Here’s something I haven’t done in a while: A long-form music feature published somewhere other than this blog. My buds Jon Mann and Derek Hawkins — two men of many talents, whom New Yorkers of a certain persuasion might recognize as the dual frontmen of the Brooklyn punk/powerpop band Sunset Guns [RIP]– edit[ed] and contribute[d] to a really fun blog called Square Zeros [RIP — 2021 edits], which has a couple different functions. One is the online home of the Square Zeros podcast, in which Jon and Derek talk to active musicians about their very first bands, revisiting recordings their guests had made as teenagers. The other is the “In Defense Of…” series, in which musicians, writers and aficionados write about records or musical acts they love, but that are somehow underappreciated. That doesn’t mean those acts are unpopular. In fact, in most cases in this series, the act at the center of the story is extremely popular, or at least was for a brief moment. But in most cases, the writer thinks the act isn’t taken seriously enough by people of “discerning taste,” and sets about explaining what they hear in this record that makes it special to them. The best “In Defense Of…” posts get into some really interesting questions about art and fanship and subjective experience: Do I like this record because it’s good, or because I first heard it at a pivotal time in my life? What do my perceived tastes say about my hang-ups and prejudices? What do the things I like say about the person I think I am?
Turns out I’ve been writing an “In Defense Of…” column in my head about one of my 25 or so favorite albums for the past, I don’t know, seven years. After Derek posted my story about my deep, strange personal relationship to the Electric Light Orchestra album A New World Record, a number of people chimed in, saying something like, “Huh, I had no idea ELO needed defending.” And to that I say, “HANG OUT WITH ME FOR A WHILE THE NEXT TIME I MENTION THEM IN CONVERSATION.” I have been defending ELO ever since I got into their music. Thing is, ELO is one of those bands that, ever since their run of big hits in the ’70s ended, has remained always kind of popular, but never quite fashionable. Gush about their music, and for every three high fives, you’ll get a raised eyebrow and a derisive smirk. Being an ELO fan is kind of like being a fan of, say, Pizza Hut. Finding people who are on the same page as you is easy, but everywhere you go, someone is going to think you’re kind of lame for that opinion.
Anyway, this story is a little bit about A New World Record, and a little bit about that period in a young person’s life when you finally feel like you’re an adult, and you simultaneously get the feeling you’re failing at adulthood.
You can read the whole thing by clicking on this link to my guest post on Square Zeros. [Update from 2021 It’s Brian LaRue relaunch: Square Zeros is done, Jon and Derek have both moved onto other cool things, Derek was on a team at the Washington Post that won a Pulitzer, no kidding; it’s been a wild however-many years. The entire original post from Square Zeros is now reprinted below.]
One summer day some years back, a friend of mine came by my apartment while I was casually blasting the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1976 LP A New World Record on my stereo. I opened the front door to him chuckling loudly. “Oh, hey,” he said. “How’s your ironic appreciation of ELO going?”
“Look, man,” I spat back. “There’s nothing ironic about my appreciation of this record. It’s seen me through some shit.” He laughed again. “I’m serious!,” I insisted.
I’ve been down this road before. When you cite A New World Record as an album that was there for you when it seemed like hardly anything or anyone else was, and that continues to resonate with you emotionally, you’re going to see some raised eyebrows.
I get it, though. The Electric Light Orchestra isn’t cool. There is nothing cool about Jeff Lynne, the talented singer, guitarist, main songwriter, arranger and producer behind ELO. Jeff Lynne is rock’n’roll’s embarrassing uncle, a bearded, shades-wearing schlub who never was handsome, never really looked young, may have never written a legitimately good lyric, and doesn’t handle musical subtlety very well. When I point to the cover of A New World Record and say, “The great thing about this album is, I feel like on it, Jeff Lynne understands my pain,” I don’t expect to be taken seriously. I’m serious though.
