I may get more than a little emotional in this review, but fuck it.
I mentioned in my review of Long After Dark that I was drawn to Tom Petty after moving to France because he reminded me of home. Whenever I miss my life in the USA, I play the music of three people: Louis Armstrong, Eddie Cochran and Tom Petty. Louis Armstrong represents both the genius of America and the optimism that can overcome even the cruelest obstacles. Eddie Cochran represents the rebel, the guy who continued to dish out great rock ‘n’ roll during a period when those in the know had relegated rock to the status of the hula hoop, a 50’s teenage music fad that had died with Buddy Holly.
Tom Petty represents both the continuing faith in rock ‘n’ roll and a certain set of values that America seems to have lost. As I wrote in the Long After Dark review:
To my ears, he sounds more sincere than the others; he sounds like he’s playing the music he wants to play and has a good time doing it. I admire the hell out of him for standing up to MCA and getting them to reverse on their fan-unfriendly pricing strategy for Hard Promises, and for keeping ticket prices down for his concerts so the folks living from paycheck to paycheck might be able to save up a few bucks each week for a special night on the town. I think part of the reason Hypnotic Eye opened at #1 on the Billboard charts in 2014 is because most of the music coming out today feels astonishingly insincere, and you can always rely on Tom Petty to give you honest music and his best effort. In ancient American lingo, he’s on the up and up, the genuine article, a real swell guy.
He gives the people what they want and it happens to be what he wants, too. Nothin’ wrong with that.
Tom Petty was the Joe DiMaggio of rock ‘n’ roll. When they asked DiMag why he hustled on meaningless plays in a long-lost game, he said, “Because there’s always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.” Like Joe, Tom Petty was amazingly consistent and always gave his best in a career that spanned parts of five decades.
Full Moon Fever was a liberation experience for Tom, his first solo effort. People who complain that it’s not really a solo effort because most of the Heartbreakers made contributions miss the point. This was his chance to go out on his own and take the risk of having his name and only his name associated with his art. It also allowed him to approach his music from a different point of view, an advantage strengthened by his concurrent work with The Traveling Wilburys and the decision to have Jeff Lynne serve as producer. The choice of Lynne (who also co-wrote several of the songs) partially explains the “British” tone of the record, but Tom had been a fan of British rock since he saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan with millions of other kids. He told Rolling Stone, “I’ve always loved the British rock and pop of the Sixties, and Jeff feels the same way. Within the Heartbreakers, I represent some portion of that sound, but they have so many other influences. If you take me away from them, this is what you get.” Recorded mainly in Mike Campbell’s garage studio (they literally had to move the cars out of the way to begin recording each day), Tom would describe Full Moon Fever as “the most enjoyable record I’ve ever worked on.”
And highly enjoyable to the listener.
Full Moon Fever opens with “Free Fallin’,” a dramatic monologue where Tom takes the anti-heroic character of your average L. A. male slob, a “bad guy” who dumped a “good girl” from Reseda, a Latino-dominated piece of the San Fernando Valley. The opening passage of clean, stereo acoustic guitars establishes a reflective mood that inspires immediate curiosity as to where the song might lead. Still free of rhythmic accompaniment, Tom sings the first verse in a tone of guilty regret, applying distinctly American values and imagery to accentuate the innocence of our anti-hero’s victim:
She’s a good girl, loves her mama
Loves Jesus and America too
She’s a good girl, crazy ’bout Elvis
Loves horses and her boyfriend too
“And her boyfriend, too” is a brilliant exposure of the self-pity that underlies the anti-hero’s story and brings into question the sincerity of his guilt. The rock-solid rhythm section enters now, giving our anti-hero a few moments to luxuriate in the glorious act of feeling sorry for himself. He completes his reverie with more self-admission, exposing his true, uglier feelings:
It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda
There’s a freeway runnin’ through the yard
And I’m a bad boy, ’cause I don’t even miss her
I’m a bad boy for breakin’ her heart
Now I’m free—free fallin’
Now I’m free—free fallin’
Essentially, he manipulated the girl’s naïveté for a few good fucks before re-claiming his uniquely male freedom to sow his oats. Fuck this guy! And hey, if your freedom isn’t all that it was cracked up to be, grow the fuck up and deal with it!
