Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
on 27 April 2014
My review is of the orginal album, as I have not heard the extra tracks included on the remastered reissue in 2001.
Following on from the 4 million+ sales of the double album Out of the Blue, with it's string of hit singles, eye-catching artwork and massive world tour, ELO were faced with the task of following it up. At the beginning of 1979, the band had reached a position in their careers where they could basically follow whatever path they wished.
They could have, for example, produced an Out of the Blue Pt. II. The press would no doubt have negatively criticised them for producing an album that sounded just like the last one.
They could have created a totally new sound, in which case they would have been accused of not sounding like they had in the past.
In short, any move they made would have left them open to attack by the media and the fans.
As it was, songwriter, producer, lead-guitarist and lead-vocalist Jeff Lynne had mentioned in an interview with Melody Maker in May 1978, that he felt like doing "something strange." He had apparently been working on some weird chord sequences. Whether he was talked out of this at gun-point, or he himself thought better of it is not known. But one year later, "Shine a Little Love", the lead single from the then new ELO album "Discovery" was released. It hinted that, far from producing "Out of the Blue Pt II", the band had opted for their own version of then current musical trend: disco. Indeed the song owed more to the vocal harmonies of The Bee Gees rather than Jeff Lynne's first love The Beatles. This was hardly an exciting prospect, considering the likes of Chic, Sister Sledge and even Blondie, the darlings of the New York punk scene, were perfectly capable of producing such music. But ELO? Granted, it at least allowed ELO to sound not too much out of place in the charts in 1979, but many fans buying Discovery, having placed their trust in ELO's music based on the quality of material on it's predecessor, had to admit that it was all rather a disappointment. Even the ballads that off-set the disco-beat were not up to the standard of, say, One Summer Dream or Steppin' Out. ELO would at least redeem the situation two years later with the release of Time, an album that respectably redefined their sound whilst setting them on course for the 1980's.
I write this review realising that Discovery, although not one of ELO's greatest albums, is certainly not the stinker it's sometimes made out to be.
The second track Confusion is my first favourite, with it's wonderful lyrics of "Dark is the road you wonder", Kelly Groucutt's background booming "confusion" and Bev Bevan's reggae-style rim shots. I love Jeff's description of the song in his sleevenotes for the Flashback compilation: "There was this keyboard called the CS-80. It's the main keyboard sound on the record. Unfortunately, the thing weighed about 2,000 pounds. It was a great machine but a roadie's nightmare."
The first ballad is next in the form of Need Her Love. Apparently written for Jeff Lynne's then wife Sandi, the song is rather soppy as far as it goes. It is one of the few songs not to be included on an ELO compilation (of which there are many) and (to my knowledge) has never been played live. However, I find it's bookended by firstly a wonderful effect that sounds like the ELO spaceship landing, plus a pleasant guitar solo and at the end by the pizzicato strings that accompany the song's fade-out.
In the good old days of vinyl, The Diary of Horace Wimp closed side one of the album. A track that sounds rather out of place alongside what the listener has just heard. I gather it holds the odd accolade of Jeff having the idea for the lyric before the music was written, as he wanted to write a song based on someone's diary. It is rather light-weight in content and yet is not without a certain charm.
Probably the most successful of the disco-inspired songs opens side two as we take the Last Train to London. Here, the beat is right, the groove is snappy and the lyrics aren't too embarrassing. They refer directly to Jeff's experiences early in his career of travelling by rail from Birmingham to London to the recording studios. Like Sweet Talkin' Woman before it, Jeff in his role of producer doesn't simply reach for the fade-out knob at the end, but stops the music to allow keyboards and drums to reprise the songs opening chords, before riding off into the distance. Wonderful stuff.
Midnight Blue is for me the weakest ballad on the album. Lyrically it goes nowhere and the music offers nothing spectacular, but is saved by some nice piano work in the opening verse.
My feet start tapping again to the sound of On the Run. With it's "d-d-d-don't wanna lose it" line, it's pretty much in the disco category, save for the slowed down refrain.
