Electric Light Orchestra “Out of the Blue”

I’m pretty sure I had this record in high school—I had a few ELO records—though I can’t remember exactly which ones, now. I didn’t remember it was a double album, though, so maybe not. Also, I didn’t remember that the rainbow space station cover opened up to reveal the inside of the space station—it actually looks pretty cool, you’d think I’d have remembered that. As an insert, there’s an awkwardly vertical poster included, with these kind of creepy, black and white, almost photo-realist portraits of the band members—and I totally remember that—there’s something strangely off about the portraits—which kind of makes them both repulsive and compelling. In my memory, this was the record, or maybe the one after, when I stopped liking ELO—but now I’m thinking I was totally wrong about all this, or maybe my tastes have changed. (Obviously, both of those things are true—everyone’s tastes change, over time, and I have been wrong about nearly everything.)

Anyway, forget the past, because I’m really loving this record now, and you could even say I’ve become a little obsessed with it. I put it on kind of randomly while cat sitting, along with some others, and this became the one that defined the time there, away from home, this point in time. You never know if, or with whom, it will happen—but it’s kind of like falling in love (ha, if it [falling in love] was only that easy). Because of the space station album cover and the occasional aural buzzes and beeps, shimmering synth sounds, and restrained use of the dreaded vocoder, you kind of think it’s all a sci-fi theme, but it’s not—it’s all over the place, really, with a healthy amount of love songs. The funny thing is, when I glanced at the song titles, the only two I remembered were “Turn to Stone” and “Mr. Blue Sky” (hits)—so I’m glad I even put the record on, because those are my least two favorite songs on the entire album!

As it turns out, there’s one great pop song after another on this record—I’m not even going to list my favorites—just say, all of them but the above two. Then I noticed what I consider the most significant feature of this record—side three is kind if set off as its own thing—a mini-opera, called the “Concerto for a Rainy Day,” as there is a weather theme running through the four songs. Weather! Is there a subject I love more? So, then I had to read a little bit about it—and I didn’t find much, nor dig too deeply, but what I read was that Jeff Lynne went to a chalet in the Swiss Alps to work on this record (didn’t he ever see The Shining?) and it just rained and rained and he had writer’s block! He thought he was washed up, was likely on the verge of running amok, when the sun broke through and he began writing like a madman. Now, anyone will tell you, there’s an inherent bipolar-like thing that runs through the creative process, it’s all valleys and peaks, and sometime the low lows lead to the explosions of creativity—if you’re lucky—and he certainly was, here.

For me, though, the real find on this record is the song “Big Wheels”—with that one, I was immediately in love—so much so that I figured it had to be either a past life thing, or maybe the song was used in some really genius way by an opportunistic, manipulative filmmaker—servicing an emotional story with strong images and the enormous shorthand of this beautiful song. I looked it up but could not find any evidence that it was used anywhere, so I don’t know. I did see that “Mr. Blue Sky” was used like many, many, many times in movies and on TV. Everyone loves “Mr. Blue Sky”—interesting, because I wouldn’t wipe my ass with that song. I mean, it’s okay, but it’s jaunty as all fuck. It kind of highlights that there are two kinds of people in the world, those who like the jaunty and those who don’t. Those who like sunny skies and those who like stormy skies. Those who like happy songs—while a sad song brings them down—and those who live for sad songs. And I suppose, never the twain shall meet. Well, it’s not just sad songs I like, but sad and beautiful, and the two are often hopelessly intertwined. And this song, “Big Wheels,” is not only the most beautiful ELO song I’ve ever heard, but one of the most beautiful pop songs I’ve ever heard by anyone.

I could just leave it at that, but I can’t—I need to listen again and look at it a little more closely—why does this particular song affect me like it does? And what’s it about?—sitting there in the middle of this mini-opera, as it is, in-between songs about weather and love? First of all, what does “Big Wheels” mean, anyway? And why don’t people love this song? First of all, it doesn’t refer to the plastic toy that the kid’s tearing through the hallways of the mountain chalet where Jeff Lynne’s trying to write. My first thought is, because of the album cover, is it’s the space station, as the music has that smooth, slow-rolling feeling, but I don’t know—then what does the space station mean? I suppose it’s the Earth turning, and, you know, “I let the Earth take a couple of whirls,”—the patience that comes with maturity, knowing that things will change. I suppose the song does have a lot of sadness in it (“It was not enough for you” / “It’s rather sad” / “I think I’m gonna have to start again”), plus, there’s the silent tear, cold dark waiting days, and lots and lots of pouring rain! Plus, my favorite: “no one knows which side the coin will fall.” There is the sense of not being in control—that your fate is in others’ hands. And that the other side of “tomorrow is another day” might be, no matter how good things are going, it’s no guarantee they’ll continue. Most sad songs start with the sadness, but has anyone ever written one that says, tomorrow will likely bring heartbreak—it’s as inevitable as death. I guess this one. The more I listen to it, the darker it becomes—it really is kind of an amazing force of nature, the sadness in this song, right up there with the weather. But it’s just so beautiful.

