Still No Answer: 50 Years of Electric Light Orchestra*

*The album, not the band (but yes, also the band).

There is a classic rock ‘n’ roll anecdote surrounding the release of the Electric Light Orchestra’s eponymous first album and like most stories of this nature, it’s only probably true. When the tapes were shipped to United Artists Records in the United States, they were marked up with the name ‘Electric Light Orchestra’ – which was the name of both the band and the album. But the producers at United Artists didn’t know that the album was self-titled, so a secretary was asked to ring Harvest Records in the UK and find out the name of the disc. Because of the time difference, it was the middle of the night in the UK and there was no-one at Harvest to take the call, so the secretary wrote ‘no answer’ on the memo and sent it back. Hence, Electric Light Orchestra – Electric Light Orchestra was released as Electric Light Orchestra – No Answer in the States… and retains that title 50 years later.

Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO as they would come to be known, were an offshoot of The Move, who had achieved a great deal of UK chart success in the mid-60s with songs such as Flowers in the Rain, I Can Hear the Grass Grow and Blackberry Way. By the turn of the 70s, only Roy Wood and Bev Bevan remained from the original line-up of The Move and Wood was determined to break up the band to concentrate on a new idea that he had cooked up with his friend and former Idle Race front man Jeff Lynne – a rock band with a permanent classical strings section. Harvest Records weren’t 100% convinced by this new idea and held Roy Wood to his contract for another two Move albums, so Jeff Lynne joined The Move for the albums Looking On and Messages from the Country, whilst simultaneously working on the more experimental Electric Light Orchestra.

If you’re familiar with Jeff Lynne’s ELO as we know them today, the contents of the 1971 album Electric Light Orchestra might come as something of a shock. They certainly did to me; I got into ELO in my mid-teens through a variety of Best Of albums and my understanding of them was very much centred around an era that went from their fifth album A New World Record to their eighth, Time – via, of course, the magnificent Out of the Blue. This was the classic ELO sound; very polished and flawlessly produced, with just a hint of disco. I started buying the albums in no particular order and a few albums in, I bought the double cassette ELO – The Early Years, which featured the first two albums recorded under the Harvest Records label (an offshoot of EMI) called Electric Light Orchestra and ELO2. They were a revelation to my young ears.

I distinctly remember lying in my room and listening to the cassettes wearing headphones. It started with 10538 Overture, which I’d heard before on one of my Best Of collections – but what followed was a whole new experience for me; a cacophony of echoing, sawing cellos and weird compositions that seemed to belong in another era altogether. This was not the neon-hued ELO that I was used to but a band that seemed to evoke images of an Edwardian chamber orchestra being taken over by Jimi Hendrix and the late-era Beatles. 1971 was the era of Prog and this kind of experimentation was not unusual, but early era ELO literally sound like a band lost in time. Some of the music press of the day were full of praise and confusion for Electric Light Orchestra, because even the likes of The Incredible String Band or Emerson, Lake and Palmer had never embraced antiquity to quite the same extent.

According to legend, 10538 Overture had started life as a Move B-Side written by Lynne, that he and Wood used to experiment with their ELO ideas on, adding multiple cello tracks played by Roy Wood himself. Musos like to comment that the distinctive descending electric guitar riff is a play on the Beatles’ Dear Prudence, but to a lay person like me, it sounds very different. At the time, Roy Wood commented that ELO intended to take over where the Beatles’ I Am the Walrus left off and that is a comparison that would return to haunt the band again and again. For the money, I don’t really think this album sounds like the Beatles at all; yes, it has the sawing cello sound of some later Beatles work, but a lot of bands picked up on that and for the most part it falls into the heavy Doom Rock category that the Fab Four rarely experimented with.

Having said that, it’s difficult to not draw comparisons between the second track Look at Me Now and Eleanor Rigby. The song has no electric instruments and relies almost entirely on strings and woodwind. This is the point in the album where anyone only familiar with the slick ELO of their glory days thinks ‘what the hell?’ It’s a weird medieval pop song with musical similarities to It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance from the Move’s Messages from the Country. It’s worth noting that, as radical a departure as Electric Light Orchestra is, Lynne and Wood were recording it at the same time as the Move’s final album and there is definitely some crossover. You could have stuck It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance on the first ELO album and it wouldn’t have sounded out of place at all. Similarly, there are a couple of the less outré tracks on Electric Light Orchestra that could have been used on Messages from the Country without causing too much of a stir.

