Monday, June 9, 2014

In Defense Of: A New World Record, ELO

This In Defense Of was contributed by Brian LaRue, a Brooklyn-based writer and musician whose spelling and definition of "Lynnesanity" stands in stark contrast to that of his NYC neighbors.

One summer day some years back, a friend of mine came by my apartment while I was casually blasting the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1976 LP A New World Record on my stereo. I opened the front door to him chuckling loudly. “Oh, hey,” he said. “How’s your ironic appreciation of ELO going?”

“Look, man,” I spat back. “There’s nothing ironic about my appreciation of this record. It’s seen me through some shit.” He laughed again. “I’m serious!” I insisted.

I’ve been down this road before. When you cite A New World Record as an album that was there for you when it seemed like hardly anything or anyone else was — one that continues to resonate with you emotionally — you’re going to see some raised eyebrows.

I get it, though. The Electric Light Orchestra isn’t cool. There is nothing cool about Jeff Lynne, the talented singer, guitarist, main songwriter, arranger, and producer behind ELO. Jeff Lynne is rock’n’roll’s embarrassing uncle: a bearded, shades-wearing schlub who never was handsome, never really looked young, may have never written a legitimately good lyric, and doesn’t handle musical subtlety very well. When I point to the cover of A New World Record and say, “The great thing about this album is, I feel like on it, Jeff Lynne understands my pain,” I don’t expect to be taken seriously. I’m serious though.

Little background. ELO’s roots lie in the earlier psych-rock-turned-art-pop band The Move, around the dawn of the ’70s. The Move were cool, because they were an excellent English rock band that never became successful in the U.S. At the time, Lynne had just been inducted into The Move, and he and Move guitarist Roy Wood hatched an idea to start a new band that would “pick up” where The Beatles “left off” after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a sentiment that probably sounded incredibly pompous in 1970 and certainly sounds incredibly eye-rolling today.

Now, Roy Wood was cool. He was regarded as something of a mercurial genius, and he didn’t stick around with any one band long enough to become a full-on rock star, thus cementing his permanent “cult” (cool) status. Even after breaking up The Move to focus on his new band with Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra, Wood was restless and left to form Wizzard after ELO’s first album. This left Lynne at the helm of ELO, and it was Lynne’s ELO that achieved worldwide fame and eternal dorkiness.

ELO’s legacy lies upon a string of records that are both supremely well-crafted and singularly cheesy. Their biggest hits tended to be overwrought, dumb ballads (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Strange Magic”); blustery, dumb rockers (“Do Ya,” “Don’t Bring Me Down”); or bouncy, overstuffed, very white toe-tappers (“Evil Woman,” “Turn to Stone,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”). These are all great bar jukebox songs, and they fit in so well with a few archetypally ’70s musical tropes that a casual listener to classic rock or oldies radio might not even realize they came from the same band. Fun, yes — but probably nothing a cool person would be inclined to put on after coming home from the bar and staring out into the night, totally alone and unfulfilled.

Seriously, though, I’m gonna get there. Give me a minute.

In 2006, I was living in New Haven, CT, and writing for the local alt-weekly newspaper, the New Haven Advocate, where my role was basically that of “20-something indie rock guy in residence.” Young, moody, and over-eager, I was settling into the gig just enough to feel comfortable raising my opinionated voice. That’s when the first review copies of the remastered versions of the Electric Light Orchestra’s catalogue landed in the office. I’d picked up the mail on whatever day the first discs hit, and I scoffed loudly upon opening the package. “Electric Light Orchestra? Come awwwnnnn.”

My editor, Chris Arnott, an arts polymath — and also, like me, a great lover of punk rock, garage rock, and powerpop — glanced up from his desk. “Oh,” he said. “Well, let me ask you. What do know about ELO?”

“Not much,” I said. “Weren’t they just one of those pretentious prog-rock bands that funded their albums with tossed-off pop singles?”

Chris smiled mysteriously and nodded, but not in a way that suggested he agreed with me. “I think…” he said, “I think you’re in for a surprise.”

I was curious. As a teenager in the late ’70s, Chris had fallen in with the first wave of punks in Boston. As a college student in the early ’00s, I had read Chris’ work in the Advocate almost religiously, taken as I was by both his intellect and his affinity for frayed, skewed pop. Later on, while working with him, he turned me on to a wealth of brilliant, too-weird-to-be-popular rock’n’roll. I’d thought ELO was one of those tired old stadium bands the original punks were railing against. So if they were good enough for Chris…well, they were worth my attention.

