Electric Light Orchestra or ELO was a British rock group known for its so-called “chamber rock” or “symphonic rock”. During their active years ELO spawned a lot of Top 10 hits in the US and in the UK but without having achieved a #1 single to date. Jeff Lyne has remained the core member since its formation in Birmingham, England in 1970. Lynne, singer-songwriter/musician Roy Wood (formerly of the Move) as well as drummer Bev Bevan co-founded ELO in 1970, and of course were the band’s original founders.
After a few hit singles in the UK, ELO slowly were gaining foothold in the US, with their fourth LP Eldorado, the first of their concept albums, gained their first US gold certification. The album’s single “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” became their first US Top 10 hit. They were gaining much more buzz and success in the US than in the UK but by the time the group’s sixth LP A New World Record was released, ELO were ignored no more in their native land. A New World Record yielded the singles “Livin’ Thing”, “Do Ya”, “Rockaria!” and “Telephone Line” which were major hits on both sides of the Atlantic. ELO had an incredibly full schedule, continuing their extensive tours just in the US alone to promote their albums. 1977’s Out The Of Bluespawned singles such as “Turn To Stone”, “Mr. Blue Sky”, “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, “Wild West Hero”. Jeff Lyne also composed the half of the Xanadu film soundtrack and also the album, which became also a success. In the 1980s, ELO disbanded, and Bevan, who also had rights to the ELO name, formed ELO Part II in the late 1980s up to the late 1990s when he sold his interest of the name back to Lynne the following year. ELO reformed in 2000 to release their boxed set Flashback, containing remastered tracks as well as studio outtakes.
Formation and rise in the UK music scene
British rock/pop band Electric Light Orchestra seamlessly combined the epic and the cheesy with such aplomb that no other band could ever dare attempt.
The members of Electric Light Orchestra came from two Birmingham-based groups. Roy Wood was the singer-songwriter and guitarist of the band The Move and Jeff Lynne was the front man of The Idle Race. Together, they conceived an idea of making music with lush classical flourishes, to pick up “where the Beatles had left off.”
When another The Move member Carly Wayne quit, Lynne joined Wood in making a whole different project that would realize their musical ambitions. The result was “10538 Overture” which was intended to be a Move B-side, but it landed instead on their new band Electric Light Orchestra’s eponymous 1971 debut album. Other founding members were bass guitarist Rick Price and drummer Bev Bevan. During the making of their debut album they had been joined by other musicians Bill Hunt (horns, keyboards) and violinist Steve Woolam.
The album Electric Light Orchestra was released in the US as No Answer. In the UK it reached #32, helped by “10538 Overture” which peaked at #9 on the singles chart there. Woolam left ELO before the band’s reshuffling of lineup that now consisted of Wood, Lynne, Bevan, Hunt, new violinst Wilfred Gibson and cellists Hugh McDowell, Mike Edwards and Andy Craig, and bassist Richard Tandy. Price and Craig would be soon out as well, and Michael D’Alberquerque soon took Price’s place as bass guitarist and Colin Walker joined as another cellist.
Wood and Hunt left ELO to form their own band Wizzard. In Wood’s absence Lynne stepped up to become the group’s new leader, as well as primary songwriter. In 1973, Electric Light Orchestra released their second album ELO 2, whose cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was the group’s first charting single in the US (at #42). In 1973, ELO released On the Third Day which yielded two UK hits “Showdown” and “Ma-Ma-Ma-Belle.”
In 1974, the band issued their fourth LP El Dorado (also known as El Dorado, A Symphony) which yielded their first US Top Ten hit “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” (at #9). El Dorado charted as high as #31 on the Billboard 200, becoming their first gold album. D’Alberquerque quit and bassist/vocalist Kelly Groucutt and cellist Melvyn Gale joined the band. In 1975, the newly revamped ELO released their fifth studio album Face The Music which ironically failed to chart in their homeland, but was a big hit in the US at #11. The album’s single “Evil Woman” went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100, and it became one of the band’s most popular songs.
ELO followed up Face the Music‘s success with 1976’s A New World, which was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic (peaking at #6 on both US and the UK), leading to its first platinum certification. The single from the album “Strange Music” went to #14 and “Telephone Line” became another Top Ten pop hit (at #7). ELO released their first compilation album Ole ELO which peaked at #32 on the Billboard 200.
The double-LP Out Of The Blue followed in 1977, and it became another hit. Its singles “Turn To Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” were US Top 20 hits (at #13 and and #17, respectively), while the optimistic “Mr. Blue Sky” reached its peak position at #35 (#6 on the UK singles chart). Out Of The Blue became one of Electric Light Orchestra’s most commercially successful albums, going platinum on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in Canada.
In 1979 ELO issued their eighth LP Discovery which was a nod to the emerging disco genre (hence, “disco, very”). Singles such as “Shine A Little Love” (at #8 US, #6 UK) and “Don’t Bring Me Down” (#4 US, #3 UK) became big hits.
In the meantime, Jeff Lynne pursued other projects outside of ELO. He wrote several songs intended as soundtrack for the 1980 musical Xanadu which starred Olivia Newton-John and featured screen legend Gene Kelly. The film did well (but not spectacularly) at the box office but it earned mixed reviews. However, the soundtrack yielded hits such as the Lynne-penned singles “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World,” both of which became Top 20 pop hits. Xanadu‘s title track which closed the film was performed by Newton-John and ELO; it became a hit only in the UK.
In 1981, ELO released their tenth studio album Time, which became only their second #1 UK album chart hit. It yielded their final Top Ten single “Hold on Tight” (#10 US, #4 UK) and the US #38 hit “Twilight.” This was followed by another albumSecret Messages in 1983. Although the album peaked at #4 on the UK album charts, it was clear that their popularity and commercial success were starting to ebb. Following that album’s release, Bevan left the band to join Black Sabbath.
ELO released their last studio album Balance Of Power before disintegrating. It went to #9 on the UK charts and its single “Calling America” was to become their final US Top 20 hit at #18. The album quickly fizzled out due to chart failure of subsequent singles.
In the midst of ELO’s downfall, Lynne otherwise rose as a producer, having helmed albums by George Harrison and Roy Orbison, and joining the two legends together with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty to form the Traveling Wilburys. He would continue working behind the scenes, collaborating on projects with Tom Jones, Joe Cocker as well as with the remaining Beatles for their Anthology albums.
Split and subsequent mini-reunions
ELO was ultimately dissolved in 1988, and in the wake of the disbandment Bevan re-formed his own version of the Electric Light Orchestra together with Neil Lockwood (vocals), Eric Troyer (keyboards), and Pete Haycock (bass). But since Lynne also jointly owned the ELO name with him, Bevan named it as ELO II. They released two LPs Electric Light Orchestra Part Two (1990) and Moment Of Truth (1994) until Bevan sold his share of the ELO name back to Lynne in 1999. Lynne and ELO embarked on a successful tour at the ushering of the new millennium, and in 2001 the band released Zoom, which peaked at #34 on the UK album chart.
Lynne departed from ELO to work on his own musical projects (most notably Harrison’s posthumously-released album Brainwashed and Tom Petty’s Highway Companion) before returning to the fold in 2012. That year he released the latest compilation Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra and in 2013 released the live album Electric Light Orchestra Live which also contained two previously unheard-of studio tracks.
The Electric Light Orchestra’s ambitious yet compelling brand of pop music fused with classical sensibilities made them one of the top-selling acts in the 1970s. The band has sold over fifty million records worldwide.