I’ve been a fan of Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) from a very young age; one of the first singles I bought out of my own pocket money was ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, their take on a Chuck Berry standard. I remember buying their LP ‘A New World Record’ from my local Woolworths and, having precious little else of my own then, played it constantly.
From about 1976 to 1980 ELO were unstoppable; they enjoyed a string of hit singles and albums and played a landmark series of concerts at Wembley Arena in 1978, featuring the iconic ‘spaceship’ stage set. By the 1980s however, group leader Jeff Lynne had parted company with most of the old band members and turned his hand to producing; working with major names including Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and George Harrison he eventually formed the Traveling Wilburys with these artists, releasing two albums.
In more recent years Lynne has kept a very low profile, releasing records only sporadically. It was a major surprise in 2012 when he announced the release of two albums; one a compilation of newly re-recorded ELO hits and the other (‘Long Wave’, issued under his own name) was a tip of the hat to early rock ‘n’ roll artists who influenced him while he was growing up in Birmingham. With his profile high once more, he agreed to a one-off performance in London’s Hyde Park which took place in autumn 2014, broadcast on BBC TV and radio. The show was a huge success, featuring a completely new line-up (save for keyboardist Richard Tandy) and attracted 50,000 spectators. That show has led to Lynne recording a brand new album under the name ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO’ (‘Alone In The Universe’) and he has finally been tempted back on the road to support it. The announcement of live dates late last year caught me by surprise certainly, knowing how reclusive the man is and also knowing of his dislike of touring. The even bigger surprise was that the first show was to take place here in Liverpool. The tickets for all shows on this UK tour (calling at most large arenas in the country) sold out straight away, proving that the man’s music still appeals even 40 years on from the group’s heyday.
Expectations for this show were high (as was the ticket price!), and I entered the Echo Arena to find myself about 2/3 back on the (seated) main floor. That meant the performers would be fairly distant, but I was expecting a lavish stage and light show to accompany the music.
Openers were The Feeling, a five piece band from Sussex who had a few hits in the Noughties. They were a good live act, but their material (somewhat lightweight guitar-based pop-rock) rather washed over me. Only occasionally did they crank things up, they can rock hard when they want to but there wasn’t enough of that for me to get into them, my only glimmer of recognition was when they did their song which featured on FIFA 07 (‘Sewn’). For all that, they went down well with those who came early and vocalist/guitarist Dan Gillespie Sells acknowledged that their set was ‘probably a better fit’ with this crowd than when they supported Bon Jovi on a previous tour.
During the interval the music played was a selection of tracks produced by Jeff Lynne, with the PA treating us to George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty (and of course the Traveling Wilburys featuring all of those artists), plus ‘Free As A Bird’ which Lynne produced with the surviving Beatles in the 1990s.
When the main act came on the stage, the first impression was that there were a lot of them! A staggering twelve personnel were on the stage backing Jeff Lynne, with Richard Tandy placed front and centre of the stage (reflecting his status as a member of the classic ELO band). There were two other keyboard players, an additional guitarist as well as musical director Mike Stevens, a bassist (interestingly, left-handed, in the city which spawned the most famous bass player in rock ‘n roll), a drummer, two backing vocalists (one male, one female) and of course, a string section of two cellists and a violinist. The string players were all women, which may have helped fans of the classic band get over the fact that it wasn’t the original players (!) The visuals were now in full effect also, with screens showing a simulated trip through space as a symphonic intro built up. This opening sequence brought it home to me how strongly many symphonic Metal bands around today have been influenced by what Jeff Lynne and ELO were doing back in the 1970s.
They sprang a surprise with the first song: ‘Tightrope’ from the ‘A New World Record’ album. Not an obvious opener perhaps (although it is first track on that album) as it wasn’t a hit single but the next song certainly was (‘Evil Woman’). The audience were already in the palm of Lynne’s hand after this, although he kept his stage patter to a minimum (‘I love it here in Liverpool’, he told us) before launching into early hit ‘Showdown’. ‘All Over The World’ from the ‘Xanadu’ soundtrack followed, and by this stage the audience were in raptures. A comment from the mainman that this show was the first one he’s played ‘like this’ in 30 years brought the house down (erm, Hyde Park, Jeff? ) but presumably he meant as a show on a UK tour, which he hasn’t done in many a long year.
Some new material finally came five songs in with the latest album’s lead-off track ‘When I Was A Boy’; that was the cue for some to head to the bar. This must be a little disappointing for Lynne, although they were soon back in place when the band performed 1976 hit ‘Livin’ Thing’ . One track I wasn’t expecting was ‘Rockaria!’, also from ‘A New World Record’; in days gone by it was former bassist Kelly Groucutt who performed the operatic vocal intro live (now performed by backing singer Melanie Lewis-McDonald). During this number, Lynne traded lead vocal with backing vocalist Iain Hornal. After another newie (‘When The Night Comes’, featuring a rare lead guitar solo from Lynne) the band then performed ‘Secret Messages’, the title track from their almost-forgotten 1983 album.
Following the slower ‘Steppin’ Out’ the set was hit after hit down the stretch, with ‘Shine A Little Love’, ‘Wild West Hero’ and ‘Turn To Stone’ getting the audience up on their feet. ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ kept things bubbling, and hit single ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ featured Tandy using the vocoder for the first time all night. ‘Telephone Line’ then ‘Mr Blue Sky’ ended the main set with the band taking bows then all standing in line for a group photo before the packed arena audience.
That wasn’t the end of course, no ELO gig is complete without a run through of Chuck Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. This included a lengthy jam between Lynne and his backing musicians.
I was much too young to see the classic band in their pomp, and their landmark series of shows at Wembley Arena in 1978 came a few years too soon for me. As the band had long dissolved and Lynne having become a virtual recluse in later years, I never thought I’d get to see for myself the guy who wrote so many great songs step on a stage. The fact that he chose to do so in Liverpool first made it all the more satisfying, my only question would be: Jeff, what took you so long?