E.L.O. - Biography

By Scott Feemster

The Electric Light Orchesta, started as a diversion from the British rock group The Move, became arguably one of the most successful rock bands in the world during their 1970's heyday. The group was a vehicle for the talent of main songwriter Jeff Lynne, and he has guided them through the years and their various stages. Though knocked by some critics at the time of being too derivative of late period Beatles, ELO's songs have gone on to be used in countless commercials and movie trailers and soundtracks, and it seems their reach and influence have just increased over the years. 


            Roy Wood, leader of the late 60's Birmingham psychedelic rock group The Move, had been throwing around the idea of starting a musical project that would be a rock band that used classical instruments with his friend Jeff Lynne, then the frontman for Birmingham rock group The Idle Race. In early 1970, when Move member Carl Wayne left the band, Wood asked Lynne to join the group, (for the second time), and Lynne accepted on the condition that the two would also work on their orchestral rock concept at the same time. Lynne played on and contributed songs to The Move's last two records, Looking On (Capitol)(1970) and Message From The Country (BGO)(1971), while at the same time recording with Wood and Move drummer Bev Bevan on the side. During, (and before), their experiments with classical rock, both Wood and Lynne became proficient on several orchestral instruments, including cello, oboe, bassoon, clarinet and percussion instruments, enough so that they could overdub themselves playing different parts to give the illusion of having a small chamber orchestra play along with the more rock instruments. A Jeff Lynne-penned song, “10538 Overture”, was originally supposed to be a Move B-side, but after Wood added multiple tracks of cello, it seemed the obvious jumping off point to start their new band. Tapping the help of Move bassist Rick Price, (though none of his tracks he laid down ended up being used), violinist Steve Woolam and horn player Bill Hunt, the core trio of Wood, Lynne and Bevan recorded the tracks of what would become the self-titled debut Electric Light Orchestra (Harvest), released in 1971 in Great Britain and 1972 in the United States. (The album was mistakenly titled No Answer in the United States due to a communication error between the band and their American label.) In the time between sessions for the album and its release date, The Move launched a farewell tour, and the line-up of the new Electric Light Orchestra changed somewhat with the departure of Woolam and the gain of violinist Wilf Gibson, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Richard Tandy and dual cellists Hugh McDowell and Andy Craig. Though it was a definite change from the sound of The Move, Electric Light Orchestra sold well, both in the U.K and the U.S., and the band scored a top ten British hit with “10538 Overture”.


            After making a series of tentative live appearances, tensions about the direction of the band began to simmer between Wood and Lynne, and Wood made the decision to leave ELO during initial recording sessions for a second album, and formed his own band, Wizzard, taking McDowell and Hunt along with him. Lynne, still believing in the initial concept of the band and seeing a chance to have a vehicle for his songwriting, took over control of the group. Soon Craig, Woolam and Price were out of the band, and bassist Michael D' Albuquerque, violinist Wilfred Gibson and cellists Mike Edwards and Colin Walker were in. After debuting the new band at the Reading Festival in 1972, Lynne and company got to work recording their next album ELO II (Harvest/United Artists), released in 1973. With the new band, Lynne was fully in control, and the album had a much more unified feel than the first album did. Most of the songs were longer in length and leaned towards the progressive rock that was so prevalent at the time. The group had a hit with their Beethoven-meets-Chuck Berry cover of Berry's chestnut “Roll Over Beethoven”, which seemed to sum up the spirit and the intention of the new version of the band in one shot. The band toured, but moved quickly on to record their next record, On The Third Day (Warner Bros./United Artists), released at the end of 1973. During the recording of the album, Gibson and Walker left the band, and were replaced by violinist Mik Kaminski and returning member cellist Hugh McDowell. The album was a continuation of the progressive-leaning sound of ELO II, featuring extensive use of the Moog synthesizer. The group had a minor hit in the U.S. with the song “Showdown”, but the album failed to generate much interest in the U.K., even with the (uncredited) presence of T. Rex's Marc Bolan on dueling lead guitar on the single “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”. A live document of how the band sounded during one of it's many American tours was released in 1974 titled The Night The Lights Went On (In Long Beach)(United Artists).


