Electric Light Orchestra, commonly abbreviated ELO, were a symphonic rock group from Birmingham, who released eleven studio albums between 1971 and 1986 and another album in 2001. ELO were formed to accommodate Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne’s desire to create modern pop songs with heavily classical overtones, but falling under a light rock category. However, the band’s direction for most of their existence was set by Lynne who, after the band’s debut record, wrote and arranged all of the group’s original compositions and produced every album.
Associated acts: The Move, The Idle Race, Wizzard, Violinski, Black Sabbath, ELO Part II, The Orchestra.
In the late 1960s, Roy Wood, guitarist, vocalist and songwriter of The Move, had an idea to form a new band that would use cellos, violins, horns and woodwinds to give their music a classical sound, taking rock music in a new direction and “picking up where The Beatles left off” with such hits as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “I Am The Walrus.” Jeff Lynne, frontman with fellow Birmingham band The Idle Race, was excited by the concept. In January 1970, when Carl Wayne left The Move, Lynne accepted Wood’s second invitation to join the band on the condition that they focus their energy on the new project.
On 12 July 1970, when Wood added multiple cellos to a Lynne-penned song intended to be a Move B-side, the new concept became a reality and “10538 Overture” became the first Electric Light Orchestra song. To help finance the fledgling band, two more Move albums were released during the lengthy ELO recordings. The resulting debut album The Electric Light Orchestra was released in 1971 (1972 in the United States as No Answer) and “10538 Overture” became a U.K. top ten hit.
However, tensions soon surfaced between Wood and Lynne due to problems with management. Amid the recordings for the band’s second LP, Wood left the band, taking cellist Hugh McDowell and horn player Bill Hunt with him to form Wizzard. Despite predictions from the music press that the band would fold without Wood, who had been the driving-force behind the creation of ELO, Lynne stepped up to lead the band, with Bev Bevan remaining on drums, joined by Richard Tandy on the Moog synthesizer, Mike de Albuquerque on bass, Mike Edwards and Colin Walker adding cello and Wilfred Gibson replacing Steve Woolam on violin.
The new lineup performed at the 1972 Reading Festival. Barcus Berry pickups, now sported by the band’s string trio, allowed them to dance on stage with their instruments. The band released their second album, ELO 2 in 1973, which produced their first U.S. chart hit, a hugely elaborate version of the Chuck Berry classic “Roll Over Beethoven”. ELO also made their first appearance on American Bandstand.
During the recording of the third album, Gibson and Walker left the band. Mik Kaminski joined as violinist, while remaining cellist Edwards finished the cello parts before McDowell returned to ELO from Wizzard. The resulting album, On the Third Day was released in late 1973, with the American version featuring the hit “Showdown.”
It was in the United States that the band were first successful, billed as ‘The English guys with the big fiddles’. They soon gained a cult following despite lukewarm reviews back in their native United Kingdom. They were managed by agent Don Arden, father of Sharon Osbourne.
By the mid-1970s, they had become one of the biggest selling bands in music. From 1972 to 1986, ELO accumulated twenty-six U.K. Top 40 hit singles and twenty U.S. Top 40 hit singles. The group also scored twenty Top 20 U.K. hit singles, as well as fifteen Top 20 appearances in the U.S. Billboard charts. The band also holds the record for having the most Billboard Top 40 hits of any band in U.S. chart history without ever having a #1 single.
Despite the fact that the majority of the group’s material was never researched, audited and certified, ELO collected 21 RIAA awards, 38 BPI awards, and sold over 100 million albums worldwide, 50 million of those being sold between 1971 and 1982.
For the band’s fourth album, Eldorado, A Symphony, a concept album about dreams, Lynne was finally able to stop overdubbing strings, and hire an orchestra and choir. Louis Clark joined the band as string arranger. The first single off the album, “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” became their first U.S. Billboard charts Top 10 hit, and Eldorado, A Symphony became ELO’s first gold album.
