Why The Electric Light Orchestra/ELO Was Rejected By The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame

Sometimes a rock and roll band and/or it’s management can make regrettable errors that damages a band’s legacy, how it is remembered. Electric Light Orchestra/ELO had a few doozies made in its name.
Getting rid of the string section like they were unnecessary appendage right after the Out Of The Blue tour concluded, in 1979, just when the band was soaring at it commercial success was perhaps a bad decision, as persistent personnel changes and configuration changes album to album had left the band without much of an identity, save for a fantastically fun space ship logo. But the space ship was not identity of the band, it was the word “Orchestra” in their name. The reason for that word was the rock-and-roll string section they had. Changing the band’s official name to “ELO” so the word “Orchestra” would no longer have to be mentioned by deejays, adding to more to more confusion, and remaking the band as a violin-free pop and disco band was not good for its legacy and place in the history of rock and roll.
After years of frustration with the sound of strings not coming off live as they did in the studio, I guess bandmaster Jeff Lynne had had it with cellos. I know fans had felt quite otherwise and loved the choppy sound of ELO’s “Orchestra”, two cellos and a violin, at its live shows. Getting the strings properly miked and recorded for live shows was a challenge, but they were the heart and soul of ELO, the live band.
Another bad decision was never releasing live albums. Now I hated live albums – all of them, most of them made by big time rock bands of the 70s sound like crap. Which is strange, given how many great sounding bootlegs there are! Which is strange given how bands from other genres never had a problem making a great live recording, like Reggae’s Bob Marley and The Wailers or any live Jazz recording. You ever heard a bad Jazz recording? I didn’t think so. Which is strange considering how a well made live rock and roll record could sound absolutely mesmerizing, like Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense” or Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive!” ELO needed to have some live records, with the choppy strings, for fans to hold onto over the years. Jeff Lynne, apparently, felt otherwise.
Which left fans to have just the studio recordings. Overproduced studio recordings was a bad reputation ELO records were getting, but that over-the-top feel was what fans loved, especially that rich base, right? Turns out the ELO studio albums only came off as tremendously overmanufactured, when actually every song a straight take with no post-production edits, virtually everything in place at the time of recording the song! EVEN THE STRINGS AND CHORUS. With a little clunky post-production, including feeding Jeff’s vocals through his favorite over-the-top reverb device, it sounded like the songs had been put through a grinder. The strings and chorus were enhanced post-production. This was revealed in straight takes and early mixes of songs like “Telephone Line”, released on special CD re-releases 30 years later.
It was a mistake not to tone down the post-production on at least some of the tracks.
In speaking of the coruses on the ELO studio recording, they were but a small chorus of female back up singers in the studio. They were absolutely fantastic! They sounded like a much larger chorus than they were, as revealed by the re-release recordings. Why Jeff never brought them on stage is beyond me.
Which is to say the difference between studio ELO and live ELO was not that great in reality, just obscured by post production meant to give ELO records radio airplay. It worked. Their funky singles were a huge hit with Top 40 Radio, and the band was a mainstay in the 70s.
The LIVE Electric Light Orchestra was a completely different experience from the ELO studio albums, save for the record “On The Third Day.” At live shows, drummer Bev Bevan came to life as a drumming animal and the strings transformed from studio enhancements to full participants, gritty and choppy, with rock and roll moves!
But the worst decision perhaps by any band in the history of rock and roll was to have that live concert experience misrepresented by a VHS tape called “Out Of The Blue Tour: Live At Wembley”. After no live concert albums, except for a limited release record called “The Night The Light Went On In Long Beach”, which was atrociously made, and never released in the U.S., there was nothing to attest to how unique a rock band ELO was live except for some old Midnight Specials! Well, along comes this VHS tape and totally misrepresents that live ELO experience. You see, the live sound was fine, but the producers of the live concert tape felt it lacked the rich sound of the studio records, so they overdubbed the live recording with the studio recording. Unbelievable. It made it look like the band was lip-syncing!
Electric Light Orchestra has never lip-synced. They had no lip-syncing technology on stage, just instruments and amps, and later on, pre-recorded digital samples in the keyboard/synthesizer. That’s it! The live sound was not only fine, it had crowds roaring. As soon as that VHS tape was released, buzz about ELO’s live shows turned to horror. A PR disaster, the band came off in interviews as trying to explain away the lip-syncing. Instead of explaining their live concert tape was a huge mistake, they tried to explain that they were really singing while the studio recording played over them, without criticizing the live concert VHS videocassette, which was also widely shown on cable! The result was confirmation of the horror: they approve of performing along with their recordings!
How do you explain that it was a big post-production blunder.
That’s how the Electric Light Orchestra went out. After “Out of the Blue”, ELO reclused into the studio, most notably recording half the soundtrack to a spectacularly bad Olivia Newton-John movie with a crazy cult following, “Xanadu.” That bad movie has since been rewritten as a comedy and ELO songs are now being sung on Broadway in a hit musical and getting laughs.
Not very rock and roll, is it?
The last time the real ELO would be seen was a few concerts in Europe to support the huge radio airplay hits from the album Discovery in 1979.
For now, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s outright rejection of ELO stands, caused mainly by that disastrous Wembley release.
Fans of the band faded away over the years, their ears occasionally perked by hearing the Jeff Lynne sound coming out of the radio maybe from some far-cry ELO record in the 80s, but most notably the Wilbury recordings of The Travelling Wilburys, a band that included Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbision, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne himself. There were about five LP’s that Jeff produced from the Travelling Wilburys and three of the members of the Travelling Wilburys. These are the Wilbury Recordings. All the record featured with Jeff Lynne’s signature studio sound. The rock legends that sang them made those studio records come to life on stages throughout the early 90s and late 80s.
The Travelling Wilburys
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwqhdRs4jyA
It’s too late to save ELO’s legacy – it’s toast. But if you are interested, 30 years later, that Wembley concert as it really sounded is actually available on a 2006 DVD. There’s another DVD of the same concert – it has the overdubbed audio on it. Great, right? Some mistakes can’t be undone and even the attempts to correct them fail to reach even the most dedicated audience. But somebody actually took the time to attempt to right a horrible error, and the Wembley show with the actual sound is really available.
This is it: Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) – Out of the Blue: Live at Wembley (2006)

