Once upon a time, there was this band from Birmingham, England. They were called The Move and they sucked. Badly. Really. I'm not kidding. Oh, technically, they had it together. They could play their instruments. But they had these songs like "I Can Hear the Grass Grow" and "Flowers in the Rain" which, while popular in the UK for their time have not held up as well as their American contemporaries like The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" and The First Edition's "I Just Dropped in to See What Condition My Condition Was In" (Kenny "The Gambler" Rodgers sang and played electric bass on that song).
Well, the writing was on the wall with The Move so they asked guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jeff Lynne to join the band and he said "thanks but no thanks". So after wearing him down over the next year, Jeff Lynne finally agreed under the condition that The Move would be removed and a new band would be formed. A couple of years later, Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, and Bev Bevan formed The Electric Light Orchestra. A light orchestra is a small group of musicians between approximately 6 to 15 members-far less than a full orchestra but larger than a chamber quartet. And they were all playing through amplifiers so they were "electric". Yeah, I thought it was hilarious, too, when I was fourteen.
The band made one album. Roy Wood listened to it and said "this sucks, I'm outta here". And he was right: it did suck. And he started another band called Wizzard which sucked worse but was almost as successful as The Move.
Jeff Lynne took over the band and continued to make crappy albums and a few mildly interesting songs such as "Showdown", "Ma-Ma-Ma Belle", and "Can't Get It Out of My Head" (ironically, it is very easy to get it out of your head: just listen to "Oh No Not Susan"). Otherwise, the band sounded dreary. Even their upbeat songs were depressing. Jeff Lynne was a slightly below average singer. The arrangements were worse than boring. Technically, they were a better band than The Move, but they just couldn't break through and get anyone to listen. Sure, the grafted the beginning Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven". That was the least pretentious song they recorded. And just when you thought they would pack it in and call it a day, they came out with the album "Face the Music".
"Face the Music" is a funny album. Most of the time, it's intentionally funny.
Let's start with the cover: it looks like Stephen King's inspiration for "The Green Mile". It's an electric chair in duotone green and black. Get it: "Face the Music". Yeah, it was so funny that California recalled Justice Rose Bird and re-instituted the death penalty.
The first song on the album is "Fire on High". It starts off with this gothic sounding intro which almost sounds like an orchestra warming up before the concert. And then you hear a voice, a person, who sounds like he is speaking in tongues. But it's just Jeff Lynne saying something about time and turning back played backwards. It sounds like an incantation. The rest of the song plays with blues slide, country fiddle, and flamenco styles and when I heard it the first time it woke me up to music. I had heard music before, but never listened to it until "Fire on High". I must have played that song ten times a day for a solid month and I still don't get tired of listening to it.
"Waterfall" mixes blues slide with indian rain dance music. And it actually works!
"Evil Woman" is a about a thief who had everything stolen from him, including his self respect, by a woman. It's a nice little boogie.
"Poker" is about gambling addiction. It's got a great driving beat and, as near as I can tell, it was their first hard rock song. Fast. Distortion. Cellos. What more could you want?
But the funniest song is "Down Home Town". Here is the opening verse:
The world outside don't like us much
'Cause they ain't got our classy touch.
But they ain't good enough to breath
This town's good air, we make 'em leave.
Those are freaking awesome lyrics. A guy from Birmingham, England sums up the American South in four lines. You might like Lynyrd Skynard's "Sweet Home Alabama" when they go to town on Neil Young, but they've got no comeback for this.
"Face the Music" is a fast, lively album whose weakest link is as good as any of their previous hit singles. The music is tight, even with the random backmasking (reversed audio) throughout the album. Even Jeff Lynne's singing stepped up to above average. Thirty-five years later, I still listen to it, not out of nostalgia, but because I continue to hear things in it that I hadn't heard before.
To borrow a phrase from Randy Newman's "The Story of a Rock and Roll Band": I love that E.L.O.