TONITE: Orchestral Manuevers In The Dark



EDITOR’S NOTE: I wrote this after seeing ELO at the Wells Fargo Center last summer. They return to the Wells Fargo Center on tonight, with George Harrison’s son Dhani in tow.

The year is 1977. Eleven-year-old me is sitting on my best friend’s bunk bed listening to his older brother’s copy of Electric Light Orchestra’s Out Of The Blue on the Hi-Fi, staring at the neon starburst-colored spaceship on the gatefold sleeve which, he informed me, was used to clean your weed on. Being 11 I had no earthly idea why somebody would collect weeds nor why they would want to clean them, and said as much. My best friend didn’t seem to really know either, but said he had it on good authority, i.e. his older brother. My best friend’s older brother could have played himself in Dazed And Confused, he sold weed, as was the style of the day, and trapped muskrats in the crick out back, and kept the pelts in freezer of the family fridge. When he was like, 14, he took a bus to see The Who at Madison Square Gardens without telling anyone, and it took him three days to get home. We were all impressed. Well, everyone except his mom.

My best friend’s older brother was a bottomless fount of dubious rock elder lore, forever sharing, in a hushed conspiratorial tone, shocking secret information about mysterious rituals performed at the rock concerts we were still years away from being eligible to attend, like how Alice Cooper would pass around a bucket at concerts and everyone would spit and puke in it and then Alice would drink it, as was the style of the day, and Rod Stewart once had to get his stomach pumped because he had ingested too much semen, all of which sounds Alex Jones-ludicrous in hindsight but makes a lot of sense when you are 11. He also assured us that all bands had spaceships that they climbed aboard back stage and then flew over the heads of the crowd, landed on stage and disembarked already rockin’. Especially ELO. At the time, I didn’t know much about music, popular or otherwise, but I did know that ELO’s sad, pretty prismatic songs always made me smile when I would happen upon them on the radio while growing up in the 70s when there wasn’t a lot to smile about — my parents had split up, and then my father died, and the next door neighbor’s German Shepherd ate my rabbit and on it went. Bad moon rising, ten soldiers and Nixon coming, etc.

According to news reports at the time, ELO’s spaceship cost, $300,000 to build, a then-astronomical sum of money, took eight tractor trailers to transport and 45 crew members 10 hours to assemble. The spaceship sealed the deal: ELO was officially my new favorite band. One day, I vowed with God is my witness, I would go to an ELO concert and see this neon Deco spaceship in action and then somehow stow away on board and join the band the way kids used to run away to join the circus, as was the style of the day. Spoiler alert: never happened. By the time I was of concert-going age, ELO was no longer a touring act, at least not in my town, nor were they accepting underaged stowaways with no discernible skill on any known musical instrument.

Still, those songs always stuck with me, always made me smile, even after I’d become a sullen punk and publicly disavowed all pre-punk music as dinosaur-rock, as was the style of the day. I outgrew the sullen punk pose the day I finally wised up to the fact that you could like both punk and hippie music, that they were all spokes on the same wheel of sonic possibility and equally valid in the right contexts. This became increasingly apparent as I got into bands like The Flaming Lips circa The Soft Bulletin, or Grandaddy circa The Sophtware Slump, or Air circa Moon Safari or Daft Punk circa almost everything they ever did, and I could clearly hear the ELO in the DNA of all that music: The gated snares, the spiraling flangers, the super-compressed, phase-shifted vocals blown-out with oceanic reverb and infinite echo, the immaculate robo-harmonies, the orchestral maneuvers in the dark. ELO sounds like a Beatles song that you plug into the wall and it lights up. Or to put it another way: ELO = The Beatles + Tron.

Fast forward 40 years to the Wells Fargo Center Friday night. The spaceship has been long-since been mothballed in the wake of Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” fiasco, as has almost everyone from ELO. Jeff Lynne’s ELO is basically Jeff Lynne — still rocking the electrocuted ‘fro, the G.I. Joe beard and Dr. Johnny Fever sunglasses of yore — who is the mastermind behind all the music, backed by a crack 12-piece band of hired guns who are able to replicate the Electric Light Oeuvre down to the most minute sonic detail — the vocoder vox on “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” the alto operatics that bookend “Rockaria,” the funky clavinet on the chorus of “Evil Woman.” The show sold out within days of going on sale back in the spring, and despite the hefty price tag for tickets, as is the style of the day, a transcendental time was had by all.

Judging by the milky aura of the crowd, going to ELO was what middle-aged suburban white people were doing Friday night. We all sang back-up on the trilled falsetto “Groooos!” that punctuates the chorus of the mighty “Don’t Bring Me Down.” We all broke into loud cheers when Jeff Lynne and co. positively nailed the blown out phasers-set-for-Queen part of “Turn To Stone” and then again mid-song during “Handle With Care” during backing vocalist/guitarist Iain Hornal’s impeccable Roy Orbison impersonation; and we all cried a little in our souls as images of George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison flickered on the giant screens behind the band.

We all stood up and pumped out fists in the air for the hits — “Evil Woman,” “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” “Telephone Line,” “Do Ya,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Mr. Blue Sky” — and, pacing ourselves, took our seats for deep cuts like “10538 Overture” and “Wild West Hero,” and the new-ish “When I Was A Boy,” from 2015’s Alone In The Universe. We were all kinda bummed they didn’t do “Strange Magic” and some of us were hoping they would do “Hold On Tight” or “Lights Go Down” or even the deeply spooky “Fire On High,” but that’s all small beer in the face of a note-perfect evening of beatific music flawlessly rendered by nice people. That’s the difference, I suppose, between being 11 and REDACTED, when you don’t get the spaceship you hoped for your whole life you finally realize you don’t need one to get high. — JONATHAN VALANIA