They were six fine English boys
Who knew each other in Birmingham
They bought a drum and guitar
Started a rock-roll band
And Johnny played the little violin
And Bobby Joe played the big violin
The one that stands on the floor
They were all in the rock-roll band
Right off, they needed a name
Someone said, "How 'bout the Renegades?"
Johnny said, "Well, I don't know.
I prefer ELO."
That semiaccurate treatise on the origins of the Electric Light Orchestra (its members were from Birmingham) appeared in a 1979 Randy Newman song titled "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band."
Rock lay dormant on Top 40 radio that disco-drenched year, but ELO was at the peak of its commercial popularity. Yet despite the neoclassical combo's five-million-selling double album Out of the Blue and its three hit singles, most pop fans probably shared Newman's ignorance of the band's lineup. Was there a Bobby Joe, a Johnny or even a short person who didn't deserve to live toiling away in ELO's ranks? Not exactly. But once upon a time, ELO did consist of a Roy, a Jeff and a Bev. Roy Wood, leader of the legendary British rock band the Move, co-founded the Electric Light Orchestra with fellow Movers Jeff Lynne and Bev Bevan. Lynne and Wood shared vocal and writing duties for the group until its second album, Electric Light Orchestra II. Wood's overriding desire to blend brass with cellos led him to bolt the string-laden group shortly after ELO II. Discounting one baroque cover of "Roll Over Beethoven," every song ELO recorded from then on was sung, written and produced by Jeff Lynne.
Before he became a Traveling Wilbury, though, Lynne enjoyed about as much name recognition as drummer Bev Bevan, who never wrote anything for ELO. Even so, it's Bevan (the only livin' thing to be in both ELO and the Move since day one) who recently embarked on a 35-city ELO tour of America--not Lynne.
Of course, this isn't the first time a drummer who pounded away in the shadows moved to the head of the class by default. You may recall the notorious touring version of the Byrds, whose one original member was drummer Michael Clarke. He neither sang nor wrote any of the Byrds' hits, nor even played drums very well.
At least Bevan enlisted original ELO alumni Kelly Groucutt (bass), Mik Kaminski (violin) and Louis Clark (who collaborated with Lynne on most of the original band's string arrangements) to bolster his claim to the ELO legacy.
Besides, in a concert hall, as long as ELO Part II plays the repertoire of hits passably and keeps the laser beams a-coming, no one will really be the wiser.
Bevan, who once pummeled the pagan skins behind Black Sabbath during one of ELO's lulls, was determined to script a new chapter in ELO's saga--one in which he would exercise some creative control. In 1990, he affixed "Part II" to ELO's already ponderous moniker and added two new voices and writers to the band's familiar sound--Eric Toyer (keyboards) and Phil Bates (guitars).
It's Bates who chats about the new album Moment of Truth by telephone from Boosier, California. Lynne's reputed aversion to interviews led to Bevan's becoming the group's spokesman during the band's heyday. But with Bevan now vaulted to leadership status, it's up to Bates--a former Trixter member and veteran of ELO Part II for all of three years--to field questions on ELO's illustrious past. So you can forget about hearing great stories about the old days. Instead, you'll get Bates' humble candor about the large boots this "new band" has to fill.
"It's really hard," Bates says, chuckling wearily about Part II's struggle to gain acceptance in the States. "The band's been absent from this country for a long, long time. The last U.S. tour the first ELO did was in 1981. It's really a building process for us over here."
While recent audiences in Europe and the rest of the world got the classic, full-blown ELO live production--complete with lasers and the gargantuan flying saucer/Wurlitzer jukebox prop the group used to perform inside on big arena dates--American audiences are flying economy class. And rightly so. It hardly seems practical for the band to bring an oversize mother ship to such downsize venues as Mr. Laffs in Sunrise, Florida, and Jitterbugs in Nacogdoches, Texas.
With the melodious and melancholy single "One More Tomorrow" steadily gaining airplay in New York and Boston, though, the band's fortunes could be on the upswing. In fact, a U.S. tour with a full 45-piece orchestra is in the planning stages for next spring. But don't expect Jeff Lynne to have his boarding pass at the ready. Ever.
