On my wish list for last Christmas were a couple of CD's by The Electric Light Orchestra, to replace those old vinyl LP's now hiding under the stairs. So it was a big surprise when I was presented with the box set of all their eleven albums. And what a superb present this has turned out to be, now that half way through the year I have just listened to the last one.
Not only does each CD come in it's own cover that represents the original album sleeve, but there is a booklet with additional information, photos and a commentary from Jeff Lynne written in 2006. So for a big fan of ELO, the whole compilation is brilliant. What is fascinating, having all the recordings together, is to see how the productions developed with each album.
The first (No Answer) recorded in 1972 is a little strange. The great opening track 10538 Overture is rarely repeated elsewhere on the songs half of which are written by Jeff and half by Roy Wood. Roy had not only become a superb cello player (the only other string instrument is Steve Wollam's violin) but had become a brilliant multi instrumentalist. As Jeff says "if you could blow it, pluck it, strum it or blow it, Roy could play it). And that is what makes it so interesting.
The next two albums, ELO 11 and On The Third Day are very much experimental. After a couple of contributions from Roy Wood, he left the band for good to develop his own group Wizard. So all the new writing is Jeff's. He is still in the learning process regarding how to write songs, so nothing particular stands out. Again the strings are limited to two or three instruments which are double tracked. But the albums show how Jeff is developing a style both as producer and song writer. Bev Bevan was already a fixture on drums, but the latter album saw Richard Tandy (piano) and Mik Kaminski (violin) join the project.
I would say that the next album Elderado from 1974 is the breakthrough album. This was the first time Jeff uses a big orchestra, and for the instrumental version of the title track, a 20 piece choir. And it shows. Louis Clark had arrived to make the arrangements and conduct the orchestra, the first of five albums to which he should make such a huge contribution. Believe it or not, he was only 24 years old and just graduated from Leeds College of Music. I Can't Get It out Of My Head is, I believe, Jeff's best song so far. In all there are four different versions of the terrific title track.
The following year the band were off to Munich with an equally big orchestra to record Face The Music.The album was their biggest success so far and made platinum thanks to songs such as Evil Woman. However, the next album was even better.
A New World Record contained hit after hit. Jeff's songwriting and producing skills had hit a peak, and the band and orchestra responded with some wonderful recordings. When it comes to choosing my favourite ELO song, I have to pick Telephone Line, and not just because it made the top ten in the UK and USA. But there are other great tracks on this album notably Rockaria! where Mary Thomas adds her operatic talents.
Jeff says in his notes of Out Of The Blue " that this "was probably the hardest work I have ever done". He was on a roll as a songwriter and admits "it was the most prolific I have ever been". There were not only a number of terrific individual songs but Concerto For A Rainy Day was the weather inspired side three of the original double LP. It concludes with the genius that is Mr Blue Sky. This was the third successive album recorded in Munich after ditching a posh studio lined up after their previous success.
After releasing an album every year, ELO coasted for two years before recording Discovery, another album I owned on vinyl and one I always have rated very highly. The forty piece string section are still there in Munich, and Kelly Groucott on bass is on his fourth successive album, now with just Bev Bevan and Richard Tandy to make up the band. The songs remain consistently good.
Time was another successful album with the same personnel as the previous release. The songs are still strong, including Hold On Tight and Twilight. Rainer Pietsch had taken over arranging and conducting the strings, which seem less prominent than before.
The following album is not as consistently good as all six previous recordings. Secret Messages still has the odd stand out track, Four Little Diamonds is a real belter of a rock song. Louis Clark is back arranging the strings, but conspicuously only on three tracks. Jeff seems to be looking to get back to a basic electronic sound.
The final album of the set from 1986 is Balance of Power. Having never replaced my vinyl copy, it was great to hear all these songs again. It is still a really good album. Getting To The Point is an absolutely brilliant piece. No strings this time, no orchestra, just the band as the last three albums, plus a saxophone. But Richard Tandy does replicate some string parts on his keyboards.
There are lots of bonus tracks on every album and these are a welcome addition. There are two omissions from the complete works of ELO. The very last album Zoom was released in 2001 but is really a Jeff Lynne solo recording plus the odd guest contribution. It was not well received, and my copy of the CD was found in the bargain bin. ELO also contributed four tracks to the soundtrack of Xanadu. Three of those find their way into the box set. Only The Fall misses out, but it will not be missed. Jeff also released a solo album in 1990 called Armchair Theatre. This should have done better than it did, there are some very good songs and is definitely worth a listen.