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Life at 33 1/3   By Carl Meyer

 

Update September 26, 2015

ELO: Close to perfection

Electric Light Orchestra: A New World Record (Jet)

I was an Electric Light Orchestra follower from the moment I read about the project. After all, they were The Move in disguise, and I loved The Move. There’s no denying that I struggled with the first ELO- album. The music sounded unstructured and weird, and to my surprise this was particulary due to Roy Wood. Jeff Lynne was responsible for the album’s more accessible moments, including the hit single with the enigmatic title “10538 Overture”. I was in for another shock as Wood suddenly left the band, taking some key players with him, and formed Wizzard.

(L-R) Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan are flashed by the scribe in 1982.

Wizzard got off to a flying start with a stack of brilliant hit singles that stuffed 50’s rock’n’roll, 60’s pop, 70’s glam, blasting woodwind and see-sawing cellos into a Spectorian “wall of sound”, topping it all with sing-along-choruses that even a goldfish could hum.
Jeff Lynne struggled on with the residual ELO-members, adding some new names to the line-up. “ELO 2” was certainly more striking than the debut, but most of it sounded hesitant and lacked direction. The fun, but very obvious cover version of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (incorporating the famous riff from Beethoven’s 5th symphony) saved the day, providing the band with a sorely needed hit single.
The struggle continued with “On The Third Day,” still out of focus, the bait this time being a not very exciting rock’n’roll pastiche, “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle”. They could do better. And they did as Lynne wrote “Showdown” during the sessions (the track was included on the US version of the album), and with this recording everything finally fell into place. The strings, the Beatles references, the soaring chorus, the suggestive undercurrents of the rhythm section, the ingredients were masterly combined into a unique piece of music that was definitely Jeff Lynne’s work. At last he saw the light and the future of ELO.
In September 1974 the real Electric Light Orchestra, as we know them, introduced themselves to the world with the album “Eldorado”. The perfect combination of prog rock, symphonic rock and unveiled pop, led by the wonderful Lennon-pastiche “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.” The sequel, “Face The Music” (recorded in Munich), caught the disco trend, but without sounding neither as a genuflection nor a compromise. Lynne’s endowment is his ability to experiment and absorb, without losing sight of the original plan. “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic”, both massive hit singles, are unmistakable, timeless ELO, and yet back in 1975 they were perceived as 100% contemporary.
And so we arrive at “A New World Record”, the album that turned ELO into international superstars, even back home in recalcitrant UK. I couldn’t wait for its release, my expectations were sky high. And when it arrived, wow what a nice sleeve! The stylish and colourful ELO-logo made its debut, hovering under a glossy night sky. The moment you saw that sleeve you instantly knew that the music would be sensational.
And yes, the first encounter was overwhelming, intoxicating, almost Beatles-like. Everything is right in your ear, shamefully catchy, but simultaneously the arrangements offers such a resistance that you’re not done with the songs after the first couple of sittings, it’s an album to explore.
The prog- and sympho elements are essential to the overall experience. The string arrangements have a certain oriental sway to them that the Beatles and especially John Lennon loved, the choral arrangements (the finale of “Shangri-La” touches classic opera) are extremely powerful, the operatic details in “Rockaria!” lifts the song from good to gorgeous. There’s the sleepy Lynne vocals enclosed by Beatle like harmony voices. The rasping riffs and colossal punch of electric guitars make sure the music never loses contact with its rock’n’roll roots. The soundscape is huge, there’s lots of everything. It was the most powerful pop music money could buy in 1976.
There were of course hit singles: “Telephone Line,” “Rockaria!”, “Living Thing” and an over the top heavy rocking version of The Move classic “Do Ya”. Actually, the album was brim full with great ideas and phenomenal solutions to them. Every track could have been a hit single. And even so you could not accuse ELO of selling their souls to the devil. It takes a musical genius to get away with songs that are so overtly catchy. But Lynne and the band did, God bless ‘em.
To me, “A New World Record” is the definitive ELO album. The sequel, “Out Of The Blue,” is at its best just as good, but even then it can’t escape the fact that it never reaches above “more of the same”, bordering on overdose. Lynne’s problem was that the group had fulfilled its potential and achieved perfection. There weren’t many places left to go after this, as the subsequent albums proved. However, to be fair, none of these later records were at all bad. Lynne’s quality as a songwriter is indisputable.
I saw Wizzard live in Oslo in 1973, and my ears were bleeding. Five years later I finally got to see ELO. It was a little boring. My glorious The Move-moment didn’t happen until 1982, in Birmingham. I had time to kill before my train left for London. So I entered a pub not far from the station. I couldn’t believe my luck, because there, at the counter, stood three recognisable guys involved in a pleasant conversation: Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan, all wearing sunglasses. They didn’t mind me interfering, and grouped up for a photo. Not being too familiar with the flash (I had borrowed it from a college who forgot to give me instructions), I gave them a blast they probably still remember. “Jesus!” cried Roy Wood, his hair and beard on the brink of catching fire. I was so embarrassed I didn’t dare to ask neither for another shot nor their autographs. I just wanted to die.
Back home in Norway I got the photo developed. The only part exposed correctly was Bev Bevans eyes. Probably because his glasses were the darkest. I bet the bartender already was on the phone to the fire brigade.
Released: September 11, 1976
Produced by: Jeff Lynne
(All songs written by Jeff Lynne)
Contents: Tightrope/Telephone Line/Rockaria!/Mission (A World Record)/So Fine/Livin’ Thing/the Clouds /Do Ya/Shangri-La
Personnel:
Jeff Lynne – vocals, lead, rhythm and slide guitars, percussion, Wurlitzer electric piano, Minimoog, acoustic guitar, twelve-string acoustic guitar
Bev Bevan – drums, Minimoog drum, percussion, timpani, gong, backing vocals
Richard Tandy – piano, Minimoog, Micromoog, electric guitars, clavinet, Concert Spectrum strings, Mellotron, Wurlitzer electric piano, percussion, vocals
Kelly Groucutt – vocals, bass guitar, percussion, backing vocals
Mik Kaminski – violin
Hugh McDowell – cello
Melvyn Gale – cello
Additional Personnel:
Mary Thomas – operatic vocals
Patti Quatro – uncredited vocals
Brie Brandt – uncredited vocals
Addie Lee – uncredited vocals
Orchestra and choral arrangements – Jeff Lynne, Richard Tandy, Louis Clark
Orchestra conducted by Louis Clark


