There’s a trick favored by record producers when they are in the midst of a recording project and running the serious risk of failing to see the forest for the trees. It’s known as the “car test,” and it involves knocking off a rough mix, throwing it on a disc – or, in the old days, a cassette tape – and heading out into the studio parking lot to play that mix through car stereo speakers. The smaller and tinnier-sounding, the better.
The idea is simply this – if the tune carries through on a lousy sounding system, something akin to a transistor radio, even, then you’re on the right track.
Over the past week as Jeff Lynne – founder of Electric Light Orchestra, member of criminally underrated ’60s British psychedelic outfit the Move, record producer and songwriter – celebrates the 40th anniversary of ELO’s birth, I’ve been remembering my first exposure to the man’s music. It came, appropriately enough for this illustration, via AM radio in my parents’ car.
Only people of a certain age will remember that transistor-ish sound, the thin, all but bass-less audio representation that usually was reproduced through a single speaker in the dashboard of the family station wagon. An audiophile’s delight this was clearly not, but man, did it ever sound magical, when the song was the right one.
My initiation into Lynne’s ELO came about this way. The song was “Telephone Line,” a gorgeous mélange of Beatle-esque melody and harmony with Lynne’s trademark lush, dense orchestrations in full effect.
Let’s just say that “Telephone Line” passed the “car test” – even through a lousy single dashboard speaker, with AM band interference buzzing through the mix, and my father none too keen on raising the volume when asked, the profound magic of this song came through.
Last week, a BBC TV documentary marking the 40th anniversary of ELO began airing on Palladia, the high-def all-music cable channel owned by MTV and Viacom. At just about the same time, Lynne released a new solo album, the haunting, sepia-toned “Long Wave,” as well as a collection christened “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra.”
The latter title suggests yet another “best of” collection from a no longer functioning band, an all-hits roundup. In fact, “Mr. Blue Sky” is a new recording – it consists of Lynne meticulously re-creating his favorite ELO songs, playing the majority of the instruments himself, and handling the production, as he did on the original recordings. In pop music terms, this is akin to Beethoven taking another crack at his 9th Symphony a few decades after penning it. These ELO tracks were already pop mini-symphonies when recorded and released in the 1970s. They’re finely detailed, ornately orchestrated and considerably multitracked constructions. Re-creating them from the ground up would be no simple task.
So why would Lynne bother? “When I went back and listened to the recordings, they didn’t sound as good as I remembered them sounding,” he says bluntly in the BBC documentary. “When I first did them, I’d be under time restrictions. Now, I have the time to really do them right.” Wow. The man pulled it off, too. These new recordings sound fantastic, with a more rich, full and pronounced bass, and guitars that leap out of the mix when they need to, and fold back into it when doing so is appropriate.
The documentary offers a fascinating glimpse into Lynne’s life, which seems to be spent all but entirely on the creation, performance and recording of music. Filmed in Lynne’s home, which is also his recording studio, the doc reveals the man himself to be a charming, humble character whose deep Birmingham, England, accent remains prominent, and whose love for music remains a profound, all-consuming thing. Lynne’s a perfectionist, as all of the guest commentators who have worked with him as a producer – among them Paul McCartney, Tom Petty and Joe Walsh – attest in the film. The inadequacies he perceives in the original ELO recordings would sail straight over the heads of most of the rest of us. But they were enough to convince Lynne to take a crack at them one more time. There’s something incredibly charming about that, particularly when you consider the fact that he actually improved upon many of the originals, which were already among the finest productions of the rock era.
Lynne and ELO’s influence is everywhere today, of course, from the multilayered pretensions of bands like Fun. and artists like Gotye, to the psychedelic leanings of the Flaming Lips and Tame Impala.
And even after 40 years of ELO – and several more prior to that – Lynne remains a commercial concern, too. A week after its release, Lynne’s “Long Wave” sat at No. 1 on the UK Indie Albums Chart. “Mr. Blue Sky” was seated next to it, at No. 2.
Learn more about both Lynne albums, as well as the BBC documentary, through www.elo.biz.
The day is finally upon us. The first indoor arena Western New York Rush show in more than a decade takes place at 8 tonight in the First Niagara Center.
This is significant because Rush has always been at the leading edge of audio-visual presentation, and a dark indoor arena provides the proper setting to fully enjoy the visuals.
It’s even more significant because Rush is touring behind one of the strongest albums of its fabled career. “Clockwork Angels” is an ambitious, dense and pretty much completely awesome collection of thematically linked and instrumentally mind-blowing pieces.
And true to form, Rush plans to play just about all of it – with a string section – during the second part of tonight’s twin-set gig.
I don’t want to spoil the surprise for any fans who might not have been following the set lists since the tour commenced a few weeks back, but let’s say this much – set one will not exactly be a stroll down “greatest hits” lane. The band – bassist/vocalist/keyboardist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and percussionist Neil Peart – has something much more intriguing in store.
Remaining tickets for Rush – and there aren’t many, so quit sittin’ on the fence – are available through FirstNiagaraCenter.com ($46.50-$91).
Since this will be a long show running well past deadline, my review will appear in Gusto Extra in Sunday’s edition of The Buffalo News. Look for my blog following the concert, at Buffalonews.com.