I wrote this rather epic-length piece as part-discography, part-history, part-critique, and part-review of ELO in 2018. It’s a lengthy mind-purge, a musical data-dump of my thoughts about this band. As I continue to take a break from the primary mission of this web site’s writing series, I am posting it here just to get it out into the world.
But first: our last visit from Dazzler! It’s that sound engineer’s job to fix those “P” plosives, not Dazz’s. Get a pop filter on that mic, duder! [From Dazzler #22, ©Marvel]
It was roughly forty years ago that I acquired the first two rock albums that I can remember owning: A New World Record by Electric Light Orchestra (henceforth referred to as ELO), and Rock n’ Roll Over by Kiss (henceforth not referred to at all). It would not be fair to say that these records were the sole vector leading to my eventual decision to pursue music recording, live sound, and occasional musical performance as a career, but they were both certainly a small but integral part of a vastly bigger canon of influence.
It’s a rather unlikely eventuality that these records have remained at all meaningful to me today. Shortly after bonding with them, or imprinting if you will – the way a baby bird imprints on its mother – my tastes veered away from the classic rock pantheon towards the more edgy punk, post-punk, and new wave genres before drifting away from rock music completely. If we consider some other bands that ELO fans might like, let’s say (I’m completely guessing here) Boston, Supertramp, the Moody Blues, Styx, or Steely Dan, I have never been a fan of any of them to any real degree. Only the Moody Blues have ever graced my record collection, and in their case it was a passing fancy. But somehow, even as my young tastes moved into Joy Division, Gang of Four, Talking Heads, Devo, and The Clash, and then into classic jazz and jump blues, world music, electronic experimentalism, and various roots genres – basically anything but modern rock and pop – ELO has remained a stalwart if incongruous wildcard in my lifelong playlist.
During the past few years, the music of ELO has drifted back into a phase of prominence in my (blue) world. Part of the reason for this must have to do with the notion that Jeff Lynne, the co-founder, lead vocalist, sole songwriter, guitarist, and producer of all of the ELO records (except for the first one, on which he shared the above duties with Roy Wood) has recently made a rather high-profile and successful decision to resurrect the band after decades of inactivity.
ELO was formed in 1971 by Lynne, Wood, and Bev Bevan, all of whom were then members of a successful pop band called The Move. ELO was to be a side project of The Move, inspired into action by the increasing presence of orchestral instruments in rock and pop recordings. Motivated by certain orchestrally ornamented Beatles records, Lynne, Wood, and Bevan wanted to incorporate a full-time string section into a rock band. This idea hadn’t really been tried before. Surprisingly, no one of note seems to have repeated the idea since ELO’s initial efforts drew to a close in 1986. The band’s first album was Electric Light Orchestra (1971; called No Answer in the U.S.). It consisted of long meandering prog-rock pieces, which were in vogue at the time. Anchored by cellos scraping away relentlessly (seeming to have been lifted straight from The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus), ELO’s debut single 10538 Overture served as a strong statement of purpose amid an otherwise unremarkable album.
The follow-up album, ELO2 (1972), contained more of the same: five lengthy songs rambling along without much direction, punctuated by the novelty of strings combined with synthesizers: old meets new. ELO2 was given a breath of life via a rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, which became the band’s traditional concert encore right through 2018. Wood left the band near the beginning of the album’s recording sessions, while bassist Richard Tandy was wisely promoted to keyboard player. His contributions to the band over the next fourteen years would be second only to Lynne’s. ELO’s On The Third Day (1973) had even less going for it than the mostly-forgettable ELO2, milking the prog angle until its last dying breath. Only Ma-Ma-Ma Belle – an energetic single featuring guest guitarist Marc Bolan of the band T-Rex – showed signs that the band were actually awake during the record’s production.