As the reissues trickled in over the next few months, we fell into a ritual in the newsroom. Each time a new CD arrived, Chris would load it into his computer on Thursday, our big deadline day when we all stayed at the office late, and play it back to the office on repeat until we were done. I realized, through this crash course in the first five albums, I was kind of wrong about ELO. The thing about those records is, they’re fun. Sure, they’re ridiculous — this was a band that included two full-time cellists and that covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” with equal aplomb — but they’re fun, playful and winking and packed with melody after melody. 1971's The Electric Light Orchestra is a weird little art-rock record with a homemade, at times rickety feel, anchored by the magnificent “10538 Overture”. ELO II and On the Third Day (both 1973) push the formula a little farther, with extended song-suites brushing up against blown-out rock’n’roll rave-ups. Eldorado (1974) and Face the Music (1975) turned more overtly pop. I didn’t love any of those records, but I respected them.

Through the spring and summer of 2006, an interesting thing happened: my life kind of started falling apart, or at least it seemed that way. In the newsroom, we went from having seven full-time editorial staffers to three, plus one very dedicated freelancer. None were layoffs — it’s just that the turnover is high at alt-weeklies, and four people decided in rapid succession to move on to something else. Management was in no position to replace anyone immediately, because we were in the process of assembling the “Annual Manual,” the biggest issue of any calendar year for us, a comprehensive guide to music venues, art galleries, restaurants, bars, independent retailers, community resources, and recreational opportunities up and down the Connecticut shoreline. Suddenly, those of us who were left were working 60 or 70 hours per week to pick up the slack. I rarely saw daylight, aside from my walk to work in the morning. At night, I was habitually dulling the edge by dousing it in gallons of cheap bourbon, which certainly didn’t help make my rare days off any more pleasant or productive.

Meanwhile, my personal life was in absolute turmoil. I’d been sharing an apartment with my best friend, who was also the bass player in my band. For reasons I’ll perhaps never know — we never had a falling out, nor even a simple disagreement about anything — he stopped speaking to me or coming to band practices in April, and in May, a week before the lease was up, I came home to find all of his possessions gone.

I broke up with my then-girlfriend in June, after months of trying to do so and her musing on suicide every time I brought up the subject. I split up with her, painfully and with much self-loathing, only after realizing that if she did something terrible to herself, it would be her decision, and the catalyst was almost certainly something much deeper than the time she and I had spent together.

In July, I had the second great breakdown of my adult life. Overworked, reeling from the unexplained loss of my best friend, drinking heavily and no longer pouring my energy into solving my girlfriend’s problems, I entered a deep depression that peaked, comically enough, on a morning when, while walking to work, I stood at a crosswalk through four cycles of the “walk” signal because the mere question of crossing or not crossing the street seemed totally meaningless.

Much like Jeff Lynne in A New World Record’s emotional centerpiece, “Telephone Line”, I was living in twilight.

And that’s when A New World Record hit the office. It was another Thursday, another weekday when I was exhausted, heartbroken, depressed, hung over, and feeling distinctly cut off from all of my surroundings. “Tightrope” started playing, with its ominous, creeping opening bass line and portentous chord changes, the strings sawing away suspensefully. "Dang, I hope this is the next ELO reissue," I thought. Then the violins broke into a dissonant whine, out of which the whole band came roaring in at a new, rollicking tempo, Jeff Lynne’s treated guitar braying jubilantly over it. "Oh, duh, this is the next ELO reissue," I thought.

You can understand a lot about A New World Record from just its first minute. This is a highly bipolar album. And for me — a person with bipolar personality disorder caught at a particularly intense time — I really felt that. Granted, one of the hallmarks of bipolarity is the habit of seeing profundity in even the most mundane places; you’re just ripe for profundity, man. A New World Record takes the bipolar person’s swoop from utter collapse to unreasonable confidence and runs with it for 35 minutes.

One of the main reasons A New World Record continues to work so well, I think, is Lynne’s vocal performance. While his giddy turns on later hits “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” might get more airplay, on A New World Record’s ballads, Lynne sounds wounded, his quavering voice set against technically flawless, almost robotic backing vocal harmonies. In “Telephone Line,” the backing vocals reference “blue days, black nights” amidst doo-wah doo-langs, while Lynne practically sobs his way through, leading up to a tremendous third verse where he swoops from a fragile falsetto to a full-on holler. (It doesn’t even matter that it’s probably impossible to not burst out laughing when, in a song about his love interest not picking up the phone, he sings, “Okayy… so no one’s annnswering…”) Lynne murmurs his way through “Mission,” a song that might have something to do with space travel, sounding absolutely gutted. (A police siren cuts through the first verse for reasons that are unclear. It’s a dramatically lonely sound, for reasons that are also unclear.)