Little background. ELO’s roots lie in the earlier psych-rock-turned-art-pop band The Move, around the dawn of the ’70s. The Move were cool, because they were an excellent English rock band that never became successful in the U.S. At the time, Lynne had just been inducted into The Move, and he and Move guitarist Roy Wood hatched Wood hatched an idea to start a new band that would “pick up” where The Beatles “left off” after Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a sentiment that probably sounded incredibly pompous in 1970 and certainly sounds incredibly eye-rolling today. Now, Roy Wood was cool. He was regarded as something of a mercurial genius, and he didn’t stick around with any one band long enough to become a full-on rock star, thus cementing his permanent “cult” (cool) status. Even after breaking up The Move to focus on his new band with Lynne, the Electric Light Orchestra, Wood was restless and left to form Wizzard after ELO’s first album. This left Lynne at the helm of ELO, and Lynne’s ELO was the one that achieved worldwide fame and eternal dorkiness.
ELO’s legacy lies upon a string of records that are both supremely well-crafted and singularly cheesy. Their biggest hits tended to be overwrought, dumb ballads (“Can’t Get It Out of My Head,” “Strange Magic”); blustery, dumb rockers (“Do Ya,” “Don’t Bring Me Down”); or bouncy, overstuffed, very white toe-tappers (“Evil Woman,” “Turn to Stone,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”). These are all great bar jukebox songs, and they fit in so well with a few archetypally ’70s musical tropes that, as Jon Mann pointed out to me, a casual listener to classic rock or oldies radio might not even realize they came from the same band. Fun, but probably nothing a cool person would be inclined to put on after coming home from the bar and staring out into the night, totally alone and unfulfilled.
Seriously, though, I’m gonna get there. Give me a minute.
In 2006, I was living in New Haven, CT, and writing for the local alt-weekly newspaper, the New Haven Advocate, where my role was basically that of “20-something indie rock guy in residence.” Young, moody and over-eager, I was settling into the gig just enough to feel comfortable raising my opinionated voice. That’s when the first review copies of the remastered versions of the Electric Light Orchestra’s catalogue landed in the office. I’d picked up the mail on whatever day the first discs hit, and I scoffed loudly upon opening the package. “Electric Light Orchestra? Come awwwnnnn.”
My editor, Chris Arnott, an arts polymath — and also, like me, a great lover of punk rock, garage rock and powerpop — glanced up from his desk. “Oh,” he said. “Well, let me ask you. What do know about ELO?”
“Not much,” I said. “Weren’t they just one of those pretentious prog rock bands that funded their albums with tossed-off pop singles?”
Chris smiled mysteriously and nodded, but not in a way that suggested he agreed with me. “I think…” he said, “I think you’re in for a surprise.”
I was curious. As a teenager in the late ’70s, Chris had fallen in with the first wave of punks in Boston. As a college student in the early ’00s, I had read Chris’ work in the New Haven Advocate almost religiously, taken as I was by both his intellect and his affinity for frayed, skewed pop. Later on, while working with him, he turned me on to a wealth of brilliant, too-weird-to-be-popular rock’n’roll. I’d thought ELO was one of those tired old stadium bands the original punks were railing against. So if they were good enough for Chris… well, that was worth my attention.
As the reissues trickled in over the next few months, we fell into a ritual in the newsroom. Each time a new CD arrived, Chris would load it into his computer on Thursday, our big deadline day, when we all stayed at the office late, and play it back to the office on repeat until we were done. I realized, through a crash course in the first five albums, I was kind of wrong about ELO. The thing about those records is, they’re fun. Sure, they’re ridiculous — this was a band that included two full-time cellists and that covered both “Roll Over Beethoven” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” with equal aplomb — but they’re fun, playful and winking and packed with melody after melody. The Electric Light Orchestra is a weird little art-rock record with a homemade, at times rickety feel, anchored by the magnificent “10538 Orchestra.” ELO II and On the Third Day push the formula a little farther, with extended song-suites brushing up against blown-out rock’n’roll rave-ups. Eldorado nor Face the Music turned more overtly pop. I didn’t love any of those records, but I respected them.
