unexpected, as will be the case with entry #211, a record which is not readily comparable or even relatable to anything else in this tale; at least so far, since the next entry is the first step into “the future.”

4 comments:

Member_D said...

Another excellent, if rather harsh, resumé of an essential late-seventies album. I don't think "Don't Bring Me Down" was any bigger a single then "Shine" or the double A side (natch) "Confusion/Last Train" but the closing door at the end of it was also very much a "closer" for these new-wave conscious ears.

Marcello Carlin said...

I don't "think" things, I either know them or research them. "Don't Bring Me Down" was their biggest hit single in the US (#4) while in Britain it made #3, a peak bettered only by "Xanadu" with Olivia Newton-John. I should have mentioned that ELO records without strings were not a new thing (e.g. "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle") but this was the decisive factor in Lynne wanting to scale down the group.

MikeMCSG said...

At the time this came out I was involved in a school radio project with other games-dodging drama kids led by, dare I say it, the school's erudite equivalent to you - a guy called Alberto. As part of it he reviewed two new LPs, Ian Dury's "Do It Yourself" and this which was more his cup of tea. Strangely enough he picked out "Horace Wymp" as the strongest track and while I agree it's not a patch on "Mr Blue Sky" I'd still choose it over the other singles here. General feeling among ELO fans at school was that the album was a below-par effort.
I was more excited by the guy who's coming next.

Member_D said...

Sorry, didn't mean to offend. I will re-phrase as "I didn't realise that DBMD was a bigger single than...".
Looking forward to next review as..I know the future is coming..