"I don't think Jeff feels one way or the other about ELO, to be honest," Bates says with a sigh. "When Bev wanted to put the band together in 1990, [Lynne] had no interest at all. To him ELO is history."
That's not altogether true. Lynne obviously cared enough about preserving the history and image of the ELO he fronted that he kept Bev Bevan and a bevy of attorneys busy for three years hammering out the legal ramifications of the band's continuing without Lynne. In the end, it was agreed that "Part II" would neatly divide ELO's past and present, although it's not known if the name "Electric Light Orchestra NOT Featuring Jeff Lynne" was ever seriously entertained.
"It's fair on everyone," reckons Bates. "Part II shows that Jeff's not a part of it, which was important to him and to us." While no one can take anything away from Lynne's songwriting ("On record, Jeff Lynne was ELO," gushes Bates. "Personally, I think he's one of the greats, right behind Lennon and McCartney."), his showmanship on the concert stage is fair game. "Jeff didn't like to play live and didn't project much in a live situation," says Bates. "In terms of performing, this band is a better band than the old one because the whole band enjoys doing it."
It's tempting to view this ELO saga as a milder rehash of the Roger Waters versus David Gilmour/Pink Floyd debate of a few seasons past. Bates is quick to make the distinction. "Roger Waters wasn't totally responsible for Pink Floyd, though he'd like to think he was. He did a lot of the writing, but Pink Floyd basically sounds the same now as when Roger was involved. We sound similar to the old ELO, but we don't want to sound the same. Even Jeff doesn't sound the same. He's moved on, and that's what everyone else had done."
Moved on, and, in some cases, moved back. Moment of Truth sports an "Overture," an "Underture" and an "Interlude 3" (which precedes "Interlude 2" which precedes "Interlude 1"). No version of ELO has drawn such blatant allusions to classical music since the 1975 breakthrough album Eldorado, subtitled "A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra."
"What people like most about ELO is the period of A New World Record, where the orchestra was fairly prominent but there were melodies and it still rocks a bit," says Bates. "That's the element we try to keep in Moment of Truth."
Roger Waters termed the first Pink Floyd album made in his absence "a clever forgery," but charging any incarnation of ELO with forgery is pointless. The concept behind the original band, if you can truly call it original, was to pick up where the Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" period left off. Thankfully, no one on Moment of Truth tries to mimic Lynne's vocal style, which regularly alternates between Lennon, Dylan and Jerry Lee Lewis. Only the Bee Gees-like backing harmonies favored by Lynne remain.
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Of the three new lead vocalists, Bates has a singing voice that recalls throaty English blues belters like Chris Farlow and Frankie Miller, while Eric Toyer's high tenor resembles a less annoying Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply. Not surprisingly, ELO elder Kelly Groucutt--who spent years matching Lynne's vocals live and in the studio--sounds the closest to the band's defected leader. Unfortunately, his operatic showpiece "The Fox" sounds like something Andrew Lloyd Webber might throw together if he were to bring Aesop's Fables to Broadway ("The multicolored humans ride/Soon they will find me where I hide"). The first new numbers on Truth are boosted by the kind of carefully planted songwriting hooks that would do Lynne proud. Those quickly trail off, however, leaving us with cringe-inducing dreck like "Whiskey Girls" (think Foreigner with hillbilly fiddles). Like the ELO of old, Part II liberally lifts from classic rock staples; "Whiskey Girl" has the same Keith Richards riff used on Michael Jackson's "Black or White," and the strings part of "Don't Wanna" is a direct nick from Bowie's "Changes." Finally, the album's "Overture" sounds suspiciously like a rearranged "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (that's the 2001 theme, for all you Elvis-in-Vegas fans).
Without a hit album, ELO Part II is yet another summer tour poised to surf the rising wave of Seventies nostalgia. Which isn't exactly a bad thing. The hits bear up to scrutiny, and the new tunes provide a convenient opportunity for fans to take a whiz or score a soda.
Like the Pink Floyd of the Nineties, ELO Part II is hardly breaking new ground. Regardless, a giant cash bonanza would likely be assured if the band would only bring out the spaceship next time around. After all, no less an authority than Jeff Lynne confesses in the liner notes to Strange Magic, a recent ELO retrospective, that "the flying saucer used to go down better than us some nights.