JEFF LYNNE’S ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA – BBC RADIO 2 LIVE IN HYDE PARK (2015)
Featuring Jeff Lynne, Richard Tandy, Milton McDonald, Lee Pomeroy, Donovan Hepburn, Marcus Byrne, Bernie Smith, Melanie Lewis-McDonald, Mick Wilson, Iain Hornal, Chereene Allen and the BBC Concert Orchestra.
Directed by Janet Fraser Crook.
Distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment. 173 minutes. Not Rated.
Electric Light Orchestra was one of the premiere bands of the 1970s and early 1980s, though they do not get nearly as much credit as they are due. ELO sprung from the ashes of British power-pop band The Move (which actually recorded a later ELO smash, “Do Ya”). The main lights of the band were popular British eccentric Roy Wood and brainy multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Jeff Lynne. Due to an internal power struggle, Wood left ELO after their self-titled debut album in 1970, and Lynne took over as brain trust for the band.
Although they had little nibbles at the charts on the early albums – songs like “Ma-Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle,” “Showdown” and “10583 Overture,” it wasn’t until the 1974 album El Dorado that the band had a smash with the gorgeous power ballad “Can’t Get It Out of My Head.” The next year the band released Face the Music and the floodgates opened – they had six multi-platinum albums and 18 big hits between 1974-1980. As a kid, ELO’s Out of the Blue was one of a handful of albums that it seemed was mandated by law that all suburban kids must own – that list also including Peter Frampton’s Frampton Comes Alive, Boston’s first album and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours.
The first crack in the band’s reputation, if not yet their sales, was in 1979 when they released that album Discovery, which was obviously influenced by the dance music craze which had swept the nation. (A rocker buddy of mine in school used to dismissively call the album Disco Very, though as a disco fan that wasn’t much of a problem to me.) ELO were not the only rock band that toyed with the dance craze – such beloved artists as The Rolling Stones, Elton John, Rod Stewart, KISS and Blondie all had hits with disco-oriented songs. Nor was it ELO’s first attempt to branch out – the notoriously diverse band had toyed with multiple genres including rock, pop, funk, psychedelia, prog and classical.
The dance music albatross became bigger when they agreed to do half the music for the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film Xanadu, a cheesy musical about a Greek goddess coming down to Santa Monica to inspire an unhappy painter to open a roller disco. The movie was not very good (even as a fan, I can cheerfully acknowledge that), however the Xanadu soundtrack was damned good, giving ELO three more hit singles, including the title track with Newton-John. Although ELO would continue for a few more years and three more albums, for a long time Lynne blamed Xanadu for destroying the band.
The diminishing returns started to show with the next album Time, which did have one huge hit (“Hold On Tight”). The problem was that people were used to ELO having a few huge hits per album, and none of the follow-up singles made a ripple. A couple of years later the Secret Messages album also had one hit – and not quite as big of one – with the retro-vibed “Rock and Roll Is King.” By 1986, when ELO’s final album (of the original incarnation) Balance of Power and the single “Calling America” pretty much stiffed, Lynne was ready to move on to solo work, production and a stint in the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.
Lynne never looked back at his creation, eventually agreeing to allow former band mate Bev Bevan to record and tour with a band called ELO Part II because Lynne had no interest in going back to the band. However his solo career never really took off and the Wilburys only lasted a few years, so despite having an interesting production career over the years, Lynne started to reminisce about his background as front man.
He finally rebooted the band in 2001, recording one last album with ELO (Bevan and most of the original members were not involved) and touring for a few years. Then, just a couple of years ago, Lynne agreed to do some more shows with ELO (only keyboardist Richard Tandy returned from either of the previous incarnations of the band), which led to this show at Hyde Park in London last year.
Now called Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra, and in this case at least including an actual orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra) ELO returns to stage with style. Lynne looks like he hasn’t aged a day since the band’s prime in his traditional get-up of a shaggy mane of hair, black suit, trim beard and dark sunglasses – then again I suppose the hair, beard, dark clothing and glasses would all tend to disguise the ravages of time.
It’s nice to see that Jeff Lynne has come to terms with the past, because this concert starts with a swirling take on Xanadu‘s “All Over the World,” which still feels frisky and fresh 35 years later. (In an interview in the extras of this set, Lynne good-naturedly states that the movie has been forgotten by time, but never the soundtrack, which is at least partially true.)
Lynne does not try to experiment or reinvent anything – most of these performances sound shockingly faithful to the studio versions of the songs. Only the second song, “Evil Woman,” seems a bit off of the original recording, and I think that is just as simple as the fact that Lynne and the band got out of time with each other – Lynne seemed to be about a line before his backing group for a bit. However, that gaffe – assuming it was indeed a gaffe and I wasn’t just imagining it – was the only slight glitch in an otherwise near perfect set.
Over the time it becomes more and more apparent what a truly complicated, visionary songwriter the man was. This is never more apparent than on “Mr. Blue Sky” – probably the only ELO tune that has gained respectability since it was originally released, at which time it was a little too complex to become anything but a minor hit. Now, listening to the dense layers of sounds, the marvelous ways that they play off of each other and the sweet psychedelic vibe, “Mr. Blue Sky” feels like a magnificent lost outtake from The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Other highlights include the still jaw-droppingly gorgeous “Can’t Get it Out of My Head” and the near-perfect “Turn to Stone.” Even ELO’s disco sellout single “Don’t Bring Me Down” sounds fun and new here. “Rock and Roll Is King” – another later, nearly forgotten single – slyly reminds us of Lynne’s debt to the music of Chuck Berry. Lynne also revitalized “Steppin’ Out” – really the only non-hit album track he pulls out here – saying that he was never happy with how it originally came out and felt he could finally do it the way he wanted.
He also does a solo take on his Traveling Wilburys hit “Handle With Care” which is shockingly good – years after that song has pretty much disappeared from pop culture it is much better than you even remember.
BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park shows Lynne to be in as fine voice as ever and he has put together a killer band. Technology has also finally caught up to ELO’s futuristic impulses, and the stage is constantly awash in colors, movement, video clips, spaceships and the band’s iconic logo, making the show visually stimulating as well as musically. It really makes you hope for a reunion tour of the States. But until that happens, Live at Hyde Park is as good a substitute as you can get for being at the show.
BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park also features a half-hour long interview with Lynne and an hour-and-a-half long documentary called Mr. Blue Sky. The documentary speaks with Lynne, as well as such friends and former collaborators as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Joe Walsh, Eric Idle, Olivia Harrison (George Harrison’s widow) and Barbara Orbison (Roy Orbison’s widow). Interestingly, this film, though fascinating, spends more time discussing Lynne’s productions than his time with ELO. Still, it gives a nice look into Lynne’s process and his world and these extras make this terrific concert video an even better bargain.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2015 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 13, 2015.