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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Surfing against the zeitgeist

After their triumphant televised gig from Hyde Park, the critical re-appraisal of Jeff Lynne’s ELO continues apace, with articles appearing in various ‘proper’ newspapers testifying to the quality of their music. Although I’m glad to see them get what they deserve, this kind of thing just reminds me how silly it is to pay too much attention to music journalism, to "fashion-monging boys, that lie and cog and flout".
For those not old enough to remember, it was precisely the opposite of ‘cool’ to like ELO in the late 70s, when the rock cognoscenti would heap opprobrium on them at every opportunity. The fact that they were clearly a quality pop act counted against them. Certain bands (usually accomplished musicians who had paid their dues over many years on the club and university circuit) were seen as the ‘enemy’ by portions of the British music press, some of whom believed that punk had ‘happened’ in order to rid the world of light and shade. Surfing against the zeitgeist, ELO represented the epitome of naff. I remember one particularly silly example when the band was butchered on Radio One's Round Table because -in the opinion of some jerk on the panel- the French bit of the lyric on Hold on Tight sounded more French-Canadian than 'genuine' French (clearly a heinous crime). When I was young and impressionable, it was difficult to own up to liking stuff that had not been approved by the taste-makers in the music press, particularly the resident high priests at Sounds and NME. Nobody wants to betray their own generation and there was a time when admitting that you preferred ELO to the Sex Pistols would have been a hanging offence. 

By today’s standards, the band took the long road to stardom. Their early records showed promise, although some of the songs were overwrought and stodgy and the sound was often grittier than it had to be. After three albums in which they couldn’t make up their mind about whether they wanted to be heavy (always seen as a good thing) or light (almost never seen as a good thing), band leader Jeff Lynne finally hit his songwriting groove on ‘Eldorado’. For the first time, an orchestra and choir were hired to expand the musical palette (on previous albums, the cellists had been overdubbed). That fourth album marked the spot where the focus moved joyfully and unashamedly to the tunes.  
By the time they hit the high spots in their catalogue (‘A New World Record’ in 1976 and ‘Out of the Blue’ just a year later) ELO had graduated from the dingy hinterland of prog rock to become a sophisticated pop act on the way to selling 50 million albums. The visual template for tribute acts was set at this point, with Jeff adopting that ‘shaggy perm, beard and shades' look. It’s clearly a disguise, because he is essentially a modest and unassuming bloke who chooses to put his art front and centre of our attention. It’s not about him, the image is suggesting; it’s about the tunes. It’s about the sound of the music. 

I can think of loads of acts that I listened to in the late 70s /early 80s that don't do anything for me now; by contrast, the albums from ELO's imperial phase still sound fantastic. There are many things to love about their music (personally, those ‘major to minor’ chord changes on songs like Livin' Thing and Turn to Stone get me every time), but there is no point in trying to analyse why it has taken some people so long to work that out. There was a time when nobody would have admitted to liking them and at least that seems to have changed. It could be that some folk have mellowed with age, or perhaps new listeners are just experiencing the music without having to put it through the 'cool /uncool' cultural filter that was compulsory in the fallout from the cultural revolution of the late 70s. Either way, I'm just happy to enjoy the moment and hope that it encourages Jeff Lynne to hit the road once more, hopefully with something resembling the spectacular combo that featured at Hyde Park.

In the meantime, here’s a link to one of my favourite internet musical discoveries. It’s the Sunflower Orchestra performing their version of one of ELO’s most beautiful songs. Other than the fact they are Polish, I know nothing about the Sunflower Orchestra. It looks like their gig took place in a community centre with maybe twenty folk in the audience, but the performance was measured, dignified and faithful to the melancholic beauty of the original. For someone not noted for being much of a lyricist, Jeff Lynne comes up with a lovely image on the chorus in which he expresses loss, regret, longing and the ebbing away of hope with this single evocative line: 
My Shangri La has gone away, faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude.” 

Who needs to surf the zeitgeist when you can write like that? 

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