RETROSPECTIVE: Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue deserves a place in the pantheon of double albums
The Birmingham band’s explosive seventh album is an oft-overlooked classic, writes Alex Glase.
The double record, so often derided for its looseness and filler, allows an artist room to breathe and experiment with musical convention. Lists of the best double albums ever recorded have a few usual suspects: Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland, the Beatles’ self-titled (aka The White Album), Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., Kate Bush’s Aerial, et cetera. All fantastic albums, to be sure, but on its sapphire anniversary, it’s high time Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue was included in these discussions.
In a sense, ELO have always been underrated. They never had a number one single in the U.S., and Out of the Blue— now considered their magnum opus — was described as heartless and “horrifyingly sterile” by Rolling Stone upon release in 1977. The tour accompanying the album was maligned for using pre-recorded layers to recreate the studio versions of their songs live. Hell, even when you google ‘Out of the Blue’, you get results for a Clovelly fish and chip shop before ELO. Perhaps rock listeners, accustomed to the basic power chords and progressions of AC/DC and their ilk, rejected the glamour of ELO — after all, Queen were booed offstage at Sunbury in 1974.
Most revolutionary bands form out of coincidence or convenience, their innovations often caused by accident. What distinguishes ELO from such bands is frontman Jeff Lynne’s clear vision from the outset: a slick fusion of rock melodies and classical overtures to warp the dimensions of pop music. Out of the Blue, which was written by Lynne (who also performs lead vocals, backing vocals, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, piano and synthesiser) during a three-week burst of inspiration in a Swiss chateau, is the most cohesive manifestation of this goal. Even the spaceship that ‘floated’ above the stage during the tour expresses that Out of the Blue is an attempt to push music into the future.
Side 1 of the album simply does not miss. ‘Turn to Stone’ is an urgent introduction, with its opening drums and synthesiser evoking an aeroplane (or for ELO, a spaceship) landing — a nod to the Beatles’ Back in the U.S.S.R.. Lynne’s apostrophic lyrics emerge immediately; most of the songs on the record are addressed to an absent lover that has abandoned the narrator. The aptly titled ‘It’s Over’ continues this thread, before the more upbeat ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’ and ‘Across the Border’ inject some hope into the album, as Lynne declares “you know I’m comin’, baby”.
The middle of the record does blend together (save for the sultry Starlight) — the second half of Side 2 and the beginning of Side 3 have a fair bit of filler, which isn’t uncommon for a double album. But ‘Mr. Blue Sky’, the band’s signature song which needs no introduction, rounds out the third side memorably. A garbled voice embedded in the final notes tells the listener to “please turn me over” — ‘me’ being the record itself.
Side 4 is pristine: ‘Sweet is the Night’ foreshadows the slower tunes of ELO’s next album, Discovery, with a glam-pop ballad about everything being alright now that the narrator’s lover has returned. ‘The Whale’, which is allegedly Lynne’s response to “a television program about the slaughter of whales”, is ELO at their most experimental. The five-minute instrumental track consists of strings, a Moog synthesiser and an unexpected funk interlude. It’s hard to find meaning within it, as enjoyable as it is.
‘Birmingham Blues’ hints at the discontent of the narrator, before ‘Wild West Hero’ confirms it, as the instrumental is silenced for a few beats while Lynne expresses his desire to “ride the range all the day / ‘Till the first fadin’ light”. Melvyn Gale’s uncredited jangle piano could have been torn straight from a saloon: one final simulation of the turmoil within the narrator.
And so, while there’s no defined narrative arc here, the album begins and ends with dissatisfaction. Despite the fleeting moments of hope in ‘Standin’ in the Rain’, ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ and ‘Sweet is the Night’, there is no happy ending here. Put simply, Out of the Blue is a cyclical story about the breakdown, recovery and subsequent loss of love.
The album has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. The use of ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ in the opening sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) saw the track reach 11 on the Billboard Rock Sales chart (for reference, the song peaked at 35 in the US and 87 in Australia upon release).
After three compact albums in Eldorado, Face the Music and A New World Record, an expansive double album afforded Jeff Lynne and ELO the space to match their ambitions. It is their masterpiece — their Kind of Blue, their Pet Sounds, their Rumours. If you haven’t listened to Out of the Blue in the 45 years since its release, you’re missing out. It is grandeur without delusion.