            It seemed Jeff Lynne was reaching towards a fuller orchestral sound with each subsequent ELO release, and for the band's next release Lynne came up with not only a bigger sound, but also a concept. Eldorado, A Symphony by The Electric Light Orchestra (Warner Bros./United Artists) was released in 1974 and all of the songs revolved around the concept of a central Walter Mitty-type character who daydreams himself into fantasy worlds to escape his humdrum existence. The album marked the first time the band had used a full orchestra in the recording studio, and was the beginning of the group's involvement with arranger/conductor Louis Clark, who would later become a full member of the band. Before recording of the album, bassist de Albuquerque quit, and though credited on the album, all of the bass parts on the record were actually played by Lynne. By the time the band were ready to tour in support of the album, cellist Edwards had also quit, so the band hired bassist Kelly Groucutt and cellist Melvyn Gale to round out the band. This line-up of Lynne, Bevan, Tandy, Groucutt, Kaminski, Gale and McDowell would become the band's most stable unit and are often referred to as the “classic” line-up. ELO scored their first top ten American hit with a song from the album, “Can't Get It Out Of My Head” and Eldorado went on to be ELO's first album to be certified gold. Though the group had waned in it's popularity in it's native U.K., ELO built upon their success in the U.S. by embarking on extensive tours across the country, building up a reputation as “the English guys with the big fiddles”, referring to Gale and McDowell's electrified cellos that they played standing up on stage.


            With the line-up of the band stabilized for the first time in their career, Lynne and company continued on with the sound started on Eldorado and released their follow-up, Face The Music (United Artists/Jet) in 1975. The band scored a worldwide smash with the first single from the album, “Evil Woman”, and went on to have a successful second single with the song “Strange Magic” in the United States. An instrumental off of the album, “Fire On High”, was also used extensively at the time as theme music for CBS Sports. Seeing that they had a better chance of capitalizing on their success in the U.S. than they did in their native Great Britain, the band embarked on an ambitious but grueling American tour that saw the group play 68 shows in 76 days. The tour cemented their hit status in the U.S. and set the stage for their next album. ELO finally scored a hit single in the U.K. with “Livin' Thing”, their first single from the album A New World Record (Jet/United Artists)(1976). The album was also a huge success in the U.S. and the rest of the world, eventually reaching multi-platinum status. The group had a total of four hit singles off of the album, which included, in addition to “Livin' Thing”, “Telephone Line”, “Rockaria!” and “Do Ya”, a rerecording of a song Lynne had actually written for The Move years before. The album also marked the first time the group used their famous jukebox-looking logo, designed by Kosh. It seemed the band now kept leap-frogging from one big success to another, and their next album would prove to be the pinnacle of their career. After touring to support A New World Record, Lynne retired to a Swiss chalet for a month and, in a burst of creativity, came back with enough new material to produce a double album. It took the band two months of recording in Munich, Germany with their trusted engineer Mack to produce Out Of The Blue (Jet/United Artists)(1977), a sprawling opus that went platinum around the world immediately upon release. The album produced a jaw-dropping five singles, four of which went to the top ten around the world. These included “Sweet Talkin' Woman”, “Wild West Hero”, “Turn To Stone”, “Mr. Blue Sky”, and “Birmingham Blues”. On the heels of the album's success, the band launched their biggest and most successful tour ever, constructing a spaceship that resembled the space station that appeared on the cover of Out Of The Blue that the band played inside of while a multitude of lazer effects and smoke machines went on around them. The tour lasted nine months and went around the world, breaking attendance records almost every where they went. At the end of the tour, the band headlined London's Wembley Arena for a sold-out 8 nights, becoming the first band to ever reach such a goal. Truly, between the years 1977 and 1979, it would not be an exaggeration to say that ELO was one of the most popular groups in the world.


