Welcome back to Top “Ten” Tuesday. Today we are going to take a look at Electric Light Orchestra or ELO for short. ELO was formed by Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood, and Bev Bevan of The Move in 1970 with the idea of creating modern rock and pop songs with classical overtones. Their first album was released in December of 1971 in the UK and March of 1972 in the US. During the initial stages of recording their second album, Roy Wood left to form the band Wizzard along with ELO member Hugh McDowell. McDowell returned in time for their third album, On the Third Day.
ELO released 8 albums during the 1970s, many of which were Top 10 records in the US. Their disco-inspired album Discovery in 1979 top the British charts as well as their science-fiction themed concept album Time in 1981. The band disbanded in 1986 after the release of the album Balance of Power. The band had a brief reunion in 2000 and released Zoom in 2001. Since then the band has been disbanded a second time. Bevan created his own band ELO Part II in 1989 which continued under that name until 2000. Bevan left the band in late 1999 and sold half of his rights to the ELO name back to Jeff Lynne and the band was ultimately changed to The Orchestra.
Meanwhile, Jeff Lynne released two solo albums, Armchair Theatre in 1990 and Long Wave in 2012. He also joined the supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys along with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison under the pseudonym Otis Wilbury (Clayton Wilbury on their second album). In 2014, Lynne reformed ELO and resumed concert touring under the name “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”.
With so many great albums and great songs, it’s only natural to do a Top 10 list of their songs. However, since I could easily come up with a Top 10 list for songs in the ‘70s, that leaves their songs in the ‘80s and 2001 with no recognition. That is why I decided to make this a Top 20 list, so here are my personal Top 20 Electric Light Orchestra songs.
This song is majestic. That’s the best word to describe this one. The intro is reminiscent of Jeremiah Clarke’s “Prince of Denmark’s March” before a Minimoog takes us into the vocals. The song has some great strings played throughout, and there is even a string solo midway through the song. The song is about anti-war song set during the time of the Crusades.
#19-Time After Time-Secret Messages
This song is unique as it’s included on the cassette tape format and CD but not on the original vinyl release. It’s a shame because it’s one of my favorites from this album and its exclusion from the original vinyl means not as many people heard the song. The song follows the theme of the rest of the album with the inclusion of backward messages throughout. The secret messages are nothing major, just the female vocalist along with Jeff Lynne and other vocalists singing the name of the song backward.
#18-Hold on Tight-Time
A fun song that has been played in commercials, like the National Coffee Association’s “Join the Coffee Achievers” television commercials in 1983 and 1984. The song was released as a single and went to the top ten in most countries, reaching #1 in Spain and Switzerland, #2 in Germany and the US, and #4 in the UK. Partway through the song, Jeff Lynne reprises the first verse in French. The music video was at the time, the most expensive ever made with a budget of £40,000 or $49,740. That amounts to about $141,239 today. The music video is mostly black and white with footage of ELO playing the song in a lounge, intercut with scenes in the style of 1940s serial films.
The opening track to ELO’s final album (under the ELO name at least) in 2001. Aside from Lynne and Richard Tandy, the rest of the album comprises of guest musicians including ex Beatle and Wilbury, George Harrison and ex Beatle Ringo Starr. Listen to “A Long Time Gone” and “All She Wanted” to hear Harrison and “Moment in Paradise” and “Easy Money” for Ringo. It seems that this particular song comprises of only Lynne, Tandy, and Rosie Vela (on backing vocals). It’s a great song and a great way to start the album.
#16-Roll Over Beethoven-ELO II
No this isn’t related to Bev Bevan’s followup group ELO II, this is simply the name of ELO’s second album. The song starts off quiet for a few seconds before giving us a cover of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (duh duh duh duh, you know that one). About 50 seconds into the song, the song goes full rockabilly with probably the best cover of Chuck Berry’s iconic song. It was released as the band’s second single in January of 1973 and was also their second consecutive top 10 hit in the UK. An edited version of the track reached #42 in the United States.
