For so long the very notion of ELO was sniggered at behind hands, the bizarre butt of music snobs’ jokes with one journalist for trend-setting fashion mag The Face opining in the late ’90s that if you wanted to clear a room at a party just play Fleetwood Mac’s crazed Tusk or ‘anything by ELO’. Their widescreen vision and unabashed rock opera tendencies coupled with their shaggy perms and Dad fashions were never deemed cool or removed enough for indie obsessives.
Thankfully this notion has somewhat eroded over the years with bands like Super Furry Animals adopting their wonky, fuzzy tendencies and also generally due to a new openness in the way that we perceive and consume music from the recent past. We now live in an age where all styles and forms of music jostle alongside each other in timeless cyberspace unrestricted and unconcerned by ‘scenes’ or irony or ideas of naffness, people’s online playlists can bounce from Hall and Oates to Kanye to Christopher Cross without the very fabric of society falling apart. Imagine.
Tonight is not about meekly acknowledging a ‘guilty pleasure’ it is about lustily embracing those giant, goofily obvious melodies that overflow from the band. As the ELO insignia – part Happy Days logo, part Simon Says game glows into life the band, including a small string section, take to the stage. Looking exactly the same as ever in his signature shades n’ beard n’ curls combo Jeff ambles out to a reception usually reserved for a returning sports hero. After cancelling the gig a week previously, the crowd seem to be expressing not only their gratitude but their relief (especially with this being an unprecedented year of legend culling) that Lynne is fighting fit and ready to beam everyone onto his glorious pop spaceship.
The almost honky-tonk rumble of the piano intro to ‘Evil Woman’ ricochets through the room with its spiralling strings and sizzling synths sending the crowd into a frenzy with barely time to catch a breath before ‘Showdown’ leads to the irrepressibly buoyant ‘All Over the World’ where the Bee Gees meet the Beatles on a space age dance floor. The impressive set with its War of the Worlds meets Lord of the Rings hypnotic circular visuals rotating over head, can at times feel a little Spinal Tap but they distract from an otherwise quiet stage presence with barely any in between song chatter, the band let the songs speak for themselves. Anyway, these pomp rock elements are forgivable when Lynne throws out supreme gems as perfectly formed as ‘Livin’ Thing’ and the lush, dreamy ‘Strange Magic’ in his own effortless manner.
The disco monster mash of ‘Shine a Little Love’ is zippy fun, pure old school razzmatazz with green lasers filling the air and the Saturday night crowd clapping well out of time but it’s the melancholy ache of the beautiful ‘Telephone Line’ that truly stuns. As its strings swell and the doo-wop chorus kicks in it’s a pop master class that illustrates the very best of Lynne’s song-writing and has many grown men wiping away a few secret tears in the darkness. What he manages to create is the feeling, the possibility of childlike wonder to be found even as a world weary adult, that he gifts to his audience like a British Brian Wilson. These songs are blatant and hopelessly romantic – a man in love with the world, a caustic cynic could never write something as enormously big hearted as ‘Mr. Blue Sky’. When it bounces into life there is that surge in energy, the tremulous feeling like the tipping point of a raging inferno, people clamber to their feet to hug each other, staring open mouthed with pure unrivalled joy at hearing a classic come to life right in front of them.
There on the stage with rolling images of the most summery of skies passing by behind him Lynne becomes a pop David Hockney, a man with sunshine in his pocket that paints over the grey skies of reality. When Jeff Lynne takes you travelling through his sonic solar system it’s a journey you wish would never end.