Tag Archives: Bev Bevan

The Electric Light Orchestra – No Answer – Classic Music Review

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.

Hmm.

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.

The Move – Message from the Country – Classic Music Review

Message from the Country

Two different covers, multiple versions. Click to buy this one and edit per instructions below.

In the liner notes for the 2005 re-release, drummer Bev Bevan said that Message from the Country was his least-favorite Move album. While I think the regrettable Looking On is not only their worst but one of the worst albums I’ve ever heard (though I rather like “Brontosaurus”), I can understand where he was coming from. There are many reasons not to like Message from the Country:

  • Most of the recording sessions involved two people: Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood. From that perspective alone, I can understand why Bev might have felt detached from the end product, but the real crime of Message from the Country is that Bev’s drumming, so prominent on Shazam, seems to disappear too often in the Lynne-Wood mix (though he still has some fine moments). I can only chalk that up to temporary criminal insanity: there’s no other explanation for failing to take full advantage of the talents of one of the greatest drummers in rock history.
  • The recording quality of Message from the Country is relatively poor. It’s not as bad as Looking On, but the relative lack of bottom reduces the power and impact of many of the tracks. Some may link the missing low-end to the fact that Rick Price had packed up his bass and left the band somewhere in the middle of the process, but it’s more a matter of poor engineering and production than technique. There’s simply too much high EQ on the bass parts, robbing the low end of any deep resonance.
  • Roy Wood does not play to his strengths on Message from the Country. Roy Wood is a great melodist and less-than-satisfactory rock ‘n’ roll singer, and all but one of his lead vocals here are on rock numbers. His voice is too reedy and lacks the oomph on the high end that great rock singers like Little Richard and McCartney display in abundance. His vocal style is much more suited to melodic pop-rock, as clearly demonstrated on the beautiful melodies that make up the best part of Boulders. I’ll go further and say that the reason Roy Wood is rarely mentioned as one of the all-time masters of the genre had to do with his inability to translate his diverse talents into something coherent. He seemed more of a musical butterfly, flitting from one style to the next without having the patience to explore any of them in depth. In the year following Message from the Country, he would abandon his vision to merge classical and rock, leave The Electric Light Orchestra and launch the glam-rock group Wizzard. While I admire his willingness to explore new possibilities in music, he would have had a much greater impact had he learned to balance diversity with discipline.
  • The best songs on Message from the Country are Jeff Lynne compositions, a good news/bad news kind of thing. I’ve always thought of Jeff Lynne as McCartney Lite, with a good feel for pleasant melodies and even less talent for lyrics than even the post-Beatle manifestation of Sir Paul. When Jeff Lynne tried to go deep and give his lyrics some meaning on ELO 2, the results were less than satisfactory (and resulted in some very, very long songs instead of the poetic economy of “Eleanor Rigby”). The lyrics on his Message from the Country efforts are classic Jeff Lynne: pleasant-sounding combinations of vowels and consonants that hint at significance but largely fall short.

Ready for the punch line? For the most part, I love this album!

Alliteratively speaking, Move fans know that The Move were fickle, flawed and frustrating—but often fascinating and frigging fabulous. They’re the musical equivalent of the hapless sports team you follow—just when it looks like they’re about to put it all together, they leave you in the throes of disappointment, only to return next season to rekindle your hope. Message from the Country is full of defects and delights, but on balance, makes for a more than satisfying listening experience.

The original release of Message from the Country opened with one of the strangest opening songs on any album, Roy Wood’s gothic melodrama “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance.” The dominant oboe is an unusual choice, to say the least, but this is the kind of song where only an oboe would do—and there aren’t too many of those songs in existence. The song seems to be narrated by an insecure, demented loser who finds himself in possession of a loser chick. It opens with a couplet that always makes me giggle:

The people throwing pennies in my soup,

Expecting me to be ashamed of you.

We don’t know if the people are throwing pennies in his soup because they’re feeling sorry for the guy or whether it’s a form of pennying and an invitation to an all-night drinking contest. Later the Prince of Thunder shows up, his talons ready to grasp the unfortunate lady and whisk her away from our hero; the paranoid insanity that passage implies is strengthened later in the final verse with his admission that “dangerously, the past explodes about my ears, loudly ringing in my ears.” Perhaps a war vet suffering from PTSD? Who knows? What matters here is Roy Wood truly commits to the role he’s playing and delivers a superbly melodramatic vocal that sells the mood, if not the story. “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” is the ugly stepsister of Move songs, and I don’t know why I love it but I do.

“It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” also establishes a pattern that lasts throughout the album: Roy Wood’s songs are harmony-free. If there’s one quality that distinguishes Message from the Country from any other Move album, it’s the quality and complexity of the harmonies. You first hear this on the Jeff Lynne composition, “The Minister,” where Jeff and Roy engage in a high-speed, high-register harmonic duet that overcomes the overall choppiness of the arrangement.