With the prog angle played out and the band seemingly bored with itself already, ELO should, by all rights, have been relegated to rock history’s footnotes: “Short-lived side-project of The Move” is about all they would have mustered at this point. But then Jeff Lynne, who had become the unquestioned driving force behind every ELO song, came up with a great inter-album single (Showdown) and then ditched the prog elements of ELO to focus on that other great trope of 1970s rock music: the concept album. Seemingly overnight, he elevated his production chops considerably, and decided to unashamedly embrace his love for the less weird and more pop end of the Beatles canon. He began to write lushy produced and insanely well-crafted pop songs. The result was Eldorado (1974), an album of loosely connected songs about a man quixotically daydreaming of bygone heroes such as “Robin Hood and William Tell and Ivanhoe and Lancelot” (as on the album’s biggest hit, Can’t Get It Out Of My Head). Along with rousing numbers like Poor Boy (the Greenwood), Boy Blue, and Eldorado’s title track – on which Lynne first unleashes his inner Roy Orbison, belting out dramatic lines with a powerful chest voice that had remained subdued in all previous ELO releases – this was a man who had finally found his footing.
A man. Not a band. There could be no doubt after Eldorado that ELO was all about Jeff Lynne. The others were along for the ride. Although Bevan and Tandy were still aboard, the string section had been swapping members in and out of the ensemble this whole time. After Eldorado, ELO finally landed a fairly stable trio of two cellists and a violinist (Hugh McDowell, Melvyn Gale, and Mik Kaminsky), and a permanent bassist (Kelly Groucutt), finally stabilizing the classic lineup of ELO by 1975. They soon recorded the first truly great ELO album, Face the Music, featuring the hit singles Evil Woman and Strange Magic. With all pretenses towards art-rock out of his system after Eldorado, Lynne devoted himself with laser-like focus to writing pure pop songs. By 1980, ELO had charted fifteen Top 20 hits in the U.S. (plus another five in the bottom half of the Top 40) and twenty Top 20 hits in the U.K., thus racking up more Top 40 hits than any other band in history. Another piece of trivia: they also hold the record in the U.S. for being that band who have had the most Top 40 hits without ever having had a #1.
Looking back on ELO’s output, this was never a band who were concerned with virtuoso musicianship, even during their prog phase. Lynne, Bevan, Tandy, and their crew always got the job done, presenting a level of playing that was solid and professional, but never impressive. Musically, the strength of ELO records was always in the arrangements, which included complex vocal harmonies mixed with a rock rhythm section, synthesizers, studio effects, and increasingly large string and choir sections, if not entire light orchestras. With Tandy and orchestral arranger Louis Clark helping him out, Lynne’s simple pop songs and uncomplicated musicianship were ornamented with deeply impressive layers of sound, interlocking melodic counterpoint, and sonic ear candy pulled from his endless supply of inventive ideas. Witness the soaring cosmic atmospheres that open A New World Record, the haunting ambient intro to Fire on High (the first track on Face the Music), and the gentle mockery aimed at legislators trying to ban “backward masking” on rock records such as Secret Messages (the backwards bit rather innocuously says, “welcome to the show”).
A lot of this inspiration came, once again, directly from The Beatles, who Lynne has been unflinching about praising as mentors. Returning the favor, John Lennon was once quoted as saying that if the Beatles had stayed together past 1970, they would have sounded like ELO. High praise for Lynne indeed, and in retrospect it seems perfectly natural for ELO to have taken over the Beatles’ mantle, releasing the first ELO record just a year after the Beatles dissolved. Considering the sheer number of hits produced, the penchant for studio experimentation, and the quality of the songwriting, ELO were truly the keepers of the Beatles’ flame.
Lynne would of course get to repay his heroes in the future: during his heyday as an independent producer in the 1990s and 2000s, he would oversee records for Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison – all three surviving Beatles – as well as playing with Harrison in the supergroup Traveling Wilburys. As an encore, Lynne would produce a 1995 Beatles reunion on which McCartney, Harrison, and Starr played along with two archival tapes of the late Lennon singing, to create the first new Beatles songs in 25 years. We’re unlikely to witness a repeat of this feat, especially with Harrison now gone.
Unlike the frequently poetic Beatles however, Lynne’s lack of interest in showy musicianship seemed to be a character trait that carried over to his lyrics. The man never seemed to have much of a point of view. He certainly had no Revolution in him – at least not without Wood around. In the Wood era, songs like 10538 Overture tell the story of an escaped prisoner, Kuima (from ELO2) laments a lost soldier, and In Old England Town unflinchingly catalogs various scourges upon modern life. Roy Wood’s influence resulted in the recording of obvious prog tropes like The Battle of Marston Moor (on Electric Light Orchestra), but ELO completely ceased to be the slightest bit political after Wood’s departure very early in the band’s history.
