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Music / Electric Light Orchestra

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Mister Blue Sky,
Please tell us why,
You had to hide away for so long,
Where did we go wrong?
— "Mr. Blue Sky"

Formed in 1970 by Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan from the experimental art rock band The Move, ELO was originally conceived as a rock band with classical instruments and sounds — an electrified light orchestra, hence its name. In other words, it was intended to bring the synthesis of Classical Music and rock that the inchoate genre of Progressive Rock promised to its logical conclusion. Due to budgetary constraints, however, Wood provided the majority of the group's instrumentation, with Lynne likewise shouldering multiple instrumental duties. After the release of their first album - a moody, atmospheric sprawl of experimental orchestral suites and accessible-yet-ambitious art rock (such as the maudlin "10538 Overture" and "Mr. Radio") in 1971, Wood left the band to form Wizzard, leaving Lynne (now the band's creative lead and only credited songwriter) and drummer Bev Bevan as its remaining founding members (with both holding partial rights to the ELO name, a detail that would become crucial to the group's legacy). That didn't stop them, however. After recruiting several new members across the following years (among them keyboardist and occasional guitarist Richard Tandy (who had previously played on several of The Move's songs, most notably providing the harpsichord part on "Blackberry Way"), string players Mik Kaminski, Melvyn Gale and Hugh McDowell and bassist/secondary vocalist Kelly Groucutt, known for providing the falsetto harmonies adorning the group's most famous work), ELO would eventually rise to mainstream prominence by the midpoint of the 1970s.

ELO's sound started changing considerably as time went on. The group's first two post-Wood albums, ELO II and On the Third Day, were lush, portentous symphonic art-rock characterized by elongated Progressive Rock suites and atmospheric instrumental interplay. Although neither were major successes, both yielded moderate hits, an expanded symphonic cover of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" and the foreboding "Showdown", respectively. The latter attracted the acclaim of John Lennon, who, in a 1973 radio interview, praised the track and dubbed ELO "sons of Beatles" for expanding upon musical concepts and aesthetics suggested by the Fab Four's later output. Lennon's approval, when compounded with the group's growing chart success, emboldened Lynne significantly. As of the group's next release, the fantasy-themed concept album Eldorado, in 1974, ELO's initial centralization of lengthier orchestral prog-rock epics therefore began to wane in favor of a more hook-based (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Beatles-esque) pop sensibility, with the eponymous orchestra relegated to an increasingly secondary role and delegated chiefly to arranger Louis Clark beginning with said album. Resultantly, the subsequent albums, 1975's Face the Music and 1976's A New World Record, were major commercial successes, yielding such iconic progressive pop anthems as "Evil Woman", "Strange Magic", "Livin' Thing" and "Telephone Line". 1977's Out of the Blue, a double album frequently viewed as the group's best work (and containing the band's arguable signature song "Mr. Blue Sky"), wielded an even more commercially-viable sound, hence the increasingly synth-based aesthetic and shortening durations of its tracks, although the progressive pop aesthetic of the previous two albums nonetheless remained audible.

1979's Discovery, released at the apex of the group's popularity, would, however, herald a more distinct stylistic sea change into synth-heavy and disco-based soft rock while heavily reducing the group's signature orchestrations. The string section (albeit not Louis Clark, who was retained as a keyboardist and arranger) would be quietly dismissed in 1980, coinciding with the recording of six similarly disco-influenced tracks for the film Xanadu; one of these compositions was the film's title track, sung by Olivia Newton-John during its finale sequence. Although the film's soundtrack proved a substantial hit, its release coincided with the plummeting of ELO's critical credentials (owing to both the film's dismal reception and the contemporaneous backlash against disco), leading Lynne to view his involvement as an Old Shame.