Through the spring and summer of 2006, an interesting thing happened: My life kind of started falling apart, or at least it seemed that way. In the newsroom, we went from having seven full-time editorial staffers to three, plus one very dedicated freelancer. None were layoffs — it’s just that the turnover is high at alt-weeklies, and four people decided in rapid succession to move on to something else. Management was in no position to replace anyone immediately, because we were in the process of assembling the “Annual Manual,” the biggest issue of any calendar year for us, a comprehensive guide to music venues, art galleries, restaurants, bars, independent retailers, community resources and recreational opportunities up and down the Connecticut shoreline. Suddenly those of us who were left were working 60 or 70 hours per week to pick up the slack. I rarely saw daylight, aside from my walk to work in the morning. At night, I was habitually dulling the edge by dousing it in gallons of cheap bourbon, which certainly didn’t help make my rare days off any more pleasant or productive.
Meanwhile, my personal life was in absolute turmoil. I’d been sharing an apartment with my best friend, who was also the bass player in my band. For reasons I’ll perhaps never know — we never had a falling out, nor even a simple disagreement about anything — he stopped speaking to me or coming to band practices in April, and in May, a week before the lease was up, I came home to find all of his possessions gone.
I broke up with my then-girlfriend in June, after months of trying to do so and her musing on suicide every time I brought up the subject. I split up with her, painfully and with much self-loathing, only after realizing that if she did something terrible to herself, it would be her decision, and the catalyst was almost certainly something much deeper than the time she and I had spent together.
In July, I had the second great breakdown of my adult life. Overworked, reeling from the unexplained loss of my best friend, drinking heavily and no longer pouring my energy into solving my girlfriend’s problems, I entered a deep depression that peaked, comically enough, on a morning when, while walking to work, I stood at a crosswalk through four cycles of the “walk” signal because the mere question of crossing or not crossing the street seemed totally meaningless.
Much like Jeff Lynne in A New World Record’s emotional centerpiece, “Telephone Line,” I was living in twilight.
And that’s when A New World Record hit the office. It was another Thursday, another weekday when I was exhausted, heartbroken, depressed, hung over and feeling distinctly cut off from all of my surroundings. “Tightrope” started playing, with its ominous, creeping opening bass line and portentous chord changes, the strings sawing away suspensefully. Dang, I hope this is the next ELO reissue, I thought. Then the violins broke into a dissonant whine, out of which the whole band came roaring in at a new, rollicking tempo, Jeff Lynne’s treated guitar braying jubilantly over it. Oh, duh, this is the next ELO reissue, I thought.
You can understand a lot about A New World Record from just its first minute. This is a highly bipolar album. And for me — a person with bipolar personality disorder caught at a particularly intense time — I really felt that. Granted, one of the hallmarks of bipolarity is the habit of seeing profundity in even the most mundane places; you’re just ripe for profundity, man. A New World Record takes the bipolar person’s swoop from utter collapse to unreasonable confidence and runs with it for 35 minutes.
One of the main reasons A New World Record continues to work so well, I think, is Lynne’s vocal performance. While his giddy turns on later hits “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” might get more airplay, on A New World Record’s ballads, Lynne sounds wounded, his quavering voice set against technically flawless, almost robotic backing vocal harmonies. In “Telephone Line,” the backing vocals reference “blue days, black nights” amidst doo-wah doo-langs, while Lynne practically sobs his way through, leading up to a tremendous third verse where he swoops from a fragile falsetto to a full-on holler. (It doesn’t even matter that it’s probably impossible to not burst out laughing when, in a song about his love interest not picking up the phone, he sings, “Okayy… so no one’s annnswering…”) Lynne murmurs his way through “Mission,” a song that might have something to do with space travel, sounding absolutely gutted. (A police siren cuts through the first verse, for reasons that are unclear. It’s a dramatically lonely sound, for reasons that are also unclear.)
