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…

Should’ve Been a #1… ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, by Wizzard

Are you ready children…? (*Fart noise*)… Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a Christmas classic.

‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’, by Wizzard – #4 in December 1973

People complain that few good Christmas pop hits are written these days – though I would argue that The Darkness, Kelly Clarkson, Gwen Stefani (and even Miss Britney Spears) have all added their own classics to the canon this century – and then they look wistfully back to 1973, when two of the most enduring Christmas songs of all time raced up the singles chart.

Slade made #1 – and you can read all about that here – while an even better record got stuck at number four. (I always knew that they came out at the same time, but for years I assumed that Wizzard were runners-up.) Roy Wood’s band had already scored two superlative chart-toppers in ’73 – ‘See My Baby Jive’ and ‘Angel Fingers’ – when they turned on the snow machine and went even heavier on the French horns.

While Slade went quite tongue in cheek – with talk of drunken Santas and dancing grandmas – Wizzard lay the traditional Christmas tropes on thick: When the snowman brings the snow, Well he might just like to know, He’s put a great big smile on somebody’s face… And while Slade toned down the glam, for a Beatlesy ode to the season, Wood chucks everything at this one. It’s every bit as OTT, if not more, than their earlier #1s. And why not? When has Christmas ever been a time for subtlety?

By the end, if the two drummers and multiple brass instruments weren’t enough, the sweet, sweet voices of the Stockland Green School choir are added into the mix. Ok, you lot… Take it! (The full credit for the single is: ‘Wizzard ft. vocal backing from the Suedettes plus the Stockland Green Bilateral School First Year Choir with additional noises by Miss Snob and 3C’, which is every bit as extra as the song itself.) And for the last line, Roy earnestly implores us: Why don’t you give, Your love, For Christmas…?

See, it’s not as wild and anarchic as it sounds. Except, when you actually stop to imagine it being Christmas every single day, when the kids start singing and the band begins to play, and it quickly becomes a dystopian nightmare vision of never ending lights, noise, gift giving and turkey…. Still, I can forgive them, for this is a classic. A song that has been played every December since, but that somehow doesn’t ever inspire in me the feelings of irritation that, say, Slade, the Pogues and Mariah Carey do. As I write this, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ sits at #16 in the UK Singles charts, and will probably climb even higher next week.

All that’s left for me to do is to wish everyone who reads and follows the UK Number 1s Blog, a very merry Christmas. It doesn’t come everyday – and this year might be different than most – but, still, make it a good one!

330. ‘See My Baby Jive’, by Wizzard

The last song before our next recap, and a late contender for one of the very best of the past bunch…?

See My Baby Jive, by Wizzard (their 1st of two #1s)

4 weeks, from 13th May – 10th June 1973

This record sets its stall out early. Remember when we thought The Sweet introing with an air-raid siren was ballsy? Well how about a Spitfire doing a fly-past, followed by some anti-aircraft fire? But this song is so good, you’ve somehow forgotten about the outrageous intro within ten seconds of the first verse. The guns turn into cascading drums, and a wall of sound comes in and kicks you up the backside.

Look out, Look out, Your momma would shout, You might as well go home… She said, My bed, Gets into your hair, So give me back my comb… Yeah… Me neither. These are definitely lyrics that need Googling. But as with most of the great glam singles from this era, the words don’t really matter. They’re about dancing, about making sweet music while strutting around in mascara and a feather boa. About how well your baby can move. See my baby jive, See my baby jive, She hangs on to me and she really goes, Woah, woah, woah…

That woah, woah, woah is perhaps the most gloriously uplifting, catchy moment that we’ve heard so far in any of the previous three hundred and twenty-nine number one records. It’s wonderful. It’s Prozac for the ears. In fact, the entire five minutes of ‘See My Baby Jive’ is pop perfection: a huge slice of glam, mixed with splashes of fifties malt shop and doo-wop, with a big knob of Phil Spector-esque production. Wizzard were an eight-man band, complete with cellists, saxophonists, clarinettists, French hornists, synthesisers, and more, all crammed into this one song, with a crazy genius at the helm.