Burdened by the critical dismissal attracted by Xanadu, the abrupt death of John Lennon (a significant blow for Lynne, a longtime Beatles superfan) and the revelation that the group's manager Don Arden had quietly siphoned millions from the band's earnings into his personal bank accounts (placing ELO near the epicentre of one of the largest-scale music industry scandals of the decade), Lynne's mental health and, correspondingly, his investment in ELO began to plummet in 1981. ELO's following work, the wistful and new wave-influenced concept album Time - featuring a man torn from his love life and abruptly transported into a cold, impersonal technocracy in the far future - echoed many of Lynne's concerns during this period; while mostly neglected by contemporary critics, it has since become Vindicated by History as one of ELO's defining works. Owing to Lynne's burnout (and a corresponding desire to invest more time in his family life), ELO ceased touring the following year, further reducing its exposure. During the interim, Kelly Groucutt, his role and funds increasingly dwindling with the loss of touring, released a solo album featuring contributions from numerous ELO members; despite heavy exposure on MTV, the album unfortunately failed to see any major sales or critical approval.

ELO, meanwhile, continued its steady decline: Secret Messages, a planned double album ultimately reduced to a single LP by its Troubled Production (including an acrimonious lawsuit between Lynne and Groucutt over the latter's pay, culminating in Groucutt being fired and legally forbidden to profit from the ELO name), was initially successful on release in 1983, but quickly fell off the charts. Lynne effectively disbanded ELO following the album, reuniting them three years later as a pared-down three-piece (comprising Lynne, Bevan and longtime keyboardist Richard Tandy) to record Balance of Power to fulfil a contractual obligation. The album, a lyrically dour work with a light synthpop aesthetic, was largely unsuccessful, and ELO was seemingly finished for good. Subsequently, Lynne continued the development of his increasingly prolific and successful production career, helping to revive both Roy Orbison's and George Harrison's careers, producing a very successful solo album for Tom Petty (two later albums of Petty's were likewise produced by Lynne) and becoming a member of The Traveling Wilburys. Lynne would record only one solo album during this period - 1990's Armchair Theatre, which featured a steadier, more country and rockabilly-influenced pop aesthetic than his prior work with ELO; this would henceforth become Lynne's signature songwriting and production style.

Following a failed attempt to persuade Lynne to commit to another album, Bev Bevan - initially aided by three musicians entirely unrelated to ELO - exercised his partial rights to the ELO name and created ELO Part II in 1989. While Lynne was reluctant to heed Bevan's ambitions, he nonetheless officially disbanded ELO and consented to Part II's formation on the condition that the bulk of their live shows' setlist feature songs from the original band. Now cemented as a legal successor to ELO, Part II would release an eponymous album (a harder, more AOR-adjacent work featuring longtime ELO string arranger Louis Clark in a prominent guest capacity) two years later. Over the subsequent years, Part II evolved into a moderately successful touring act, particularly following the long-term addition of ELO veterans Kelly Groucutt (who, following legal wrangling granting him membership of the group, could now act as a more frequent lead vocalist) and Mik Kaminski (former ELO cellist Hugh McDowell likewise briefly became a live member, but only retained membership for a single tour owing to conflicts with other band members). Now boasting four ELO members/affiliates, Part II released the heavily Arena Rock-inspired Moment of Truth in 1994. Bevan ultimately left the band in 1999 and, to settle a lawsuit filed by Lynne (who would distance himself from many of his former bandmates owing to the Part II project), eventually sold his share of the ELO name to him (in a smaller-scale repeat of this incident, Bevan would later form his own touring incarnation of The Move alongside fellow founding member Trevor Burton, likewise drawing the ire of Roy Wood). The remaining ELO Part II members continue to perform, however, renamed as "The Orchestra", and released the (ironically more ELO-reminiscent) No Rewind in 2001. They later toured in the fall of 2015, but they continued to perform regularly in Walt Disney World's "Garden Rocks" series during the spring Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot. While the Orchestra continues to perform into the present, Kaminski is the sole remaining member (following Groucutt's passing in 2009 and Clark's in 2021) with any connection to the original ELO.

