Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Artist: ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA
Album: OUT OF THE BLUE
[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]
Beginning with Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde in 1966 and continuing through the following decade, many artists used the double-album as an opportunity to present their “grand statement.” Ranging from 60 to 90 minutes, these records were usually sprawling collections that showcased the breadth of an artist’s musical influences, sometimes containing a conceptual theme. A handful of them were top-to-bottom classics while many others would best be described as flawed masterpieces, with fans often arguing about whether they would have worked better in edited form on a single slab of vinyl. Titles like The Beatles (aka The White Album), Electric Ladyland, Tommy, Chicago Transit Authority, Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs, Exile On Main Street, Quadrophenia, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Tales From Topographic Oceans, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, Physical Graffiti, Songs In The Key Of Life, The Wall, Tusk, The River and London Calling are often lauded by critics & fans as the pinnacle of each artist’s discography. In many cases that praise is warranted but I don’t always agree with the accolades some of these albums receive…although it’s comforting to know that the hype often introduces these artists’ catalogs to new generations of fans. The gatefold sleeves and ornate packaging that often accompanied these releases certainly helped their reputations as well. One double album that tends to get overlooked is Out Of The Blue by Electric Light Orchestra. The group spearheaded by songwriter/singer/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lynne had already released six studio albums, with the previous three going Gold or Platinum, and scored several hit singles since 1974. With Lynne in peak songwriting form, the timing was perfect for a 70-minute magnum opus, and the space-themed artwork didn’t hurt during the year of Star Wars.
The album is anchored by three Top 40 U.S. singles. “Turn To Stone” sets the tone with its faded-in driving shuffle groove, Lynne’s distinctive voice, those Queen-worthy backing vocals, sweeping strings and immensely catchy melodies (with a great hook at “my blue world”). “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” begins with a string section & electric guitar, then shifts into a stomping glam-rock tune with catchy verses & choruses, most notably at “it’s so sad if that’s the way it’s over.” “Mr. Blue Sky” was the lowest charting of the three singles but has become one of their defining songs, showing up numerous times in advertisements, movies & TV shows. Its blend of The Beatles’ “A Day In The Life” with an insistent beat and various vocal inflections makes it an upbeat power pop classic. This song was the final piece of a 4-part suite that took up all of Side 3 called “Concerto For A Rainy Day,” which also included “Standin’ In The Rain” (a dramatic steady rocker that functions as an overture), “Big Wheels” (a slow, sparse & lush tune that owes a debt to late-‘60s Beach Boys) and “Summer And Lightning” (the classic Jeff Lynne sound of acoustic guitar strumming on a steady midtempo groove). “It’s Over” could have easily been a big hit with its unforgettable chorus and Bee Gees-esque harmonies. “Across The Border” adds splashes of mariachi music to the orchestral rock arrangement, and the melody bears some resemblance to The Beach Boys’ “Heroes & Villains.”
Side 2 of the original LP features three excellent tracks. After an intro with off-kilter synth, strings & street sounds, “Night In The City” is a slightly bombastic song with a loping groove and a chorus of smooth Bee Gees-worthy vocals. The sweet synth sounds & slow, steady rhythm of “Starlight” remind me of George Harrison. It’s low-key, catchy & subtly stunning. “Steppin’ Out” is a pretty, languid ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Moody Blues album. Other than “The Whale,” an only-on-a-double-album track of sound effects followed by a pretty, sweeping disco-era ballad, Side 4 closes out the record in strong fashion. “Sweet Is The Night” has a gorgeous chorus that (once again) owes a debt to Bee Gees, and Lynne’s voice is less Beatle-y and more a combo of Bob Dylan and Ian Hunter. Bouncy midtempo rocker “Birmingham Blues” has a tight arrangement, strong harmonies and a nice blending of strings, but it might have benefited from a slightly shorter running time. Album closer “Wild West Hero” was a Top 10 hit in the UK. This intricately arranged track shifts from a piano ballad with George Harrison-esque vocals to a cool honky-tonk piano breakdown and a lovely a capella section, with some rockin’ guitar thrown in for good measure. Out Of The Blue has everything that you could want in a double album: hit singles, under-appreciated deep tracks that could/should have been hits, various genre exercises, a conceptual suite, etc. It also features memorable performances from people not named Jeff Lynne: the super-tight rhythm section of drummer Bev Bevan & bassist Kelly Groucutt, the ridiculously talented Richard Tandy (who played just about every type of keyboard imaginable) and the orchestra conducted by longtime collaborator Louis Clark. There are a few other ELO albums I would rank higher but Out Of The Blue is still an ideal gateway into their world for newcomers, which sounds as fresh & ambitious as it did 40 years ago.