It’s been mentioned in several circles that ELO’s original artistic vision was to “pick up where The Beatles left off,” meaning the fusion of classical music with rock.
I’ve read dozens of books on The Beatles and can’t remember a single reference, hint or suggestion that any of The Beatles wanted to go there. McCartney was initially very resistant to George Martin’s suggestion to add strings to “Yesterday,” and though he warmed up to the idea enough to produce “Eleanor Rigby,” he really didn’t take it further until much later with “Liverpool Oratorio.” Lennon showed more disdain than interest, and thought it ridiculous when George Martin told him that the different wind instruments were set to different keys. Harrison had his affair with ragas, not Rimsky-Korzakov, and Ringo favored Buck Owens over Beethoven.
We’ll dismiss that “pick up” line as a marketing ploy and move on to the substance of the matter. On a practical level, the integration of classical music and rock music is problematic because the primary characteristic of Western classical music is that it is written down in staff notation. Most rock musicians couldn’t read a score if you spotted them the sharps, flats and 4/4 time. It is also a highly structured experience where variation from the plan is simply out of the question. Oh, sure, classical music is subject to interpretation by the conductor, and the difference between one conductor’s version and another’s is sometimes quite remarkable. Herbert Von Karajan’s interpretations of Schubert are as cold as ice; Wolfgang Sawallisch captured Schubert’s passionate soul as if he were channeling his eternal soul. Regardless of how the musicians respond to the conductor’s baton, they’re still playing the same notes in the same time signature, as written. In rock music, that could get pretty boring.
I think it’s more accurate to say that the original idea behind ELO (and other “classical progressive rock” groups) was to enhance rock songs by greater use of classical instruments, particularly the string section, and borrow a few classical conventions to give the music some high-status gloss. But hadn’t the Moody Blues already done that in Days of Future Passed? What about the early efforts of The Nice? Original or not, ELO’s vision didn’t last long. Roy Wood departed for Wizzard at the start of the ELO 2 sessions, doing a 180 and creating a Phil Spectorish version of glam rock that enjoyed modest success in the U. K. Jeff Lynne tried to keep the progressive-classical feel intact on ELO 2 with so-so results, then began a gradual shift back to what had been his essential strength since the days of The Idle Race: the ability to write nice pop melodies. Following the transitional album, On the Third Day, Jeff had one last fling with artistic pretentiousness in Eldorado, then led ELO to commercial success by returning to his melodic roots, caving in to the disco craze and throwing in an occasional splash of watered-down rock ‘n’ roll for old times’ sake (and I hate ELO’s strung-up version of “Do Ya” more than anything on earth).
It’s too bad things didn’t work out based on the original concept, as muddled as it might have been. The album erroneously called No Answer (due to a phone message garbled by a record company executive) shows some promise . . . and some problems. On the promise side you’ll hear some lovely melodies and interesting themes. On the problem side you’ll hear the manifestation of disagreements over content and style, most memorably captured in Bev Bevan’s refusal to play on Roy Wood’s booming chamber piece, “The Battle Of Marston Moor.” When you listen to the album, you will notice immediately that Roy Wood’s contributions are more formal and “classical,” while Jeff Lynne’s contributions are pop songs with classical instrumentation. The recording quality is inconsistent throughout, with some tracks strangled by excessive overdubbing. Sometimes the layering works very well, giving the songs power and depth; at other times, it’s a bloody mess, often relegating Bev Bevan’s drums to deep background.
When you put one of the greatest rock drummers of all time into background, something’s wrong with your vision.
No Answer opens with the strongest song on the album and one of the best things ELO ever did, “10538 Overture.” Originally intended as a Move number until Roy Wood got hold of it and added layers of Chinese cello, the story of a nameless escaped prisoner is a moving, compelling piece of music. The opening, with its slowly arpeggiated distorted guitar chords sweetened by French horn then roughened by Roy Wood’s saw-like cello attack is extremely captivating and positively dramatic. Jeff Lynne’s vocal is placed somewhat in the background, introducing a sense of detachment from the prisoner’s experience that is mirrored in the series of questions that dominate the lyrics. The narrator is the typical gossip titillated by the story of the escapee, much like the “limp-faced hungry viewers” in Ian Anderson’s “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me.” As such, the narrator takes ghoulish delight in vague rumors of the prisoner’s fate:
Did you hear the news, came across the air today?
Someone has been found on the rocks down in the bay
Did you see him hide? Did you see him crawl?
Does his life mean more than it did before?
It was a brilliant move to have Roy Wood take over the lead vocal on the last lines of the first two verses, serving as the voice of conscience while the other half of the brain thrills to a man’s suffering. The music is positively inspired, with interesting chord changes and superbly designed cello counterpoints creating a rich and constantly engaging listening experience. There are several memorable little melodic passages in the instrumental sections that reflect both the best aspects of classical music and the improvisational spirit Wood and Lynne brought to the mix. While I would have preferred to hear Bev Bevan’s always brilliant drumming more clearly, the overall effect of the arrangement is still powerful. The closing lines are gloriously economical, forcing the listener to realize that fear makes it too easy for us to dehumanize the faceless other:
Did you see that man running through the streets today?