In 2001, meanwhile, Jeff Lynne - now holding full legal ownership of the band's name - released another album under the ELO moniker, Zoom, wielding a more Armchair Theatre-adjacent sound than his '70s output. Lynne and Tandy were the sole members of the original band featured on the album, however. Lynne then reformed ELO with some new members and started a new tour. However, it was cut short, primarily due to the illness and subsequent death of his friend George Harrison. Tandy and Lynne later continued to perform ELO songs sporadically, notably for a short concert film and documentary recorded at Lynne's own bungalow, and at a highly successful concert in Hyde Park in 2014 later released on home video. The interest led to a new album release by Lynne in 2015, Alone in the Universe, with the band now billed as "Jeff Lynne's ELO"; Lynne provided the majority of the album's instrumentation himself, virtually rendering it an ELO album In Name Only. The newly-reconstituted group has gone on several tours since (concluding with a farewell tour in 2024), with another album, From Out of Nowhere, releasing in 2019. However, the death of Tandy in May 2024 has left the farewell tour in limbo for the time being.

Their discography (with notable songs) includes:

  • The Electric Light Orchestra (1971)note : "Mr. Radio", "10538 Overture"
  • ELO 2 (1973): "Roll Over Beethoven", "Kuiama"
  • On the Third Day (1973): "Daybreaker", "In the Hall of the Mountain King", "Showdown"
  • Eldorado (1974): "Can't Get It Out of My Head", "Mr. Kingdom", "Boy Blue"
  • Face the Music (1975): "Fire On High", "Evil Woman", "Strange Magic"
  • A New World Record (1976): "So Fine", "Livin' Thing", "Do Ya", "Telephone Line"
  • Out of the Blue (1977): "Turn to Stone", "Sweet Talkin' Woman", "Mr. Blue Sky", "It's Over", "Wild West Hero"
  • Discovery (1979): "Shine a Little Love", "Don't Bring Me Down", "Confusion", "Last Train to London"
  • Xanadu (1980): "I'm Alive", "All Over the World", "Don't Walk Away", "Xanadu"
  • Time (1981): "Twilight", "Hold On Tight", "The Way Life's Meant to Be", "Here Is the News"
  • Secret Messages (1983): "Four Little Diamonds", "Rock 'n' Roll Is King"
  • Balance of Power (1986): "So Serious", "Calling America", "Endless Lies"
  • Zoom (2001): "Alright", "Moment in Paradise"
  • Alone in the Universe (2015): "When I Was a Boy"
  • From Out of Nowhere (2019)note : "From Out of Nowhere", "Time of Our Life"
ELO Part II and its successor band, the Orchestra, likewise released three studio albums:
  • Electric Light Orchestra Part II (1991): "Honest Men", "1000 Eyes"
  • Moment of Truth (1994): "Power of a Million Lights", "Breakin' Down the Walls"
  • No Rewind (The Orchestra, 2001): "Jewel and Jonny", "Say Goodbye"

Historical note: Hipgnosis did the cover art for the first two albums, plus the compilation The Light Shines On. They were busy people back then.

Not to be confused with Yellow Magic Orchestra.

Today's forecast calls for these tropes:

