Electric Light Orchestra: Best of the Rest

ELO are one of those bands whose back catalogue is so stuffed with hits that their tally of number one hits is genuinely shocking. Just one! ‘Xanadu’, which featured in my countdown a few months back, featuring the sadly departed Olivia Newton-John. I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while, but have barely been managing to keep up with my regular posts, let alone any diversions like this. Still, better late than never… Here, then, are eight of ELO’s ‘other’ hits – chosen for a mix of chart position and my feelings towards them:

‘Roll Over Beethoven’ #6 in 1973

Putting the ‘Orchestra’ in Electric Light Orchestra, the band’s second Top 10 hit mixed Chuck Berry’s rock ‘n’ roll original with elements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Roy Wood, previously of The Move, was the driving force behind ELO’s early hits but quit the band before this single had even been released (he quickly went on to form Wizzard). Shout out as well to ‘10538 Overture’, another, more psychedelic, slice of orchestral rock that gave the band their very first hit.

‘Livin’ Thing’ – #4 in 1976

With Wood gone, the weight of the band came to rest on Jeff Lynne’s shoulders. ‘Livin’ Thing’ was the first big hit of the band’s second iteration, and it’s a classic. Why does it have an Arabian, Spanishy, vaguely spaghetti-western sounding intro that bears little relation to the rest of the song….? Jeff Lynne’s approach to pop music appears to be completely based around a ‘why not?’ sort of philosophy, and more often than not it works.

‘Mr. Blue Sky’ – #6 in 1978

Their most famous song. Their best song? That would depend on my mood… And on the weather. On a sunny day this is unbeatable. On a dark and dingy one, it might get a little tiring. It perhaps say s something about me that my favourite part of the song is where Mr Night comes creeping over… It’s very Beatles-y, particularly ‘A Day in the Life’, and that can never be a bad thing.

‘The Diary of Horace Wimp’ – #8 in 1979

A perfectly weird song. Emphasis on the ‘perfect’. For me this song sums up why ELO are such a great pop group. The classical, the experimental, the downright weird bits that this song is chock-full of never take away from the catchiness of the song. (Too many prog acts seem to think that just because they’re very clever and very talented musically they don’t have to bother writing songs people actually want to listen to…)

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‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ – #3 in 1979

ELO go disco, as pretty much every act in the world was doing in 1979. The pounding drums at the start make me very happy, as do the Bee Gee falsettos in the chorus. Don’t bring me down… Is it Bruce? Proust? No, it’s apparently ‘Groos’, which is a phonetic spelling of the German word from ‘greeting’. Personally I think Bruce would have worked much better… Still, ‘Groos’ was enough of a hook for ELO to score their second biggest UK chart hit.

‘Confusion’ – #8 in 1979

The follow-up to ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ dialled things back a few steps. It’s much more typical ELO, with all manner of fun flourishes from the drums and the synths, and the robotic vocal effects. But it might just be their sweetest song: a big comfort blanket of a song, with just enough of a hint of melancholy.

‘All Over the World’ – #11 in 1980

From the ‘Xanadu’ soundtrack, one of ELO’s purest pop moments. The songs appear much better remembered than the movie, and you can understand why when there are low-key gems like this…

‘Hold on Tight’ – #4 in 1981

The band’s last UK Top 10, ‘Hold on Tight’ is a late-era glam rock stomper. I am a sucker for songs that slip into French for no discernible reason (see also Blondie’s ‘Sunday Girl’). Thanks to this record, I now know the French for hold on tight to your dreams, and can only hope for a reason to one day drop it into a spot of parlez-ing.

Hope you enjoyed this interlude. In my next post, we’ll be getting on into 1986…

14 thoughts on “Electric Light Orchestra: Best of the Rest

  1. ELO are the UK equivalent of ABBA. They could do no wrong in the late 70s, were dismissed as figures of fun as the 80s wore on, their classic albums only fit for the next car boot sale, then after a period in the wilderness everyone admitted how terrific they were/are after all. I think we’d all have a different shortlist for our favourites, and I must admit that I’d have given ‘Horace Wimp’ the elbow – I’ve always found it mildly irritating, a bit like ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ (admittedly without the dark overtones), and substituted ‘10538 Overture’ (including the extended, marvellously dense panorama in sound of the fadeout) or ‘Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle’ (one of the best singles the Rolling Stones didn’t make) – but there we go. Most of their stuff I can’t fault, for the very reasons you mention. A fine summary.

  2. I was a very late-comer to ELO appreciation! Being into punk in the mid to late ’70s, I really disliked them! It was just what us punks did! One of my pals was a HUGE fan back then an I probably ‘disliked’ them as much to annoy him as opposed to genuinely not liking their music.

    However, years later, when I heard the full 8 or 9 minute version of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ it was like a light-switch moment. I started exploring their music an found that actually, ‘d been missing out on a lot of good sounds due to my pig-headedness!
    Favourite? Defo still ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ but pushed by ‘Rockaria!’ But really – so much to choose from. 🙂

  3. ELO are an interesting band. On the one hand, their songs tend to be completely overproduced – like a wall of sound on steroids; on the other hand, whether you like it or not, they had some pretty catchy tunes. Jeff Lynne is a great songwriter – and a pretty good guitarist!

  4. I saw them live at UEA in my first term there, autumn 1972, just after 10538 had been a hit. It was an absolute shambles! They only had enough songs to play for about 40 minutes, and gave us a repeat performance of 10538 as an encore: “we don’t have any more.” One of the roadies spent most of the gig lying on the floor, trying to hold down one of Bev Bevan’s drums, which wanted to go walkabout. You’d never have guessed how big they would become after seeing that show! My favourite of theirs: Wild West Hero.

    • Interesting, Clive. I know a number of people who have said they were utterly chaotic live at the start of their history for various reasons – partly being pushed out on to the concert circuit before they were ready in the interests of making money (blame management), partly problems with miking up the strings properly, and partly appeasing their nerves beforehand with too much Dutch courage! Wizzard were very similar, and compensated for the shortfall in repertoire by extending one of their album tracks to about half an hour in length on stage. And ‘Wild West Hero’ is a very underrated track, possibly their best slow song ever and made even better by that utterly mad, out of place but ‘so weird it works’ inclusion of a blues riff in the latter part. Also as remarked elsewhere above, ‘Rockaria’ was one of their premier cuts too. Yep, we need a longer shortlist!

      • They clearly weren’t ready when I saw them. It was a midweek gig, on a night of foul weather, both of which kept the audience small. I didn’t notice any problems with the strings but they may have been because I was having too much fun watching the drums dancing. There’s a lot of good stuff in their back catalogue beyond the big hits.

    • That’s the danger with going to see a newer act… How do they pad out their set before closing with the big hit? I do wish an encore meant that a band played a popular song one more time – as I believe is traditional – rather than saving their biggest hits especially for it…

      • It was certainly the case with what we got. They played 10538 earlier in the set and rather than enjoying the reprise of the one we all knew I felt a bit short changed!

  5. I adore ELO and did right off the bat with the masterpiece that is 10538 Overture. Roy Wood was my teen hero for the next 2 years while Jeff played the long game. I love your list and lament such chart toppers for me as Showdown (Marvin Gaye with strings), cant get it out of my head, evil woman, sweet talking woman, twilight, the way lifes meant to be and the entire album Out Of The Blue is jaw dropping!

  6. I like ELO…but the further they went the more they got away from the Orchestra part. Hold On Tight still sounds so BIG. Lynne can write a great hook and melody.

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