Instead of dealing with it, he heads west to Ventura Boulevard, where the users and hoods who have learned that life in L. A. is an endless cycle of using and getting used hold court:
All the vampires, walkin’ through the valley
Move west down Ventura Blvd
And all the bad boys are standing in the shadows
And the good girls are home with broken hearts
In the next rendition of the chorus, Tom’s voice expresses deeper anguish, communicating more sincere regret than what we heard in the opening verses. The experience of “falling” now begins to outweigh the benefits of “freedom.” A brief instrumental-background vocal passage follows, with Jeff Lynne’s voice coming through loud and clear. Tom then steps in for what we hope is the resolution of the story, but all we’re left with is a ridiculous fantasy that’s somehow going to make everything all right. It doesn’t:
I wanna glide down over Mulholland
I wanna write her name in the sky
I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’
Gonna leave this world for awhile
The last line sounds like more self-pity than suicidal ideation, though it could also mean he’s thinking of doing what every American tends to do when things don’t work out—hit the road for sunnier climes. Of course, he’ll wind up in Florida or wherever and pull the same old shit on another unsuspecting broad. You can’t run away from your problems when you are the problem.
“Free Fallin'” is a lyrical, musical masterpiece on many levels. I read that Tom had been working with Randy Newman on a few recordings around this time and the one thing he learned from the experience was to “say more with less.” I’m a huge fan of poetic economy, and “Free Fallin'” is definitive proof that Tom learned his lesson. How such a sad but insightful song was turned into an anthem is a mystery to me, and Tom found that transformation equally disappointing.
A friend in the U. S. sent me a link to the video featuring Jason Aldean’s SNL performance of “I Won’t Back Down,” and I have to confess I started crying like a baby when I recognized the remarkably faithful rendition of the opening passage. I don’t know shit about Jason Aldean, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful tribute in my life. The inspired decision to connect two traumatic events that cut deep into the American soul—the insanity of the Las Vegas massacre with the death of one of American’s greatest musical artists—allowed us to grieve for the people we lost while rekindling a spirit of defiance in the face of evil and misfortune. It was only fitting that the song Jason Aldean chose also had its roots in a traumatic experience.
I still can’t believe this really happened: somebody tried to kill Tom Petty, his family and his housekeeper by setting fire to his house. Badly shaken, he spent the next three months driving his family between hotel rooms and a rental house, using the driving time to deal with the crisis by writing songs in his head.
One of those songs was “I Won’t Back Down,” but he was reluctant to record it. In an interview with Harp, he said:
That song frightened me when I wrote it. I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song. But everyone around me liked the song and said it was really good and it turns out everyone was right – more people connect to that song than anything I ever wrote. I’ve had so many people tell me that it helped them through this or it helped them through that. I’m still continually amazed about the power a little 3-minute song has.
“I Won’t Back Down” is a testament to the remarkable healing power of music. For Tom Petty, it was a way of channeling a stew of emotions into poetry that helped him deal with a very traumatic experience.
The recording of “I Won’t Back Down” is marked by a strong, insistent beat, reflecting a determined refusal to surrender one’s spirit to the forces of fear and hatred. Tom’s voice remains calm and confident throughout most of the song, an attitude intensified by the dominant metrical pattern of three stressed syllables (WON’T BACK DOWN, STAND MY GROUND). The most powerful variation in the pattern comes in the bridge, where the band nails a rhythmic kick, Jeff and George Harrison step in with superb background vocals and Tom lets his voice soar as he sings of the freedom that comes with the acceptance of reality (“Hey, baby, there ain’t no easy way out.”) To me, that is the most important line of the song, because regardless of how much fame and money one has, we are all vulnerable human beings, and no amount of wealth and privilege can protect a person from the ugly side of humanity. We are all at risk from one form of evil or another, but the only way we can deal with it is to move forward, remain true to who we are and hope for the best:
Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground
Tightly played and full of powerful dynamic variations, “I Won’t Back Down” is a song you can always rely on for a spiritual boost.
Co-written with Mike Campbell, “Love Is a Long Road” opens with an engaging synthesized pattern reminiscent of passages in The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” before shifting to a more muscular display of the rhythmic power of rock. The strong, simple beat that drives this song is frigging irresistible, underscoring the passionate intensity of lyrics focused on the complexities of coupling:
There was a girl I knew
She said she cared about me
She tried to make my world
The way she thought it should be
There it is again—the age-old problem of trying to make one’s love interest into something that they’re not. KNOCK IT OFF, PEOPLE! If you can’t love a person for who they are, that should tell you it’s time to move the fuck on! Jeez maneez, will you ever learn? Although the problem is as old as Methuselah, Tom Petty’s anguished sincerity makes this one of the better songs about relational entrapment.