The rockers on A New World Record are as delightfully ham-fisted as anything ELO ever recorded. Take “Rockaria.” This is one of those big, dumb rockers Jeff Lynne probably wrote in 20 minutes, and it’s firmly in the classic line of “I’m a ‘rock’n’roll guy’ who’s gonna teach a ‘classical music girl’ about rock’n’roll” songs. That lesson evidently means shouting “WOAH WOAH WOAH” and “YEAH YEAH YEAH” while sounding like a total dork. This is, I’d say, part of why this album works: Lynne’s vulnerable, broken moments make his blustering, aggressive dopiness seem sympathetic and endearing. By the time “Rockaria” comes around, we’ve already heard “Telephone Line.” We know he’s not this cool, tough guy, but he wants to be. He’s trying to be cool, but he’s not cool, and he’s hurting. You want to root for a guy like that. You hear it on “Livin’ Thing,” too: This is one of the big, stomping numbers on the album, Lynne and the backing vocalists undercut the optimistic melody with the refrain, “I’m takin’ a dive!” Even on the most upbeat numbers here, there’s this sense that things are about to turn dark or get very weird.
Which brings us to “Do Ya.” “Do Ya” is probably one of the 50 or so greatest rock’n’roll songs ever, even though — or maybe because — it’s completely ridiculous. Over a three-chord pattern, Lynne hollers that he’s seen “BABIES DANCIN’ IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN” and “PIGS ALL SITTING WATCHIN’ PICTURE SLIDES” and an assortment of other things that don’t make any sense; then has the audacity to say, in the last verse, “I THINK YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TRYING TO SAY, WOMAN,” when there is no way she possibly could. Now, I know what you’re saying: “’Do Ya’ is a Move song! The Move recorded it first!” Yeah, I know. But The Move didn’t record it with a sweeping, quasi-orchestral bridge to break up the tension, and The Move certainly didn’t place it in between “Above the Clouds” and “Shangri-La,” in between loss and more loss, for maximum emotional impact. “Above the Clouds,” a strange, jazzy tune that feels like one long verse, segues wonderfully into “Do Ya” — by the time those first three chords hit, the listener hungers for something that direct. And it matters that A New World Record ends not with “Do Ya” but with “Shangri-La,” a song I return to more often than any other on the album. Jeff Lynne’s vocal quavers, even when he pushes it. Even the drum fills, booming in that empty-room sound that characterizes Lynne’s production, sound lonely. And in a surprise coda, the song builds up again in minor-key arpeggios mirroring the album’s opening, as Lynne and a female vocalist trade off lines, wailing, “I will return… to Shangri-La.”
I hoped he’d get there almost as much as I hoped I would.
One Saturday night in October of 2006, I ran into the girl I’d broken up with in June. We hadn’t spoken in months. I walked up to her and said hello. She slapped me in the face.
Hours later, I found her again. She was extremely drunk and looking for her car. Her friends had left. I insisted on driving her home. She agreed, reluctantly, and puked against the passenger door as I pulled up to the curb outside her building. I walked her to her apartment, then set off in search of a very specific afterparty. On the way, my cell phone rang. It was a friend of mine, several states away, practically in tears. She was having a very bad night at a party, with another ex-something and a lot of people she didn’t want to be around.
We talked about it. I sat down on a curb to collect my thoughts. She did the same. “I would’ve had a much better night,” I said, “if I’d been with you instead.”
I realized I meant it, and that I was probably legitimately in love with her.
“I would have, too,” she said. “I wish we could have just been together instead.”
Two months later, we would be. We ended up spending 2007 as a Thing, in the first truly healthy romance of my life.
But I didn’t know that yet. I knew I was going to an afterparty, where I strode in through the back door, seized a High Life from the fridge, and walked into the living room, where the host held court over a pair of turntables. He looked up at me, took a drag from his cigarette, and winked at me.
A minute later, he dropped the needle on another record. I heard a familiar telephone pulse. “Hello?” sang Jeff Lynne’s voice, tentatively. “How a-are you?”
I’m sure a few people were wondering why I was climbing onto their backs, singing along to ELO’s “Telephone Line,” at that moment. But you probably get it.
I’ll serve as an Electric Light Orchestra apologist any night of the week, even though no other ELO album has ever struck me in the gut like A New World Record. Maybe it was the best album they put out, or maybe it was the right time for me to hear it. But every time I put it on, I know Jeff Lynne and I were on the same page. I have seen the darkness and the light, and while I don’t know when or how, I will return to Shangri-La, motherfuckers. I will return.
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