Monday, October 08, 2012

Don't Bring Me Down

Jeff Lynne is a genius. That particular fact is not up for discussion here at Garuda towers. But recent rumours of his resurrection have been greatly exaggerated.

Some context: As a man who was born in 1960 I can safely say that until the age of c. 16/17 I was definitely not a fan of ELO, Jeff or any of his other projects. Well, I didn't think I was. In the way that many of us come to music that we now love as much as a close friend or dear lover, my love for Jeff's Beatlesque schtick was already burgeoning but unexpressed. As an early teen I did find something alluring about that descending riff in 10538 Overture. Something very English and redolent of overcast summer days spent in the back of your dad's car. I had the same feelings about records like Something In The Air by Thunderclap Newman. I couldn't quite explain it to myself, but these were records that whispered to me. But of course later I realised that earlier singles by The Move such as Tonight and California Man contained nascent elements of Lynne's production techniques. I was responding subconsciously to something special. In fact, years later I finally bought Message From The Country - the band's last album when the line-up had been reduced to Lynne, Roy Wood and drummer Bev Bevan - and found it to be a treasure horde of gutsy proto-ELO. Perfect pop rock. 

But until about 1977 I'd been aware of Jeff's boys steadily notching up hits and outstripping original band member Roy Wood in terms of ambition, from Roll Over Beethoven, via Ma Ma Belle (great opening riff) to increasingly lush material like Showdown and the John Lennon-aping Can't Get It Out of My Head. This was a time of REAL bands. ELO were primarily a 45rpm act, superb for radio but not matching all the serious bands that could cut it across two sides of album vinyl. What's more, the 'orchestra' bit of the band's image (in reality Mik Kaminsky on violin - later to become Violinski with the dreadful Clog Dance - and Melvyn Gale and Hugh McDowell on cellos) was a gimmick. Lots of post-Beatles acts were hip to the use of strings to beef up numbers, but to make them a part of the line up seemed gauche and, as Punk approached, more and more self-indulgent. 

But an accident changed all of that. Somehow, following a party (in those days we all vied to get our latest purchases played) I ended up taking home someone else's copy of ELO's latest album, A New World Record. I think that secretly I was quite pleased by this twist of fate, as I'd already had my antennae twisted by two singles already taken from the album: Telephone Line and Rockaria! (note: the exclamation mark).The latter was a truly bizarre mash up of Chuck Berry and Puccini, both lyrically and musically; the former had some nifty pink noise at the start, courtesy of keyboard player Richard Tandy.

Gradually, and secretly, I began to love A New World Record. To this day it remains my favourite ELO album. For starters EVERY track sounded like a hit. To this day I can't quite believe that So Fine wasn't released. To this day I have no idea whose copy I nicked.

But that was it. By the time of the massive behemoth smash double album Out Of The Blue was released, containing what people now regard as Jeff's zenith in terms of songwriting, Mr Blue Sky, I'd become too cool for school. The beards, the shades, the giant spaceships on stage; rumours of miming live: all this marked ELO as sell-outs and irredeemably naff. How shallow is youth?

20 years later, and I began to realise that I was buying their back catalogue compulsively. Always felt better when I heard those stacked harmonies, boxy Bevan drums and cheesy strings and varispeeded Lynne backing vocals. Jeff now belonged in my record collection in the section marked 'perfect pop' that also contained everyone from Todd Rundgren to XTC.  In your late 30s irony becomes a luxury, not a lifestyle choice. Suddenly you begin to nail into place the things that really are dear to you. Jeff Lynne, I repeat, is a genius.

Ah, but what of his later ELO work? All that disco suck-up tripe? Dalliances with Olivia Newton John? The Travelling Wilburys? The fact that Terry Wogan used to play him at the drop of a hat?? His production work for Dave Edmunds? etc… Well, yes, but I'd contend that between 1972 and 1978 he'd amassed a body of work that remains unassailable by critical distance or changing tastes. A down-to-earth Brummie: shy, self-effacing and gifted with a natural ear for shiny baroque pop, albeit based on the template of I Am The Warus.

The BBC's screening of Mr Blue Sky on BBC Four last week seemed destined to nail his reputation firmly in the pantheon of greatness, at long last. But… but… something was amiss.

Firstly, in the way that what remains of the 'industry' works, this documentary was really an advert masquerading as a biography. Within five minutes it became apparent that no one except Richard Tandy would be interviewed from the ELO/Move days. Disappointing, but at least Lynne himself seemed remarkably untouched by fortune and fame. A man, we were constantly reminded, who just loved to make music. But a blast of a Mr Blue Sky that was somehow different, followed by shots of Jeff making a note-for-note recreation of Do Ya (recorded TWICE before with The Move and ELO) and the penny dropped. Ah, Jeff's releasing two new albums. One of old radio hits that influenced him as a youngster (Long Wave), and the other of his old band's greatest hits, but recorded completely tout seule. Hmmm…

To be fair, the documentary's shots of Jeff singing the old hits were incredible, if only because his voice (as Paul McCartney points out correctly) - a remarkable thing of agility and not a little soul - has not aged one JOT. High notes were all in place, thus proving that a fairly abstemious life can allow ageing rockers to still cut the mustard. Maybe, just maybe this wasn't some venal attempt at recouping royalties possibly gone astray over the years? And when he rolled out his version of She it kinda made sense. I always loved that song, and it lend itself nicely to Lynne's lush backdrops and syrup-sweet harmonising. Maybe Jeff really is back?