MORE LINKS
Discussion about ELO’s legacy on rateitall.com

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4 Comments

  1. Hey, I like ELO too, but in all honesty tape augmenting, which is what ELO was caught doing, is the same as lip synching: you are singling along with your recorded version of the song! For you to defend this and claim it “appeared they were lip synching” is pure bullshit. Nobody in an audience who paid for a ticket wants to watch a performer sing along to their studio album. Do it live, or don’t do it at all. They got busted lip synching. End of story.

    Reply
    • The Wembley concert video was overdubbed with the studio recording to in the poor judgement of a record executive “make it sound better.” The actual live performance was never augmented by anything pre-recorded, such as the sped-up segment in “Turn To Stone” or the 5-part women’s chorus arranged by Lewis Clark (of “Hooked on Classics” fame) heard throughout “A New World Record.” You can now get that Wembley concert as a re-release without the overdubs. It sounds fantastic. They were always a great live band.

      Reply
  2. Richard

     /  May 18, 2014

    The problem faced with bands such as ELO back in the 1970s, what that their extensive studio experimentation meant it was almost impossible to translate the recording into live performance. If one views any ELO performance before any of their albums which utilised an entire string section, you can see for yourself they were a great band more than capable of playing live. Songs found on ELO 2 and On the third day were based around the groups core instrumentation, therefore very easy to replicate on stage. When “El Dorado” was recorded, it was done so with a full orchestra augmenting the sound. I also understand they went as far as utilising orchestras for all their outings on the subsequent tour. This probably proved too costly, and little profit was made.

    So for the Out of the Blue tour, to cut costs, they played to the recordings, mainly to fill out the string parts. Was this perhaps the best way to remedy the situation? possibly not. Two cellos and a violin is simply not capable to cover what was recorded on the album. Many parts were also covered by Richard Tandy, who was the band’s keyboard player.

    I am a huge ELO fan, but this situation only proved that the whole ELO idea, was at best a logistical nightmare.

    Reply
    • Yes, it turned out there was no lip-synching during the Out of the Blue tour, including the Wembley shows, and some dubbing. The dubbing isn’t what got them into trouble. It was the lip-synching that they weren’t doing. Thanks to a bad concert videocassette, audiences came to believe ELO were lip-syncing when in actuality Jet Records overdubbed most of the concert with the studio tracks because someone there thought the real show didn’t sound good enough. The infamous “Live at Wembley” was re-released on DVD with only the actual concert audio – and they took out all the stupid post-production video effects too!

      Reply

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