Wednesday, 13 March 2013

ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA: Time



(#250: 29 August 1981, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Prologue/Twilight/Yours Truly, 2095/Ticket To The Moon/The Way Life’s Meant To Be/Another Heart Breaks/Rain Is Falling/From The End Of The World/The Lights Go Down/Here Is The News/21st Century Man/Hold On Tight/Epilogue

“I wish I was back in 1981.”

Consider the strange parallel case of ELO and Duran Duran in the summer of 1981. Two Birmingham art-rock bands at opposite ends of their careers; one is just getting started while the other is on stoppage time. And sometimes it’s not about the records that you make, the way people remember you. They remember stars for who they are, how well they project the aura of stardom – it helps people deal with their own lives better, knowing that they can never really meet the star but not knowing fully whether or not the star is watching or listening to them.

So how you present yourself has more to do with how you’ll be remembered. In 1981 Duran Duran were young, hip, some say sexy – three adjectives which couldn’t readily be applied to 1981 ELO. They looked like a refreshing arm-table sweep of needless history, yet for many impressionable listeners who were the right age, they also provided a portal into history, a way to get to all these people they would habitually namecheck in interviews; the New York Dolls, Roxy Music, the Velvets, Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Chic.

The first, eponymous Duran Duran album, which came out in June 1981, presented itself as cool and occasionally sounded cool. It was a record to have. To appreciate things more readily, however, it may be worth reminding you how terminally unhip a record Time was in 1981, with its 1973 cover and band picture. But then you may point out that I am writing about Time, and not the first Duran Duran album, and what does that prove? Not a lot, except that the album charts have always been de facto slower-thinking, slower-acting and more conservative than the singles chart. Things take time to filter through to album-buying audiences; the concept of brand loyalty is more adhesive and less easy to shake off than in the singles world. And 1981 was, as would also be the case with 1982, the year of the single; it was the arena where new ideas and concepts, even new methods of presentation, were being tried out, where every week seemed to bring a further handful of unanticipated invention.

In such a context it was easy to mock Time, and ELO, for being windy, grandiloquent and somewhat archaic. This doesn’t account for all the students in my first year at university who, according to what they told me at the time, cried themselves to sleep at night with “Ticket To The Moon” on their modest cassette players, lost in an unfamiliar environment and homesick.

Nor does it account for the possibility that a record, even a concept album about time called Time, can sometimes appear out of its natural time, or ahead of it. In a world filled with Soft Cell, the Associates, Was (Not Was) and Depeche Mode, it seemed a ludicrous throwback. But in a world teeming with Royksopp, Phoenix, Daft Punk and the Flaming Lips, it now sounds startlingly contemporary.

The Jeff Lynne of 1981 was not the premature old fart some people might picture him as being. It is a matter of record that by 1981 he was bored with ELO, itching to get out and write and produce for people like…Roy Orbison, or George Harrison, and highly irritated by the fact that he was still contractually obliged to deliver three more ELO albums.

So Lynne scouted around for ideas, things for the group to do. By now they were down to a four-piece with strings (when not synthesised) being used only when absolutely required (and these were conducted and in part arranged by Rainer Pietsch, Louis Clark being busy working on “Hooked On Classics” – although Clark participated in the subsequent tour). Most of the outrage generated around Time on release was to do with the relative absence of strings. Why, this could be any mega-rock band.

It is true that Duran Duran went on to become stars, sometimes without seeming to do very much, while Lynne and ELO, though extremely popular, never quite did so. They were respected rather than idolised. But, as with Cliff Richard, look at various fan forums and read how fans put Time on the same aesthetic level as Sgt Pepper or SMiLE. Many consider it Lynne’s masterpiece, even including Out Of The Blue.

Actually the parallel with SMiLE is workable if you go with the concept, which isn’t always evident on the finished record; someone displaced from their own time trying to trace their route back to the present. But where Brian Wilson begins with history and the Mayflower, Lynne’s protagonist goes into what he calls a “time transporter” – voluntarily or under compulsion, it doesn’t clearly spell out – and ends up in 2095, far away from everybody, everything and everywhere that he knew. A place which is oddly recognisable but where robots serve as substitute lovers and prove to be no substitute for Lynne’s actual lover, where tickets to the moon can only be bought for a one-way trip. He does his best to understand and fit into this new society, but it’s no good; he has to get back…back home, that old, undying sixties ideal.

That is, if he does go to 2095, and I am not sure that he does. The record begins with a portentous, Vocoderised “Prologue” (“Just on the border of your waking mind”) as debris of pop history float backwards past our ears. A time “where darkness and light are one,” and where the protagonist is glad to “tread the halls of sanity”?

