Thursday, May 25, 2017

[music] Jeff Lynne in the 80s

Everybody knows Jeff Lynne's work from the 70s with the Electric Light Orchestra - the seemingly-endless series of bombastic maximalist pop earworms from 1972's 10538 Overture to 1979's Don't Bring Me Down (with Showdown, Evil Woman, Livin' Thing, Do Ya, Sweet Talkin' Woman, Mr. Blue Sky, and so many others falling in-between). He was just inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and on the back of this body of work the only mystery is why it took so long. But what I'm on about today is his lesser-known (or at least lesser-appreciated) work in the 80s, that will always stand in the shadow of that huge string of hits, but I think is still worth attention on its own merits.

The decade started out inauspiciously, as ELO provided most of the soundtrack to the spectacularly ill-conceived roller-disco fantasy musical movie Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John and a long-past-his-prime Gene Kelly. In addition to being a really bad movie (which I actually saw as a kid - because my sister and I were ELO fans, of course!), it was also unlucky enough to be released right as the disco backlash hit, so it was (unsurprisingly) a huge bomb. All that said, divorced from the context of the movie and taken on its own terms, the songs were still pretty good. It's unquestionably total fluff, and undeniably disco, but All Over the World is still an infectious party song that holds up as well as any other song of its genre and got people dancing joyously in the aisles when Jeff Lynne performed it live at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.

A year later, they released the album Time, featuring the song Hold On Tight, which is the last ELO song that "everybody" knows (and the last one I remember from its day - though possibly more from hearing it in coffee commercials than on the radio). After that they disappeared completely from my personal pop-cultural radar and their next two albums went completely unnoticed by me (and seemingly just about everyone else). Even when I rekindled my interest and got back into their 70s-era stuff (by way of a greatest hits CD released in 2001) I'd never bothered listen to them until last year, when I decided to do some deep research ahead of that Bowl show. Which is a shame because both of those albums contain several songs that I now totally adore.

Secret Messages, released in 1983, is the last "proper" ELO album, in that it's the last one that has actual strings and all of the core members of the band's lineup from the 70s. It includes several very good songs, my favorite of which is the lovely ballad Stranger. Balance of Power, from 1986, was released under the Electric Light Orchestra name but it really feels more like a Jeff Lynne solo record and was likely only made to fulfill a contractual obligation. Even the cover art (a plain red background with diagonal stripes forming an E, L, and O (and maybe a face?)) feels like they were barely trying. And yet, on the whole I like the songs on this album better than those on the prior two. Getting to the Point is another beautiful ballad, and both Is It Alright and especially So Serious are, to me, as good as any pop songs released by any artist in the 80s (and, with different style of production, would have fit in perfectly on any of ELO's 70s albums).

The commercial failure and apparent critical indifference towards those albums led ELO to officially call it a day. Jeff Lynne easily could have retired at that point, or spent the next few decades touring state fairs and running through the hits of the 70s, and nobody would have blamed him. He was already a solidly-established legend with a shelf full of gold and platinum records. But that's not the route he went. Instead he went behind the scenes and became a producer for other artists, and arguably his most significant work was just beginning.

From 1987-89, Jeff Lynne produced (and in most cases co-wrote) all of these songs, all of which were huge Platinum-selling hits that are remembered (at least by people with good taste) as some of the best music to come out of that decade, and all of which (once you're listening for it) wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on an ELO record:

Not too bad for somebody who most people had written off as a washed-up relic of the 70s!


  1. Hey! Where's the D&D? You're bringing me down, man!!!! #@%$ YOU!!!!
    Just kidding! ;)
    Seriously, I don't like to pretend knowledge of any music. Honestly? I just listen to anything Jeff Lynne is alright. I recall seeing XANADU with CAN'T STOP THE MUSIC (Bruce Jenner is the male lead with the Village People singing throughout) in 1980 as a double feature. My father was a film fanatic so we saw everything back then. Since then I've seen movies specifically written for a gay audience (I have a lot of gay friends) but you're just not going to get any gayer than that double feature! ;)
    As far as the Wilbury sound its good although I like the principals on their own better. Wasn't Ringo in a pseudo-Wilburys video? I don't remember which.

    1. Don't worry, I've still got some more D&D stuff lined up in the post-queue. This post is mostly because when we were moving we had an ELO playlist on in the background and whenever songs from the 80s albums would come up at first I wouldn't recognize them but then I'd be like "hey, this is pretty good" and I got thinking about how most people think of Jeff Lynne/ELO as strictly a 70s thing and write off anything after that, but that to me his later stuff was good too and deserves more attention. Which actually is a D&D parallel that I could've made, because a lot of "old school" D&D fans have the same attitude towards Gary Gygax - they'll talk all day about how much they love the DMG and G3 and S1, but try to bring up his stuff from the 80s (or later) and they don't want to hear a word of it.

  2. I love listening to total crap these days there is this radio station over in New Jersey that plays total reject records in the morning that I've become addicted to. They had me with disco polka. ;)

  3. Love me some Jeff Lynne!

    Also, wasn't the guy in Xanadu also from The Warriors? It's been a while since I watched it.

    1. Yes he was. I bow to your superior Xanadu-fu. Accordingly to IMDB he was also in Megaforce, which I remember thinking was really, really cool back in the glorious summer of '82.

    2. The only reason I remember is because I had the biggest crush on Olivia Newton John when I was a kid (was that around 1980? I know that Airplane! came out in '80, and I remember watching that movie on another screen at a drive-in when our folks took us to see Xanadu. Memory association for the win!)

  4. Anyone remember the comic book ads "ARE YOU MAN ENOUGH FOR MEGA-FORCE?" for the membership into Mega-Force? "SORRY, GENE, BUT YOU'RE NOT 80's BUTCH ENOUGH FOR MEGA-FORCE...."

  5. My favorite Jeff Lynn is from earlier...

  6. Yours Truly, 2095
    Ticket to the Moon
    From the End of the World
    Here is the News

    What an outstanding quadrilogy of SF songs!

    Oh, and (the not SF) Hold on Tight is not a bad song either...

    Time is a majorly underrated album