            The group wouldn't release another album until 1979's Discovery (Jet/Columbia), and announced that instead of touring in support of the album, they would create music videos for each song to be distributed to various media outlets. The album marked other changes in the band, as the string section of Kaminski, Gale and McDowell weren't used for the recording of the album, but were featured in the later music videos. Soon after the completion of the videos, it was announced that the three string players weren't needed in the band any more and were dismissed, (though Kaminski did return to play with the band for the later Time tour and as a guest on the album Secret Messages). Paired down to the foursome of Lynne, Bevan, Tandy and Groucutt, the stripped down version of ELO cranked out an album that was wildly successful, and included the hits “Shine A Little Love”, “Don't Bring Me Down”, “The Diary of Horace Wimp”, “Last Train To London”, and “Confusion”, but earned grumbles from some long-time fans who complained of the decidedly disco influence on some of the songs. At the end of the decade, ELO stood as one of the most popular and top-selling bands ever, and released their ELO's Greatest Hits (Jet)(1979) collection to bring new fans to some of their older material. Soon after Discovery, Lynne and his bandmates were asked to contribute to the soundtrack to the movie musical Xanadu (1980) starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. Though the movie was widely panned,(though it did survive in later years as a cult favorite and eventually became a Broadway musical), the soundtrack album sold extremely well, eventually going double-platinum. ELO contributed several tracks, and had hits with the songs “I'm Alive”, “All Over The World” and “Don't Walk Away”.


            Without having a string section, the new four-piece ELO's next album was a return to the band's earlier progressive-rock influenced sound that leaned heavily on the use of synthesizers and keyboards. Time (Jet)(1981), was a concept album in the style of the band's earlier Eldorado, though it did better commercially than most concept albums and included the hits “Hold On Tight”, “Twilight”, “Ticket To The Moon” and “The Way Life's Meant To Be”. The band embarked on a (comparatively) scaled-down tour for a full year to support the album, with the core of Lynne, Bevan, Tandy and Groucutt being augmented by violinist Kaminski and Louis Clark and newcomer Dave Morgan on keyboards. Originally Lynne had plans to break up the band after the tour, but soon came up with plans to record another double album. CBS, the band's label, balked at the idea, and whittled the session down to the single record release Secret Messages (Jet)(1983). Right after the sessions, Groucutt quit the band, and, at news that the band would not tour in support of the album, drummer Bevan joined Birmingham compatriots Black Sabbath. The album didn't sell well and it seemed the end had finally come for ELO,but Lynne was contractually obligated to deliver one more ELO album for CBS.  Borrowing Bevan back again, the three-piece of Lynne, Tandy and Bevan recorded Balance Of Power (Jet/CBS) in 1985, releasing it in 1986. The sound of the album was similar to its predecessor in that string parts that used to be played by ELO's string section and orchestra were played by Tandy on the synthesizer. Though the band scored a top 30 single with the song “Calling America” in the U.K., subsequent singles failed to chart. The group toured briefly to support the album, utilizing the same 7-piece line-up that toured for the Time tour, (replacing Kelly Groucutt with bassist Martin Smith), and played their last gig in Stuttgart, Germany in July of 1986. ELO stopped functioning as a group after 1986, but an official announcement wasn't made until 1988, after Bevan approached Lynne about making another album and Lynne flatly rejected the idea.


            Lynne spent the better part of the 80's and 90's working in collaboration with other artists, most notably the Traveling Wilburys project with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty that produced two albums, and as a much-in-demand producer for albums by Petty, Harrison, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, Tom Jones and the reformed three-quarters of The Beatles, helping them to finish two unfinished John Lennon tracks, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love”, for inclusion in their Anthology series. Bevan, (with an agreement from Lynne who co-owned the ELO name), continued on with Louis Clark and new members vocalist Neil Lockwood, keyboardist Eric Troyer and bassist Pete Haycock to form Electric Light Orchestra Part Two, and released a self-titled debut album in 1991 on the Scotti Brothers label. Bevan recruited former ELO members Kaminski, Groucutt and McDowell to tour in support of the album, and kept the same line-up, minus McDowell, to record a follow-up, Moment Of Truth (Curb) in 1994. ELO Part Two continued to tour until 1999, when Bevan decided to retire and sold his share of the ELO name back to Lynne. The remaining members of ELO Part Two continued on as The Orchestra and continue to tour to the present day. After working on the retrospective box set Flashback (Epic/Legacy) in 2000, Lynne decided to resurrect the ELO name and released the album Zoom (Epic) in 2001, though in truth the album was basically a Lynne solo effort with Tandy guesting on one track and featuring guest appearances from former Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Lynne put together a new version of ELO with Tandy and all new members and taped a couple of performances for PBS and VH1 as a prelude to a planned tour, but the new album failed to sell well and the tour was canceled after disappointing ticket sales. Lynne has not used the ELO name since then. Since 2001, both Epic/Legacy and Harvest Records have released remastered and expanded versions of most of the band's back catalog, keeping the band's music and legacy alive into the 21st century.

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