June 27, 2014 by Josh Weiss
If you’ve ever watched a movie set in the 1970s, chances are you probably heard at least one song by Electric Light Orchestra, a British rock group whose music, aside from being extremely entertaining, has become a permanent fixture of ’70s pop culture for their unique sound — a defining feature of the time like afros, bell bottoms and the word “groovy.” Their sound is the ingenious fusion of modern rock and pop songs with classical arrangements of violins, cellos, strings basses, horns and woodwinds (hence the “Orchestra” part).
In addition, ELO wouldn’t be what it was if not for Jeff Lynne, the lead vocalist who wrote and arranged all of the group’s original songs, produced every album, played multiple instruments, and who ended up being the longest-running band member.
Starting with their debut single “10538 Overture” (most recently featured in David O. Russell’s “American Hustle”) on its first record “The Electric Light Orchestra,” the Birmingham England-based group released a steady stream of hits between 1971 and 1986 across twelve albums.
In particular, one of those albums, “Discovery,” just celebrated its 35th anniversary. Released in the late spring/early summer of 1979, it was the group’s first number one record in the United Kingdom, retaining that position for five weeks. It also contains one of the two ELO songs that you’re probably most familiar with, “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Their biggest hit in the US and the last entry on the record’s B side, this song is one of the louder and rockier songs on the album with its recognizable electric guitar riff; like “Do Ya” and “Rockaria” on their 1976 album, “A New World Record,” it’s a much harsher sound compared to the rest of the songs on the album.
While Lynne wrote it late in the recording sessions, “Down” is probably the most iconic one off the album, having been used in such films as “Donnie Brasco” and “Super 8,” as well as in a few television shows and a video game.
Perhaps one of the oddest and most unique songs from “Discovery” is “The Diary of Horace Wimp,” which tells the story of an introverted guy who finds love thanks to the advice from “a voice from above.” What sets “Horace” apart is its extensive use of the vocoder, a machine that is used to reproduce human speech, which imparts a robotic vibe to the entire piece.
“Confusion” contains a similar sound, but was created with a synthesizer, a Yamaha CS-80, instead. “Wimp” has been called “Beatlesque” and compared to an earlier ELO song from their 1977 album “Out of the Blue:” “Mr. Blue Sky.”
“Last Train to London” and “Shine a Little Love” are the most period-specific songs on the album with their more disco-like beats. This isn’t surprising as the disco era was in full swing in 1979; The Bee Gees’ hits like “Stayin’ Alive” and “You Should Be Dancing” had brought the genre into the mainstream only two years previously with “Saturday Night Fever.”
In fact, the disco influence was so heavy that ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy nicknamed the album “Disco Very.” In particular, “Shine” features a forty-piece string section and electric guitar, resulting in a groovy fusion of classic and modern sensations.
“Discovery” slows down quite a bit when you reach “Need Her Love,” “Midnight Blue,” and “Wishing,” tender songs about love in one way or another.
“Need” features almost no guitar, allowing the cellos, violin and keyboard to create an ethereal and lofty background. “Blue” and “Wishing” have similar set-ups, but the bass is a lot more recognizable in an almost soulful kind of way. The more poppy “On The Run” speeds things up and contains a more spritely variation of the well-known keyboard sounds of the ’60s. Its energy mirrors that of “So Fine” from “A New World Record.”
Like any ELO album since 1976, the album artwork of “Discovery” features the famous Kosh-designed Simon-ish logo, which is actually based on a Wurlitzer jukebox model from 1946. Music videos were also produced for each song, containing colorful animations of pinball machines and neon hot dogs, as well as Lynne, complete with perm and dark glasses.
Also worth checking out is the 2001 edition, which features previously unreleased tracks — like a cover of Del Shannon’s “Little Town Flirt,” a homage to the doo-wop ’50s tunes that inspired Lynne to become a musician.
Like any worthy classic rock group, ELO deserves to be enjoyed in vinyl and all of its scratchy glory. While it didn’t produce a ton of hits, it’s a great example of the band’s distinctive craft and their dabbling in a genre specific to the decade. What better great way to end off the 70s?!
They, like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin, proved that Brits could create some damn good rock ’n’ roll. But, while bands like Zeppelin were known for their hard rock, ELO was different with more melodic and lyrical songs.
So while enjoying your summer, forego the dub step and rap and enjoy some of the aforementioned songs. It would be an awful shame to see such a great band fall into obscurity. To quote “Livin’ Thing,” “What a terrible thing to lose.”