Let’s face it – I can be a dick about music sometimes. No, really! I can be close-minded, insular, and outright mean about music that I haven’t even bothered to listen to, and most of the time I hate bands more on principle than on actual musical quality. I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ll slag off some band everybody likes based on my own half-baked conceptions of them, only to actually listen to them and shove my foot in my gaping mouth once I find out how much I enjoy their music. It’s… an affliction.
Case in point, ELO. Before hearing New World Record I viewed ELO as a bunch of stodgy, cocaine-fueled Beatles wannabes who shat out a trail of bloated concept albums in the late 70’s with big gay spaceships on the covers (y’know, before I bothered to listen to anything they’d ever recorded). And of course, I was completely wrong! Well, maybe not completely; yes, Jeff Lynne’s got a major Beatle-bone, and yes ELO was kinda bloated in terms of sound, and yes they had no problem slapping big gay Close Encounters spaceships on their album covers despite hardly ever writing songs about outer space. But New World Record is, for me, one big heaping slab of grade-A pop enjoyment.
Although I have to admit, I’m a little… embarrassed to admit that I enjoy NWR so much. Why? Well, it’s so goddamned Seventies. The production is wa-HAY over the top – strings, opera singers, synths, layers of guitar, processed vocals, you name it. More than one track on here sounds like the Bee Gees in full-on Studio 54 mode, so much so that visions of Peter Frampton in that shitty Sgt. Pepper’s movie might start dancing in your head. But no need to worry – ELO’s datedness comes off as more charming than anything else, and their whole “classical meets rock!” schtick is about a thousand times more fun than, say, Emerson Lake and Palmer’s take on it (Tarkus anybody?). Take the opening track here, “Tightrope,” for example: it starts off with layer upon layer of minor-key string flourishes, building up to a ridiculous crescendo that anticipates a high-falootin’ prog-rock epic but instead leads into a zippity Beatlesesque pop tune complete with hand-claps and “WHOOO!” backup chants. It’s a wonderful way to kick the album into gear, and it makes things clear to the listener that this is a pop album, not a prog album.
I guess that’s the mantra of New World Record: melody over art. “Tightrope” may be awash with strings, but they’re secondary to Jeff Lynne’s uppity melody, giving the song a dramatic push rather than overwhelming it with pretentiousness. The only song here that succumbs to silly prog cliches is “Mission (A World Record),” but even that’s got a pretty melody despite Jeff Lynne singing about space travel in a goofy wobbly voice (I guess those big gay spaceships DID mean something). The other songs here are arguably some of the finest pop creations of the mid-70’s, despite wearing their influences on their sleeves; “So Fine” reminds me of George Harrison circa All Things Must Pass, “Telephone Line” sounds like a lost Magical Mystery Tour ballad, and “Shangri-La” steals its title from a Kinks song (and sounds pretty Beatlesesque anyway). But they’re all great songs on their own merit.
Now, while the pretty tracks here really are pretty, I’ve got kind of a soft spot for the more rockin’ tunes, if you can call them “rockin'”; I mean, this IS ELO, so even the more hard-edged numbers are a tad fruity. But man, I’ll be damned if I don’t love both “Do Ya,” a cover of an old Move chestnut Lynne wrote some years before, and “Rockaria!,” a borderline ridiculous amalgam of classical/opera flourishes and Chuck Berry jukebox rock. Both songs have the benefit of what I call Jeff Lynne’s “cartoon” voice – hyped up, shouty, ridiculous and absolutely hilarious, he completely abandons his sweet Paul McCartney vocalisms from “Telephone Line” in favor of cartoony camp. You can also tell that the guy has a decent sense of humor; on paper, “Rockaria!” sounds like the dumbest song ever recorded, with lyrics like “She’s sweet on Wagner / I think she’d die for Beethoven / She loves the way Puccini lays down a tune!” But man, it’s so over-the-top that you can’t help but get swept up in it. Not unlike classic Queen from the same era, ELO showcases the most ridiculous (and expensive-sounding) production techniques of the mid-70’s and has a blast with the grand theater of it all.
Really, New World Record took me totally by surprise, and I regret judging ELO so quickly. I’d call it a guilty pleasure, but there’s not that much to feel guilty about – there’s some seriously wonderful melody happening in this record, nothing that anybody should be ashamed of (okay so I feel a little guilty about “Rockaria!”, but you can’t blame me for that). Maybe I shouldn’t be TOO shocked; Jeff Lynne did produce and co-write most of Full Moon Fever, although I gave more credit to Tom Petty back then ‘cuz I didn’t know who the hell Jeff Lynne was – silly me! Oh well, no time to wallow in past grievances. I think I’ll put on “Rockaria!” one more time. Lord knows I need more songs about an orchestra playing Chuck Berry’s Greatest Tunes.
Now time to look back and count how many times I used the descriptor “Beatlesesque” in this review.