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Electric Light Orchestra - Out Of The Blue CD (album) cover

OUT OF THE BLUE

Electric Light Orchestra

 

Crossover Prog

3.57 | 185 ratings

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ClemofNazareth
Special Collaborator
Prog Folk Researcher
4 stars For me the best music is the music that has a personal story wrapped around it to give it some lasting context. Some fans get irritated by these kinds of reviews. They only want to know one thing – is the music good? Well, my opinion is – that really depends. Some of the most technically proficient music in modern times has also been some of the most boring to listen to (see the term “supergroup” on Wikipedia for several good examples on this point). By the same token, some of the most memorable music would certainly not be too challenging for even a modestly talented grammar-school student to play (see…… never mind – you get the idea). And anyway, the people who hate stories with their reviews have stopped reading already anyway, so here we go. Props to the dreamers.

This album was released late in 1977. ELO was certainly not an unknown band, having had all six of their previous studio albums chart in the UK, US, or both, and having produced a whole pile of hit singles. But Out of the Blue arguably marked the peak of their professional career. It’s not the most progressive album, but then this was ELO so really – expectations were already set. The vinyl release was four sides of highly accessible, mostly upbeat, often danceable, and extremely well-produced pop music with just the right hint of sophistication with Mik Kaminski’s violin and the twin cellos of Hugh Mc Dowell and Melvyn Gale. Really, only my opinion but if it weren’t for the strings this album (and much of ELO’s other work in the latter 70s and early 80s) would be considered nothing more than dance pop. Some people consider it that anyway, but again – those people probably haven’t made it this far into my ramblings, so que será.

It came out late in 1977, but really only started to make a big impression over on my side of the big pond during that latter part of the winter of 1977-1978. Times really were slower then, MTV wasn’t around, and Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet, so it often took weeks after an album hit the stores before people started to really notice it.

But “Turn to Stone” was out around Christmas that year, and for a fifteen year-old kid who had just moved with my family more than 1,000 miles away from my girlfriend, that chorus line just ripped me apart on many a late night as I listened to it on the radio –

“I turn to stone when you are gone, I turn to stone. Turn to stone, when you comin’ home, I can’t go on.”

“Mr. Blue Sky” came out around spring, and I remember thinking Jeff Lynne must be some kind of a genius to put out such a happy tune, just a little ditty about the joy of waking up in the morning to a sunny day, just around the time the snow was melting away and the birds were returning to our little town –

“Runnin’ down the avenue, see how the sun shines brightly in the city on the streets where once was pity,

Mr. Blue Sky is living here today”.

This is the song that started rumors about hidden messages being put into ELO records, with that weird keyboard thing at the end that sounds like someone telling you to turn the record over. The guitars, like many Lynne tunes, are heavily Beatles-influenced, and I read an interview that said the clunky sounding cymbal sounds early in the song were actually drummer Bev Bevan hammering away on a fire extinguisher. Regardless, this was a hit even though it probably shouldn’t have been since it’s really not much of a song, but the timing of an early spring release was pure brilliance.

By this time I had pretty much decided to buy the album myself, even though the only cash I had coming in was from a newspaper delivery route so I was pretty choosy about which albums I would part with cash for. “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” was also on the radio around this time, and by now ELO was one of the biggest radio-play bands in America, especially since some of the stuff from A New World Record was still being played pretty regularly.

After I bought the album I got to hear all of it at once, which turned out to be an advance screening of “Wild West Hero” and “It’s Over”, both of which would be released as singles and show up on the radio later in the year.

The rest of the album includes a number of interesting bits of music that I played until the grooves were pretty much worn out. “Across the Border” had those horns that sounded like something from Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass to me, really out-of- place but charmingly clever amid the soaring keyboards.