Wishing opens with what once again could be taken to be an audio representation of the ELO spaceship landing, before a nice keyboard refrain starts the main song. Though there is a great piano solo at the bridge, I find it only slightly better than Midnight Blue.
If the listener had been put into a trance by the previous reverie, then the stomping drums of Don't Bring Me Down would certainly wake them up. This stripped-down song (the very first ELO song at this point not to feature any strings, a factor that would have far-reaching consequences) actually offers so much musically and lyrically. The incessant drum-loop, apparently lifted from another Discovery track, provides a rock solid beat on which rests Jeff Lynne's crashing guitar, Kelly Groucutt's thumping bass and the boogie-woogie piano work of Richard Tandy. The lyrics offer some great images: "you let your mind out somewhere down the road", "you're lookin' good just like a snake in the grass". It's chorus ( a rewrite of the traditional don't put me down) features the seemingly nonsense word "grroosss" which, as native-speaking engineer Mack pointed out to the band, is German for "greeting". But I hand the word back to Jeff as to how the song came together: "..... I overdubbed eight grand pianos, a cement mixer and two crates of Newcastle Brown Ale and that got the ball rolling".
The song provided ELO with a new encore for their live shows and an encore that, unlike Roll Over Beethoven, was one of their own. I had the great fortune of attending Birmingham Heartbeat 86 and one of it's highlights was their return to the stage and Bev Bevan kick-starting a drum solo that led into Don't Bring Me Down (available on Youtube for the curious).
Although the content of Discovery did not match or succeed that of Out of the Blue, it's packaging was a wonderful concept, full of eastern promise. The ELO logo, having started out as an emblem dominating the New York skyline in 1976, turned into a spaceship high above the Earth and now, in an artistic masterstroke, was transformed into a glowing medallion, reflecting light into the face of it's beholder, an Aladdin-type character, who had seemingly removed it from a treasure trove. The meaning? Well, ELO were certainly a rich treasure at this stage of their careers. With the Arabian-style lettering and persian carpet trim to the cover, Discovery was as equally eye-catching and thus just as marketable as Out of the Blue.
The inside of the gatefold sleeve showed the Aladdin character fleeing across a desert, pursued by scimitar-wielding guards. The album credits were ELO's shortest in five years - no technical specifications about equipment and amplification used by the band, but just a list of the four core members (minus the string section), a special thanks to Mack the engineer and of course the Ardens, the management.
The inner sleeve featured portraits of the four members at work in the Musicland Studios in Munich. The reverse contained the lyrics plus a photo of ELO in concert on the famous spaceship stage. Unfortunately, this was the nearest fans would get to seeing ELO live in 1979, as Jeff Lynne vetoed any tour to promote Discovery, allowing it to sell purely on the strength of radio airplay and the minimum of promotion. The initial effect of this policy was quite positive: 5 days after the album's release it hit the No. 1 spot in ELO's home country (the first time one of their albums had done so) and the singles released in the coming months all reached respectable positions in the charts around the world. However, the long term effects would be more damaging. Jeff Lynne had apparently turned down the offer of ELO headlining the Knebworth Festival in Hertfordshire, leaving the stage free for Led Zeppelin to perform their first UK shows in four years in August 1979.
Instead, ELO filmed a promotional vidio (quite revolutionary at the time) to accompany each song on Discovery, thus saving them the hastle of any live shows and promotional appearances, even on Top of the Pops. They also sent a hot air balloon around the UK as a gimmick in place of the band. It was around the time of Discovery's release that question marks hung over who was and who was not in ELO. The album's credits featured only four of the regulars, yet the promtional photos and videos featured the seven piece line-up. Two years later, the services of the string section - contributors to ELO's special sound - would be dispensed with forever: only violin player Mik Kaminski would be hired for any live shows.
To sum up, although Discovery at the time was not quite what the fans expected, 35 years later I find Confusion, Last Train to London and Don't Bring Me Down excellent ELO. Advice: go and rediscover Discovery.