One of those tracks is Nellie Takes Her Bow, the haunting story of a music hall singer and the price of fame. It could easily have been a regular pop song, but the production gives it a weird ethereal edge, with acoustic instruments drenched in echo to make it sound like it’s being played in a big empty hall. The same could not be said of the next track The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644), which is Electric Light Orchestra at its most eccentric! Starting with Roy Wood making a speech as Oliver Cromwell (if Oliver Cromwell had been from the West Midlands), it soon bursts into an entirely classical piece with no pop or electric elements at all. It’s often derided as being, at best, extremely self-indulgent, but I rather like it; the use of drums to convey cannon and bomb-bursts in the battle is incredibly effective and I love the way that the ending is a cut-price homage to Gustav Holst’s Mars – Bringer of War. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, what is?

Another instrumental follows (approximately a third of this album is instrumentals, which is quite unusual for the time) called First Movement (Jumping Biz). It’s a jolly little number and substantially more upbeat than anything else on the album, but as a homage to Mason Williams’ Classical Gas, it really wears its heart on its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s some quite extraordinary acoustic guitar playing from multi-instrumentalist Wood. Next up is the second single from the album, Mr Radio; a Jeff Lynne track about a lonely man whose only companion is the wireless. The production makes Lynne’s singing voice very thin and reedy, so it sounds like it is being heard over an old-fashioned radio and there is no bass guitar to maintain that top-end sound. You can hear why it was picked as a single, as it is one of few truly commercial songs on the album, but it failed to match the chart success of 10538 Overture.

Back to the instrumentals with Manhattan Rumble (49th Street Massacre), similarly styled to The Battle of Marston Moor, but much jazzier and varied in style. It’s a Jeff Lynne number and in general, Lynne’s work on this album tends to be the more traditionally pop stuff, but this is definitely him straying from his comfort zone. I have to confess this is my least favourite track on the album; the slightly discordant piano really grates after a while and I find it difficult to listen to. I’m much more a fan of Lynne’s Queen of the Hours, which I personally would have picked as the second single. It’s a song that in another world could have been a sturdy heavy rocker, but with added violin and cellos, it sounds even more fascinating. Like a lot of the tracks on here, I’ve absolutely no idea what it’s all about, but it seems to tell a story that is weirdly out-of-its-time and somehow ghostly, like finding a half-finished set of notes in an old abandoned building.

The final track is Roy Wood’s hauntingly beautiful Whisper in the Night. This ballad is the gentlest number on the album and plays down the heavy cellos to give it a hymn-like quality that is accentuated by the choir that comes in near the end. Wood’s voice is perfect for this kind of number and he’d pull a similar trick a couple of years later with Wear a Fast Gun, the closing track on the first Wizzard album Wizzard Brew. Once again, there are thematic crossovers with Messages from the Country and later Move singles, as the slide guitar used here is a sound that can clearly be identified from later Move numbers like Chinatown and Tonight. Choosing to put this last on the album is a masterstroke, because almost all of the other tracks would be too harsh a note to end on; as it works out, Whisper in the Night is a nice, gentle goodnight kiss before the album fades into the distance (unless it’s the CD reissue, then you’ve got bonus tracks).

Looking back on Electric Light Orchestra, it seems quite clear that there was something of a gulf between Roy Wood’s interpretation of the concept and Jeff Lynne’s. All of the commercial tracks – 10538 Overture, Mr Radio, Queen of the Hours – are by Jeff Lynne and all of the clever, arty tracks – Look at Me Now, The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644), First Movement (Jumping Biz) – are by Roy Wood. Now, I adore Roy Wood and everything he’s ever recorded, but I can’t help but think that his vision of ELO didn’t really have legs; this album is brilliant, I’ve come to appreciate that over the years, but I can’t imagine the band continuing in this style throughout the 70s and into the 80s. As is well recorded, Wood left ELO (or was encouraged to leave, the lines are somewhat blurred) shortly after recording started on the second album, moving on to have 7 UK Top-10 hits (including 2 consecutive No.1s) with Wizzard, while Lynne took ELO to America… and the rest is history.

Electric Light Orchestra is a vision of an alternate universe in which the purity of Roy Wood’s original vision of a rock band with a strings section was adhered to, but chaotic live performances and mixed reviews from a music press increasingly turning against Prog Rock meant that it could never maintain its initial momentum. ELO as a band only moved forward because Jeff Lynne thinned out the group’s classical leanings in the mid to late-70s. The permanent strings section idea eventually becomes more for show and the strings on the actual recordings are increasingly just an orchestra for hire. Electric Light Orchestra (or No Answer, if you absolutely must) has become one of those first albums that is more of a historical document than a ground-breaking debut, but it’s still a wonderfully entertaining listen and – timeless as it is – it doesn’t sound a day older than it did half a century ago!

Electric Light Orchestra is available on CD, Vinyl and Streaming from EMI.

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