Update September 12, 2015

Before the Boss, there was Manfred

Manfred Mann’s Earth Band: The Roaring Silence (Bronze)

“The Roaring Silence” gave Manfred Mann’s Earth Band their 15 minutes as celebrities in the US, kick started by the hit single “Blinded By The Light”, a Springsteen song, which of course helped as Bruce recently had been named the future of rock’n’roll. In other words: excellent timing. No surprise, though, as Manfred Mann had been the master of timing all the way through the 60s. Nobody could match his instinct for picking the right songs to cover.

Although the different incarnations of the Manfred Mann band always had strong songwriters in the line-up, Manfred reserved the singles for other people’s songs. His absolute favorite was Bob Dylan, and Dylan enjoyed what Manfred Mann did to his songs. “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” “With God On Our Side,” “Just Like A Woman,” “Mighty Quinn”, “Please Mrs. Henry” all got the stellar Manfred Mann-treatment.
The Manfred Mann pop band was dissolved in 1969. Out of the ashes arose a short lived and very eccentric jazz rock act named Manfred Mann Chapter III. They released two inaccessible albums on Vertigo, before Manfred decided to change style again. Say hello to Earth Band. The 70s were underway, and he found himself attracted to what was coined “progressive rock”. Earth Band didn’t just involve themselves whole heartedly in the genre, they were very much in the driver’s seat developing it.
The album format now ruled, hit singles were of minor importance, yet Manfred kept on interpreting Dylan in this setting too, “Please Mrs. Henry” (yet again!), “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Father Of Day, Father Of Night” and “Quit Your Low Down Ways” were all recorded by Earth Band in the period preceding “The Roaring Silence”.
Particularly impressive was “Father Of Day, Father Of Night” on the brilliant “Solar Fire”-album. I even had the pleasure of seeing the band perform the song at a small club in Oslo sometime in late 1973 or early 1974. The sight of Manfred bent over his stacks of keyboards under the low ceilings is stuck in my memory forever. I think Chris Slade wore a headband.
Their “Nightingales & Bombers” album was released in August 1975, just days before Springsteen’s “Born To Run” arrived, and contained a version of “Spirit In The Night” from Bruce’s 1973 debut “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” (and incidentally also a Joan Armatrading song, “Visionary Mountains “, not many people had heard of her in 1975).
Manfred had thus discovered Springsteen’s potential long before he became “the Boss.” So enchanted was Manfred with “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” that Earth Band recorded a further two songs from the album: “Blinded By The Light” (1976) and “For You” (1980) and on top of that, when Chris Thompson replaced Mick Rogers in 1976, they even re-recorded “Spirit In The Night” and released it as the follow up to “Blinded By The Light”.
“The Roaring Silence” temporarily moved Earth Band into the main stream. The album was too weird to be called a compromise, but they were obviously looking for a taste of the hit parade. And they struck gold with “Blinded By The Light” which went all the way to no. 1 in the States. Bruce Springsteen didn’t reach the top 10 with a single of his own until 1980, and he never ever hit the top spot. So it wasn’t just “Born To Run” and the hype surrounding it that triggered Springsteen’s breakthrough. A spectacled jazz musician, pop star and progressive rocker from Johannesburg certainly deserves some credit.
I was never that fond of Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. “Solar Fire” was great, but then I gradually lost interest. They deserved their success, I had no problems with that, but their albums were too inconsistent, not even the good stuff touched me. Still, good luck to them I thought.
