CSFTD #44: ELO – Rockaria!

Birmingham hasn’t featured too much so far in these ‘classic songs’ apart from the now somewhat obscure City Boy (CSFTD# 32), so it’s time to make amends.

The Electric Light Orchestra, or ELO, is one of a number of associated bands from in and around Birmingham and the West Midlands from the 1970s, the best-known of which is probably The Move. Indeed ELO was formed by Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan and Roy Wood, the latter having already formed The Move earlier (with Lynne and Bevan joining later), and the two bands ‘co-existed’ for a year before The Move broke up. There was a great deal of interchange-ability about these Brummie bands with their big hair, beards and dark glasses, and Wood soon quit ELO too, to form Wizzard. To those not from the West Midlands there is a lack of distinction between the three bands and both they and their personnel do still tend to be confused.

The driving force behind ELO’s songs was the desire of both Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood to create rock and pop songs with a distinct classical flavour and there is no better representation of that than today’s Classic Song. Wood, in particular, wanted a strong statement from strings, woodwind and horns to generate a classical sound to “pick up where the Beatles left off.” Jeff Lynne said in 2014 that The Beatles would probably have gone in the same direction as ELO had they stayed together and that ELO was formed specifically to get away from “ the three guitars and drums thing” as The Beatles had set out to do later in their career.

Unsurprisingly, they were often dismissed as mere Beatles copyists in the early days. In contrast, they are now one of the most copied and sampled acts themselves, occupying the latter-day categories of progressive rock and pop, symphonic rock and pop, and art rock.

They did well out of it. The initial period in which they recorded and toured ran to 13 years and they sold in excess of 50 million albums during that time, picking up a string of awards along the way. Then they pretty well broke up for three decades before re-forming in 2014. In total they recorded 13 studio albums (the last one, Alone in the Universe, in 2015, as ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ which was the newly-reformed band) together with one soundtrack album, Xanadu.

Despite early singles success in the United Kingdom, the band was more successful in the US where they came to be known as ‘the English guys with the big fiddles’. From 1972 to 1986, ELO accumulated twenty Top 20 songs on the UK Singles Chart and fifteen Top 20 songs on the US Billboard Hot 100. ELO also holds the record for having the most Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 hits – 20 – of any band in the US chart history without having a number one single.

In April 2017, ELO were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Today’s Classic Song is from their sixth album A New World Record, which became their first UK top ten album when it was released in 1976 and which went Platinum. I mentioned earlier that they had comparatively little single success at the highest level – at least in the US. That is perhaps partly because there is no real stand out single in their repertoire; just a homogeneous mass of very good songs.

Three of the best are on A New World Record, namely Livin’ Thing, Telephone Line and Rockaria! Other memorable songs include All Over the World, Sweet Talkin’ Woman, Evil Woman and Don’t Bring Me Down.

But Rockaria! is the one that always does it for me. It tends to get played often on the radio station old codgers like me listen to and I always stop what I’m doing to hear it through.

As the title of the song is not used in the lyrics (which seems to have become a feature of some of our Classic Songs) it is sometimes mispronounced, usually as rhyming with ‘diarrhoea’ when it is actually the fusion of two different words, rock and (an operatic) aria.

It has been described as a ‘unique fusion’ of rocking blues and glam rock (I always think there is a lot of Queen in this song and not only because of the operatic content [think Bohemian Rhapsody, Barcelona et al], the third factor), and with a good dose of power pop thrown in.

The story concerns a woman who is obsessed with the operatic masterworks of Wagner, Beethoven, Puccini and Verdi, and the singer’s (Lynne’s) intention is to show her how to ‘rock and roll.’ (She’s sweet on Wagner/ I think she’d die for Beethoven…) By the end of the song, however, there is a twist in that the opera singer proves that she actually can rock and roll with the best of them and that she has a few tricks to teach the singer.

Now listen here baby, she said to me
Just meet me at the opera house at a quarter to three
’cause I’m ready, yea, yea, yea, I’m ready
Woo, hoo, hoo, I’m ready
I’m gonna show you how to sing the blues

Later,

Well we were reelin’ and a rockin’ all through the night
Yea we were rockin’ at the opera house until the break of light
And the orchestra were playin’ all Chuck Berry’s greatest tunes
And the singers in the chorus all got off on singing blues

And as the night grew older everybody was as one
The people on the streets came runnin’ in to join in song
Just to hear the opera singer singin’ rock & roll so pure
I thought I saw the mayor there but I wasn’t really sure
But it’s alright…

The final section, which encompasses the verse above, is quite possibly the best culminating coming together of a rock and classical arrangement ever. I’d love to see and hear it live.

Eagle-eyed aficionados of this column will, of course, know that Jeff Lynne has already featured here, as one of the Travelling Wilburys, in CSFTD #35.

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