#15-State of Mind-Zoom
Going back to 2001’s Zoom which as I said in “Alright” (see #17) features Ringo Starr on drums. This song was released as a single on May 23, 2001, in Europe (except the UK). It’s a great, upbeat, rockin’ number.
#14-Danger Ahead-Secret Messages
Probably my favorite off of the 1982 album. It has a few seconds of silence before jumping strong into the song. The entire melody and the way Lynne sings the song, “so believe what they say, there’s danger in the air” with the keyboard whoo-whoo, there are just so many things working for this song. About halfway through the song, we hear more backward messages, again just the name of the song. More than likely there is a hidden message in the first few seconds of the song. The whole album is full of backward messages. For more information on backward messages in music, I have an entire video talking about that idea. ELO makes up a good chunk of the songs featured in that video so I definitely encourage you to check that out. A link to the video will be at the bottom of this article.
#13-Heaven Only Knows-Balance of Power
The opening track of the 1986 album. This album sadly saw the end of the original ELO (except for the 2001 album). The song and album go in a drastically different direction which probably turned a lot of fans off of this new song. Recording began in early 1985, but with the addition of several synthesizer tracks to the album, the release date got pushed back another year. By this time, the entire band was reduced to a trio leaving only Lynne, Tandy, and Bevan as the whole band. Despite the mostly negative reviews for the album, I still rather enjoy the album for what it is. It doesn’t hold a candle to the albums of the ‘70s like On the Third Day or Eldorado for example but if you want a good ‘80s pop album, this is definitely to check out!
#12-Fire on High-Face the Music
The song starts off terrifying. Are we listening to a horror movie soundtrack? The sound effects are backing a backward message that starts off the song. If you play this piece backward, you can hear Bev Bevan tell you, “the music is reversible but time is not. Tun back. Tun back. Turn back. Turn back”. This was a response from Jeff Lynne poking fun at the Fundamentalist Christianity members who claimed the ELO song “Eldorado” delivered a Satanic message to the listeners. More information on that in the already mentioned Backward Messages video, again link at the bottom of the article. The piece continues with snippets of “Messiah” by Handel (the “Hallelujah” song). Outside of the “Hallelujah” and the backward message, the piece is mostly instrumental, although the title can be faintly heard near the end of the track by the chanting chorus.
#11-Old England Town-ELO II
ELO’s second album acts as a transition album between their first album and the rest of the albums we would hear in the rest of the 1970s. That is because, in the initial stages of recording this song, founding member Roy Wood left the band. However, he is still present with bass and cello on this song and “From the Sun to the World (Boogie No. 1)”. Its haunting intro grabs your attention and pulls you into this immersive album.
#10-10538 Overture-The Electric Light Orchestra
The song starts with a great guitar riff before the stringed instruments join in. This song was originally intended to be a B side for a single by The Move. Both Lynne and Wood sang on it. The song is about an escaped prisoner, Lynne wanted to give the character in the song a number as opposed to a name, and he chanced upon the number 1053 while looking at the mixing console. Wood suggested adding an “8” to fit the melody better. When they added the cello parts, they decided to move the song as a single for ELO’s first album backing “First Movement” an instrumental piece by Wood. A live version also became the B side to “Evil Woman” in 1975.
Coming back to ELO’s second album for our third and final time in this list, ELO’s longest song, Kuiama at 11 minutes. Bev Bevan has once said this to be the band’s favorite song, “This one, without a doubt, is the favorite of all the band. It’s a sad story about a war orphan with a soldier explaining to her about the war-and that it was he that killed her parents. The most sensitive thing we do.” It’s a great song with a lot of emotion. The opening riff sounds big and very fitting for the band’s longest song.