Their harmonic talents are put to much better use in the more majestic and smoother title track. This is a classic Jeff Lynne composition: the melody is lovely, the harmonies superb and the arrangement gives the song a slightly epic feel that overcomes vague lyrics that exist primarily to give the boys some words to sing. The a capella fade, where the voices weave in and out from various locations in the sound field is right up there with the quality of the best Beach Boys material. Lynne makes it three songs in a row with “The Words of Aaron,” where again, the lyrics are disconnected bits of silliness and catchy phrases, but the melody and harmony are so strong that you find yourself singing along anyway. Roy Wood does a superb job layering multiple recorder parts in the instrumental fade out on this one. I only wish that would have been the final fade, for unfortunately they felt the need to do the “Strawberry Fields Fadeout and Reprise” bit without much justification.

In addition to “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance,” there are three so-called “novelty” songs that the people at United Artists excluded from their transformation of Message from the Country into the album Split Ends. I agree with two out of their three exclusions, but find their exclusion of “Ben Crawley Steel Company” criminally offensive. Dismissed by others as simply a poke at Johnny Cash, “Ben Crawley Steel Company” is not only a terribly funny song but a superbly incisive satire of the mindset of the white southerner. In the first two verses, Roy Wood establishes the fundamental ethic of the southerner: a debilitating, limiting sense of tradition that crushes any attempt at independence or competence:

The next train arrives on here at 5:09,

I’m standing where my daddy used to be,

To follow his footsteps takes me three stops down the line,

Down to the Ben Crawley Steel Company.

Well, I tried my hand at ranchin’ but this didn’t come off,

Seems nothin’ in that for me

It always tried my patience, which I haven’t enough,

I’m destined to work in a steel company.

Waiting at home for our hapless hero is the Flower of Southern Womanhood, appropriately pure, lovely and by all appearances completely devoted to her hard-working overseer. As is often true in The South, appearances are everything and nothing, another brilliant piece of insight on the part Mr. Wood. As we go deeper into the song, we find that our hero is the butt of jokes at the steel company and rather low on the totem pole. He comes home every night dog-tired and knows his little woman “won’t be as tired as me,” but tries to muster up enough Southern machismo so he “won’t slack,” but give her a good stiff one up the middle . . . or not. As it turns out, his boss has been banging his beauty on the side, and this fires off the righteous indignation that will justify his act of revenge in the eyes of the Prince of Peace, conveniently skipping over the part about “thou shalt not kill” on his journey towards criminal violence:

Well I’ve had my fill and it’s giving me hell, now it’s time for hate

Thanks, mister for tellin’ me.

So I’ll shoot if I can and I don’t give a damn about playing it straight

My friends and The Lord knows what he did to me.

He’s being staying at home with my little woman,

Playing in the fields where I should always be.

It’s harder to forgive my own little woman . . .

Need to find a job ’cause I just blew up that steel company!

Heh!

Bev Bevan’s delivery in this song is exceptional, and when he grunts out that deeply satisfying “Heh” at the end of the song, it’s both very funny and very chilling at the same time. The arrangement is satire-perfect, from the slide guitar to the fancy picking to the angelic echo of “woman” on the choruses. While I think “Do Ya,” “Down on the Bay,” “Chinatown” and “California Man” certainly energized the revised album, The Move were a band with a fabulous sense of humor, and I will go to my deathbed believing that the exclusion of this gem was another classic example of record company stupidity.

“Until Your Mama’s Gone” opens what used to be called side two with some very nifty down-home acoustic picking from Roy Wood. As I’ve already mentioned that I’m not a fan of Roy Wood, rock singer, I’ll compliment the guitar and the horns and move on to the next track. This is the almost-coherent “No Time,” a sad and mournful song about a populace waiting for and experiencing either a hurricane, tidal wave or similar aquatic disaster. The theme of the brevity of life focuses on our ever-present belief that we always have more time than will be the case. While Jeff Lynne never wrote a lyrical masterpiece, his best tracks, like “10538 Overture” on the first ELO album, combine both mystery and tantalizing meaning. We don’t know for sure what happened to these people or to the nameless man in the aforementioned piece, but the composer gives us just enough to feel the emotional impact of their experiences. A simply beautiful number with mournful flutes and simple harmonies, “No Time” is a brilliant piece of music-making.

The rest of Message from the Country is a closed book for me. “Ella James” is another hackneyed attempt by Roy Wood to make himself into a rock singer and it flat out doesn’t work for me. “Don’t Mess Me Up” is an Elvis satire that also falls flat, and “My Marge” is a silly piece that they should have destroyed upon completion. Any song that devotes an entire verse to nose-picking is beneath contempt.

My advice: buy Split Ends, download “Ben Crawley Steel Company” and “It Wasn’t My Idea to Dance” and delete “Until Your Mama’s Gone” and “Ella James.” That would have been a great album, but somehow perfection and The Move don’t seem to go together. The endless possibilities, the false starts and the noble failures are part of what make them such a fascinating group to explore and debate.

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