Out Of the Blue was the seventh album by Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), which began its life in the Swiss Alps after the band wrapped up it’s New World Record tour in April 1977. ELO’s lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Jeff Lynne rented a small chalet near Lake Geneva. He brought his guitar and rented an electric piano and tape recorder, giving himself about a month of solitude to compose new music. But for about two weeks the weather was terrible and Lynne struggled to write anything of substance. Then one morning, the sun came out exposing the majestic mountains and Lynne’s writer’s block disappeared. Starting with the suite “Concerto For a Rainy Day”, the songwriter composed the bulk of this upcoming double album in total, about fourteen tracks in two weeks. The songs were then rehearsed by and arranged for the band and orchestra before production began at Musicland in Munich, Germany, a place favored by Lynne because of its proximity to “a great football pitch out the back for having a break”.
Lynne was happy to get 40 orchestral musicians into the relatively small Musicland after originally booking and being unsatisfied with a much larger studio where there was too much natural re-verb. In the end, every one of the 19 tracks on Out Of the Blue were composed and produced by Lynne and the album was on the shelf in mere months. Out Of the Blue was a great success, reaching the top five on album charts in seven different countries and becoming the most highly regarded album by ELO. The album also benefited from being highly relevant to its time, having some disco-friendly sounds in the year which brought us Saturday Night Fever and spaceship-centered artwork in the year that brought us Star Wars.
Creatively, it was the apex of Lynne’s ambition to blend basic rock’n’roll with orchestral overtones, something many fans and critics believe was his independent crusade to continue the Beatles musical direction of their latter years. Ironically, Beatles producer George Martin felt their only double album, 1968’s White Album could’ve been edited back to form a really excellent single album and Out Of the Blue may have been better served to follow that advice. The songs tend to be overproduced, which is sonically fulfilling at the beginning but gets mundane as the album progresses, especially with a rather weak fourth “side”. The rich vocal arrangements and the method of call and return by Lynn’s lead and the harmonized backing, especially wear thin as the album progresses.
Out Of the Blue by E.L.O.
|Released: October 1977 (Jet)
Produced by: Jeff Lynne
Recorded: Musicland Studios, Munich, May-August 1977
|Side One||Side Two|
|Turn To Stone
Sweet Talkin’ Woman
Across the Border
|Night In the City
Believe Me Now
|Side Three||Side Four|
|Standin’ In the Rain
Summer and Lightning
Mr. Blue Sky
|Sweet Is the Night
Wild West Hero
|Jeff Lynne – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards
Richard Tandy – Keyboards, Guitars
Louis Clark – Orchestra Conductor
Kelly Groucutt – Bass, Vocals
Bev Bevan – Drums, Vocals
The album fades in with the hit “Turn to Stone” with a beat equivalent to early techno and Lynne’s call-out vocals returned by thick harmonies (something that will be repeated all too often on this album). The song contains great texture, a key component to many songs on the album along with the skill of mixing string-laden pop hooks with driving rock and roll. The next song, “It’s Over” is an odd song to be placed anywhere but at the end of a side. The song contains a driving acoustic through the verses with a nice piano piece in the lead
A short wedding march introduces “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”, a tremendous pop song with fine melodies, harmonies, and overall great use of vocals. “Jungle” is a song of just plain fun with its various types of sound effects, upbeat tempo, and use of nonsensical vocal flourishes and jungle animal noises provided by Lynne along with bassist Kelly Groucutt and drummer Bev Bevan. “Believe Me Now” is a short yet entertaining instrumental that introduces the melodic an melancholy “Steppin’ Out”, written in a similar vein to past classics like “Telephone Line”.
Based on old-time rock, “Across the Border” adds mariachi horns into the already-packed musical palette of sound effects, Moog synthesizer, and violin by Mik Kaminski. The album’s second side starts with “Night In the City”, a definitely disco-influenced track with just a hint of prog-rock experimentation through the changing chord structures and vocal arrangements. “Starlight” is a dreamy, slow dance influenced, piano driven song with topical, new-age sounds.
The entirety of side three is subtitled “Concerto for a Rainy Day”, a four track suite based on the weather and how it affects mood change, ending gloriously with “Mr. Blue Sky”, an uplifting celebration of sunshine. The song has liberal use of vocoder from keyboardist Richard Tandy. Beyond this, the song contains the best vocals on this vocal-rich album, from the cool lead by Lynne, to the multi-part harmonies in the chorus, to the building arrangement following the second verse, to the great choral arrangement later in the song. Leading up to this climatic final song, the concerto (which would be the end of Lynne’s dabbling in symphonic rock) contains the haunting “Standin’ in the Rain”, the dramatic, string-driven “Big Wheels”, and the acoustic, pop-oriented “Summer and Lightning”.
Side four is, unfortunately, the weakest side on Out Of the Blue as this otherwise fine album fizzles to an anti-climatic end. It is not that these songs are terrible, just that all the spectacular moments have passed and nothing here seems too original or inspiring. “Sweet Is the Night” may have been a hit single if it were released, as it does have some pleasant and melodic moments. “The Whale” is an instrumental which is largely an experiment with synthesized sounds by Tandy. “Birmingham Blues” is mainly uninspired filler, and the album’s closer, “Wild West Hero” adds some “honky tonk” elements which seem forced and underdeveloped.
Still, Out Of the Blue contains some fantastic songs and there were actually even a couple of very good songs that were originally kept off (although later added for the 30th anniversary edition. These were the fine instrumental “The Quick and the Daft” and the melodic, pop-oriented “Latitude 88 North”, which has a sound that may have actually been ahead of its time for 1977. Then again, Jeff Lynne and ELO always seemed to be just a little ahead of their time.
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of 1977 albums.