Tom eases up on the throttle a bit with “A Face in the Crowd,” a lovely piece about the seemingly magical transformation that takes place when someone emerges from the faceless masses to become the most important person in our lives. I’ve always wondered about the invisible threads that connect people—how two people with completely different life narratives wind up at the same place and same time to solidify the link. Tom doesn’t explain how it works as much as he marvels at the experience, which is good enough for me. I love the guitars in this piece—subtle, clean, and brilliantly arranged.
Speaking of mysteries and fabulous guitars, “Runnin’ Down a Dream” supplies both with the power quotient ramped up to the nth degree. The opening riff defines the word “smokin,” a rough, high-speed phrase that raises the heartbeat in anticipation. That anticipation leads to five minutes of non-stop excitement, facilitated by well-executed variations in dynamics and superb fills that keep this sucker moving at top speed (the high-speed accoustic guitar fills in the chorus are an ass-shaking delight). Phil Jones’ drum work is outfuckingstanding and Mike Campbell’s extended solo in the fade is what rock ‘n’ roll is all about—let it fucking rip all night long, baby!
“Runnin’ Down a Dream” certainly deals with the modern adaptation of the American dream—the freedom to get in your car, hit the highway, jack up the volume on the radio and search for something different. What I love about “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is the clear emphasis on two essential elements of the experience:
- You ain’t gonna find no dream sittin’ on your fat ass and watchin’ it on TV: Runnin’ down a dream/That would never come to me.
- Ya gotta believe. There’s somethin’ good waitin’ down this road/I’m pickin’ up whatever’s mine.
And although we tend to romanticize the experience of leaving it all behind for a new life (I’m still wondering what happened to the kids who were abandoned by their parents in Fastball’s “The Way”), a trip down the open road isn’t a trip through Disneyland. There’s some pretty scary shit out there (just ask the guys in Easy Rider), and you must have the willpower to ride through the rough patches:
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine . . .
I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
And while you’re giving it the gas, it sure helps to have Del Shannon blasting out of the radio! There’s something about rock ‘n’ roll that bucks you up, strengthens your backbone and imbues you with the ability to face anything, and “Runnin’ Down the Dream” is one sterling example of the energizing power of great rock ‘n’ roll.
How nice it was of Tom Petty to think of cassette listeners who lacked a two-sided play feature to pause the recording before moving to Side Two! Actually, I think it was a great idea to give everyone a break after the fury of “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and let people shift their asses to a more comfortable position to better appreciate one of the great covers of all time—Tom Petty’s rendition of Gene Clark’s “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.” Tom’s version is intensely faithful to the original, with only a few minor variations—and that’s a good thing! Why mess with a great song with a great arrangement, particularly one that captures the Rickenbacker-driven sound of 1960’s American folk-rock so perfectly? What allows the cover to stand up to the original is a combination of Tom Petty’s deep respect for the song and the higher quality production that provides the listener with cleaner, richer guitar and more rhythmic oomph. I can imagine a hundred different ways this song could have been ruined by less respectful people (a disco version! a progressive rock version! a rap version!), so we can be very thankful that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were at the helm.
“Yer So Bad” follows, a humor-spiced piece about an upside-down world where “bad” means “good” and relationships are driven by greed, manipulation and mindless sexuality:
My sister got lucky, married a yuppie
Took him for all he was worth
Now she’s a swinger dating a singer
I can’t decide which is worse
I think “I can’t decide which is worse” says it all, and is one of Tom Petty’s best punch lines. The acoustic-heavy arrangement would have fit nicely on the Wilburys album, but its placement here gives us more insight into Tom Petty’s personal values—more than appropriate for a solo effort. I also love the reiteration of the theme of relationships as a sanctuary (and I’d much rather listen to that theme as presented here than Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe”).
The bouncy “Depending on You” follows, its bounciness contrasting significantly with the story of a very tenuous relationship. The background vocals here are excellent, adding a nice bit of variation to the arrangement . . . but I have a hard time reconciling the upbeat feel of the song with the downbeat lyrics. “The Apartment Song” has the same issue—a hard-driving rocker about loneliness—but the band rocks so hard on this one (especially during the paradiddle drum passage tribute to Buddy Holly) that I couldn’t care less about the lyrics.
