Tuesday , December 5 2023
Nobody quite mixed the ambitious reach of seventies symphonic rock, with the ear for a great pop hook the way Jeff Lynne's ELO did.

Music Review: Electric Light Orchestra – On The Third Day, Face The Music, A New World Record (Remastered Versions)

I have to be honest here and say that I'd completely forgotten just how great these albums actually are. It was easy to do. So much has happened in music since the late seventies to early eighties heyday of Electric Light Orchestra (or ELO as they are affectionately known by fans).

Between MTV, Punk Rock, Hip Hop, and everything else that has come and gone since they married symphonic rock with impossible to deny pop sensibilities, ELO has, at times, seemed to have been reduced to some sort of punchline in the greater scheme of rock history. They appeared so many times on Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special, for example, that in some quarters they will always be remembered as the guys Wolfman Jack barked out to with the initials "ELO" — somewhere in between "BTO" and "ELP."

Which is really too bad.

Because Jeff Lynne and ELO wrote some really damn great songs. Lynne himself has long since gone on to considerable renown as a producer of the highest order, manning the boards for everyone from George Harrison to Bob Dylan to Tom Petty (his most significant work as a producer).

Anyway, Sony has simply done a bang-up job on the remastering of ELO's catalog. In this latest installment of that effort, the best of those years are represented here in these three discs. All of which came out before ELO began to decline in later years with albums like Discovery (which my friends in the seventies used to jokingly refer to as "Disco, Very").

If you were to do a Google search on ELO today, what you would likely come across is the fact they did rather extravagant tours in the seventies and eighties, complete with orchestras, lasers, and even a landing UFO at one point. Which is all true. But it still completely misses the point. Jeff Lynne had an ear for the pop hook that was virtually unmatched at the time, which is probably why everyone from Dylan to Petty would later beat a path to his door to produce their records.

These three records (along with 1974's criminally underated Eldorado), represent the peak of Lynne's powers both as a songwriter and as a master pop craftsman. ELO essentially started as a symphonic experimental offshoot of the Move, the band Lynne founded with another forgotten genius, Roy Wood. The idea here was to wed rock and roll with bigger, orchestral arrangements.

Which up until the records so beautifully restored here had met with only moderate commercial success, most notably in the form of ELO's melding of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," with the classical composer's own Fifth Symphony.

By the time of Face the Music, ELO had carved itself out a commercial and critical niche by taking the musical reach of the progressive bands of the day — think Genesis and especially The Moody Blues here — and binding them to a string of brilliantly constructed three to four minute pop songs.

And damned if there weren't a ton of them.

From Face the Music alone there's "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic" for starters. Less heralded (and certainly less played on classic rock radio these days), but equally strong, are forgotten chestnuts like "Nightrider," "Poker," and the beautifully haunting "One Summer Dream," which closes the album.

And let's not forget the magnificent "Fire On High" which opens this album. There is nary a pop hook to be found here. But the spoken "madness… madness," which swirls around the menacing-sounding strings, sticks in your head every bit as much as anything else found on this album. Among the bonuses found on the newly remastered version here are earlier versions of that song, as well as "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic."

By the time of A New World Record, ELO were bonafide worldwide superstars, and the hits just kept on coming. "Telephone Line," "Do Ya," and especially "Living Thing" are the big ones here. The remastered disc puts a damn fine accent on the way the strings swirl around "Living Thing," for example, which is just a great pop tune to begin with.

A New World Record is far from being my favorite ELO record (I'm much more partial to Eldorado and Face the Music), but it arguably does represent the band's commercial peak. The extras here include two alternate versions of "Telephone Line" and a really great little guitar driven pop tune called "Surrender" that wouldn't sound at all out of place done by somebody like The Raspberries.

Of these three reissues, On The Third Day is probably the hardest nut to crack. Lynne had yet to fully embrace the latent pop nerd lying deeply within, and as a result the more ambitious fare found here doesn't always reach the mark it aims for. There's more meandering orchestral passages here than found on the band's later albums. Still, Lynne's later and fully to-be-realized pop sensibilities are very much in evidence on tracks like the very Beatlesque — Lennon-style — "Oh No Not Susan," and the hit single "Showdown," (where the remixed guitar here is crisper than ever).

I will say this much about On The Third Day. Of the three albums here, it rocks the most and the guitars are largely mixed front and center on this remastered version.

And once again, as with the other titles in the series, Sony has done an ace job of remastering. For audio freaks, the sound on these tracks probably represents the best of the three. Extras here include alternate takes of "Ma Ma Belle," when it was still known as "Auntie."

So for my money, all three of these wonderful reissues warrant consideration for either the hardcore ELO fan or someone looking to discover the band for the very first time

For the more selective among you, I'd head straight for Face the Music, and if you don't already have it, Eldorado.

About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.

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