Graded on a Curve: Electric Light Orchestra, The Ultimate Collection

How great are ELO? Randy Newman wrote a song (“The Story of a Rock and Roll Band”) making fun of ‘em! Talk about your honors. That’s better than a Grammy! Six Grammys! A dozen Grammys even!

And how dumb was poor Roy Wood, who split Electric Light Orchestra before they sold like a gazillion records to form Wizzard, who sold like six! No wonder hairy Roy looks like a crazy recluse who’s spent the past 40 years in the wilderness, subsisting on a diet of spotted squirrel and sterno–he has!

The words “symphonic rock” frighten the bejesus outta me. But (at least on the best of their songs) ELO pulled it off, partly on the strength of their top-secret recipe (write Beatlesque melodies, then just add strings) but also because–and this is critical–unlike the pompous schmucks in Emerson, Lake & Palmer, ELO approached their classical-rock fusion in a spirit of fun. I don’t much care for many of their songs for the simple reason that I have a low tolerance for cellos and the like, but there’s something self-consciously preposterous in their shtick that makes me love them anyway. Call it ironic distance if you like, but the distance counts for a whole lot in my book.

There are plenty of ELO best-of compilations out there, but I’ve yet to run across one that makes me completely happy. They either dispense with the filler but fail to include some of my favorite songs, or include my favorite songs but toss in a bunch of songs I really don’t want to hear. With its 38 cuts 2001’s The Ultimate Collection falls into the second category; I have no use for “Shine a Little Love,” “The Diary of Horace Wimp, “Ticket to the Moon,” or “Last Train to London,” but the comp includes such personal must-haves as “Do Ya,” “Ma-Ma-Belle,” and “10538 Overture.”

And The Ultimate Collection has an additional advantage, insofar as it’s turned me on to some great songs I’d have never heard otherwise. “Four Little Diamonds” is a drop dead rocker, “Hold on Tight” is one cool salute to Roy Orbison, and “Confusion” is a harbinger of Traveling Wilburys to come. Why, I even ended up liking the scary sounding “Illusions in G Major,” and that’s one I certainly didn’t see coming.

Newman ends “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” by elucidating his ELO faves (“I love their ‘Mr. Blue Skies’/Almost my favorite is ‘Turn to Stone’/And how ‘bout ‘Telephone Line’?/I love that ELO.”) I wouldn’t go so far as to say I love ELO, but like Randy I have a list of my favorite ELO songs, and at the top of my list is “Do Ya,” an uncharacteristically hard rocker with a guitar riff spoiling for a fight and a great singalong chorus. It started life as a single by the Move, then got covered by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia before Jeff Lynne, tired of people thinking he was covering Utopia, decided to reclaim it for his own..

Coming in at No. 2 is “10538 Overture,” which may well be the greatest Sgt. Pepper’s pastiche I’ve ever heard. It has best strings to muscle quotient of any of their songs, and the horn fanfare takes it to heavenly heights. Almost makes me rethink my antipathy to classical music, it does.

I’m also a big fan of the guitar heavy “Ma-Ma-Belle,” which splits the difference between the Sweet and Mott the Hoople. The faux-rockabilly numbers “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King” and “Rockataria!” also push my buttons, as does the very early Fab four “Four Little Diamonds.”

When it comes to the ones ELO will always be remembered for, the dreamy “Can’t Get It Out of My Head” is probably my favorite, followed closely by the funky “Showdown.” As for “Livin’ Thing,” I used to hate it, but it’s grown on me like a fungus over the years, thanks to its catchy as chlamydia chorus and big horn fanfare. Another one that’s grown on me is “Don’t Bring Me Down,” with its big bottom, piano and hissing backing vocals. And I’m with Randy on both the Paul McCartney-esque“Telephone Line” and “Turn to Stone,” which sounds like Sweet gone disco.

For years I put ELO into that category of bands that helped inspire punk; if there baroque and oversized sound was what rock and roll had become, best to destroy it and start over fresh. But–and this is why I’ve warmed up to ELO over the years–theirs was anything but a serious, high-brow endeavor. To the contrary, their music has a theater of the absurd feel to it. Supersaturating rock and roll in strings borders on the ridiculous, and nobody knew that better than Lynne.

The Ultimate Collection isn’t the ultimate collection in my book–somebody out there should give me the job. But it’s the best ELO compilation I’ve run across, and I think I’ve run across them all. I would advise the haters to give ELO another chance, and give this baby a listen. As for the lovers, they’ll cherish its every last cut.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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