“Blinded By The Light” has an irresistible chorus, and Earth Band squeezes the maximum out of it. The song itself is quite weak. The verses are monotonous, staccato and way too long, it takes the band ages to get to the point (in other words the chorus). Manfred knew how to arrange, however, and the combination of the chilly, tiptoeing Supertramp keyboard, Chris Thompson’s voice and the way the band roars into the choruses very cleverly seduce the listener into believing it’s a better recording than it is. It’s an illusion, but a very good one at that. “Blinded By The Chorus” would have been a more fitting title. By the way, the brutally edited single version is preferable to the album cut.
“Questions” is a better track, much better actually, a wonderfully arranged and performed ballad (Thompson’s voice is awesome) that bases its melody on a theme by Franz Schubert. It’s still a mystery to me that this recording didn’t become a worldwide monster hit. It’s that good.
“The Road To Babylon” is another strong one, it’s got the ebb and flow development that is typical for prog rock, not losing its way as it’s built around a very melodic theme. It lasts for almost seven minutes, never overstaying its welcome.
The remaining tracks are pretty boring and uneventful, tarnished by an overuse of Manfred’s synthesizer; he seems more concerned with making strange noises than giving the songs a sorely needed boost.
Manfred Mann’s Earth Band never managed to build on the success of “The Roaring Silence”, neither in the US nor in the UK. Those who bought the album because of the hit were left disappointed and never returned. Simultaneously quite a few of the group’s prog rock fans probably thought they had sold out.
Another reason for the weaker sales may have been caused by the dramatic change in the music scene at the time, suddenly all these new wave bands appeared with their back to basics attitude. The new cool. And then there was disco. The fact that the Earth Band albums were uneven and stylistically out of focus didn’t help either.
All wasn’t bad though. They kept selling truck loads of albums in Germany and Scandinavia. In Norway every Earth Band LP went Top 10 until 1986, including “Criminal Tango”.
I saw them live in a huge arena in Oslo around 1978. That’s how big they were. During an interview with Manfred Mann just before the concert, I was unfortunate enough to mention that the single version of “Davy’s On The Road Again” was included on the soundtrack of a soft porn movie, “The Stud”, that had Joan Collins playing a nymphomaniac. Manfred shook his head with a patronizing sigh claiming I was wrong, he had complete control over his recordings. None of them would ever end up in a movie without his approval, and specially not in that one.
I kept insisting, and he turned uneasy and grumpy. My interview was not going well. Suddenly he got up, grabbed his press secretary and asked her to check right away. Our conversation trailed off while we were waiting. Manfred was absent, I felt extremely uncomfortable. When the confirmation came, he erupted. The offenders should be tracked down, heads would roll. I packed my stuff and decided to leave. It was all my fault. I never meant to trigger this. Manfred stopped me - “Take it easy, I’m not mad at you,” he said. “On the contrary, I am grateful. Thank you for telling me.”
A couple of years later I checked in a record store. “The Stud” did not contain “Davy’s On The Road Again” anymore. It had been replaced. Blame it on a thoughtless journalist in Oslo who couldn’t hold his tongue. God knows how many heads had rolled. Hope they don’t know where I live!
Released: August 27, 1976
Produced by: Manfred Mann and Earth Band
Contents: Blinded by the Light/Singing the Dolphin Through/Waiter, There’s a Yawn in My Ear/The Road to Babylon/This Side of Paradise/Starbird/Questions
Personnel:
Manfred Mann – keyboards, backing vocals
Colin Pattenden – bass
Dave Flett – lead guitar
Chris Hamlet Thompson – lead vocals, rhythm guitar
Chris Slade – drums, backing vocals, percussion
Additional Personnel:
Doreen Chanter – backing vocals
Irene Chanter – backing vocals
Susanne Lynch – backing vocals
Mick Rogers – backing vocals
Barbara Thompson – saxophone


