The Electric Light Orchestra | No Answer/The Electric Light Orchestra: ELO II (Epic/Legacy)

Taken in the context of their ornate hit singles, the band’s first two albums are a revelatory peek into a soon-to-be-great band finding their feet.

The Electric Light Orchestra has experienced an unexpected pop culture renaissance in recent years. The band’s unique blend of Beatles-aping pop and sunny ’70s production with classical string sections popped up in the soundtrack to the 1997 movie Boogie Nights, and since then classic ELO tracks like “Do Ya” and “Livin’ Thing” have become omnipresent commercial jingles. Best known for singer Jeff Lynne’s catchy melodies and uncanny production ear, ELO released a flurry of essential releases in the mid- to late ’70s that, despite their now somewhat dated sound, are essential listening. Taken in the context of their ornate hit singles, the band’s first two albums are a revelatory peek into a soon-to-be-great band finding their feet.

No Answer, the American release of ELO’s 1972 debut, is light years away from anything the band would later produce. Though Lynne and Roy Wood formed ELO from an already flourishing collaborative partnership, No Answer makes it crystal clear that the two were headed in two diametrically opposed directions with their classical/rock hybrid. Lynne opens the album with the epic, guitar and cello-driven “10538 Overture” (Lynne vocals sounding oddly like Ozzy Osborne would a decade later), but Wood counters it with the baroque “Look at Me Now.” The rest of the album swerves back and forth between these tendencies, Lynne trying his damnedest to be the Beatles on the “Hey Jude”–esque “Nellie Takes Her Bow” and the mellow, piano-driven “Mr. Radio,” but Wood is channeling his inner Bach on the suitably grandiose “The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd, 1664)” and the driving classical guitar of “First Movement.” It’s clear from the dichotomy that the pair’s collaboration was already near its end.

The production is uniformly solid, the sound rich and full throughout; it’s stunning to consider that Lynne, Wood, and drummer Bev Bevan created songs of such stunning complexity virtually single-handedly. Though helped out by horn player Bill Hunt and violinist Steve Woolam, Wood and Lynne piled on the overdubs themselves, Wood playing nine different instruments from near every section of the orchestra. “It’s a pretty wacky one,” Lynne himself concedes in the liner notes of this newly remastered edition, “so innocent yet so bold. It goes to some really strange places.”

Most bands have enough problems overcoming the sophomore slump, but ELO was hit doubly hard with the loss of one of its primary songwriters when Wood left shortly after the sessions for ELO II began. Lynne, Bevan, and their new backing band do a valiant job of picking up the slack, but the album as a whole falls short of the slapdash spectacle of No Answer. Opener “In Old England Town” blends a solid rock track with strings that sound straight out of the soundtrack to the 1980s cartoon Robotech and the light ballad “Momma” lays the groundwork for ELO’s later chart-busting ballads, but both songs begin dragging by the time they reach the end of their near seven-minute runtimes—and these are the shortest songs on the album. All five of the album’s tracks are way longer than they need to be, and Lynne, still adjusting to the role of frontman, had yet to develop his supple half-Lennon/half-McCartney vocals to their full potential. That being said, ELO II is not necessarily a bad album. The band does manage to unleash some fury with its first all-out rocker, a raucous cover of “Roll Over Beethoven” that ingeniously mixes Chuck Berry’s classic with some actual Beethoven (his fifth symphony, to be exact), and the album’s originals are good songs, just overlong. Considering the strength of the band’s later output, however, ELO II is a mere footnote in the context of the band’s complete discography.

Being a reissue, Legacy has naturally thrown in the requisite bonus tracks, mostly of the interesting-but-inessential variety. No Answer gains four alternative takes and remixes, all virtually indistinguishable from their album counterparts. Though ELO II is the weaker album, it gets the better bonus tracks, with a pair of interesting alternate takes for “In Old England Town,” a hilarious mix of “Roll Over Beethoven” augmented by studio banter and fake flatulence, and the outtake “Baby, I Apologize,” a McCartney-esque bouncing piano number that is more concisely written and more fun than any other track on the record.

ELO is an important and often-overlooked act central to the development of rock in the 1970s. These first two albums, though they pale in comparison, set the stage for the phenomenal string of records the band released in the mid-’70s that Legacy will be releasing remastered, expanded editions of later on this year.

RIYL: Unabashed Beatles worship, the 1970s

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