“Night in the City” is a song that to me embodies so many sounds of the 70s that it should be used on the soundtrack of any movie made about that period forever. I wonder who I could write to make that happen? I don’t know if that ‘tok…tok…tok…’ in the middle is a cowbell, but if it is that would just be perfect. The cellos on this one surface during the various chorus transitions and really provide a nice flair, almost enough to offset the cheesy vocals. Like I said, this one is all 70s.

“Starlight” is a slow, sort of ballad, but any pretense of seriousness is lost as soon as Lynne’s Robin Gibb-like vocals kick in. No matter, here again the cellos are brief and subtle but add some nice texture.

I don’t know what Lynne was thinking with the truly appalling “Jungle”, but despite the stupid lyrics, hollow vocals, ridiculous percussion, and abrupt ending, I found myself singing along every time I heard it anyway.

More goofy vocals on “Steppin’ Out”, I think bassist Kelly Groucutt sings on this one too as at least one of the backing voices is at least an octave lower than Lynne usually was. The vocoder comes in at the end here too, one of those 70s instruments that was pretty much considered overused any time it was used at all. This one is almost all strings except for the vocals, and I suspect was a big hit in concert.

The third side of the album consists of something called ‘Concerto for a Rainy Day’, since all but “Mr. Blue Sky” have rain themes. There’s a little bit at the beginning of “Standin’ in the Rain” where the cellos and violin do this staccato ‘chop/chop/chop/chop’ thing that I used to think was just to set a kind of tense mood (you know, like the nervous strings in the soundtrack of a horror movie right before the chick gets axed by the bad guy), but I read years later that they are actually pecking out the phrase “E-L- O” over and over in Morse code. I think that Jeff Lynne must have had too much time on his hands on the studio back then. The vocoder announces “Big Wheels” at end as the strings transition to that song. For some reason my older brother totally loved this song, don’t know why. It’s kind of a throwaway really, a slow mellow tune with some nice strings and a brooding, chating backing vocals track, but nothing to write home about for sure.

The last track on the ‘Concerto’ is “Summer and Lightning”, a sort of love-and-hate tune about a summer love that is headed for the rocks. This is another forgettable song except for the lead-in vocals to the chorus (“Hear it comes again….”), and the abrupt tempo change right before the last chorus which sounds a bit like a throwback to “Jungle”. About half of the lyrics for this song seem to be missing from the liner notes of the original vinyl release too, for some reason.

By the time the last side of the album rolls around you can get a little bit numb from listening to so much upbeat, poppy music along with Lynne’s sugary falsetto, but I can still sit through the whole thing at a single stretch today, so that must be saying something (can’t do that with most other double albums, that’s for sure). “Sweet is the Night” is a song that had to have been made as a closing concert number, and would have been a perfect closing to this album with its multi-vocals choruses and simple guitar riffs. But Lynne decides to go on for a bit, for whatever reason, with an eerie, watery instrumental bit that is also pure 70s, before kicking up eventually into almost an 80s Moody Blues-sounding keyboard meandering bit that actually seems to lose focus at times before fading away.

“Birmingham Blues” is almost devoid of strings, favoring Lynne on guitar instead, although the cellos are still audible in the background from time to time. I guess this is Lynne’s ‘back on the road again’ tour weary song.

The album finally winds to a close with the completely silly “Wild West Hero”, yet another acknowledgement that some musicians weren’t nearly as concerned with propriety and airs back in the 70s as they are now. Lynne actually plays this as serious with a mellow piano and pensive vocals that dream about being a true American wild- west hero of the John Wayne ilk. Whatever. The ragtime piano riffs and comically bluesy guitar are actually pretty funny if you allow yourself to laugh at them, but it’s kind of an odd choice to close such an otherwise well-produced album.

So that’s about it. This will never be seen on a best-of list next to Genesis or King Crimson, but I suppose Jeff Lynne managed to buy a few Bentleys with the profits, and it certainly brings back many vivid and happy memories for me. And probably for lots of other middle-aged guys who were young teens at the time. For that it gets its proper due, and four stars.

peace

ClemofNazareth | 4/5 |

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