Yes, we are serious.
As evidenced on the recent Live –
The Early Years (Eagle Records), this
band could kick out some serious jams, so take THAT, punk purists. Watch the
video clips, below, for further evidence. All respect to Mike Edwards (R.I.P.),
By Mary Leary
It’s hard to believe the gawky cat with the halo of unruly curls sold more
than 50 million albums with this outfit alone. Or that George Harrison, Brian
Wilson, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty have been among the bright lights eager to
collaborate with or be produced by him. The other players are mostly skinny,
geeky-looking guys with cellos or violins. The motley crew lays into “King of
the Universe” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” with the stagy ferocity usually
associated with Roxy Music or David Bowie. Then the weird-looking cat with the
halo of unruly curls opens his mouth, and that sound – the one that’s made so
many women say “Yes” to improbable propositions; that keeps fingers from nixing
classic album format stations that were getting boring until that ELO song came
on – pierces the air.
Jeff Lynne’s odd, Pop/Classical/Rock/Theatrics mash could have been jettisoned
by his restless imagination. Instead, watching his career has been a bit like
holding one’s breath as a tightrope walker tiptoes over the wire at the center
of the ring. Ever since collaborating on the Move albums that were sought by
collectors back in the day before everything went viral or digital, most
everything has worked out. From the beginning, ELO performances packed a
combination of splendid musicianship with ringmaster tricks that drew widening
crowds. It didn’t hurt that Lynne grabbed some of the vibe given off by The
Beatles at their most stately, circa Magical
Mystery Tour or Sergeant Pepper’s.
If that’s all a bit much to take in, here’s what happened when the band tackled
“Great Balls of Fire” at Brunel
University in 1973.
Lynne’s clarion shout of “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain” calls
the troops to arms. The others kick in, with the rhythm section (Mike de
Albuquerque/bass and Bev Bevan/drums) throwing a heavy bottom onto a backbeat
that never falters. Richard Tandy nails Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano part. Lynne
tosses off some perfectly unobtrusive lead bits. Trailing a long black cape (Why? Why not?), Mik Kaminski answers
these with light-speed violin bowing. Then the camera cuts to 21-year-old Hugh
McDowell, who can’t seem to decide between playing his electric cello in a
stand-up or suspended position – when in the latter, he’s slicing furiously at
it in a Guinness World Record, Chuck Berry imitative way. Lynne glances over at a widely-grinning
Kaminski before diving into the last verse with an expression that says he
might be on the verge of cracking up. Instead, he meets the band’s rising fire.
ELO’s highly irregular take ends up meeting or exceeding Lewis at his most
frenetic while mixing in some richness and more nuanced musicality. It’s like
one of those dreaded awards show super-jams with too much talent crowding the
stage – except here, it (just) works.
For anyone who thinks that sounds good, Live
– The Early Years captures a good helping of ELO’s sonic hijinx, although
the domestic edition omits fan favorites “Roll Over, Beethoven” and “Daytripper,”
along with personal guilty pleasures like “Telephone Line.” Some songs appear
more than once. There’s footage of four songs from Brunel
U., six from a wild ’74 Rockpalast (German TV) appearance, and
12 from a ’76 Fusion Tour stop at The New Victoria Theatre in London. For anyone who only knows the band
from radio or soundtrack bites, the DVD shows that, rather than being
embellished by studio orchestras and tracks, ELO was making all this sound itself. It’s a pretty complex stew, held
together by group proficiency and Lynne’s talent for infusing dramatic starts
The ’76 show best showcases his merging of delectable Pop with sometimes
dense, sometimes near-dissonant Rock and Classical elements. Favorites include “Showdown”
(in both the Rockpalast and Fusion segments)
and “Poker” (from Fusion, it would be classic Power Pop if it didn’t have a
couple too many changes and instrumental elements for the genre). Other Fusion
standouts include “Nightrider,” “Evil Woman” (ELO at its guilty-pleasure
cheesiest), and one of the most moodily hypnotic Pop songs I know, “Strange
Magic.” Only The Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue” and some Bob
Welch-era Fleetwood Mac rival its compelling spookiness. Well, there are others,
like Heart’s “Crazy on You,” especially as realized via The Virgin Suicides… but this is getting too weird…
These guys always looked like they were having a good time – nice work if you could do it, eh?
There’s a perfectly theatrical (as in slapstick), tragic-comic postscript:
Mike Edwards, ELO’s other wild cellist (from ’72-75; known for playing the
strings with citrus fruit and for the “Dying Swan” solo that culminated in his
cello “exploding”), died on September 3, after a huge bale of hay hit his van,
causing a collision on a highway in Devan, England. No, it’s not really funny.
I just have a feeling that if there’s another life (Edwards quit the band in
’75 to dedicate himself to Buddhism), the guy may be having a chuckle at giving
others one with his last performance.