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…

Remembering Olivia Newton-John

The sad news came through yesterday that Olivia Newton-John has died, aged just seventy-three. She featured three times on this blog with her three chart-topping singles (three singles that accumulated an impressive 18 weeks at #1!)

As well as these chart-toppers, she scored thirteen Top 20 hits between 1971 and 1982. If you count school disco classic ‘The Grease Megamix’ and a remix of ‘You’re the One That I Want’ (and I definitely do) you can extend that to 15 Top 20 hits over twenty-five years…

For me, personally, as someone who watched my VHS copy of ‘Grease’ at least once a month between 1997 and 1999, one single moment from her career stands out. Red heels. Black lycra. Black leather. Cigarette in hand. ‘SANdy?’… ‘Tell Me About It… Stud.’

From a moral standpoint, Sandy’s transformation at the ending of Grease is dubious at best. But in terms of iconic movie moments few can beat it. (My twelve-year-old heart certainly ‘beat’ it, even if I’d spent the previous two hours of the film wishing I were Rizzo.) ‘Grease’ gave Newton-John her biggest chart success – you can read my posts on ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Summer Nights’ here – along with her ELO collaboration ‘Xanadu’. ‘Grease’ also gave her a #2 smash with the classic weepy ‘Hopelessy Devoted to You’.

She had plenty of success away from Rydell High, though. Her first Top 10 came with a Bob Dylan cover: ‘If Not for You’ making #7 in 1971. She ploughed a country furrow for a few years – some might say her cover of ‘Country Roads’ is the better-known version – before representing the UK at Eurovision in 1974 with ‘Long Live Love’. She later admitted that she hated both the song, and the ghastly dress she was forced to wear. ‘Rolling Stone’ at the time descibed her as a seventies version of Doris Day.

A few years in the British chart wilderness – while remaining extremely popular in the US and in her adopted homeland Australia – ended with ‘Sam’, a #6 in 1977. Then came ‘Grease’ and all that that entailed. Her biggest non-soundtrack hit in the UK was ‘A Little More Love’ – very disco, very ABBA -which made #4 in early 1979.

Then came ‘Xanadu’ – by all accounts a thoroughly ludicrous film redeemed by its Jeff Lynne helmed soundtrack. The title track gave ONJ her third and final #1, as well as a worldwide hit in ‘Magic’.

The third and final video I’m going to embed is not the all-conquering ‘Physical’ (a ten-week #1 in the US which only got as high as #7 in the UK). We’ve all heard that plenty, I’d imagine. No, it’s the 3rd single from the ‘Xanadu’ soundtrack, and a duet with her buddy Cliff Richard – who had helped promote her to UK audiences in the early seventies as a regular guest on his TV show. Here’s ‘Suddenly’, which made #15 in 1980.

She contined to record and perform well into the 21st Century, despite a cancer diagnosis in 1992. Away from music she was a passionate animal-rights campaigner, as well as funding a cancer research centre in Melbourne.

Dame Olivia Newton-John, 26th September 1948 – 8th August 2022

461. ‘Xanadu’, by Olivia Newton-John & Electric Light Orchestra

Finally. One of the seventies’ best groups top the charts, a few months too late. ELO and ONJ are taking us off to a mythical land…

Xanadu, by Olivia Newton-John (her 3rd and final #1) & Electric Light Orchestra (their 1st and only #1) 

2 weeks, 6th – 20th July 1980

To be honest, this has never been my favourite Electric Light Orchestra song – is it anyone’s? – but it’s still a good slice of Jeff Lynne glam-pop. The wall-of-sound production and the beefy drums take us back to the height of glam, while the tempo and the strings are very disco. It’s a throwback, already, given the spiky, new-wave chart-toppers that we’ve already heard this year.

It’s also nice to hear Olivia Newton-John warbling away on another #1, after her two ‘Grease’ mega-hits in 1978. It’s a song that requires her to sing in a pretty high pitch, but she carries it off. Her Xanad-ooh-ooh… in the chorus, twinned with the piano riff, is an effective hook, while the Now we are here… backing vocals are pure ELO.

Amazingly, this is already the second #1 single to reference ‘Xanadu’ in the title, the lost city in northern China, seat of the Mongol Khans, ‘found’ by Marco Polo… It has now been named twice as many times as any other place. A place… as Olivia tells it, Where nobody dared to go, The love that we came to know, They called it Xanadu…

All very mystical. Except, in the movie that this record soundtracks, ‘Xanadu’ is a nightclub. A roller-disco. (I, to be fair, knew several nightclubs in my youth best described as ‘places nobody should dare to go’, not without a fair amount of alcohol inside them…) I have never seen the movie: it was awarded a Golden Raspberry but has since been reclaimed as a camp classic. Both ELO and ONJ scored further hits from the soundtrack, including the brilliant ‘All Over the World’.

The one thing I can’t get behind with this record is the ending. The soaring, distorted high-note. It reminds me – and this might just be because both involve Olivia Newton-John – of the stupid ending in ‘Grease’, with the flying car. A simple fade-out would have done much more nicely. But what do I know? Jeff Lynne apparently rates this as his best song.

I started this post with the word ‘finally’, and it really did take a while for Electric Light Orchestra to score a UK #1. ‘Xanadu’ was their 14th Top 10 hit, in a run stretching back to 1972. They would only have one further Top 10, before the hits dried up. (To do them justice, I’ll have to do a ‘Best of the Rest’ at some point.) Olivia Newton-John faces a similar chart trajectory – a few more hits before a mid-eighties drought. Meanwhile, Xanadu itself is still waiting for someone to score another #1 with its name, to complete the hat-trick.