After the release of Eldorado, A Symphony, bassist and vocalist Kelly Groucutt and cellist Melvyn Gale joined, replacing de Albuquerque and Edwards respectively. The lineup stabilised as the band took to a decidedly more accessible sound.
Face the Music was released in 1975, producing the hit singles “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.” The opening instrumental “Fire On High”, with its mix of strings and blazing acoustic guitars, saw heavy exposure as background music on CBS Sports Spectacular montages, though most viewers had no idea of the song’s origins.
ELO had become successful in the United States at this point and they were a star attraction on the stadium and arena circuit, as well as regularly appearing on The Midnight Special. They were still largely ignored in the United Kingdom until their sixth album, A New World Record, hit the top ten there in 1976. It contained the hit singles “Livin’ Thing”, “Telephone Line”, “Rockaria!” and “Do Ya”, a rerecording of a Move song.
A New World Record was followed by another multi platinum selling album, the double-LP Out of the Blue, in 1977. Out of the Blue featured the singles “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” and “Wild West Hero,” each becoming a hit in the United Kingdom. The band then set out on a nine-month, 92-date world tour, with an enormous set and a hugely expensive space ship stage with fog machines and a laser display. In the United States the concerts were billed as The Big Night and were their largest to date, with 80,000 people seeing them at Cleveland Stadium. During the famous spaceship tour, the band were criticised for allegedly playing backing tapes. Despite some criticism, The Big Night went on to become the highest-grossing live concert tour in music history up to that point (1978). The band also played at the Wembley Arena for eight straight sold-out nights during the tour as well, another record at that time. The first of these shows was recorded and televised, and later released as a CD and DVD.
In 1979, the multi-platinum album Discovery (or “Disco? Very!”, as fans refer to it), was released. Although the biggest hit on the album (and ELO’s biggest hit overall) was the hard-rock song “Don’t Bring Me Down”, the album was noted for its heavy disco influence. Discovery also produced the hits “Shine A Little Love”, “Last Train to London”, “Confusion” and “The Diary of Horace Wimp”.
Although there would be no live tour associated with Discovery, the band recorded the entire album in video form. The Discovery music videos would be the last time the “classic” late 1970s lineup would be seen together, as the violinist, Mik Kaminski, and the two cellists, Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale, were shortly dismissed.
The Electric Light Orchestra finished 1979 as the biggest selling act in the United Kingdom. ELO had reached the peak of their stardom, selling millions of albums and singles and even inspiring a parody/tribute song on the Randy Newman album Born Again.
In 1980, Jeff Lynne was asked to write for the soundtrack of the musical film Xanadu, with the other half written by John Farrar and performed by the film’s star Olivia Newton-John. The movie performed poorly at the box office, but the soundtrack did exceptionally well, eventually going double platinum. The album spawned hit singles from both Newton-John (“Magic,” #1 in the United States, and “Suddenly” with Cliff Richard) and ELO (“I’m Alive”, which went gold, “All Over The World” and “Don’t Walk Away”). The title track, performed by both Newton-John and ELO, is ELO’s only song to top the singles chart in the United Kingdom. Xanadu was turned into a surprising hit Broadway Musical that opened on July 10, 2007 at the Helen Hayes Theatre to uniformly good reviews and received 2 Tony Award nominations. The Electric Light Orchestra Story, Bev Bevan’s memoirs from his early days and throughout his career with The Move and ELO, was also published in 1980.
In 1981, ELO’s sound changed again with the science fiction concept album Time, a throwback to earlier, more progressive rock albums like Eldorado. With the string section laid off, synthesisers took a dominating role, as was a trend in the larger music scene. Time topped the U.K. charts for two weeks and was the last ELO studio album to date to be certified platinum in the United Kingdom. Singles from the album included “Hold on Tight”, “Twilight”, “The Way Life’s Meant to Be,” “Here Is the News” and “Ticket to the Moon.” The band embarked on their last world tour to date to promote the LP. It was the first ELO tour without cellists, although Mik Kaminski returned to play his famous “blue violin.” The live line-up was completed with Louis Clark and newcomer Dave Morgan playing the string parts on synthesisers, and “Fred the Robot” voicing the “Prologue” and “Epilogue”.