Case in point: Roy Wood’s influence on the first two ELO albums resulted in lyrics like
“My, my Kuiama, don’t break your heart tryin’
To say how your Ma and your Pa passed away
And they left you to wander in the ruin and decay
Real mean, that bullet machine
Kuia I just shot them, I just blew their heads open
And I heard them scream in their agony
Kuiama she waits there for me
True blue, you saw it through”
“Down, down, at the launching pad
Giant phallus stands erect
Ten thousand tons of waste throb then eject
Look out space, we’re gonna change our place
Down, down, in old England town
There was air and now there’s smoke
Let’s build more cars and drive away before we choke
Suddenly it’s always night time”
This all stopped after Wood took a powder in favor of lyrics that become more trite with each passing album – resulting in progressively bigger hits. Later in the band’s career, when Jeff Lynne wanted to stick it to the man in 1983, the best kiss-off he could come up with was “welcome to the show”.
Not only that, but post-Wood ELO records are remarkably cool in tone. When Jeff musters up just a little bit of grit in his voice during Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle, that’s one of the very few times in the ELO catalog that we hear him threatening to sound like a hard rocker. We do hear him getting a little bit rowdy on Do Ya’ (1976), but that’s a recycled Move song from his youth, which was apparently rather tame. Even while listing his grievances against the titular woman who done him wrong in Evil Woman, he sounds conspicuously composed. With that song now more than forty years old and with the two generations of feminism having come and gone since it was a hit, Evil Woman is the only post-Wood ELO song I can think of that might be considered even vaguely impolite, even by today’s rather tense standards. Consider that ELO’s commercial heyday precisely coincided with punk, and this relaxed demeanor seems even more surprising if not downright anachronistic (as opposed to anarchistic).
Lynne also comes across as rather quiet in his infrequent interviews, and strikes me as being a remarkably humble man. Perhaps even quite shy. Is the lack of any real lyrical point of view in the ELO catalog part of an unwillingness to raise controversy because he’s just a gentle man, or was it to make sure that record sales were uninhibited by the slightest hint of offense to anyone, anywhere, ever? Maybe this is another reason for the recent resurgence in the band’s popularity: Lynne’s unwillingness to risk offense or controversy works well within the current zeitgeist. This is the man who was so polite (or skittish) that he sang “one of these days you’re gonna break your glass” in Don’t Bring Me Down, because he was clearly not comfortable singing “ass”. Rather, he built a career singing about loneliness and lost love in a retro-1950s style reminiscent of his other heroes, like Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, and Del Shannon (all of whom he would work with post-ELO when not busying himself with Beatle members). Perhaps the reason why Lynne’s considerable talent was dismissed for so many years after the dissolution of ELO is precisely because of this. While bands like the Clash or Elvis Costello or Gang of Four sang about things that mattered, Lynne seemed to studiously avoid releasing anything other than carefully crafted electric light entertainment.
When you get right down to it, Jeff’s lack of lyrical ambition was so profound that he resorted to singing about the weather with shocking regularity. The Beatles were not completely immune from this habit either: witness Here Comes the Sun, I’ll Follow the Sun, Sun King, and Good Day Sunshine. Conversely, ELO seemed far too melancholy for so much sunshine, so Jeff typically sang about the rain: Rain is Falling, Love and Rain, and the entire Concerto for a Rainy Day – including Standin’ in the Rain, Big Wheels, Summer and Lightning, and Mr. Blue Sky. Lynne also sings of the rain during Ticket to the Moon, I Need Her Love, Kuiama, and of course in Showdown, where it’s “raining all over the world”, and Evil Woman in which we learn that “there’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in”. So that’s where all this rain comes from! Oh wait, the Beatles also did a song called Rain. That’s ELO’s whole career inspiration right there in that one song. If we wanna go really dark here, ELO’s weather report got pretty grim with Laredo Tornado and the forecast even calls for meteor showers (in Here is the News).