And yet “Twilight,” the record’s first proper song, herded in by Bev Bevan’s furious, phased drumming, says “It’s either real or it’s a dream/There’s nothing that is in between.” It’s a terrific song with lots of delicious 1968 pop chord changes (the great whole-tone passage from verse to bridge, and Lynne’s very characteristic sneaking of minor chords into major progressions) and a chilling hook: “Twilight – I only meant to stay a while.” It takes a while to realise that Lynne is singing to his time machine, and there is a lot of dark foreboding for the autumn to come (including a quick quotation, near the end, from the first ELO hit, “10538 Overture,” nearly a decade before).

“Yours Truly, 2095,” however, swings us quite brutally into the present tense, and by present I mean the last decade (Royksopp’s “The Girl And The Robot,” for instance). Indeed I suspect Lynne had the notion to wrongfoot staunch ELO fans with this record – part of him may be stuck in pre-Beatles Birmingham, but another part of him is listening to the radio, hearing Gary Numan and Orchestral Manoeuvres, and quietly knowing what time it is, and that the prog tropes of Eldorado - this album’s spiritual prequel – will not work in 1981.

Hence there is a robot, who looks and sounds like his lover, but he can never touch or get close to “her” (“But when I try to touch, she makes it all too clear”). Lynne’s vocal sounds midway between Buggles-era Trevor Horn and Morten Harket while the furious beats, mixed with lugubrious synthesised declarations of “love,” suggest an oncoming nightmare. The chorus contains the key questions of the album, as Lynne asks us: “Is that you want? Is it what you really want?” Computers, robots, no people, no love – are “you” really going to be happy with that kind of a world? It sounds as prematurely poignant as Daft Punk, or even the Pet Shop Boys, can sometimes sound; it sounds nothing like “1981.”

Once more, in “Ticket To The Moon,” Lynne tries a little fourth-walling – “Remember the good old 1980s, when things were so uncomplicated?” – before crooning a lonesome, spacebound sequel to “Sealed With A Kiss,” or “Solitaire,” in a voice somewhere between the ruined nobility of Freddie Mercury and, startlingly, the milkshake vulnerability of Thom Yorke (with a touch of the Leo Sayers when he gets passionate). But wait – a one-way ticket to the moon; even in 2095, can anybody balance, or breathe, up there? It sounds like the final lament of someone who is tired of life (and sees life floating past him in the process of his ending it; cut-ups of departure lounge announcements, news bulletins and opera singers permeate the album’s fibres like forgotten holiday snaps).

One is reminded that Time was a major influence on Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, a record that is nearly but not quite pop, and, although one of the great albums of the nineties, finally takes the one-way journey to nothingness; the girl IBM voice of “Yours Truly, 2095” reappears on two songs as Jed the Humanoid, while the closing sequence of “Miner At The Dial-A-View” and “So You’ll Aim Towards The Sky” is clearly indebted to ELO and unbearably beautiful, in the sense that I haven’t been able to bear to listen to it in the last dozen or so years. Or maybe it is simply another allegory about the slow and stately decline of the American West.

But “The Way Life’s Meant To Be,” set as a Spector-ish tango with a decidedly Orbison-esque lead vocal for Lynne – he’s basically getting ready for Mystery Girl - raises the question of what the allegory is here. He looks around what he still recognises as, presumably, Birmingham (“this place that was home”), “With its ivory towers and plastic flowers,” and as he works himself into a palpable rage (his “Where people never speak aloud” is barely controlled fury), it becomes clear that the “I wish I was back in 1981” line is a decoy, and in fact he is decrying the Birmingham of 1981 – the same Birmingham of UB40’s “One In Ten” with its streets that have no trees – “this wreck of a town” which planners and developers have ruined. This is no journey into the next century – the line “You’re not a 21st century man” later on in the album confirms this – but an angry man standing in the eighties, wishing to God it was the sixties, and how is he going to find his way back? No answers in the instrumental which closes side one, which features Lynne on an Oberheim synthesiser trying to sound like George Harrison’s guitar, and slow, patient breakbeats and minor chords which predicate the Air of twenty years later (10,000Hz Legend in particular signifies one direction which a surviving ELO could have taken).

With “Rain Is Falling,” which may take its lead from Roy Wood’s 1975 “The Rain Came Down On Everything” as it uses the same tag from “It Might As Well Rain Until September” (Wood’s song ends with it, Lynne’s song begins with it), Lynne sings a Beatle-ish ballad about rainfall and suppressed apocalypse, as if he’s arrived just in time to witness the end of civilisation (it also sounds not a million miles removed from Ultravox’s “Vienna”). Various Beatles-type effects dot the song’s fabric discreetly as if to remind us of what we might already have lost.

