By Tierney Smith
THE ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA
Epic/Legacy (82796 94270 2)
Epic/Legacy (82796 94277 2)
On the occasion of the 35th anniversary of The Electric Light Orchestra’s formation comes these reissued, expanded versions of ELO’s first two albums, with more to follow later this year. No Answer, their 1971 debut with new liner notes from Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, and ELO archivist Rob Caiger was, as Lynne states here, “a pretty wacky one, so innocent yet so bold.” It was as offbeat a work as the band ever produced and worlds removed from the radio-friendly sound that would garner them no fewer than 25 worldwide hit singles during the course of their career. ELO couldn’t get classically trained musicians to join the band, but in Wood they had a multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire. Lynne had joined Wood’s band The Move shortly before the formation of ELO.
No Answer’s opening track (and U.K. Top 10 hit) “10538 Overture,” a slice of catchy pop dressed with dramatic classical flourishes, was originally intended as a movie track. Stark and less plush than their subsequent output, the album ranged from Sgt. Pepper–style whimsy (Lynne’s “Mr. Radio,” the glorious “Queen Of The Hours”) to dark, dramatic symphonic pieces “The Battle Of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644),” a showcase for Wood’s dexterity with classical instrumentation, and “Nellie Takes Her Bow,” a piece of operatic eccentricity with a dash of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Back then, ELO were creating the kind of tunes a band makes when they’re given full creative license to indulge themselves. Wood even lifts practically wholesale the melody of the Mason Williams hit “Classical Gas” on “First Movement (Jumping Biz),” and it’s so good you can only applaud him for it. Less interesting are the bonus tracks, which include alternate mixes of “Nellie Takes A Bow,” “10538 Overture” and “Battle Of Marston Moor” (a mere snippet here) as well as a different take of “Mr. Radio.”
The band’s 1973 follow-up, ELO II (which includes liner notes by Lynne and Caiger as well as song lyrics), saw the departure of Wood and the ascendancy of Lynne as principal composer and instrumentalist. It comprised a mere five songs that found the band achieving a more fluid synthesis of classical and pop. Though the songs are still on the lengthy side and only hint at the glory to come, they mark a huge leap forward in accessibility. The offbeat single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” is rock shot through with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony while the melancholy ballad “Mama,” the rollicking “From The Sun To The World,” driving “In Old England Town” and majestic 11-minute “Kuiama” round out the album.
The bonus tracks include two alternate mixes of “Old England Town” and an infectious Lynne-penned studio outtake of “Baby I Apologise.” Remarkably, as ELO’s songs morphed into a more radio-friendly sound, their material got even stronger, allowing Lynne’s finely tuned gift for melody to truly shine. Aside from their obvious musical merits, No Answer and ELO II offer a fascinating look back at where it all began.