If Jeff Lynne was obsessed with rain, he was even more taken with the color blue: Mr. Blue Sky, Midnight Blue, Boy Blue, Blue (yes, just “blue”), Birmingham Blues, Bluebird is Dead – and its apparent prequel Bluebird – plus the album Out of the Blue. Not to mention singing of “my blue world” in Turn to Stone.
ELO’s science fiction themes (or really, lack thereof) are interesting to dissect as well. Although the band is deeply associated with intergalactic iconography, this material is completely absent in either lyrical content or album cover art until we pick up the discography where we left off above (after Face the Music), and come to the band’s sixth album, the holy A New World Record (1976). It is here that ELO’s iconic spaceship logo – inspired by the design of a Wurlitzer jukebox – first appears. The album hints at something slightly otherworldly on the closing track of side one, Mission (A New World’s Record) but the sci-fi references begin and end there. The follow-up record (and ELO’s commercial peak) Out of the Blue (1978) presents the spaceship logo on both the inside and the outside of the double-LP’s gatefold sleeve, now fully realized as a complexly rendered working interstellar craft. But there isn’t a single word of space fantasy present within the lyrics of any of Out of the Blue’s seventeen songs. The Out of the Blue stage show was semi-legendary for having a mechanical spaceship descend from the lighting truss during the gig (it is said that the band needed seven trucks just to carry that set-piece from city to city), but it doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the music.
The next record, the very disco Discovery (1979), also ignores any sci-fi trappings within the songs, and reimagines the spaceship logo as some sort of glowing art object being discovered by an Aladdin-like character. A little drama plays out on the front and back covers of the album sleeve: on the front he’s stealing the object from a treasure chest, while on the back he’s being chased over a dune by Arabs with scimitars. Next, ELO took some time to write five songs for the Olivia Newton-John movie Xanadu (1980) about a Greek muse with an affinity for roller skating who appears in California to help a painter.
It isn’t until the next proper ELO record, Time (1981), that the band fully embraced their interstellar legacy. Interestingly, the spaceship logo was retired for Time’s album art, but the music returns to the concept album format, this time dealing with time travel to the year 2095, tickets to the moon, robot girlfriends, and prisons on “satellite two”. If ELO are forever to be associated with science fiction or outer space, this is the record that justifies it. We could strongly argue that the conceit of a concept album was well past its expiration date by 1981 (although Styx did fairly well with Kilroy Was Here two years later), but ELO made Time work. The 1970s ELO hit machine seemed to have run its course after Discovery and Xanadu however. In a clear reaction to the new wave records that were all over the charts by 1981, Lynne tried to keep ELO relevant on Time by firing the string section – the element of ELO that initially inspired the band’s very existence – and letting Tandy’s synthesizers come to the forefront. The video for the single Here is the News shows the entire band simultaneously playing keyboards. Although Time’s singles aren’t as well-remembered as some of the band’s previous work, it is a strong record when taken as a whole, and may be their most underrated album. Their most over-rated? I’m just gonna say it: Out of the Blue has a fair amount of filler, and all of the songs sound too samey for my taste. It would have made a phenomenal single-LP, but the double format doesn’t work as well for me as it might.
The final two records by the original incarnation of ELO were Secret Messages (1983) and Balance of Power (1986), neither of which returned to any science fiction themes in either the songs or the cover art. But somehow, this band are nonetheless remembered for the spaceship.
After a fifteen year break during which he racked up many of the aforementioned production credits, Jeff Lynne unsuccessfully tried to resurrect ELO in 2001 with an album called Zoom. The record flopped and a planned tour was canceled. A video of a studio performance in California exists, and the cover art for both the DVD of that show and the Zoom CD featured a fresh take on the spaceship idea. The album art for several subsequent ELO compilation albums used new variations of the spaceship art prominently, such as All Over the World – The Very Best of [ELO], Ticket To the Moon – the Very Best of [ELO] volume 2, the Flashback boxed set, and Mr. Blue Sky – The Very Best of [ELO].