The rockers on A New World Record are as delightfully ham-fisted as anything ELO ever recorded. Take “Rockaria”. This is one of those big, dumb rockers Jeff Lynne probably wrote in twenty minutes, and it’s firmly in the classic line of “I’m a ‘rock’n’roll guy’ who’s gonna teach a ‘classical music girl’ about rock’n’roll” songs. That lesson evidently means shouting “WOAH WOAH WOAH” and “YEAH YEAH YEAH” while sounding like a total dork. This is, I’d say, part of why this album works: Lynne’s vulnerable, broken moments make his blustering, aggressive dopiness seem sympathetic and endearing. By the time “Rockaria” comes around, we’ve already heard “Telephone Line.” We know he’s not this cool, tough guy, but he wants to be. He’s trying to be cool, but he’s not cool, and he’s hurting. You want to root for a guy like that. You hear it on “Livin’ Thing”, too: This is one of the big, stomping numbers on the album, and Lynne and the backing vocalists undercut the optimistic melody with the refrain, “I’m takin’ a dive!” Even on the most upbeat numbers here, there’s this sense that things are about to turn dark or get very weird.

Which brings us to “Do Ya.” “Do Ya” is probably one of the fifty or so greatest rock’n’roll songs ever, even though — or maybe because — it’s completely ridiculous. Over a three-chord pattern, Lynne hollers that he’s seen “BABIES DANCIN’ IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN” and “PIGS ALL SITTING WATCHIN’ PICTURE SLIDES” and an assortment of other things that don’t make any sense; then has the audacity to say, in the last verse, “I THINK YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY, WOMAN,” when there is no way she possibly could. Now, I know what you’re saying: “’Do Ya’ is a Move song! The Move recorded it first!” Yeah, I know. But The Move didn’t record it with a sweeping, quasi-orchestral bridge to break up the tension, and The Move certainly didn’t place it in between “Above the Clouds” and “Shangri-La,” in between loss and more loss, for maximum emotional impact. “Above the Clouds”, a strange, jazzy tune that feels like one long verse, segues wonderfully into “Do Ya” — by the time those first three chords hit, the listener hungers for something that direct. And it matters that A New World Record ends not with “Do Ya” but with “Shangri-La”, a song I return to more often than any other on the album. Jeff Lynne’s vocals quaver, even when he pushes them. Even the drum fills, booming in that empty-room sound that characterizes Lynne’s production, sound lonely. And in a surprise coda, the song builds up again in minor-key arpeggios mirroring the album’s opening, as Lynne and a female vocalist trade off lines, wailing, “I will return…to Shangri-La.”

I hoped he’d get there almost as much as I hoped I would.

One Saturday night in October of 2006, I ran into the girl I’d broken up with in June. We hadn’t spoken in months. I walked up to her and said hello. She slapped me in the face.

Hours later, I found her again. She was extremely drunk and looking for her car. Her friends had left. I insisted on driving her home. She agreed, reluctantly, and puked against the passenger door as I pulled up to the curb outside her building. I walked her to her apartment, then set off in search of a very specific afterparty. On the way, my cell phone rang. It was a friend of mine, several states away, practically in tears. She was having a very bad night at a party, with another ex-something and a lot of people she didn’t want to be around.

We talked about it. I sat down on a curb to collect my thoughts. She did the same. “I would’ve had a much better night,” I said, “if I’d been with you instead.”

I realized I meant it, and that I was probably legitimately in love with her.

“I would have, too,” she said. “I wish we could have just been together instead.”

Two months later, we would be. We ended up spending 2007 as a Thing, in the first truly healthy romance of my life.

But I didn’t know that yet. I knew I was going to an afterparty, where I strode in through the back door, seized a High Life from the fridge, and walked into the living room, where the host held court over a pair of turntables. He looked up at me, took a drag from his cigarette, and winked at me.

A minute later, he dropped the needle on another record. I heard a familiar telephone pulse. “Hello?” sang Jeff Lynne’s voice, tentatively. “How a-are you?”

I’m sure a few people were wondering why I was climbing onto their backs, singing along to ELO’s “Telephone Line,” at that moment. But you probably get it.

I’ll serve as an Electric Light Orchestra apologist any night of the week, even though no other ELO album has ever struck me in the gut like A New World Record. Maybe it was the best album they put out, or maybe it was the right time for me to hear it. But every time I put it on, I know Jeff Lynne and I were on the same page. I have seen the darkness and the light, and while I don’t know when or how, I will return to Shangri-La, motherfuckers. I will return.



— Brian LaRue

Previous Entries in "In Defense Of":
Brian Bender, In Defense Of: Hotel California by The Eagles 
Stephen Selman, In Defense Of: Banana Wind by Jimmy Buffett 

1 comment:

  1. Ok - I'll buy it.

    I recall one painful summer working out of one of my own overly-logical funks with ELO - and always recall that "The music is reversible, but time is not! Turn back! Turn back!"

    ReplyDelete