Here's an interesting factoid-despite having sold a staggering 50 million-plus records over the course of a career that's spanned six decades, the Electric Light Orchestra has never once managed to pull off a number-one single. That's despite having twenty of the Jeff Lynne-led group's songs hit the top 40. That dubious distinction will seem insane to anyone who has every cranked the stereo on a road trip and then played Car Pool Karaoke to "Mr. Blue Sky". Or given ‘er on the air cello to "It's a Livin' Thing". Catch the prog-pop legends tonight (June 26) at Roger's Arena.
COKE-FREE One of the greatest things about the ’70s was the excess, and not just in the studio. Drugs weren’t just part of the landscape, they were the landscape, with cocaine being the favoured creative fuel of anyone with a record deal and a taste for bombast. Given the over-the-top opulence of singles like “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, one might assume that Jeff Lynne was packing the white stuff into every available orifice with a tablespoon. Wrong. While he’s copped to enjoying a drink or 13 on occasion, the veteran musician made a conscious decision not to partake in the party back in the days when Stevie Nicks was hoovering half of Columbia’s most famous export. In 2012 he told Clash magazine, “The reason why I never got into the touring part and got into trouble doing that stuff—I didn’t do drugs or any of that.” Such was his aversion to drugs that it’s actually hard to find him talking about them, perhaps because they were never really part of his world. If you want more, head to this Reddit post, where the thread includes the following quote which is attributed to Lynne: “I’ve never even tried cocaine, never wanted it. The first joint I ever had was in 1980. I never got into the drug thing at all. [When you create] you’ve got to be dead straight... If I ever smoke dope now, I can’t play anything. I can only listen back, but as far as performing goes, it just makes it worse.”
UNLIKELY INFLUENCES ELO has often been compared to the Beatles, that having everything to so with Lynne’s love of cellos, violins, violas, and any other stringed instrument normally found in the orchestra pit. But in an interview with Louder, he suggested that his affection for orchestral pop didn’t come from listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” 200 times a day in the ’60s. Instead, he argues his songwriting sensibilities were shaped by his father’s love of both classical composers and, more puzzlingly, postwar English comedian and working-class musician George Formby. “My dad was a big George Formby fan,” Lynne said, “and I used to hear lots of that when I was a kid. He also loved classical, so it all got mixed together somehow: George Formby doing classical!”
iT'S A SHITTY THING One of ELO’s most classical-sounding songs is “Livin’ Thing”, which is marked fabulously by what sounds like a small platoon of string players. Thanks to purposely vague lyrics like “It’s a livin’ thing/It’s a terrible thing to lose/It’s a given thing/What a terrible thing to lose,” fans have read the song as being about everything from a right-to-life nightmare to a parakeet that someone managed to let escape the house. In 2014, Lynne told the Daily Telegraph that the smash hit may, or may not have, had its roots in a case of food poisoning. “I shouldn’t tell you that, you’ll never be able to listen to it the same again,” he said. “The song has been interpreted in so many different ways. People think it’s about abortion, suicide, saving the whale, I’ve heard all kinds of things. I wouldn’t want anyone to think it’s about a bad paella on a Spanish holiday.”
(ADMITTEDLY BELATED) RESPECT! Time is a funny thing. Thanks to bloated atrocities like Rick Wakeman’s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, anything that smelled vaguely like prog became a rock ’n’ roll punchline after the birth of punk rock. And things didn’t get any better as hair metal gave way to grunge, rap-rock, and electronica. Indeed, when ELO attempted a North American tour in 2001 it was abruptly cancelled due to nonexistent ticket sales. But over the years, left-leaning cult acts like the Flaming Lips and the Super Furry Animals have cited the group’s work as an important influence. Daft Punk has shown its fandom by sampling “Evil Woman” and building a light show that nods to the ELO video for "Last Train to London". Setting the stage for the band’s current tour was a return to action in 2015 at a festival in London’s Hyde Park. “The concert was a total shock to me,” Lynne told the Financial Times, “because I thought that after so long of not doing shows like that there wouldn’t be anyone there, they might have gone home after whoever was on before,” Lynne says with a laugh. “But they stayed the whole day. They were fantastic, the fans there, absolutely marvellous. Fifty thousand of them all cheering and singing along. It was beautiful. That was probably the nicest concert I’ve done.”