5 Responses to “Electric Light Orchestra “Out of the Blue””

  1. 1 JC
    September 9, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Well I’m definitely going to have to listen to this one — I was going to say “again,” but now I’m not so sure I’ve ever actually listened to it! I think I always considered this the point where they “went disco,” which was the death-knell for my interest in most rock bands at that point in my life, even though I really was an ELO fan for quite a while in the years before that one. And even though I also kind of hate “Mr Blue Sky” & “Turn To Stone,” they are songs that I won’t turn off if they come on the radio, because, as ELO songs, they’re still unique and better than most other songs found on the stations that play them. I *think* I have a copy of this record, but one that I must have picked up for free or was given to me by someone, because, looking at the song titles, most of them are completely unfamiliar to me. I don’t have the first clue what “Big Wheels” sounds like.
    Can I just put in a word for a song from the record before this one, “A New World Record”? I think “Rockaria!,” from that album, is really one of their most underrated songs. I don’t think anyone besides Jeff Lynne has ever managed to fuse classic 1950s-style rock’n’roll with orchestration as successfully (i.e., the song actually still *rocks*) as with this song. It’s really quite emotionally rousing and moving, too.

  2. September 9, 2019 at 6:46 pm

    This record is full of really good songs, actually, and there’s quite a variety. I think I had the same thought, back in high school, they went disco, or whatever. I guess it makes sense I would have made uninformed judgments, seeing how I was not that crazy about their big hits, aside from “I Can’t Get It Out Of My Head.” I used to move on pretty quickly from bands I liked to new ones, and back then, if you didn’t buy the record, it wasn’t too likely you were going to hear the songs that weren’t on the hits on the radio. I’m much more aware of what a good songwriter Jeff Lynne is now (obviously ELO fans will think that sounds dumb, but there’s a lot of music out there!) –he really knows how to write a catchy song with emotional impact. I’ll have to revisit that “New World Record” record, at Rockaria… one good thing is they sold so many records you can find inexpensive good vinyl copies.

    • 3 JC
      September 10, 2019 at 9:14 pm

      a) Well, I checked, and I do have a copy of Out Of The Blue, but after opening it up to see the inside of the flying saucer, I realized that I had never seen that (also, my copy is missing the poster), and after playing the side with “Big Wheels” on it, I know that I had never played it before, either! At some point, I received a free copy of it and “Discovery,” which I think is the one where they really *did* “go disco,” and which I also have never listened to. I listened to that side while I was going to sleep after my radio show, and none of the songs stood out as being definitely “Big Wheels,” so I’m going to have to try to listen to it more mindfully again later. There was one point on that side, though, that woke me up because suddenly the music got quite stark and highly rhythmic, and, I have to say, quite goofy. Which made me hope that that wasn’t the Big Wheels song.
      b) I decided to throw “Rockaria!” into my radio show at the very last minute last night, so you may have heard it. It just confirmed to me how great it is.
      c) Your point about ELO having been so popular that it’s easy to find cheap copies of their records now is very true and well taken. I cannot tell you the number of $1.00 or even 50¢ copies I have seen of “Eldorado,” one of the best records ever recorded by anyone, and one that I think I am going to go listen to here in a minute!

  3. September 27, 2019 at 6:43 am

    I have a copy of Eldorado, which I haven’t written about yet. I like that one a lot. I very much remembered the Rockaria! song when I heard it again. That one reminds me Mott the Hoople, a little. I got to thinking that both Jeff Lynne and Ian Hunter are able write and perform songs that shouldn’t, for me, work on paper – that is, they are kind of corny, too much Chuck Berry without being Chuck Berry, too much rock-around-the-clock Fifties-style rock, too big, too show-biz-emotional – and that includes upbeat rocknroll numbers as well as big ballads, power ballads really. They should be songs that I want to push away, but most of the time, with those two guys and their bands, I like them. Sometimes they almost make me cry.

    • 5 JC
      September 27, 2019 at 9:50 am

      Oh, I 100% agree with this, I’m the same way with most post-1950s takes on “Chuck Berry”-style rock’n’roll (a prime contender would be Bob Seeger’s “Old Time Rock’N’Roll,” probably the epitome of r’n’r rehash songs that I hate). Somehow, both Hunter and Lynne, possibly because they’re British (and we also know that the Brits were the ones who took early American blues and showed us how actually cool it was), are able to put just the right kind of mythologizing spin on a Chuck Berry-style song and elevate it to anthemic, moving rock’n’roll ART. I think I am about the only one I know here in Cleveland who actually *likes* “Cleveland Rocks.” It’s the songs talking about how life-saving rock’n’roll can be that do it for me. Because, I mean, it is. It can also be devastating, obviously, but those are two sides of the same coin. Redemption.

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