Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Electric Light Orchestra Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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No Answer (1972, United Artists)

C +

A self-titled outing that was accidentally given the name No Answer in the U.S. due to a comical miscommunication (the label employee who had called the band to inquire about the album title had written down “No answer” after he was unable to reach them, and this was misconstrued as the actual title), the first album from ELO is both considerably rawer and much more classical-music-influenced than the band’s later work and the only album they would ever make with Roy Wood, who had been Jeff Lynne’s bandmate in The Move. Unlike the band’s later, lusher discs, the cellos here (played by Wood) are a bit harsher, often sounding more like saws, although it often fits the material well, the songs having a particularly baroque quality to them that makes them sound more like early BeeGees than the ELO you’re familiar with from the radio. But, intriguing though the material is (and this is perhaps the most fascinating of the band’s albums, even it’s far from being the best), it’s also a bit too insular for its own good, lacking much in the way of pop appeal, and it’s not terribly likely that this incarnation of the band, had it stayed together, would have gone on to even a fraction of the success that the band did while wholly under Jeff Lynne’s direction. (Wood didn’t do badly, either; while he remained a cult figure at best in the U.S., Wood would have great success in the U.K. in the ‘70s as both a solo artist and the leader of the glam-rock band Wizzard.) Wood and Lynne split lead vocal and songwriting duties evenly, but the most infectious songs here all belong to Lynne, namely “Mr. Radio” and, even more memorably, the ambitious Beatlesque sweep of “10538 Overture.” 

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Electric Light Orchestra II (1973, United Artists)

B –

Much less baroque-flavored than their debut album but still rawer and more experimental than the band’s best-known material, this is a transitional disc that finds Jeff Lynne – now the sole leader of the band after Roy Wood’s departure – trying to re-establish the band’s identity. With Wood gone, the tension between Lynne’s more pop-minded sensibilities and Wood’s more psychedelic bent has disappeared with it, and this disc is consequently a much more cohesive exercise than No Answer on a stylistic level. Lynne’s sense of pop craft also means that this a slightly more accessible album than No Answer as well, boasting more memorable melodies, especially on cuts like the Beatlesque ballad “Mama” and the epic “From the Sun to the World (Boogie No. 2)”. But, at only five cuts, all of which go well past the six-minute mark and one of which (“Kuiama”) goes on for over eleven minutes, fans of the band’s FM hits might find this a bit too prog-oriented for their own liking, and Lynne’s writing has always fared best in a more concise setting. Still, the band is at least taking a step in the right direction, and the disc spawned a minor classic in the band’s inventive cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” that works in snippets of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

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On the Third Day (1973, United Artists)

B –

The band’s signature sound – though still a bit on the raw side – starts to take shape here, as Lynne has largely abandoned the heavier prog influences of the previous LP and taken to both writing more concise songs and letting more of his Beatles influences seep into the mix, particularly on the excellent “Bluebird Is Dead.” But the band’s still struggling to craft anything that sounds like an obvious hit, and the songs are mostly just mildly infectious at best, though the gritty “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle,” one of the hardest rockers the band would ever make, is quite fun, and the driving synth-laden instrumental “Daybreaker” (the orchestral sections of which sound eerily reminiscent of Robert Knight’s “Everlasting Love,” though few apparently noticed) is appealing enough to have out-charted its A-side (“Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”) and become one of the band’s rare pre-Face the Music singles to chart in the U.S.. (“Roll Over Beethoven” was the band’s only prior song to reach the Hot 100.) [Strangely, “Daybreaker” seldom ever shows up on the band’s best-of packages, whereas “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle” is almost always included. Go figure.]  The U.S. edition of the album sported both a different cover and a slightly different track listing, adding the clavinet-driven single “Showdown” to the mix – a great call, since it’s easily the catchiest song here and would go on to be publicly lauded by no less than John Lennon (no doubt a thrill for Lynne, who was a hardcore Beatles buff and had started ELO as a means of exploring the fusion of rock and classical music that the Fab Four had pioneered in “I Am the Walrus”) and be a minor hit for the band, reaching #53 and going on to be covered by prog-rock supergroup Asia.