Jeff Lynne wanted to follow Time with a double album, but CBS blocked his plan, claiming it would be too expensive.The album was an instant hit in the UK reaching the top 5.The new album was edited down from double album to a single disc and released as Secret Messages in 1983 (many of the outtakes were later released on “Afterglow” or as b-sides of singles). The album’s release was dampened by a string of bad news — that there would be no tour to promote the LP, that drummer Bevan was to play drums for Black Sabbath, and that bassist Kelly Groucutt had left the band (Groucutt later sued Lynne, Bevan, and ELO’s management for alleged lost royalty fees, and the matter was settled out of court). Rumours from fans about the group disbanding were publicly denied by Bevan. Although Secret Messages debuted at number four in the United Kingdom, it fell off the charts, failing to catch fire with a lack of hit singles and a lukewarm media response.
By 1983, Bevan was expressing a desire to join Black Sabbath permanently, Lynne and Tandy were recording tracks for the Electric Dreams soundtrack under Jeff Lynne’s name, and, with Groucutt’s departure, ELO was assumed to be finished. However, Lynne was contractually obligated to make one more ELO album.
Lynne, Bevan and Tandy returned to the studio in 1985 as a three-piece (with Christian Schneider playing saxophone on some tracks) to record ELO’s final album of the 20th century, Balance of Power, released early in 1986. Though the single “Calling America” placed in the Top 30 in the United Kingdom (#28), subsequent singles failed to chart. The album was absent of actual strings, replaced once again by synthesisers, this time played by Tandy. The album also shed the customary ELO logo that had appeared on every album since 1976.
Lynne, with the 7-piece lineup that supported Time (with Martin Smith replacing Groucutt on bass), played a small number of live ELO performances in 1986, including shows in England and Germany.Heartbeat 86 was a charity concert organized by Bevan in ELO’s hometown of Birmingham on March 15th, 1986. A hint of Lynne’s future was seen when George Harrison appeared onstage during the encore at Heartbeat, joining in the all-star jam of “Johnny B. Goode”. ELO’s last performance of the century occurred on July 13th, 1986 in Stuttgart, Germany.
ELO essentially disbanded after that final show in Stuttgart in 1986, but there was no announcement made of it for the next two years, during which George Harrison’s Lynne-produced album Cloud Nine and the pair’s follow-up (with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Tom Petty) Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 were released. Bevan approached Lynne to make another ELO album in 1988. Lynne was not interested and went on to announce that ELO was no more.
Bevan (under an agreement with Lynne who co-owned the ELO name with him) continued on in 1989 as ELO Part II, initially with no other former ELO members except Clark. ELO Part II released their debut album Electric Light Orchestra Part Two in 1991. Mik Kaminski, Kelly Groucutt and Hugh McDowell joined the band for the first tour in 1991. McDowell left after that tour. Bevan, Groucutt, Kaminski and Clark recorded a second album, Moment Of Truth, in 1994 and toured extensively until 1999. Bevan retired from the lineup in 1999 and sold his share of the ELO name to Jeff Lynne in 2000. The remaining members continue to tour and record, renamed as The Orchestra.
Jeff Lynne’s comeback with ELO began in 2000 with the release of a retrospective box set, Flashback, containing three CDs of remastered tracks and a handful of outtakes and unfinished works, most notably a new version of ELO’s only UK number one hit “Xanadu”.
In 2001, Zoom, ELO’s first album since 1986, was released. Though billed and marketed as an ELO album, the only returning member other than Jeff Lynne was Richard Tandy, who performed on one track. Zoom took on a more organic sound, with less emphasis on strings and electronic effects. Guest musicians included former Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison. Upon completion of the album Lynne reformed the band with completely new members including his then-girlfriend Rosie Vela (who had released her own album “Zazu”, in 1986) and announced that ELO would tour again. Former ELO member Richard Tandy rejoined the band a short time afterwards for two television live performances: VH1 Storytellers and a PBS concert shot at CBS Television City, later titled Zoom Tour Live, that was released on DVD. The planned tour was cancelled. Lynne, a close friend of George Harrison, was also terribly affected by Harrison’s illness and later death in November of 2001. The ELO tour was not rescheduled.