#8-Ocean Breakup/King of the Universe-On the Third Day
We finally cover a song from their third album, which is one of my favorite ELO albums. The album as a whole probably beats most of the songs on this list, even those on the list we haven’t seen yet) but as a stand-alone song, it’s still a great song that opens the album with a haunting riff. This riff will come back in “New World/Ocean Breakup Reprise”. About 1:15 into the song, the song transitions into the second part, a soft, mellow song by Lynne with some great strings backing up as he sings “King of the universe” and “King of the sky”. The album as a whole flows from one song to the next as one long song. The song quiets down as it transitions into “Bluebird is Dead”.
#7-Secret Lives-Balance of Power
We come back to the ‘80s one last time. I was split on including this one or “So Serious”. Both are great songs. Both are great synthesizer-driven songs and great ‘80s pop songs.
#6-Mr. Radio-The Electric Light Orchestra
Here’s a great early song. It was originally scheduled to be the band’s second single but was withdrawn. The edited single version can be heard on the 2005 compilation Harvest Showdown. The orchestral intro is actually played backward, containing samples of a Mozart symphony. In the bridge, there is some backmasking of Lynne singing “Hello, Mr. Radio” backward with reverberation. The bridge is probably my favorite, a very tinny sounding piano solo as if you were listening to the section on an old radio. It’s just a very interesting piece that was unheard of at the time of its release in 1971.
#5-Eldorado Overture/Can’t Get It Out of My Head-Eldorado
The opening track to Eldorado. It’s mostly instrumental except the words spoken at the beginning by Peter Forbes Robinson. The words fade into an orchestra for the next minute, an excerpt from Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto. The orchestra slows down and segues into the next track “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”. Since the two tracks fit together well, they were performed together until the Time tour in 1981. “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” became the band’s first top 10 single in the US reaching #9 and helped boost public awareness of the band there. It sadly didn’t chart in the UK. The song is a quiet ballad backed with stringed instruments. The album marks the first album which Jeff Lynne hired an orchestra whereas, in previous albums, he would overdub the strings. Jeff Lynne said he found inspiration for the song in the unfulfilled reveries of an every day bloke, “It’s about a guy in a dream who sees this vision of loveliness and wakes up and finds that he’s actually a clerk working in a bank. And he hasn’t got any chance of getting her or doing all these wonderful things that he thought he was going to do.”
#4-In the Hall of the Mountain King-On the Third Day
Speaking of Edvard Grieg, who inspired the “Eldorado Overture”, here’s a classical piece written by him in 1875. ELO will cover this song nearly 100 years later. This is one of the first ELO songs I heard, along with “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” and my #3 and #2 spot. This piece is great as it makes full use of the orchestra About 4 minutes into the piece, a violin solo plays breaking up the song. After the solo, the tempo slowly increases before leading to an epic crescendo that finishes off the song and the album. A great way to finish the album.
#3-Poker-Face the Music
Heading back to 1975, this great fast-tempo guitar rocker features Kelly Groucutt on both lead and harmony vocals, one of the few times where Jeff Lynne does not sing lead. Bev Bevan plays drums fast while Tandy provides a Moog arpeggio rhythm section. The middle section of the song slows down into a slow, bluesy bridge with Tandy adding in some synthesizer fillers before the song picks up for the final verse. “Poker” was released as the B-side to “Confusion” in the US and “Rockaria!” in the UK.
#2-Do Ya-A New World Record
The very first ELO song I ever heard. It played on a Monster job commercial back about 10-12 years ago. It was one of two songs featured on the B-side of the UK hit “California Man” by The Move. In the US, it proved more popular than the A-side making it The Move’s only hit in the US to chart, although it only reached #83. They began to perform the song live between 1973-1975 and recorded it in the studio for the inclusion of their 1976 album, A New World Record. In 1978, Bev Bevan stated the reason for the re-recording was that after ELO had added the song to their live setlist, a music journalist asked their opinion of “the original version” by Todd Rundgren. Rundgren during his time with Utopia performed this song frequently at concerts. Bevan said they decided to re-record it as an ELO song to “let everyone know that it’s a Jeff Lynne song”. I am glad they re-recorded it because this version is great. I have a bunch of songs and albums by The Move but sadly that song is not featured, but I guess that is going to be tonight’s homework, to listen to the original Move version of this song! This would’ve been my favorite song, it has been for a while but I have one more I want to mention.