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Eldorado (1974, United Artists)

A

The first in a string of classic albums, this concept disc retains the concise songwriting style of its predecessor, but there are two noticeable differences this time around: Lynne is utilizing a full orchestra this time around (rather than just the band’s three-member full-time strings section), resulting in a richer and lusher sound, and, more importantly, Jeff Lynne is writing more tuneful and immediate melodies, and the fittingly-titled “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” would finally give the band its first Top 40 hit and take them all the way into the Top Ten. But although that song is the only bona fide hit here, there are quite a few other cuts here that rank among the band’s best moments, including the infectious “Boy Blue” and the mini-epics “Mister Kingdom” and the title track, while even the slighter cuts have their ear candy to keep things interesting, like the sinister clavinet work on “Laredo Tornado.”

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Face the Music (1975, United Artists/Jet)

A –

Only ever so slightly inferior to its predecessor, the brief Face the Music (there are only eight tracks here) isn’t quite as elaborate or conceptual an album piece as Eldorado, but the songwriting is still largely just as solid, with only the country-tinged “Down Home Town” sticking out in a bad way. “Fire on High” is arguably the best instrumental the band ever made, while “Poker” (sung by new member Kelly Groucutt) is one of the band’s most furious rockers and “Nightrider” one of the band’s best songs to not get released as a single in the U.S. (though it did ultimately re-surface as the B-side to “Do Ya.”) There are also two classic-rock-radio staples to be found here, the hypnotic, hazy slow groove of “Strange Magic” and, better yet, the piano rock of the surprisingly soulful “Evil Woman,” Lynne’s most infectious single yet and the band’s second Top Ten hit.    

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A New World Record (1976, United Artists/Jet)

A +

Arguably the best album they ever made (with the sole possible exception of Eldorado), A New World Record may not be their most ambitious album (there’s no overarching concept like Eldorado, nor is the disc as experimental as the band’s first two records), but it’s their best for one simple reason: it’s Jeff Lynne’s finest batch of songs. Even the non-singles here are packed with hooks, and cuts like the heavily-R&B-tinged “So Fine,” the handclap-heavy “Tight Rope,” the Chuck Berry-like “Rockaria!” and the lovely harmony-drenched ballad “Shangri-La” would all be standout cuts on any prior album. As it is, however, those songs end up being mere window dressing for the biggest batch of hit singles to be released from a single ELO disc yet, and the band would score three Top 40 hits from this record; the Beatlesque ballad “Telephone Line” (the band’s third Top Ten hit and the original U.S. pressings of which were released on green vinyl) is the best-known in the bunch, but there are two even better singles here, the jubilant stomp of “Livin’ Thing” (which arguably makes better use of the band’s longtime string section than any other prior single from the band) and the fiery “Do Ya,” which is actually a cover of a song Jeff Lynne had written for and recorded with the very band that ELO had sprouted out of, the Roy Wood-led psychedelic-pop outfit The Move. [Allegedly, ELO re-recorded the song to fight public misconception that the song originated with the Todd Rundgren-led band Utopia, who had made the song a regular fixture in their live act.] If you’re going to pick up just one of the band’s studio albums from their peak period, this is the one to get.   

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Out of the Blue (1978, Jet/Columbia)

A –

The first and only double album the band would ever make, Out of the Blue – like most double albums – received some criticism for its running time, but while it is true that the highlights could have been condensed to a single disc and the sheer amount of material does occasionally draw attention to how similar the band’s songs can be at times, the sprawl is part of the album’s charm (it is fitting, after all, that a band with as epic a musical mission as ELO’s quest to fuse rock music with classical influences, should have made at least one double-disc during their career), and Lynne is still writing some very quality non-singles to package alongside the hits. So the disc doesn’t seem nearly as overindulgent so much as it does simply a less concise version of A New World Record. There are three well-known singles – none of them Top Ten hits, but all of them classic-rock-radio staples: the frantic synth-driven “Turn to Stone,” the lighthearted orchestral swoosh of the toe-tapping “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and, best of all, the cult classic “Mr. Blue Sky,” which weds Sgt. Pepper’s-era Beatlesque pop to a relentless stomp recalling the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” and has gone on to be used in countless films, most memorably in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. But don’t simply program around the singles, as there are plenty of minor gems scattered inbetween, namely the dramatic “It’s Over,” the driving rock of “Across the Border” (which calls to mind a symphonic reading of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains”), the swaggering “Night in the City,” the seasonal wash of “Summer and Lightning,” the deliriously fun “Birmingham Blues,” and the gorgeous Beatles-meet-Bob-Dylan pop of “Sweet Is the Night,” one of the finest and most infectious non-singles in the band’s entire catalog.