Concerto for a rainy day....
Released on 3rd October 1977
Running time 70.16
After successfully giving his Electric Light Orchestra a poppy, more chart-friendly makeover on the previous year’s extremely successful A New World Record, Jeff Lynne went the whole hog with this (possibly) bloated but undoubtedly impressive meisterwerk. Seemingly oblivious to contemporary musical trends like punk and only paying a few brief nods to disco, Lynne continued his musical fixation with The Beatles’ 67-70 output and put out this incredibly successful double album that became as much the sound of 1977 as any punk or disco sounds. Lynne’s highly orchestrated rock was popular with all sorts of fans - rock, pop, disco, why even the punks didn’t seem to mind it. It duly sold over 10 million copies. ELO were now huge, being described as “the biggest band in the world”, briefly.
Personally, despite having bought some of their music since 1972, I was never convinced by the hype and found a double album of ELO a bit difficult to stomach. I still do, to be honest. Around ten tracks would have been fine, as it was on the previous album. Then again, I have always liked my ELO in small doses. It seemed the public wanted more, however, as they lapped this up. You can’t really argue with the album’s potency, though, and it stands as Lynne’s finest achievement with the group, none of the songs are duffers. Dare I say it was his White Album? No, it was more like his Abbey Road.
The whole thing is full of grandiosity seemingly at odds with the contemporary punk desire to strip things back. There was still an appetite for prog rock-style indulgence and camp pomposity, unbelievably. Queen were also hugely popular at the time for similar reasons. Mike Oldfield too. That should not be overlooked when assessing the success of material like this. For every clenched fist pogoing punk there were three or four Yes, Queen, Mike Oldfield or Emerson, Lake And Palmer fans.
1. Turn To Stone
2. It’s Over
3. Sweet Talkin’ Woman
4. Across The Border
5. Night In The City
8. Believe Me Now
9. Steppin’ Out
10. Standin’ In The Rain
11. Big Wheels
12. Summer And Lightning
13. Mr. Blue Sky
14. Sweet Is The Night
15. The Whale
16. Birmingham Blues
17. Wild West Hero
Anyway, on to the music. Turn To Stone was a huge hit and it is admittedly catchy, but it has always irritated me slightly, something about those high-pitched backing vocals and its somewhat synthetic disco-rock beat. Having said, it is always very nostalgic to hear it. It’s Over is a sumptuously orchestrated, appealing number that harks a year back to the commercial sound of A New World Record. Sweet Talkin’ Woman does so even more with a classic ELO rock hit. It was always my favourite from this period. It is incredibly hook-laden and simply a great single. Lynne borrows heavily from The Beach Boys’ Heroes And Villains on the lively and infectious Across The Border, which is a strange amalgam of the afore-mentioned song and some Mexican horn backing, merged together with lush, big production ELO pop.
Night In The City is a slice of very typical ELO fare that could come from the 1974-75 era. It has hints of Evil Woman and Strange Magic about it, plus some Beatles orchestration, of course. Starlight is an attractive, slow-paced number full of harmonies and hooks, once again. Jungle is a strange mix of tribal drum rhythms and big, chunky riffs that actually is quite refreshing in its slightly chunkier, different sound to the string-driven sound of earlier tracks. It is the most unusual of the songs on the album. An instrumental break leads into the plaintive, but dramatic strains of Steppin’ Out. I have to admit this is good stuff, when taken out of cultural context. These are all just great songs. If the album had ended here it would still have been a very good one, wouldn’t it?
The old “side three” was supposedly a “concept” suite called “Concerto For A Rainy Day” as Jeff can’t resist but go all proggy for a while. Standin’ In The Rain is a vibrant piano-driven number that only develops into a vocal song half way through. Despite its Rick Wakeman-style keyboard pretensions, it still has an attraction. Big Wheels is a sumptuously mournful McCartney-esque big production number. Summer And Lightning has a melodic, sixties-influenced grandeur to it that is almost unique. There really was nothing else around at the time that sounded like this. Some string hints of You Only Live Twice merge with the riff from The McCoys’ Hang On Sloopy in a wonderful cornucopia. Great stuff. Unfortunately it segues into one of my least favourite ELO songs ever, Mr. Blue Sky. Now, I know so many love it, so we will leave it at that. You can’t deny its great production and innovativeness, though. It is completely obvious why it was such a massive hit.
There are still four more tracks to come, and one feels like it’s six o’clock on Christmas Day afternoon by now - pretty much stuffed. It is a shame, because Sweet Is The Night is a really good track, with a sort of Telephone Line appeal. Lynne sings in his vaguely Dylanesque voice on this fine number, which, for me, is much the superior of Mr. Blue Sky. The Whale is an interesting instrumental with a warm, deep bass line on it, along with some whale noises. Yes, it is a bit indulgent and proggy, but I like it. It is a bit of a hidden gem in the album, a track which has a depth of sound to it that was maybe lacking in some of the album’s more trebly, string-dominated moments.
Slightly incongruous yet very enjoyable is the chunky rock of Birmingham Blues. Lynne achieves a fine mix on the production here of bass and strings. This is something that is a characteristic of the whole album. The album ends with the haunting strains of Wild West Hero, which was a strange choice for a single. For me, it has always been a bit of a confused number, with an odd, folky chorus. Funny thing, three of the album’s four singles, snd the most popular songs are my least favourite ones from the album. Overall, there is some really good stuff on here.
So there you are, I have to admit that it was a great achievement and deserving of its success and longevity. The cover, despite its corniness, was iconic also, oddly. Finally, this has by far the best quality sound of any ELO album, being the bassiest by far.