Did you catch his face? Was it 10538?
Roy Wood’s “Look at Me Now” follows, a dark and somewhat garbled tale of murder and ghostly presences. Cello dominates the arrangement, relieved only by a few splashes of oboe; there are no drums or bass and only a brief appearance from an acoustic guitar in the closing measures. Roy Wood always wrote beautiful melodies, and this is no exception. However, on this track, the melodic presentation seems very stiff and formal, as does the overall rhythm—rather like a dull chamber orchestra piece. Though two-and-a-half minutes shorter than “10538 Overture,” it feels much longer. Opening the arrangement to include flute and lighter instruments might have helped, particularly in support of the higher-register melody on the bridge. By now the listener is starting to wonder if Roy Wood has fallen head over heels for his cello, and unfortunately, this will prove to be the case. It might have been different if he had been Pablo Casals, but after a while the cello becomes quite tiresome . . . and they even added a more cellists to the band lineup for good measure.
Jeff Lynne confirms his status as McCartney Lite with “Nellie Takes Her Bow,” an elaborate reworking of the same theme and story line you’ll find in “Honey Pie.” Jeff’s take on the woman who trades poverty for Broadway is deliberately melodramatic, supported by a kitchen sink arrangement that crowds Jeff’s voice so tightly it sounds like he’s singing from inside a box. The six-minute length is due to a long instrumental diversion featuring the string section, with only Wilfred Gibson’s too-brief violin solo worthy of note. Bev Bevan is buried once again under the needlessly complex mix, and what could have been a pleasant, semi-nostalgic tune with a pretty melody dies from an overdose of pomp and circumstance.
As noted above, Bev Bevan refused to play on Roy Wood’s “The Battle of Marston Moor,” and I don’t blame him in the least. This is a musical re-dramatization of a battle that took place in 1644 during the First English Civil War, historically significant because the Royalists had to abandon the north of England to the Parliamentarians. Why anyone would do a musical re-dramatization of a battle that no one gives a fuck about is a valid question. It’s a rather ponderous number with Roy Wood announcing his support for a puritanical Britain in a theatrical speech devoid of iambic pentameter or any other metrical structure appropriate to the historical period in question. More pleasant but not particularly original is the Wood instrumental, “First Movement (Jumping Biz),” a track that clearly owes its origins to Mason Williams’ “Classical Gas,” a huge instrumental hit in the late 1960’s.
Jeff Lynne’s “Mr. Radio” opens with the sounds of someone trying to tune in a station, always an interesting collage of random sounds. The song itself is somewhat less satisfying, dragged down by awkward lyrics and a half-hearted attempt to make a major statement about human isolation. For a far superior treatment of the theme, listen to Pamela Polland’s “Please Mr. D. J.” Once again the mix is too cluttered to appreciate the clever bits or the interesting melody. Jeff follows it with his instrumental, “Manhattan Rumble,” which sounds like something from a B-movie soundtrack.
“Queen of the Hours” is another story entirely, right up there with “10538 Overture” as an album highlight. Jeff’s Lynne’s voice is clearer than on the other tracks and the melody flows beautifully. Though some have pointed out the similarity of the chorus to Ray Davies’ “Days,” I think that’s a bit of a stretch and ignores the melodic pattern of the entire song. The cellos sound wonderfully sharp and Wilfred Gibson’s counterpoint violin on the chorus is a treat all by itself. As is true with many progressive rock songs, you don’t want to spend too much time worrying about whether the lyrics make much sense. Like many a progressive rock songwriter, Jeff had a kernel of idea that he failed to develop into coherent poetry. Still, the words work with the music, and it is a very well-developed melody.
The album ends with another stiff and formal Roy Wood ballad, “Whispers in the Night.” I have no issues with the melody, but the song itself sounds like something you’d hear a kid in a starched shirt sing at a recital. I also find the introduction of Christian propaganda quite annoying, as I did when he opened the otherwise delightful solo work Boulders with that Christian Coke commercial, “Songs of Praise.”
The Electric Light Orchestra was designed as a Wood-Lynne side project, and I think that was one of the flaws in the artistic vision. Commitment is essential to artistic success. “Side project” = “Half-assed commitment.” Although I abhor the direction ELO took a few albums later in Face the Music, at least it was a clear direction that played to Jeff Lynne’s strengths: writing nice, inoffensive pop songs.
The other flaw in No Answer is the stunning lack of vocal harmony, especially in an album released not long after the harmonically-rich Move effort, Message from the Country. Its absence speaks volumes about the relative lack of collaborative spirit on this new venture, and helps explains why No Answer falls short as both a listening experience and a gateway to new directions in rock music.