  • All Just a Dream: "Jungle", most likely, given that it involves a bunch of animals singing about their awesome blue ship and ends with an alarm clock sound. The plot of Time may or may not have all been a dream.
    Am I awake, or do I dream? The strangest pictures I have seen...
  • Alternate Album Cover:
    • The UK release of ELO 2 depicts a lightbulb labeled with the album title flying through outer space. The US release, meanwhile, depicts a different lightbulb flying through the night sky above a mountain range.
    • The UK release of On the Third Day features a cropped headshot of Jeff Lynne staring down at the Earth. The US release replaces this with a black and white photo of the band baring their navels atop a white backdrop. Interestingly, the US cover features Hugh McDowell, who had briefly left the band while the album was being recorded and thus played exactly zero notes on the record.
  • Artifact Name: As time went on, the role of the string section decreased, rendering the "light orchestra" part of their name more and more moot. By the release of Time, the violins had disappeared entirely (though the synths often still provide a lush orchestration). Note that longtime violinist Mik Kaminski does, however, feature briefly on the following album Secret Messages, although this would be the final occasion on which any pre-revival ELO album featured any acoustic string work.
  • Big Rock Ending: "Mr. Blue Sky", after the Fake-Out Fade-Out
  • Book Ends: Eldorado and Time both have similar "noise" intros and outros.
  • Concept Album: Eldorado and Time. Side Three of Out of the Blue, the "Concerto for a Rainy Day", is a sort of mini-Concept Album on a larger non-concept release.
  • Cool Shades: Is Jeff Lynne ever seen without them? According to Jeff, he got the idea to wear big sunglasses from Roy Orbison, so as to hide his nervousness of the crowd when playing concerts.
  • Cover Version: ELO covered Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" on ELO 2 and a cover of Del Shannon's "Little Town Flirt" was added for the re-release of Discovery. The song "Do Ya" was also a cover of an older version written by Jeff for The Move, a band he and Wood had been part of previously. And there's their epic version of "In the Hall of the Mountain King", featuring a VIOLIN SOLO! by touring member Mik Kaminski. Kaminski would also regularly cover "Orange Blossom Special" during his violin solos.
  • Crapsack World: A good number of songs in Time describe the far-off year 2095 in a vaguely depressing way; some of the problems might just be viewed from the lens of a none-too-happy visitor from 1981 ("The Way Life's Meant to Be", "Yours Truly, 2095"), but other problems seem to concern things we might find a bit dystopian or environmentally unsound (e.g. some of the "news" items in "Here Is The News").
  • Credits Gag: Cellist Colin Walker left after ELO 2 was released, leaving the group with only one cello for "On The Third Day". A fictional cellist "Ted Blight" was credited in the line-up with a blurry photo of sound engineer Rick Pannell, who also mimed cello on a few TV appearances at the time.
  • Darker and Edgier: "Balance of Power". The album contains songs set to happy and mostly synthesized, backing music with haunting, sad and evocative lyrics about breaking ups, Jeff Lynne's disillusionment over the band and the album's Troubled Production.
  • "Days of the Week" Song: Almost happens with "Horace Wimp", which leaves off Saturday.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first LP when Roy Wood was in the group — witness the tone and theme of "10538 Overture" compared to the mainstream pop-chart orientated later work featuring Jeff Lynne. Wood took the general progressive rock left-field weirdness to his new band Wizzard, while Lynne remained at the head of ELO and had rapidly revamped its sound into more mainstream, Beatles-esque pop by the time of Face the Music four years later, a genre the band would continue to use throughout the '70s and early '80s.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: "The Diary of Horace Wimp".
  • Electronic Music: While they have never fully crossed the threshold into true electronic music, ELO pioneered many of the techniques that would be adopted by the next generation of artists, such as vocals distorted to the point of doubling as instruments, mixing of traditional and synthetic sounds, and densely layered multitracks. This is especially true for Discovery and later albums.
  • Epic Instrumental Opener: One of Jeff's favorite tropes. See also the openings for Eldorado and Time.
  • Erotic Dream: The explanation behind the bizarre lyrics of "Strange Magic".
