Every few years, the world seemingly rediscovers Electric Light Orchestra. This is usually done by attaching Mr Blue Sky to cultural moments that resonate with millions – from a film that breaches the boundary between mainstream and indie cinema in Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind (albeit only featuring in the trailer), to the Olympics’ closing ceremony showcasing it as an iconic piece of British pop music.
The BBC have also contributed to this through their recent ELO night on BBC Four, where during the hugely enjoyable rockumentary Mr Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO, Paul McCartney describes Jeff Lynne as “funny, shy, ever so clever, great musician… and a total twat.” On watching it, it was difficult to disagree with him.
Nevertheless, it seems we need yet another ELO compilation, featuring all the same songs as the 20-odd others that have preceded it. Yet this is no ordinary or hastily repackaged compilation, for Lynne has undergone a period of rediscovery, too.
After listening to the previous recordings, Lynne realised he could do much better by re-recording them. As Mr Blue Sky: The Story… showed, Lynne embraces technology, particularly as it gives him more control and supports his perfectionist tendencies.
Indeed, what is instantly noticeable about The Very Best Of is how clean and precise the new recordings sound, with Lynne taking control of everything from guitar and drums to vocoder and cowbell. The new Evil Woman brings Lynne’s crisp vocals and guitar to the fore compared to 1975’s original from Face The Music, where they get rather lost beneath the strings and Bev Bevan’s drumming. Lynne also tries to add something fresh, with soulful backing vocals provided by his daughter, Laura.
Livin’ Thing is equally well-produced: the plucked violin of Marc Mann is impeccably distinct, while Lynne’s keyboard adds the occasional soaring moment alongside Laura’s vocodified vocals. Yet the problem here is over-production; compared to the original, it loses a sense of warmth: the strings, backing vocals and, indeed, Lynne’s vocals themselves, sound almost too sharp. It’s that old argument of analog versus digital.
The previously unreleased Point Of No Return, a tale of an escaped prisoner of some sort (“By the time I slipped the ball and chain…”) is a welcome addition showcasing Lynne’s continued ability to write catchy hooks and use those instantly recognisable high-pitched backing vocals to irresistible effect. It’s also rather Traveling Wilburys like, with guitar-driven pop melodies favoured ahead of strings.
Obviously, Lynne has another go with Mr Blue Sky, which initially benefits from its brasher and rockier production: the bass and drums pulsate, with the strings offering a soft contrast to the edgier sound – it works well and builds up towards its famous outro. Yet Lynne’s work is completely undone by his decision to omit it, leaving you rather frustrated.
It begs the question: why re-record these songs, the best part of forty years later? While Lynne takes advantage of technology and the ability to have further control over production, those who already own an ELO compilation or their notable albums (Face The Music, A New World Record or Out Of The Blue) have little to gain from The Very Best Of.
Yet it is an interesting release because it confirms how Lynne sees ELO as a personal project. Many would never have disputed that, anyway, but The Very Best Of certainly confirms it. These recordings are how Lynne wants us to remember his famous contributions. Yet you wonder whether that will be the case for most.