“The Electric Light Orchestra”, or “No Answer” as it was known in the USA (thanks to the miscommunication when trying to contact the UK record label for the album’s title) is quite a misunderstood album. I have seen some fans of Jeff Lynne’s later, more commercial, works brand this and the follow-up (“ELO 2”) as unlistenable, which is deeply unfair to the craft and creativity that shines from the fledgling band’s début album and, in my opinion, quite untrue. While there are certainly tracks that challenge the listener’s resolve and while this is certain the most left-field, out there album to be released under the ELO moniker, you really don’t have to look far to find plenty to love, as well as examples of the kind of songwriting that made Jeff Lynne’s band such a humongous success later on in the decade. This, their first record, was the only studio album made as a collaboration between founders Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, before the latter left after disagreements regarding the direction of the band, and it is fair to say that it is the least focused, most experimental piece of work in the Electric Light Orchestra catalogue. However, this also means that it is one of the most striking and interesting works and those interested in the genesis of the band and the place it has in the evolution of Jeff and Roy’s composition from will, most likely, enjoy the vast majority of the music on offer here. Admittedly, any listener’s first foray into early ELO if they are used to the carefully polished later output is going to come as a bit of a shock to the senses, but the trick is to persevere.
Lynne’s “10538 Overture”, the first track and the band’s début single, announces the album in a big way. The famous guitar riff (if you can call it a riff, it’s more like a picked chord progression) provides a big fat hook for the a quasi-classical, dramatic piece about escaped prisoner 10538 which boast a cacophony of sawing, rasping strings, brass and rather beauteous instrumental interludes. It’s a rather magnificent start to the proceedings and, had the whole album been similar, it would probably have been a very successful and critically acclaimed piece of work. However, ELO, at this point, was a deliberately experimental outfit existing alongside The Move and, as such, was an outlet for Roy and Jeff to stretch their personal compositional boundaries and both “Look At Me Now” (Wood) and “Nellie Takes Her Bow” (Lynne) are distinctly uncommercial but both extremely interesting and likeable. Wood’s “The Battle Of Marston Moor (July 2nd, 1644)” is the track that, famously, drummer Bev Bevan refused to play on, given his poor opinion of the song, but the adventurous structure, instrumentation and almost purely classical leanings point to a piece that was never likely to be particularly appreciated by the mainstream rock ‘n’ roll crowd and deserves a fair re-appraisal instead of the running joke amongst ELO fans it appears to have become.
Roy’s “First Movement (Jumping Biz)” is an immensely enjoyable and often overlooked “Classical Gas”-type classical-infused instrumental with the guitar taking centre stage and Bevan being allowed to cut loose on the drums, adding a bit of power and fluid flair to the music. One of the clear highlights of the album is Jeff’s exquisitely melancholy “Mr. Radio”. The rippling piano, the classical interludes, Jeff’s longing vocals over a Beatlesque melody; this is an early Electric Light Orchestra classic. Leonard Bernstein seems to be one of the major influences on “Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre)”, a bold, piece of instrumental music which also features pieces of jaunty whimsy and, although not the greatest thing on offer here, is never less than pleasurable to listen to. “Queen Of The Hours”, also written by Jeff, is like a great song struggling to escape from a pre-conceived concept, but the lyrics and verse melody are undeniably gorgeous and it remains one of the songs I most enjoy listening to, although I’d struggle to pinpoint why. The album concludes with Roy Wood’s “Whisper In The Night” which, although extremely pretty and tremendously pleasant on the ear, appears to be a re-write of popular hymn “Amazing Grace”.
In all honesty, I cannot say that “The Electric Light Orchestra” is a classic album, nor do I think that the many flashes of brilliance and unfettered creativity, as well as Wood’s astonishing multi-instrumental talents, completely overshadows the rather unfocused and slightly indulgent nature of the whole project, but it is most certainly an incredibly underrated and overlooked collection of songs. Rather like the classical pieces it is partly inspired by, it is a record that requires the listener to play it many times before a full appreciation of the intricacies and the touches of genius become apparent. I don’t believe that ELO’s début requires context, as such, but if you listen to The Move’s last couple of albums “Looking On” (1970) and, especially, “Message From The Country” (1971), it will all become perfectly apparent where this album fits in in the history of the bands and is, in essence, the “missing link” between The Move and The Electric Light Orchestra. Listening to this album, when compared with Jeff Lynne’s later output, also provides a credible explanation, without much further evidence needed, of why Roy and Jeff had to go their separate ways to fully realise their own musical ambitions. This album is, however, profoundly more than a mere historical curio. No, “The Electric Light Orchestra” is a rather glorious meeting of strong, creative minds, but Lynne and Wood’s very distinct and separate visions of how The Electric Light Orchestra should have evolved made a harmonious long-term partnership very unlikely. This is both the beginning and the end of a chapter, but what a chapter it was.