  • Everything Is an Instrument: The "ding-ding-ding-ding" in "Mr. Blue Sky" is Bev Bevan hitting a fire extinguisher with a drumstick.
  • Format-Specific Joke: The vocoded speech at the end of "Mr. Blue Sky" is, contrary to popular belief, not the song's title again, but the words "Please turn me over", as on the original LP release that song marked the end of side C.note 
  • Gratuitous French: "Hold on Tight" repeats the chorus in French.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Several. For the interested, the best of these would probably be the aptly-named Very Best Of... discs.
    • The 2012 Very Best Of disc, Mister Blue Sky, is a greatest-hits record, but consisting of all-new recordings of the songs by Jeff Lynne, along with a new track, 'Point of No Return', that Lynne had recorded in 2009.
    • Probably the best greatest-hits compilation featuring the original recordings is the 3-CD set Flashback, released shortly before the release of Zoom. The collection is also littered with non-album singles, rerecorded never-finished songs, and alternate takes.
  • Humiliation Conga: "Evil Woman"
  • I Am the Band: Jeff Lynne, notably the group's lead singer, sole credited songwriter, lead guitarist and producer for the bulk of its existence. Although the group's live shows from the mid-late '70s frequently provided a showcase for other band members (granting extended solos to string players Hugh McDowell and Mik Kaminski and assigning several numbers to Kelly Groucutt, himself almost entirely relegated to backing vocals on ELO's contemporary studio work), Lynne was extensively involved in the band's studio albums; by the early '80s, Lynne's creative control had expanded to the extent of handling numerous instrumental duties himself, hence the group's downsize in personnel. Balance of Power in particular - due to its heavy utilization of the Synclavier sampling system for the bulk of the album's instrumentation, thus rendering a one-man workflow more feasible in-studio - is effectively a Lynne solo album featuring minor assistance by Richard Tandy and drumbeat overdubs by Bev Bevan.
  • Lynne's later ELO albums exacerbate this trope even further, particularly for the group's most recent reincarnation. Alone in the Universe is almost entirely performed and sung by Lynne. It's been noted that Jeff prides himself as enjoying playing all the instruments (guitar, drums, bass, etc), but the trope is averted for his current live band.
  • In Name Only: Arguably applicable, to varying degrees, to both notable projects (ELO Part II and Jeff Lynne's ELO) succeeding the original band. While founded by longtime ELO drummer Bev Bevan and featuring a maximum of five alumni or affiliates from its predecessor's most famous lineup, the majority of ELO Part II's album material (with notable exceptions such as "Honest Men", "Hello" and "Blue Violin") stylistically veers more towards a more bombastic Arena Rock aesthetic in the vein of Journey or Styx, albeit with fleetingly ELO-reminiscent orchestral arrangements courtesy of Louis Clark, over the more softspoken and Beatles-esque sensibilities of its precursor. Jeff Lynne's ELO, conversely, features the original group's central figure providing the majority of instrumentation and composing in a steadier, more country-influenced style more starkly reminiscent of Tom Petty and Roy Orbison than the faster-paced melodies and lavish studio pyrotechnics of his '70s work, suggesting the corresponding albums to be closer aesthetic relatives of Jeff Lynne's solo career than to his output with the original ELO.
  • Last Note Nightmare:
    • Horace Wimp... Horace Wimp... Horace Wimp...
    • Inverted in "Fire On High"; an incomprehensible load of cacophonous strings, backmasked messages and sections from Handel's Messiah played right at the start... then the comprehensible part comes out of nowhere.
  • The Last Title: "Last Train to London".
  • Line-of-Sight Name: Their first album is known as No Answer in America, after the American publishing office called to ask what the title of the album should be and the phone wasn't answered, so "No answer" was written on a memo slip that somebody else in the office sent off to the printer.
  • List-of-Experiences Speech: The verses of "Do Ya".
  • Lyrical Dissonance: "Calling America" and "So Serious". Not to mention "Tightrope", "Julie Don't Live Here Anymore", "Ordinary Dream"... Jeff Lynne loves this trope.
  • Meaningless Meaningful Words: Eldorado's "Prologue". It sounds pretty profound, but good luck trying to make any sense of it. Ditto Time; it seems that this trope is common on ELO's concept albums.
  • Motor Mouth:
    • The bridge to "Turn to Stone". This gets a lot of cheers from the audience in live performances.