#1-Concerto for a Rainy Day-Out of the Blue
Alright, I’m breaking the rules here with this one. The piece called “Concerto for a Rainy Day” is the entire third side of 1977’s Out of the Blue. Until listening to On the Third Day and Eldorado more frequently, I would’ve been inclined to say Out of the Blue to be my favorite ELO album because of this piece, but On the Third Day and Eldorado are both such amazing albums that overall they outshine this one. “Concerto for a Rainy Day” is still probably my favorite ELO piece overall, but it’s actually 4 songs that all go together as a mini concept album. The first piece is called “Standin’ in the Rain” and has thunder and scary synthesized voices launching the piece, following by keyboard. The voice is Richard Tandy saying “Concerto for a Rainy Day”. It was supposedly inspired by Jeff Lynne’s experience while trying to write songs for the album against a torrential downpour of rain outside his Swiss Chalet.
The second piece of the concerto is “Big Wheels”. It starts off rather somber but during the chorus, the song gets progressively more uplifting before leading into the third piece called “Summer and Lighting”. This piece is much more uplifting musically than the other two however the lyrics seem to describe unreciprocated love. About three-quarters of the way through, we have an amazing bass break that is one of the most uplifting pieces I’ve ever heard. This piece by itself still would’ve ranked high on this list, but putting it as a part of the concerto brings the whole concerto up to the top of my list, but we aren’t done yet.
The concerto after “Summer and Lightning” leads into one of ELO’s most signature songs, “Mr. Blue Sky.” Now “Mr. Blue Sky” is a great song by itself and would’ve still made it to my list, I don’t think the impact would’ve been the same and certainly wouldn’t have been #1, but being a part of the concerto, it’s even better. Unlike the first three pieces, the only transition is just static and can almost be seen as a standalone song, but it is a great way to finish this song about a rainy day. The sun’s out finally! The song ends with some great vocal harmonizing as the song slows down…then speeds up before slowing down again as the song ends. The final lyrics are hard to understand. It’s often misinterpreted to say “Mr. Blue Sky” but he’s actually saying, “please turn me over” to tell you that it’s time to flip the record over for side 4.
Since this list was a little more expanded, there won’t be much of an “honorable mentions” this time around except for a couple of songs from Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s album Alone in the Universe released in 2015. I was hesitant to include these as part of my Top 20 because it’s almost a different band but not really. I mean, it has Jeff Lynne and therefore is ELO but because of a change in name, I wasn’t sure if it was right to include them into the actual list but these two songs would’ve made my list if not for the name change so here they are. I haven’t yet heard Jeff Lynne’s ELO’s second album, From Out of Nowhere yet so no songs from that album are included for obvious reasons.
When I Was a Boy
The album’s first single was released digitally on September 24, 2015, and a music video was released soon after. It’s a great song with a piano intro that reminds me of “Can’t Get It Out of My Head”.
Alone in the Universe
A strong drum beat starts off this song. The song has a great vibe that reminds you of what made the original ELO so great. You need to listen to the song to know what I’m talking about. The album as a whole is great, but I wanted to pull a couple highlight songs from it. I look forward to hearing the followup From Out of Nowhere album (released last year in November of 2019).
There are so many great ELO songs that didn’t make the list. What are some of them I didn’t mention? What songs would you put on your Top 20 list? Would you keep my list the way it is or would you rearrange the order? Post your comments down below. Also if you haven’t yet, check out my Backward Messages video, which includes plenty of examples of Jeff Lynne incorporating backward messages in songs as well as other famous backward messages in other songs. When you’re done watching that, don’t forget to subscribe for more music-related videos, and don’t forget to come back next Tuesday for another list of Top “Ten” Tuesday.