Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Idling & Moving: Jeff Lynne Pre-E.L.O.

The Electric Light Orchestra were responsible for some of the best radio hits of the 70s: "Evil Woman", "Strange Magic", "Livin' Thing", and a host of others which combined Beatles melodicism with smooth 70s strings and over-the-top production which vied with the Bee Gees, Queen, ABBA, and Supertramp for decadently-produced-yet-accessible pop. But ELO always came off as a unit, a pop orchestra rather than a star showcase, and so for many, ELO leader Jeff Lynne was the guy in the Traveling Wilburys who wasn't immediately recognizable. But while it's hard to call him an equal of Roy Orbison or Bob Dylan or George Harrison, he certainly has made his mark on popular music. Before ELO, he was in two celebrated though little-known (in the U.S.) groups, both of which anticipate his later ELO glory, and which are the subject of this post.

The Idle Race (who were from Birmingham) issued only a few albums in the late 60s, but never had any success in the U.S., possibly due to their unmistakable Englishness, which often limits otherwise excellent UK-based bands from catching on in the States, where British pop has often been the stuff of cultists. Their first record, The Birthday Party, was released in 1968 and, with its brief, witty, catchy songs, comes highly recommended to fans of mid-period Beatles and the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society.

Here's "Lucky Man" by the Idle Race:

Lynne left the Idle Race in 1970 to join fellow Birmingham group The Move, which was led by eccentric guitar wizard Roy Wood and had had a string of zippy hits in the UK. Unfortunately, the Move failed to deliver on the promise of their early power-Mod hits, and followed their excellent self-titled 1968 debut with a couple of loud, prog-ish, and ultimately unfocused LPs. Lynne and Wood started to plot a new group, to be called the Electric Light Orchestra, which would expand the sound of rock to include classical motifs and instrumentation, not unlike some the Beatles' more elaborate creations. In the meantime, though, they still owed their record company some Move product. The final Move LP, Message From The Country, from 1971, is something of a stylistic mish-mash, but has many excellent moments, the best of which look forward to the best work of ELO. Lynne and Wood would only make one ELO album together, after which Wood departed to start his own group. But the ELO ball was rolling, and Lynne would go on to pop Xanadu.

From Message From The Country, here's the gorgeous, sweet-and-sour "No Time":

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