      Yes I’m turning to stone / ’cause you ain’t coming home / why you ain’t coming home / if I’m turning to stone / you’ve been gone for so long / and I can’t carry on / Yes I’m turning I’m turning I’m turning to stone
    • Again in Twilight, with the recurring Madness Mantra "It's either real or it's a dream there's nothing that is in between".
  • New Sound Album: While they had been experimenting with synthesizers and electronic music before, Discovery marked a very significant shift in the band's music.
  • One-Book Author: Violinist Steve Woolam only appears on their debut and no other albums, having apparently committed suicide shortly afterwards.
  • Protest Song: "Kuiama" and "Laredo Tornado"
  • Punny Name: Electric light plus light orchestra. And on a second level of punniness the name references the Enoch Light Orchestra, a popular jazz-dance outfit from the 1930s. The band's first logo was a parody of GE's then-current "light-bulb" logo.
  • Record Producer: Jeff Lynne produced almost all of the band's albums himself, and would go on to produce many other artists.
  • Revolving Door Band: The members who aren't Jeff Lynne or Richard Tandy tend to change.
  • Ridiculous Future Inflation: Presumably averted by Time's vision of the year 2095, as Twenty-First Century Man includes a reference to 'a penny in your pocket'.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: Their covers of "Roll Over Beethoven" and "In the Hall of the Mountain King", as well as their original song, "Rockaria!"
  • Sampling: Played With. The drums in "Don't Bring Me Down" is the drum track from a song earlier on the album "On the Run" but slowed down on a tape loop.
  • Sexiness Score: The song "Nightrider" calls the subject girl in the song a "ten a penny dream".
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Evil Woman" contains the lyrics "There's a hole in my head where the rain comes in", a reference to The Beatles' song "Fixing a Hole".
    • The album cover for Eldorado uses a screencap from The Wizard of Oz, specifically the scene where the Wicked Witch of the West tries and fails to steal Dorothy's ruby slippers.
    • "Shangri-La":
      My Shangri-La has gone away
      Faded like The Beatles on "Hey Jude"
  • Song of Song Titles: "Beatles Forever" is crammed full of Beatles song titles.
  • Stop Motion: The music video for "Ain't It a Drag" is in claymation, created by stop-motion studio Open The Portal.
  • Subliminal Seduction: After they were accused of this, Face the Music and Secret Messages deliberately had back-masking put in as a joke.
    The music is reversible, but time is not! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!
  • Tears of Joy: Horace Wimp cries when his marriage proposal is accepted.
  • Title-Only Chorus: "Evil Woman".
  • Title Track: "Xanadu", "Secret Messages", "Alone in the Universe". A partial case in A New World Record's "Mission (A World Record)".
  • Train Song: "Across the Border" from Out of the Blue and "Last Train to London" from Discovery.
  • Trilling Rs: "Don't bring me dowwwwn, Grrrrrruuuuuuuusssss!!!"
  • Weather Report Opening: "Mr. Blue Sky" begins with a literal weather report, delivered with the crackle and reverb of a radio broadcaster predicting a clear day ahead. The track then launches into first verse of the song, with Jeff Lynne breathlessly describing a beautiful day with cloudless skies and abundant sunshine:
    Intro: "Morning! Today's forecast calls for blue skies."
    Verse 1: The sun is shining in the sky
    There ain't a cloud in sight
    It's stopped raining, everybody's in the play
    And don't you know, it's a beautiful new day, hey
  • You Are Number 6: "10538 Overture" is about an escaped prisoner who is referred to only by his number.
  • Zeerust:
    • Time, being about a man from 1981 (the year it was written) transported to the year 2095, naturally has a few (relatively minor) examples:
    • The android woman from "Yours Truly, 2095" is made by IBM; while IBM still exists, it has started moving away from mass hardware manufacture in the second decade of the 21st century, and if made today the song would probably reference a company like Apple instead.
    • "Here Is the News" is influenced by the style and content of the news from 1981, in particular the story about striking spaceport workers and the mention that there are bulletins 'every hour, on the hour'.
    • Plastic bags and plastic flowers are mentioned in a couple of songs to suggest a flimsy, disposable future, but this trend appears to be reversing itself part way into the 21st century as pollution has resulted in mass use of plastic being discouraged, in particular plastic bags being restricted in many countries.

Alternative Title(s): ELO, Jeff Lynnes ELO, Jeff Lynne