Sometimes, when you're a kid, you aren't aware of when a certain band first oozed into your consciousness. I don't think my parents liked Electric Light Orchestra -- they were more into rock oddities like Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Elton John, and Mike Oldfield -- but our neighbour (Gloria) loved pop and new wave, and I think she probably exposed me to bands like Blondie, Queen, ABBA...and ELO.
Some bands are dominated by a single personality -- and Jeff Lynn certainly was that type of frontman -- but ELO excelled because each musician's style complimented the others. Their rhythm section was unparalleled -- "Don't Bring Me Down" -- and Richard Tandy's "futuristic" keyboards brought out the lushness of Lynn's guitars.
Ahh, Jeff Lynn. He was a hack, yes -- famously fast at knocking out a tune and a nonsense lyric to go with it -- but his songs were so GOOD. He definitely went to the Paul McCartney school of songwriting (and the George Harrison school of performance, I like to think). You can look at their albums as either FULL of filler or as totally DEVOID of filler, depending on your definition of the word. Was ELO's music bubblegum? Too often yes...but it's bubblegum we still hum along with today.
Add to all this the production skills of Jeff Lynne and the magical engineering of Reinhold Mack, and you have a band whose albums are all either good or exceptional (once they'd hit their stride at least).
Sadly, even though they were huge stadium-rock seat-sellers, I get the feeling they just weren't very good live. Lynne's weak voice depended on studio-bound automated double-tracking, the three-man orchestra was invariably overdubbed, and Richard Tandy's keyboards just never sounded RIGHT on stage. These defects appear to be corrected in Jeff Lynn's recent "Zoom" concert video, so I bring you a classic ELO song with the new live treatment, including Tandy's fun vocoder work:
There's usually a decline, isn't there? Lynne was difficult to work with and he whittled away at his band members, bumping up the keyboards in the early '80s and apparently losing all interest in the music he was writing. The final three albums were critical flops and ELO disbanded (though the eventual reformations have a droll comedy to them that you can look up for yourselves).
But I'm of a minority who actually love the final albums more than the entire ELO catalog combined. The keyboards worked, and Lynne's songwriting took on a pessimistic sweep that should have foretold good things to come. Here's "Here is the News," one of my favourite songs ever, off one of my favourite albums ever ("Time"). It should have been a hit. If it came out today it probably would be. I think it's brilliant; it is everything that was good about the band rolled into one.
Must-have albums? Most would recommend "A New World Record" as the perfect blend of symphony, rock, and prog...and I'd agree, though I still stand by "Time" as the all-time best. Albums to avoid? The eponymous first album is a creative dogfight with band co-founder Roy Wood, and therefore sounds like a poorly-engineered rock concert at a low-rent Renaissance Faire. For fans only? Check out L.E.O., a supergroup of producers, musicians, and songwriters who perform new music that sounds EXACTLY like ELO. You don't know whether to laugh at it or love it.