That last one featured brand new re-recordings of ELO’s hits performed by Lynne solo in the studio. The official line was that he always felt that he could have made the original recordings better, but the real scoop probably has something to do with the notion that he owns the masters to these new recordings, so he makes more money when the songs are licensed to films, television shows, and video games. In the 21st century music economy, licensing brings in far more money than record sales or live performance, so it’s only natural that Lynne wanted to avoid sharing that sweet cash with his former record label. Many other bands have used this ploy of re-recording their hits once their label contracts have expired. Off the top of my head I can think of the albums Spot the Difference by Squeeze, Forgeries by Def Leppard, Return the Gift by Gang of Four, and Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux by Blondie. There are hundreds of others. All of these records have attempted to sound like the original recordings in exacting detail so as to give listeners as much of the nostalgic original magic as possible, while still making bank for the artists who can now license the new master instead of the old one, which may be owned by a prior record label.
Between the release of the eleventh and final original ELO album (Balance of Power, 1986) and the doomed Zoom in 2001, a group of former ELO members (including Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminski, and Clark) had been touring as ELO Part Two with a new frontman (a Lynne look-alike no less), and they even released two albums worth of new songs. Lynne was not happy about this, but since Bevan was a founding member of ELO, he had legal rights to hit the road playing Lynne’s songs under a variant of the ELO name. And let’s face it, none of the other guys in the band were making even a tiny fraction of Lynne’s income, since he got all of the songwriting royalties, which were further bolstered by his magnificently successful career as a producer. The other lads presumably needed the cash.
When Bevan finally retired ELO Part Two in 2000, he sold his share of the ELO name to Lynne. Now sole owner of the brand, it is probably safe to assume that this turn of events inspired Lynne to release Zoom within a year. Lynne’s return to the band – his band – which had been in Bevan’s custodianship for some fourteen years was short lived. Save for a guest appearance by Tandy on one song, no former ELO members were invited by Lynne to participate in the making of Zoom. The failure of that record seemed to signal the end of ELO for good. ELO seemed to be relegated to the ranks of 1970s has-beens and bands who no one seemed very interested in discussing. ELO were considered deeply uncool at that point, and to say that they were ready for a critical reappraisal in 2001 would have been premature. The band’s classic hits needed to marinate for quite a bit longer before they matured to classic or legendary status instead of being simply dismissed as old or irrelevant.
ELO’s time for renewed respect finally came in 2014. The BBC persuaded Lynne to do a one-off show in London’s Hyde Park on September 14 of that year. The phenomenal success of that gig made Lynne realize that the time was finally right to give ELO another shot. In 2015 he did another seven shows in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and recorded Alone in the Universe — another record written, performed, and produced solely by himself (now as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”) with virtually no other musicians. Even Tandy – the sole classic ELO member to participate in the 2014 and 2015 gigs – was conspicuously missing from the record. Lynne supported Alone in the Universe in 2016 with 24 U.K. and European gigs (plus L.A. and New York), and then just four U.K. gigs in 2017. Sadly, Tandy’s health precluded him from being present for the 2017 shows. Lynne turned 70 that year, and was also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with Wood, Bevan, and Tandy.
The thirty-six gigs during the four years from 2014 to 2017 were all sell-out shows in arenas every bit as large, or larger, than the ones that ELO hauled their model spaceship to in the 1970s. The last of the 2017 gigs was recorded for a double-CD and DVD/Blu-Ray set called Wembley or Bust, and showcased Lynne and his thirteen-piece band of highly skilled session players performing in London. The line-up seen in the Wembley video has been stable since 2015, save for replacing Tandy with an understudy in 2017 and swapping in a new string trio in 2016 (this band has worse luck retaining string players than Roxy Music had with bassists – they had a different bass player for every single album). Naturally, the latest version of the spaceship appeared on the album cover, even if it didn’t show up above the stage at the gigs, except perhaps as projected on video. During the live shows that happened in 2014 through 2018, rear screen projection featured heavy use of outer space footage: galaxies, asteroid fields, and voyages through the cosmos. But lyrically, the record ignores the subject in the same way that every record except Time has, preferring to focus on Jeff’s old standbys: loneliness (see: album title), the weather (Love and Rain and The Sun Will Shine on You), and blue (Blue).
