Altering ELO's Eden

The hirsute face of roller disco: The Electric Light Orchestra
Barry Plummer

Electric Light Orchestra
One the Third Day
Face the Music
A New World Record

When cultural critic Walter Benjamin dove into the essential nature of aesthetic aura and its demise in the age of mechanical reproduction, he wasn't talking about remastered albums from multiplatinum psychedelic disco/prog-rock bands with a thing for spaceships. Nevertheless, his insights should resonate with anyone partial to that underdog of '70s guitar rock, the Electric Light Orchestra, a.k.a. ELO. Members of the quiet army of new romantics who call themselves ELO fans—and I count myself among their ranks—understand the aura that emerges from each groove of, say, Rockaria! Now that technology affords increasingly perfect digital reproductions, those fans find themselves in what would seem an enviable position. Sony/BMG has issued three digitally remastered albums—On the Third Day, Face the Music, and A New World Record—that represent ELO as they realized the full potential of their creative powers. But do we dare disturb the universe?

Ostensibly released for die-hards, the reissues have two strikes before they even reach the plate: 1) devotees already own the albums, and 2) they further complicate the loyalties of those who cherish a particular record (in both the material and the philosophical sense). We cling to the vast if vulnerable stereophonic landscapes that we know so intimately. Will the knowledge that the freshly remastered CD of A New World Record spins in a disc-changer between Michael Buble and Panic! At the Disco affect the depth of our catharsis? Will our hearts still skip a beat every time we hear "Showdown"? And does the world really need an alternative, sans-vocals(!) cut of "Telephone Line"?

Fans of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bowie, T. Rex, et al., have been through this process, to varying extents, and survived. Everything old is new again...and again, and again. Any and every random night at the Hexagon one can encounter an indie rock guy with complicated facial hair boasting of his love for early Aerosmith, Harry Chapin, or Hall & Oates. And this is a good thing. Falling in love with old music feels like discovering a crucial secret, and the thrill of discovery is multiplied when others share in the obsession. One November afternoon in the early 2000s, my friend Ross burned me a copy of the ELO-heavy soundtrack to the roller disco musical Xanadu. The cascade of sonic bliss that followed changed my life significantly (as much as anything in my life is significant), and I can only hope that further proliferation of the ELO catalog provides others with the same opportunity.

Spawned from the ashes of '60s English rockers the Move, ELO were an assortment of 10 or so musicians augmenting a core trio made up of Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, and Bev Bevan. Their sound infused a sublime mix of pop melodies with classical instrumentation. Positioning themselves in the mise-en-scène of arena rock, they debuted in 1972 with the record No Answer. (Legend has it that when asked the title by the U.S. label, Jeff Lynne had "no answer" and it was thus erroneously transcribed. It may or may not be connected that poor telephone communication became a prevalent theme in ELO's oeuvre, as evidenced by songs including "Telephone Line" and "Calling America.") Then co-founder Wood quit, and Lynne aggressively embraced the role of frontman. The resulting ensemble put out ELO II (not to be confused with ELO 2, a later sans-Lynne incarnation whose moniker resulted in a lawsuit). They bookended a scorching cover of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven" with frenzied strains of Beethoven's Fifth, and a great rock band was born.

Prolific throughout the '70s, the ELO juggernaut reached its zenith in 1977 with Out of the Blue. Hits like "Turn to Stone," "Mr. Blue Skies," and "Sweet Talkin' Woman" inhabit a four-sided concept album, which remains their most recognized work. But on a song-for-song level, the two albums that preceded it—"Face the Music" and "A New World Record"—may be superior. ELO's production values often veered near, and occasionally crossed, the fine line between essence and artifice (or, more accurately, between essential artifice and empty artifice). But on these albums, maudlin indulgence is perfectly balanced with straightforward sincerity. Plus, they fucking rock. Listen to the towering instrumental interludes, euphoric falsettos, and funhouse strains of Dixie, and I guarantee you will fall gleefully down the rabbit hole.

The tale of the band's eventual demise is unremarkable. The '80s brought dabbles in disco and science fiction, Don Bluth-animated environs, and a decline in popularity. Black Sabbath came a-courtin' for Bevan, and various members quit and/or filed lawsuits against each other. After limping along for a few more years, ELO slipped into a strange brand of familiar obscurity. Everyone has heard hits like "Don't Bring Me Down" and "Do Ya" a thousand times. But pass around one of their record jackets, and most people under 40 would pronounce the band name as one word: "el-lo," as in "rhymes with yellow."

Still, evidence of a minor ELO revival occasionally surfaces. Screenings of Xanadu pop up at gay film festivals and on rooftops in Williamsburg. The Pussycat Dolls sampled "Evil Woman." Matthew Sweet covered "Livin' Thing" for My Name Is Earl. Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips manifest ELO's influence, and sometimes one of the more precocious DJs at Minnesota Public Radio's the Current will toss "Strange Magic" between Devendra Banhart and Death Cab for Cutie. (Of course, those who have discovered the unlikely secret of Kool 108's kick-ass programming need never go long without hearing ELO). Minneapolis is home to its own all-ELO cover band, E.L.nO, who play venues ranging from the Entry to the Fine Line to the Taste of Minnesota. And though co-founder Dave Campbell admits that every show includes at least one balding guy (perhaps wearing Zubaz) barking for "Roll Over Beethoven," he contends that the majority of their fan base finds them through avenues like MySpace.

When there's any pop cultural resurgence that compels hipsters to pull bigger-than-they'd-like-to-admit pocketbooks out of their vintage Levi's, corporate marketing divisions immediately jump on the bandwagon (or build it, if it's only a wheel or two). Someone must have discovered a niche demographic that likes catchy hooks, slick production, and cover art featuring sizeable groups of hairy men exposing their navels. But what the label doesn't comprehend is that listening to "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle" three times in not many more minutes does not induce nirvana. Rather, it pollutes ELO's profound otherworld of baroque harmony and infects it with banality. Clean up the masters, if you must, but don't dilute this magical milieu. New and veteran fans alike will be better served if, instead of adding bonus tracks, the label packages the next group of ELO reissues with a few loose joints, or, in the red states, a six-pack of Budweiser. Just let those guitars play, and we'll hear the mermaids sing, because whamma-lamma, bamma-lamma, rock 'n' roll is king.

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