There is no disconnection at all in the perfectly lovely “Alright For Now.” The expression of deep appreciation for a partner that fully supports your right to pursue your life goals is sincere and deeply moving. In contrast to the poisonous relationship described in “Love Is a Long Road,” this song describes the essence of true love—the willingness to allow your partner be who they are, even if it means lengthy periods of separation. The verse I find most touching fully captures the need for freedom within the context of a relationship, and the heartfelt appreciation of that rare gift:
I’ve spent my life travelin’
Spent my life free
I could not repay all you’ve done for me
The arpeggiated guitar duet is sumptuous, and the touches of vocal harmony make you want to snuggle up next to your honey right now.
We shift from soft and sweet to Bo Diddley with the all-out rocker, “A Mind with a Heart of Its Own.” The lyrics are absurdist in the extreme, but some of the lines give me the giggles:
Well I been to Brooker and I been to Micanopy
I been to St. Louis too, I been all around the world
I’ve been over to your house
And you’ve been over sometimes to my house
I’ve slept in your tree house
My middle name is Earl
I have no idea why that last couplet cracks me up . . . perhaps it’s the experience of listening to someone’s unconscious thoughts streaming out in a massive mental dump. For whatever reason—the intense rhythm, Tom’s sneering vocals or the joy of gobbledygook–“A Mind with a Heart of Its Own” is one of my favorite songs on the album.
Full Moon Fever ends with an attempt at satire that landed with a thud. As in “Free Fallin’,” Tom was playing a part in “Zombie Zoo”—in this case, an ignorant redneck (Tom was thinking Jed Clampett) who doesn’t understand why the ravers and punks distort their god-given appearances and refuse to follow accepted social norms. Unfortunately, he didn’t leave enough vocal or lyrical cues for people to grasp the satire—the lyrics focus too much on the allegedly irrational behavior of youth and not enough on the desiccated, old fart brain of the narrator. Astonished at the negative reaction to the song, Tom apologized for having offended anyone, showing he had more class than Donald Trump ever will.
Full Moon Fever is many things, but best of all it’s a great rock ‘n’ roll record. The intentional nods to Del Shannon, Buddy Holly and Bo Diddley emphasize the continuity and staying power of rock ‘n’ roll while reminding us of its long tradition. Three of the songs have earned anthemic status, a piece of good news/bad news. “I Won’t Back Down” has been used by several political campaigns, and only one—the Bush II campaign in 2000—earned a cease-and-desist letter from Tom’s attorney (Tom supported Al Gore). People will always take a song with a memorable message and either twist the original meaning into knots or use it to try to sell shit. I’m not sure what Jason Aldean was thinking when he sang “I Won’t Back Down,” but after listening intently to the Tom Petty original, I know what he meant—and that’s what really matters. Tom was on his game during this period in his life, bouncing back from the trauma of the fire to produce one of his greatest and most lasting contributions to music. He did NOT back down.
Earlier this year, I delayed publication of two reviews of The Allman Brothers because of Duane Allman’s passing. Full Moon Fever was on my schedule for January 2018 and my first reaction after Tom’s death was confirmed was to leave it right there. While having dinner with my parents this past Sunday, my dad (a huge Tom Petty fan) asked me if I was going to do a review to honor his memory. I told him I was uncomfortable with that idea.
“Because I don’t want to be seen as capitalizing on someone’s death. It’s ghoulish.”
He gave me a long, hard stare and then burst out laughing.
“Capitalizing? Capitalizing? You’ve been writing reviews for almost six years. How much money have you made?”
“Correction—think about all the music you’ve bought, the time you’ve spent and the cost of running a website. You’ve lost money. Then how in the fuck can you capitalize? Where’s the gain? Where’s the profit?”
Then my mother popped in with the line that always shatters my occasional bursts of irrational stubbornness. “You’re being silly.”
“Honor the man with an honest review,” said dad, putting an end to the debate.
So, let me be honest—this was hard to write, but the experience of immersing myself in Tom Petty’s music was both cleansing and uplifting. Full Moon Fever is a wonderful listening experience, a well-produced, exceptionally performed record with some of Tom Petty’s greatest songs and several of his finest lyrical efforts. I remain devastated by his loss, but I’m comforted by one thought above all: we may not have Tom anymore, but he left us his music.
What a marvelous gift to leave behind!
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.