And now in 2018, here is the news: a proper U.S. tour would be staged, the first one in 37 years. Twelve shows. So, let’s forget Jeff Lynne’s career for a moment and talk about mine. After three decades spent working in the music industry, and after having worked on some two thousand live gigs in my career (ELO Part One only did 669, according to setlist.fm!), it’s pretty hard to get me excited about a concert. But somehow, I was inordinately giddy about this tour. The only question was: Tandy? The answer: No. His health was still not up to it. Nonetheless, after being vaguely aware of the Time tour happening in 1981, but being too young to go (my first concert would be a certain new wave band in early 1984), I finally had a chance to see ELO this year. Tickets were procured for the Chicago show, and for good measure I’d be attending a New York gig as well. I’d never visited Madison Square Garden before, and I had an $11 flight (using frequent flier miles) and a friend who’d let me crash at her house, so the trip to see the second show was a fun adventure.
Having spent essentially my entire life listening to the eleven original ELO records, and knowing all of them by heart – even the crappy songs on Secret Messages or On the Third Day – there was a sense that this show would bring one aspect of my life, and my career, full circle. I’d started off listening to A New World Record around 1978, and now, exactly forty years later, I’d finally be adding ELO to the very very long list of artists I’ve seen live. Interestingly, I’d seen ELO Part Two in 1998, at exactly the midpoint in this timeline. With four important classic-era members in that band (Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminsky, and Clark) ELO Part Two had much more ELO DNA in the band than Jeff Lynne’s ELO does, even if Jeff is absolutely and inarguably the only completely indispensable member of ELO. And with Tandy missing from the 2018 shows, there was definitely a sense that I was essentially going to see an ELO cover band.
But Lynne and his well-rehearsed team of professionals delivered a tight show consisting of seventeen ELO classics, plus the traditional Roll Over Beethoven cover, and a Traveling Wilburys tune. The U.S. tour was slightly pared down from the twenty-four song set list heard at the 2016/2017 shows. The 2018 gigs featured more or less the same set list, but subtracted five songs. U.S. audiences this year missed out on Xanadu, Last Train to London, Prologue/Twilight, and Ma-Ma-Ma Belle. Oddly, the immortal Strange Magic hasn’t been played since the 2014/2015 gigs.
Watching videos of very early ELO (back when Roy Wood was still in the band), we see some of the lads wearing animal masks (bizarre, and hard to find justification for), while the string players ran around the stage, rockin’ out just like the guitarists. It’d be unfair to expect that level of goofiness or raw energy from a show today; Lynne is now almost 71, and his players all appear to be in their forties or fifties. And let’s face it: so is his audience. There were almost no people who appeared to be much younger than their late thirties at the Chicago show. In New York a few more people seemed to have brought their teenage kids, but certainly there were very few people present under the age of forty whose presence was anything other than a placating gesture to their parents. The Chicago audience spent most of the show seated, which was a little frustrating; I wanted to be on my feet and grooving a little bit. The New Yorkers were better about that: all of old folk sat down to rest during the ballads, but were up on our feet for at least two-thirds of the show. Comparing this to the rock shows of my youth where the whole audience would be standing on our seats, dancing in the aisles and making a ruckuss, seeing the Electric Light Orchestra was an experience closer to seeing the Chicago Symphony Orchestra than to being at a rock concert. But, I’m positive that a lot of the audience preferred it that way. After all, it’s fair to say that most of the people present weren’t operating at the energy levels we were enjoying in the 1970s or 1980s.
Given that the band are older and the audience is older, the lack of energy coming off the stage was noticeable. Lynne’s large and very professional band delivered note-perfect renditions of nineteen songs. All of them were flawlessly performed, sounding precisely like they did on the classic records. None had the arrangements updated, and none were extended into longer jams or condensed into medleys. There was no showy virtuosity, and none of the members got to take a longer solo or improvise at any moment in the show. Note-perfect classic ELO, just how we remembered it from our youth, except played by different people. Like, again, an extremely well rehearsed ELO cover band.
The light show was great, and the five rear-projection banners behind the band were filled with predictable if quite welcome images of (are you sitting down?) outer space. If Jeff forgot a few lyrics here or there, or his voice is becoming too tired to deliver a full set every night, his backing singers were there to cover for him (one of the singers showed a bit of range by covering vocal parts originally sung by three rather diverse singers: Roy Wood, Kelly Groucutt, and Roy Orbison). If Lynne’s guitar playing isn’t as strong as it once was, his two guitarists have him covered. Even the mighty Richard Tandy required no less than three keyboard players on stage to adequately replace him (ok, one of them was doubling the string players to beef them up…). I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got a little choked up during the Chicago show, and only slightly less so at the identical New York gig. Even having spent about $400 on the two tickets, I’m absolutely glad I went.
