The first new batch of Electric Light Orchestra reissues in five years, No Answer (1971) and ELO II (1972) were far from the accessible three-minute pop masterpieces crafted by mastermind Jeff Lynne a couple of albums later. These first two-albums are one of the examples that characterized ‘70s art rock: some flashes of brilliance and moments of excess.
Formed from the ashes of the Move, Electric Light Orchestra was one the first bands that prominently integrated a string section (and a French horn player, mind you). The debut album No Answer (titled after a miscommunication over the phone on how the album should be named) is one case when you have two studio rats let loose over the control boards—in this case, Lynne and multinstrumentalist Roy Wood. The record is a bit over the place and whose baroque, almost antiquated, sound evokes modern classical music and the sounds of 1920s English music hall—the album’s best tracks are “10538 Overture” and the Gershwin-like “Mr. Radio.” Wood’s cello playing dominated most of the record, as Ian MacDonald’s mellotron was signature to King Crimson’s debut; a song he wrote, “Look at Me Now,” is very similar to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” The music was light years away from the guilty pop pleasures of “Evil Woman” and “Mr. Blue Sky,” but the seeds for those successes were already planted during No Answer.
Given that both Lynne and Wood were ambitious singers, songwriters, and ideas men, it was inevitable that they couldn’t be in the same band. By the time of the second album, Wood packed his cello and other instruments to form Wizzard, leaving Lynne to run the entire ELO show to this day (it also marked the presence of keyboardist Richard Tandy). He probably wanted to go one up on Yes and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer in the extended songs department with ELO II. That album boasted only five cuts, each of them over six minutes long. While most of the tracks could use a good editor, songs like “In Old England Town Boogie” and the handsome “Mama” hold their own. The powerful 11-minute finale, Kuiama, has an anti-war message that is chillingly prophetic. ELO II may be best known for its rollicking cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” bookended by the intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Ironically, one of this reissue’s bonus tracks “Baby, I Apologize,” is a simple pop ditty that would be a harbinger of the group’s pop-friendly future.
The first two albums serve to explain how the ELO story began, despite some of their excesses, the artistic ambitions and use of classical music are quite revolutionary. The magic, of course, would come a few albums later with Face the Music, A New World’s Record, and Out of the Blue, which hopefully will also be reissued.