Update September 4, 2015

The last gasp of the titans

Led Zeppelin, In Through The Out Door (Swan Song)

With “In Through The Out Door” Led Zeppelin say bye bye. Of course they didn’t know it at the time. How could they? The group had just made its triumphant live comeback in England after four years of absence, two concerts at Knebworth festival (August 4 and 11, 1979) - each evening facing a crowd of 200 000. I was there on the 11th and can confirm, it was Woodstock without the mud and the rain, it was hot, the mosquitos had a field evening - the toilets overflowed. And John Bonham still had about a year left to live.

Both the album and the concerts received a mixed reception. It only goes to show that first impressions aren’t necessarily leading to the right conclusions. The album’s status has grown over time, and the excerpts from Knebworth (August 4th) that is included on the DVD collection “Led Zeppelin DVD” (released in 2003) proves that the group wasn’t as rusty as the critics would have it – the version of “Kashmir “is simply overwhelming.
In my original review written at the time of the album’s release I appear to be pretty excited with “In Through the Out Door”. I emphasize in particular on “Bonham’s brutal, muscular garage drums”. That huge drum sound, and Bonham’s punch, combined with his extremely precise timing is still awesome. Bonham’s fingerprints (or rather fist-prints) are all over the album, and over the 36 years that have passed no drummer has ever been even close.
Page’s guitar fireworks still sound stunning, and so does what I then called “the gentle silk veil” of synth and piano. The album is considerably more varied and sympathetic than “Presence”. Or to quote my younger self: “The surprises are numerous. The variety great. The band touches every base, be it heavy metal rockabilly (!), Latin American rhythms or slow blues”. And then some!
As a much older man I have to confess that I am particularly fond of the album’s conclusion, the gorgeously beautiful “All My Love” followed by the slow and mighty, self humiliating blues “I’m Gonna Crawl” where Plant pours obsessed and tormented life into every syllable of the lyric - every little bit!
In retrospect, the surviving Zeppelin-members might find parts of the album too soft. If so, I beg to differ. I love these vulnerable cracks in their armour. Then again, I think “Tangerine” (from “Led Zeppelin III”) is one of the most wonderful pieces of music ever made, so who am I to tell.
Released: August 20, 1979
Produced by: Jimmy Page
Contents: In the Evening/South Bound Saurez/Fool in the Rain/Hot Dog/Carouselambra/All My Love/I’m Gonna Crawl
Personnel:
John Bonham – drums
John Paul Jones – bass guitar, mandolin, keyboards, synthesizer, piano
Jimmy Page – electric & acoustic guitars, Gizmotron, production
Robert Plant – lead vocals

 


HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

ELO: Close to perfection

Before the Boss, there was Manfred

The last gasp of the titans