Strange Magic: The Best of the Electric Light Orchestra

Electric Light Orchestra

Legacy / Epic, 1995

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


So, let’s see if we can settle this once and for all: who really was the fifth Beatle?

Was it longtime manager Brian Epstein? Was it latter-day keyboardist Billy Preston? Or was it Electric Light Orchestra frontman/mastermind Jeff Lynne?

There will of course be those who object to the latter option, given that Mr. Lynne’s only direct contact with the Beatles came long after their heyday, producing a pair of George Harrison solo albums and assisting with the group’s 1995 Anthology project. But let’s face it, nearly every track Lynne has had a hand in since 1970 has felt the influence of the man’s deep and abiding admiration for his countrymen from Liverpool.

The high concept behind Lynne’s group Electric Light Orchestra—let’s add a string section to a rock band—has at times overshadowed the specificity of the band’s roots in the orchestral pop found on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour albums. ELO itself was never shy about this; at the start the principals were quoted as saying the group’s goal was to “pick up where ‘I Am the Walrus’ left off.”

Like many bands of its vintage and upper-second-tier popularity, ELO’s hits have by now been collected too many times to count. After studying the possibilities, I concluded that Strange Magic was the best collection available for the fan who’s looking for a substantial track list, but not their entire catalogue, and doesn’t care about the 2001 disc Lynne put out under the ELO banner (Zoom). I was not disappointed. Strange Magic neatly divides the band’s output into two discs, the first encompassing their earlier, looser and more appealing work, and the second capturing both their commercial apex and the steady slide that followed.

The Beatles influence manifests itself from the opening strains of kickoff track “10538 Overture,” where you hear the violin and cellos playing off against rock guitar and rhythm section. The components of group’s musical DNA become even more obvious on track two, where the gang delivers a mashup of Beethoven’s Fifth with the Chuck Berry classic made famous by John, Paul, George and Ringo, “Roll Over Beethoven,” creating a genuinely frothy eight-minute celebration of this immortal tune. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The best of these early cuts showcase how Lynne and company (principally keyboardist Richard Tandy, bassist Kelly Groucutt and drummer Bev Bevan) use orchestral elements to embellish songs from various different genres, from the funky little blues shuffle represented by “Showdown” to billowing ballads like the true-to-its-title “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.” The string section adds genuine drama to more assertive numbers like the piano-driven “Evil Woman” and sophistication to softer numbers like the poignant, deeply catchy “Strange Magic.” Only rarely, as on the anthemic “Livin' Thing,” does the band actually build a song around the string section—but when they do, the results are fairly spectacular.

Disc one finishes on a high point. First “Do Ya,” a remake of a song from Lynne’s previous group The Move, bludgeons you silly with the heaviest guitar of the entire collection, matched with equally punchy strings. Then “Telephone Line” opens up like it’s going to be a novelty tune—the band’s one consistent weak point was a fondness for gimmicky production—before developing real pathos thanks to one of Lynne’s best lead vocals, complemented beautifully by the string section. Closing out the first half, “Rockaria” delivers a dynamite sequel to “Roll Over Beethoven,” a playful celebration of the band’s own mission statement, marrying a classical sensibility to “all Chuck Berry’s greatest tunes.”

The second disc is much spottier territory. The opening cuts, from Out Of The Blue (1977) and Discovery (1979), feature hits like the punchy, dynamic “Turn To Stone” and the undeniably catchy “Don’t Bring Me Down” that offer a shiny familiarity but suffer from overly slick production. Worse yet is Lynne’s increasing affinity for disco rhythms, the latter coming to the fore on the thoroughly regrettable ELO-does-the-Bee-Gees number “Shine A Little Love.” Later still, synth-heavy, processed-cheesy tunes like the truly execrable “Confusion,” “Last Train To London” and “Twilight” show a group that’s lost its way, with the increasingly rare pleasures residing only in throwback retro-rock numbers like “Hold On Tight” and “Rock And Roll Is King.” Even these fail to feature strings in any meaningful way, though; by this point, Lynne has lost all interest in his own high concept. Disc two ends with a whimper, in the form of a pair formulaic throwaways from 1986’s string-free Balance Of Power.

While the first disc is far superior to the second, overall Strange Magic is a satisfying compilation of a group that probably still doesn’t get its due for the inventiveness of its early work and the musicality and cleverness of its best material. The high concept was only the beginning for a band that took the musical legacy of the Beatles’ 1966-68 orchestral pop phase as their stepping-off point and enthusiastically explored the possibilities it offered.

Rating: B+

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© 2015 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Legacy / Epic, and is used for informational purposes only.