Which brings me onto the point of this post. Both Long Wave and Mr Blue Sky (oh, the album's got the same title as the programme? What a coincidence etc) came out today. And if I were 13 the news would be 'meh'.

As the BBC's show proved, Jeff's STILL got it. His guitar skills seemed sharp, the aforementioned voice was on top form, one can only assume that, like a welder's impression of Prince, he can pretty much do it all, but with slightly less funk. And he does, on both albums. But, weirdly for a man whose real stock in trade was the recorded output, these are strangely sterile, clunky and, even more amazing for a man who lived in widescreen sound, they sound like what they are - home recordings, made with pro-tools.

On Long Wave you can't fault Jeff's choice of covers. With songs picked from  musicals, ballads and early pop hits that moulded his own craft, especially Roy Orbison's Running Scared (a particularly brave choice) and the Everly's So Sad, Lynne sounds affectionate and like he's lived inside these tunes for many years. Yet the sound is somehow lacking: too digital, too perfect.

Worse things are at work on Mr Blue Sky. After listening to a collection of songs recorded as facsimiles of the original hits you're left wondering why? Lynne's explanation is that years on the technology has caught up to the point where he can record them to sound just as he intended in the first place. What? Just as they were, but slightly more bloodless and bereft of any other musician's input? It doesn't add up. Bev Bevan was never a great drummer, but on those early ELO hits he was just right for the job. And if those hits sound less than perfect it speaks more of the vaulting ambition of Lynne in the 70s. His desire to cram the whole nine yards onto tape in pursuance of some ur-Beatles text was both slightly ridiculous and supremely admirable. Given a decent laptop and some expensive mics it must now amount to making a cup of tea in terms of effort for Lynne. Which begs the question: why do it at all? More cynical minds than mine may conclude that somewhere along the line there's a bill to pay, and that legal wrangling over a BAND's legacy has left Jeff to rewrite history.
What's more, let's dwell on his choice of 'hits'. To be sure the inclusion of solid gold material such as Can't Get It Out of My Head or Strange Magic seem shoe-ins. But Mr Blue Sky misses so many opportunities to shine a little light (ha) on Jeff's writing and arranging skills. Of course it may be down to personal taste, but for starters what 'Greatest Hits' misses out Sweet Talking Woman, his (and their) greatest four minutes of all time? Especially when you note the inclusion of clodhopping numbers such as Don't Bring Me Down or Turn To Stone

Why not include some of those great early album tracks that may have slipped through the cracks? Poor Boy? Nightrider? It's Over? One Summer Dream? Laredo Tornado? Above the Clouds? And what of the later, lesser hits - surely this could have been a great opportunity to make them as fine as earlier glories or remove the fromage of disco that often blighted them? Where's Wild West Hero? Ticket To The Moon? Confusion
But really, why couldn't an acknowledged master of the studio as well as pop craftsman either really go to town with new arrangements, or even write some new songs? Lynne certainly doesn't have the excuse that age and comfort have dented his abilities. For perfect pop all you need is love. The love of a great chord change and a swoonsome harmony.

So it's a decidedly muted hurrah for the return of Birmingham's greatest pop star.

This post is dedicated to Kelly Groucutt, bass player: 8 September 1945 – 19 February 2009


Garry Jones said...

Intresting article, i do not gree with your views, i own both the new Jeff Lynne CDs and love his new arangements of the songs, but i can see your point. Sadly, it does seem,apart from Richard Tandy, Jeff does not speak to any other Ex-ELO members these days,and i do not believe he was happy about Bev Bevans ELO Part Two group or their current incarnation minus Bev,The Orchestra, who are still touring(and rather good i will say!)

The Best news is that Jeff Lynne confirmed many times over recent interviews that he is indeed currently working on a new solo album of brand new tracks,8 completed so far, which should be released next year.

Chris Jones said...

Many thanks Garry, and yes that is good news! I really don't consider myself any kind of expert on Jeff and am well aware that there are people who'll just be thrilled to see him back again. I've never even heard Jeff's first solo album (which I'm told is excellent) - but I do consider ELO's classic period to be amazing.
I think I was mostly disappointed by both the lack of any comments from old bandmates as well as the fact that on screen those reworkings of his old material sounded amazing. But to my jaded ears the CDs just sound a little flat and lifeless. Ah well...
Thanks for reading!