The Electric Light Orchestra’s fifth album, “Face The Music” is one of the most underrated in their catalogue. It’s curiously out of place between “Eldorado” (1974) and “A New World Record” (1976) mainly because it appears to return to a slightly rawer sound than the carefully polished fourth and, most notably, Bev Bevan’s drums are not only are very high in the mix but he also appears to have been given creative license to cut loose in a way that hadn’t been heard on record since his days in The Move. This results in a very powerful sound, with a heavier rock feel to the whole project and an altogether much more “in your face” punch to the music. This release also marked bassist and backing vocalist Kelly Groucutt’s début with the band, as well as new cellist Melvyn Gale, replacing the two Mikes (de Alberquerque and Edwards). Unlike “Eldorado”, “Face The Music” is very much a straight forward rock album, albeit with Jeff’s classical/orchestral fusion ethos and each track a separate entity, with Jeff given the freedom to write about exactly what he wanted without having to fit in to any particular concept. “Face The Music” spawned the UK top ten hit “Evil Woman” (as well as minor, but equally worthy, hit “Strange Magic”) and became the best selling ELO album to date, but often seems to be overlooked when the best of the band’s work is discussed amongst fans.
One of the aces up the sleeve of “Face The Music” is the creepy opening instrumental “Fire On High”, five and a half minutes of sheer genius, with superb lead guitar work from Jeff, magnificent Bev Bevan drum fills that definitely get the adrenaline pumping and inspired string arrangements; it remains one of the finest ELO tracks that “greatest hits” buyers constantly miss out on. The sublime “Waterfall” is a work of immense beauty, the classic falling chord progression giving the composition a masterful classical air and the instrumental bridge with the sweeping, swirling strings and thumping toms adds some further dramatic flair. “Evil Woman”, a stomping slice of piano-driven rock was an obvious single and, with the exception of “Showdown” was the most commercial song Jeff had written for ELO up to that point. Sharp, slick, catchy; “Evil Woman” was the beginning of the era of ultra-radio-friendly Electric Light Orchestra songs. Ending side one of the original vinyl record is the excellent and classy “Nightrider” (a small tribute to Jeff’s first band The Nightriders) which, although also released as a single, failed to chart.
Side two begins with a frantic, uncharacteristically heavy track, “Poker”, using the card game as a metaphor, and is notable for Kelly Groucutt’s lead vocal, as well as some truly insane drumming from Bevan; it’s a breathless performance and really rather thrilling to listen to. “Strange Magic”, a dreamy composition, with a chorus that highlights a phased acoustic guitar, continues the classy feel of the album which only dips slightly for “Down Home Town”, a jokey number with a bit of a country hoe-down influence which feels a little out of place compared to the rest of the record. It’s a likeable, pleasant enough toe-tapper, but it is, without doubt, the weakest offering here. The original album concludes with “One Summer Dream”, a composition that shares many of its characteristics with “Waterfall”, but is the lesser of the two tracks, meaning that “Face The Music” finishes not quite as convincingly as it begins. It is, on the whole, an excellent album, though, and none of the songs are any less than highly enjoyable, with three quarters of the music being really rather exceptional.
The re-issue of this album includes an alternative “Fire On High” intro which, although historically interesting, isn’t something fans will want to listen to again and again, but the alternative mix of “Evil Woman” is different enough to be well worth a listen (according to the liner notes, Jeff prefers it to the original), you get the US single mix of “Strange Magic” and a rather wonderful instrumental version of “Waterfall” which showcases the majesty of the string section behind the soaring melody. It is a piece of music so beauteous and stirring , it featured heavily at my wedding service as the piece of music playing while the guests were waiting for the ceremony to begin (I think that underlines how this particular writer feels about Jeff Lynne’s music!). To me, “Face The Music” is a milestone in Jeff’s songwriting abilities and having the skill and confidence to truly project his own voice. Although Lynne’s love of The Beatles manifests itself here as a single line in “Evil Woman” (“There’s a hole in my head where the rain comes in”), it would be very difficult to pinpoint any real Beatles influence to the melodies or arrangements, with Jeff stamping his distinct style and personality well and truly on this record. Indeed, “Face The Music” is an excellent rebuttal to any lazy musical commentator who dismisses Lynne as a Beatles copyist and proves to be another fine example of his musical genius. Arguably, the best was yet to come, but this album is a criminally underrated gem in the ELO catalogue and stands alongside their very best releases quite comfortably.