Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Deconstructing ELO

By Peter Blackstock

A confession, to begin with.
The first record I ever reviewed – or, at least, attempted to review – was the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1979 album Discovery. As a freshman cub-reporter for The Edition, the Anderson High School newspaper in Austin, Texas, I’d been writing short news and sports articles, and it occurred to me toward the end of the year that perhaps they’d let me do an album review.Discovery was the record (er, 8-track tape, actually) that I’d been listening to nonstop at the time, so I wrote up something and turned it in.
It was only after I’d submitted it that our teacher was informed by the paper’s editor that the album had come out nearly a year earlier, which nixed any chance of it being published. Such was the first misstep in my music-critic career, and my initial lesson about the significance of timeliness with record reviews.
It was probably just as well; mostly what I remember from what was undoubtedly a wretched piece of prose was my observations about the record’s “wacky special effects.” However, I believe I also pointed out just how hummable and memorable the melodies were – which, despite the band’s spaceship-oriented visuals and futuristic sonic palette, is really what had drawn me to the Electric Light Orchestra in the first place.
Though the band was plenty popular – I suspect both Discovery and its 1978 double-album predecessor Out Of The Blue went platinum – they were never much of a critics’ darling (at least beyond 9th-grade critics-in-waiting), which made it somewhat surprising when Lynne turned up in the Traveling Wilburys a decade later, alongside living legends Dylan, Orbison, and Harrison. His entree to that inner-circle seemed to be via Tom Petty, the slightly more mortal Wilbury who was at that time working with Lynne on his soon-to-be-chart-smashing solo disc Full Moon Fever.
While the Wilburys stint – brief though it was, since Orbison died shortly after the album was released – perhaps caused some folks to reconsider Lynne’s oeuvre, I don’t get the sense that ELO really has been taken much more seriously over the years. And perhaps with good reason. Because of the overreliance on those “wacky special effects,” much of ELO’s catalogue ranks with the most dated recordings in rock history; it’s hard to listen to much of their stuff and keep a straight face.
But if you do go back and listen, I swear that there really are terrific songs waiting to be excavated beneath all the studio dressing. It occurred to me that perhaps, somewhere in existence, are Lynne’s simple single-instrument-and-vocal early demo versions of these songs, and perhaps those recordings might be fascinating. Thus I was pleasantly surprised to stumble upon what was labeled a “Home Demo” of the Discovery track “On The Run” which was apparently included on a 2001 reissue of the album – but I could only laugh when I checked out the track; “home demo” in this case appeared to something like cutting from 64 tracks down to 32. It would appear Lynne has no relation to the concept of stripped-down and simple.
Just because he doesn’t, though, doesn’t mean other artists shouldn’t. When I hear Discoverytoday, compared to how I marveled at the multilayers three decades ago, what starts popping into my imagination are deconstructed remakes performed by roots-oriented artists well-versed in the art of “less is more.” I hear, say, Del McCoury doing “On The Run”. Or Rosie Thomas doing“Wishing”. Or Willie Nelson doing “Need Her Love”. (OK, maybe there’s no way to address the mini-rock-opera that is “The Diary Of Horace Wimp”.)
It’s true that such cover-selection is a tricky business, one that first and foremost is best-served by artists mining their own memories for songs that still resonate and connect on a personal level. But there is also a fundamental principle, I’d contend, that some of the best sources for interpretation are songs which may in fact be sound and solid at their core but that may have been disguised by the genre or arrrangement in which they’ve been cloaked. Those artists who are willing to remove the artifice and rediscover the song can produce revelations: consider the Gourds’ “Gin And Juice” (compared to the Snoop Dogg original), Gillian Welch & David Rawlings’ “Black Star” (compared to the Radiohead original), Bruce Springsteen’s “Dream Baby Dream” (compared to the Suicide original).
With the Electric Light Orchestra, there’s a whole catalogue out there that’s just waiting for the taking, if someone’s inclined to dig in. Just turn off Lynne’s electric bulb, light up a few candles, and let the melodies burn through.

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