“From The End Of The World,” however, is unlike any other ELO song I can think of; its bipartisan soundtrack refers back to Del Shannon and Joe Meek (those analogue synthesisers again) yet forward to – Muse (Lynne sounds here, if anything, like Matt Bellamy’s panicky uncle). It also has some richly inventive chord changes and a startling middle section which briefly raises the memory of a rocking 1964 Beatles before being quickly obliterated by further curtains of synth. Lynne ends on an unearthly falsetto and the song disintegrates. “The Lights Go Down,” if anything, comes as light relief; the music derives from “Love Is Strange,” a hit when Lynne was ten, and the protagonist becomes more determined to get away from the apocalypse and get back to now, and his lover.

“Here Is The News” is downbeat, discursive electropop – possibly with the Human League’s “W.X.J.L. Tonight” in mind – which recasts media gossip as psychedelic disintegration, with the very 1967 line “Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag.” Eventually, the protagonist makes to escape (“Somebody has broken out of Satellite 2/Here is the news – look very carefully, it may be you”), and Lynne sings the song in the morose manner of a 1966 George Harrison.

If the album has given more than several hints of Beatles this, Beatles that – references to “Dear Prudence,” “Strawberry Fields” etc. - then “21st Century Man” is where it all converges. Lynne sings some of the song like Paul, other of it like George, but the song structure and sardonic metaphor inversion (“A penny in your pocket, suitcase in your hand/They won’t get you very far”) are immediately recognisable. “You still wander the (Strawberry?) fields of your sorrow,” he sings, and then we return to the record’s original either/or scenario: “One day you’re a hero, next day you’re a clown/There’s nothing that is in between.” “They’ll kiss the ground you walk upon” – as people indeed did, outside the Dakota Hotel.

It all becomes very clear indeed; “21st Century Man” is a song for John Lennon, and the “You’re not a 21st century man” payoff is pregnant with poignancy, since Lennon will obviously not live to see it; the “Epilogue” reprises the song, with Bevan’s drums becoming increasingly more pronounced – he takes over from the echoed footsteps heard here and there throughout the album – and the harmonised word, “Goodbye” palpable in its grief, before all the elements of rock implode and the record falls into an abrupt black hole.

But this omits the album’s big hit, “Hold On Tight” – and how good to hear this song away from oldies radio, and back within its original context. The premise is that our time traveller has made it back home, and so it’s a flag-waving happy ending, and the record’s most explicit tribute to the fifties as well as the eighties. Lynne tells us to keep going no matter what, first in Jerry Lee style (vocal and piano) before segueing almost impalpably into 1981 technology ELO with double-tracked harmonies – and, in the background, that same weeping synthesiser heard on “Yours Truly, 2095.” The French verse is not strictly needed, unless as a concealed reference to Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” (as it is also quoted in Lynne’s Duane Eddy tribute guitar solo on “The Way Life’s Meant To Be”) but is fun (and indeed Time is a markedly French record). The song ends on a jubilant Lennon/McCartney major sixth, and the message is – don’t give up, even when all seems lost. I don’t know how much, if anything, Lynne knew about Ian Curtis, but I can’t imagine this song without at least that precedent.

There will be further ELO albums, as such, with decreasing returns, except that 1983’s Secret Messages was not a double, since otherwise it would have included ELO’s finest single piece of work, the nearly eight-minute long bittersweet tribute to Birmingham that is “Hello My Old Friend.” Already diverting into producing other acts before ELO business was finished, Lynne then took off for the States, and working with his idols, and doing this and that; things he had been itching to do for nearly a decade. In time, when Duran Duran get to Lynne’s 1981 age, they will be doing The Wedding Album and trying to get back into shape for the nineties. Some of them may even slightly resemble the ELO of 1981. But, listening to it now, it is clear that Time is the better and more prophetic record – the subtle final play by someone who was hipper than he usually let on.

Next: flames like the inside of a mad jukebox.

2 comments:

Ewa Woowa said...

Best...album...ever...

Anton Rubinstein said...

Some scientists and astronauts (including Buzz Aldrin) have been proposing that any manned missions to Mars SHOULD be one-way trips to 1) save money and 2) encourage successive settlements (the idea being that there will be more motivation for human settlements on Mars if we find that people can actually live there. If we're just going to go there, check it out, then fly back who even cares?