Harvest Records and Epic/Legacy released ELO’s back catalogue from 2001-07. Included amongst the remastered album tracks were unreleased songs and outtakes, including a new single “Surrender” which registered on the lower end of the UK Singles Chart at #81, some 30 years after it was written in 1976.
Although there has been no news on any forthcoming new ELO projects, ELO’s core studio albums have now all been remastered and expanded with bonus tracks, leaving only The Night the Light Went On (in Long Beach), ELO’s Greatest Hits, Xanadu, Zoom and ELO’s Greatest Hits Live AKA Zoom Tour Live to be done. Latest in the Epic/Legacy series were Out of the Blue and Balance of Power which were released in February, 2007. A lost demo from 1977 was finished and released in the United Kingdom as a download single on February 6, 2007 titled “Latitude 88 North”.
All the original ELO albums were released in mini replica sleeves in Japan. Among the many features was the original Jet Records label on the disc and original inner sleeves and lyrics.
To further cash in on the success of the remasters, another ELO compilation hit the German, then UK shops in October, 2007, and was also released in the US February 5, 2008. It’s the follow-up to All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra and is called Ticket to the Moon: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra Volume 2.
An eco-friendly repackage of The Essential Electric Light Orchestra called Playlist: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra was released on September 2, 2008.
The group’s name is an intended pun based not only on electric light (as in a light bulb as seen on early album covers) but also using “electric” rock instruments combined with a “light orchestra” (orchestras with only a few cellos and violins that were popular in Britain during the 1960s). The official band logo (left), designed in 1976 by artist Kosh, was first seen on their 1976 album A New World Record and is based on a 1946 Wurlitzer jukebox speaker, model 4008. The 4008 speaker was, itself, based upon the upper cabinet of the most popular jukebox of all time, the Wurlitzer model 1015. The band’s previous logo (right) was similar to the General Electric logo. The new logo has appeared on most of the band’s albums in various forms. For instance, on 1977’s Out of the Blue, the logo was turned in to a huge flying saucer space station, an enduring image that is now synonymous with the band. Again, on the follow up Discovery, the logo became a small glowing artifact on top of a treasure chest. Bev Bevan usually displayed the logo on his drum kit.
Randy Newman recorded a parody/tribute to the band titled “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” for his 1979 album Born Again.
A tribute album was released by Not Lame Records on August 31, 2004. Titled Lynne Me Your Ears, this cover anthology featured ELO standards performed by former Lynne band mate Carl Wayne, Todd Rundgren, Sixpence None the Richer, Neilson Hubbard and Venus Hum, Shazam and a host of others.
Parthenon Huxley, former lead guitar and vocalist for ELO Part 2 and The Orchestra under Bev Bevan, released a CD entitled Homemade Spaceship: The Music of ELO Performed by P. Hux., also covering a dozen ELO tunes, and enlisting the aid of former member Mik Kaminski.
A tribute to ELO, L.E.O., features original material written by devotees of Lynne’s unique orchestrated sound. American musician Bleu brought together various musicians to record this “tribute” in 2007. Andy Sturmer, of seminal ELO/Queen/Beatles influenced band Jellyfish, co-wrote and provided some vocals for the project. The songs are written entirely in Lynne’s style and mimic ELO’s orchestration and production.
* The Electric Light Orchestra (UK, 1971) / No Answer (US, 1972)
* ELO 2 (UK) / Electric Light Orchestra II / ELO II (US) (1973)
* On the Third Day (1973)
* Eldorado, A Symphony (1974)
* Face the Music (1975)
* A New World Record (1976)
* Out of the Blue (1977)
* Discovery (1979)
* Xanadu (1980)
* Time (1981)
* Secret Messages (1983)
* Balance of Power (1986)
* Zoom (2001)
Special thanks to Keith Law for content.