And yet I wonder what the show would have been like if Bevan, Tandy, or even Mik Kaminsky (the longest-standing of ELO’s many string players) were there (Groucutt died in 2009). Would we have seen tired old men dialing in a barely adequate performance? Or would the show have contained more of the strange magic that made ELO great, rather than the cold precision of Jeff Lynne’s crack team of hired guns? We’ll never know.
Having seen other reunions of old-timers in the past, I’ve experienced shows put on by people who were better off not having bothered, and I have also seen some surprisingly satisfying performances. Speaking strictly about bands whose entire classic line-up was present, I caught the first of several Wire reunions in 1987, and the original Buzzcocks way back in 1989. But these shows happened only a handful of years after the dissolution of bands that are a generation younger than ELO. Putting a little more time and life experience into the breakup/reunion gap, I’ve seen the original X a few times, a Bauhaus reunion in 1998 that was memorable, and one-off tour from the original Gang of Four lineup in 2005 that was very good. Ultravox reunited a few years ago, but didn’t tour the U.S.; their show on video was decent (but their album sucked). The Fixx are still completely intact and were satisfying to see live (for free at a street festival no less) in 2012. A Dead Can Dance show in 2005 was a disaster, as was the second Bauhaus reunion that year. But certainly, none of these projects had ever toured arenas. Bands with most of the original lineup are legion; I’ve seen 80% of Devo three or four times, I saw the original Duran Duran once in 1984, and various combinations of that band several times since then. There are plenty of other partially-intact classic bands. Lots. Some of them do bring the goods.
But these are bands associated with the punk, post-punk, and new wave genres. What about 1970s stadium rock? As I said in the beginning of this essay, I moved away from that fairly early on in life, and there aren’t that many bands of that era that I care about. And they’re also all even older than the new wavers, so there are even fewer of them alive. Maybe Rush. But they just disbanded, like last year. I said I wasn’t going to speak of Kiss again, but in 2000, I saw the sixth-to-last show their original lineup ever did. That was pretty spectacular, but again, that was nearly twenty years ago. What kind of energy are they bringing now (and with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley gone, why bother)? So I’m writing off stadium rock as an option.
Of bands that I liked in my youth, who might tour large venues, and who are all still alive, I’m struggling to come up with any further names that would reel me in. Every band I can think of has either lost members to the reaper, or they’ve already reunited, for good or for ill. Except one. After a fair amount of reflection, there is only one band – one – that I can think of who have never reunited, who are all alive, who could fill large venues, and who I would go to see for sure. One band.
The name of this band is Talking Heads.
With the exception of their 2002 show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, they haven’t gigged since 1984. I have almost all of their records, and I enjoy them. I’d go to a Heads reunion with some level of enthusiasm. All four members have remained active in music, and the quality of classic-era Talking Heads shows is semi-legendary (see their film Stop Making Sense, which is objectively a strong contender for being the best concert film ever). But there are two things at hand here: Talking Heads have been offered a lot of money to tour many times in the past 34 years and have always turned it down. Seems unlikely that they’d suddenly start accepting offers. And more crucially to the point of this essay, I just don’t have the emotional connection to that band that I have with ELO.
So, disregarding the complete lack of original members currently performing in ELO (aside from Jeff Lynne of course), the antiseptic quality of the slick performances, and my recent musings on Lynne’s repetitive themes and lack of ambitions as a lyricist, seeing a version of ELO this summer was truly some sort of bookend in my life as a rock music fan. It’s vastly overstating the case to say that my interest in the rock music of the past and present has suddenly reached a standstill and that I’ll be burning all of my old records… and CDs… and digital files… but it feels like there’s nowhere left for my interest in this sort of music to go from here. I’ve come full circle somehow, and seeing these ELO shows this summer definitely felt like I was reaching the end of a very long phase in my life.