Roy Wood has had one previous number one – The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’ – and since then he’s founded Electric Light Orchestra. But it was with Wizzard that he really let loose, and showed just what he was capable of. And not many would be capable of taking all the different elements chucked into the mix on ‘See My Baby Jive’, and turning it into a hit.

The solo starts off classical, and finishes as jazz. The outro sounds like The Beach Boys are getting in on the act somewhere off in the background. (This record has too many references, too many Easter eggs, to keep track of. Five minutes long it may be, but it never drags.) All the while you can picture all the boys in town rushing down the street, just to see his baby jive. She’s an addictive woman, summed up in the brilliant line – one of the few that stand out against the chaos – You, You make things that get along, Turn out, So wrong…

Wizzard had had one previous hit, the almost as good – and just as loopy – ‘Ball Park Incident’ which made #6, and they will go on to have one further, brilliant chart-topper (and release a Christmas song that some of you may have heard, once or twice) before 1973 is out. But I’m not sure they ever topped ‘See My Baby Jive’. And I don’t think I’ve ever not loved this song. It was a regular feature of our ‘long family car journey’ tapes and CDs. (On many a trip did I sit in the back seat, waiting for the anti-aircraft fire to ring out…)

I don’t normally mention the ‘B’-sides to the #1 singles I cover, but how could I resist when I discovered that the flip-side to this single was called ‘Bend Over Beethoven’! Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near as outrageous as its title implies… Anyway, like I said at the top, a recap is up next, in which the other recent chart-toppers will have to go some to stop me naming ‘See My Baby Jive’ as the very best.

265. ‘Blackberry Way’, by The Move

This next #1 single is one that opens with a bang, right in the middle of the story. ‘In media res’, if you want to be fancy about it. Blackberry way, Absolutely pouring down with rain, It’s a terrible day…

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Blackberry Way, by The Move (their 1st and only #1)

1 week, from 5th – 12th February 1969

I like the absolutely pouring down with rain line – it sounds very British. As the picture is filled in, you really can picture a dull suburban street – probably lined with bungalows – in the rain, as girl ends it with boy. So now I’m standing on the corner, Lost in the things that I said…

It’s a dramatic record. Make that melodramatic. The strings moan like the soundtrack to a haunted house. The drums are thick and portentous. As the singer makes his way from Blackberry Way, through the park and past the boating lake, where the boats float: just like myself they are neglected… Before each chorus, he asks himself: What am I supposed to do now? He gets on the train, with one final look over his shoulder, to see if she’s followed him… We can assume that she hasn’t.

This is kind of fun; if a little OTT. Even though it’s about heartbreak ,the scale of the song, and the lyrics about the mundane things he sees on his walk in the rain, keep it slightly tongue-in-cheek. Only occasionally does it get ahead of itself – what exactly does the line: See the battlefields of careless sins, Cast the to the wind… mean? I like the fact that it’s quite a psychedelic sounding song, but one describing a fairly everyday scene. No flower-power here. And I like the contradiction in the chorus: Goodbye Blackberry Way, I can’t see you, I don’t need you… Sure to want me back another day… Ain’t that just how a break-up goes…?

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The Move were a Birmingham band, that had already enjoyed four Top 5 hits before they scored their sole chart-topper. I always liked ‘Fire Brigade’ as a kid – it must have been on a sixties-hits tape we had lying around – and ‘Flowers in the Rain’ was famously the first ever song played on Radio 1. They were quite a sonically experimental band, mixing Spector-ish production with innovative sounds and effects. You can hear the instruments on ‘Blackberry Way’, straining to make themselves the most important part of the song over the vocals. It’s a record that bursts from the speakers…

Central to The Move was songwriter and singer Roy Wood, who we will meet again in the coming decade – a man who played a big role in shaping the sound of the seventies when The Move morphed into Electric Light Orchestra. Wood didn’t hang around long with ELO, though, leaving to form glam-rockers Wizzard. Luckily for all of us, we’ll meet both of his bands-to-be later in this countdown. Not many artists can claim to have been involved in three hugely successful, chart-topping acts… Kudos to Wood!