Favorite Bands: Electric Light Orchestra (Part II)

…not to be confused with the Lynne-less ELO Part II, led by longtime drummer Bev Bevan, of course…more on that in a few. ANYWAY!

After the middling success of Discovery — while a strong and solid album, many critics felt it was a bit too poppy and dance-friendly — Jeff Lynne and the band were asked to write several songs for what was initially a lower-budget roller-disco movie somewhat inspired by an old classic called Down to Earth, about an otherworldly muse that comes down from the heavens to inspire a down-on-his-luck artist. After several rewrites, the addition of Olivia Newton-John in the muse role and Gene Kelly as the artist’s mentor and friend, Xanadu dropped in late June 1980 as a fun cheeseball summer flick. The movie bombed severely for many reasons (an extremely wobbly script for one, and supremely cheesy effects for another), but its soundtrack, featuring ONJ songs on one side and ELO songs on the other, remains a classic. And yes, it is considered a so-bad-it’s-great cult classic. You’ve got to love the terrible 80s-ness of it all:

…although there is the saving grace of a wonderful Don Bluth-animated sequence!

Regardless of its utter cheesiness, nine-year-old me was utterly obsessed with the movie and the soundtrack. Its magical-girl-from-another-world story fascinated me and even then inspired me to want to write a story like that. It would take me multiple decades to do so, of course, but that was one of the many movies that jumpstarted my interest in writing fiction.

So. What do you do to follow up something like that? Well, you return to your classic prog tendencies and write another concept album, of course! Time was Lynne’s foray into pure science fiction, about a man wakes up to find himself over a hundred years into the future with no way of returning, and trying to make sense of the world he’s been sent to. It’s not a weird album compared to other ELO records, but it definitely stuck out from most other records of the era. It’s not the most popular, but it’s universally loved by many fans. And if anything, it’s got a hell of a great rockin’ first single, “Hold On Tight”.

Its second single, “Twilight”, stalled in the mid-30s on the UK and US charts, but two years later it would reach cult status as the unauthorised soundtrack for the opening animation for DAICON IV, a science fiction convention in Osaka, Japan. [The fledgling animators themselves, including Hideaki Anno of Evangelion fame, would soon create the well-known anime studio Gainax.] This film has become so iconic and popular that in 2005 for the TV version of the popular Densha Otoko (Train Man), the animated opening credits is a nod to the original.

[As I’ve mentioned before, both Xanadu and Time were a major influence and inspiration for my novel In My Blue World. Part of the idea for it came from my melding the two album’s themes together — the magical girl changing fate and the mental strain of time travel — and both albums got significant play while I wrote it. If you are interested, the e-book is available at Smashwords.]

In 1983, Lynne wished to release a double album, but the US label (CBS) nixed the idea and released the one-disc Secret Messages instead. This is a very underrated album in that it doesn’t get nearly as much love as most of ELO’s earlier albums, but it is extremely enjoyable and contains quite a few strong tunes such as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King” and the title song. I highly suggest checking out the 2018 reissue that returns the album to its double-disc original idea and gives it an even stronger flow.

Lynne would then spend the next couple of years working as a producer for other musicians and bands, including Dave Edmunds (including his surprise hit “Slipping Away”), the Everly Brothers and ABBA’s Agnetha Fältskog, as well as providing music for another quirky film called Electric Dreams, before reconvening with ELO on 1986’s Balance of Power. Essentially a contractual obligation album for his label, it’s not one of their strongest records and is often overlooked due to its slick sound and lack of popular singles, but it does contain the catchy single “Calling America”, which did get considerable airplay regardless.

ELO, for all intents and purposes, disbanded at the end of 1986 after a minor tour. Lynne jumped full-time into music production…and unexpected major success working with one of his childhood heroes on not one but three projects!

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Coming next Tuesday: post-ELO solo and production work, revisiting old classics, and rebuilding the band – twice!

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