When you’re at the top where is there left to go? Naturally, there appears to be only one answer: down. It is seemingly commonplace for a group to decline after a massively successful release. Generally, they find themselves at a pivotal point and more often than not fail to live up to the inherently overblown expectations. Only legends like The Rolling Stones could top Let It Bleed with the instant classic Exile on Main Street. Only The Who could surpass a masterpiece like Tommy with a work of art like Who’s Next. And so, shortly after commencing work on the highly anticipated follow-up LP to the tremendously successful A New World Record, it seemed as if Electric Light Orchestra’s impending fall was imminent. Instead, ELO released one of rock’s last great double albums, thereby capping an illustrious career.
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From the beginning, ELO had been unique. They were one of the first rock bands to utilize orchestral arrangements regularly instead of using it as a mere supplementary tool on occasion. At the nucleus of the group was Jeff Lynne — a mad scientist figure with a large unkempt hairstyle, thick aviator glasses, and an uncanny knack for production. Simply put there was just nothing quite like him or them before. Over time they had rocketed into mainstream commercial success via their marriage of classic rock and concise orchestration. Their 1976 release A New World Record made ELO a household name as did its massive hits “Livin’ Thing,” “Do Ya,” and “Telephone Line.” It was in the midst of that album’s afterglow that ELO found themselves confronted with the inevitable question: “Where do we go from here?”
Struggling to find an answer, Lynne escaped to the Swiss Alps in hopes that new surroundings could prompt a burst of creative inspiration. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as initially planned. Instead of artistic nirvana, he was greeted by forebodingly gloomy weather. “The first two weeks I was there it was really miserable, drizzly, cloudy and not very nice at all. I couldn’t come up with anything,” Lynne recalled in an interview with BBC’s The One Show. For weeks he found himself trapped in his Swiss chalet where he recorded the sounds of thunder in an attempt to muster up anything he could. At this point there was no denying Lynne was stuck with writer’s block. Torrential downpours had started to dampen his visions for the project as everything started to disintegrate in front of him then washed away in the rainfall.
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After days of storms, the sun eventually broke through in more ways than one. “Suddenly the sun shone and it was, ‘Wow, look at those beautiful Alps’,” Lynne told BBC radio. With a breath of fresh air, Lynne immediately sat down at the piano and proceeded to let the music write itself as the weather swung in his favor. “I wrote ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ and thirteen other songs in the next two weeks.”
Out of the sudden burst of creativity came 1977’s Out of the Blue. Its flawless continuity over two LPs stacks up to previous legendary double albums such as The White Album, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and Songs in the Key of Life. With the album grounded in the ingenious intricacies of Lynne’s production, Out of the Blue efficiently followed the same formula that had put ELO on the map. Without a change in sound, the songs were so uniformly good that it was hard to distinguish deep tracks from the hits. Lynne had even dedicated one side of the album to a suite of four songs entitled “Concerto for a Rainy Day” which, along with the album’s title, nods to the album’s origin story. Out of the Blue went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide and became the group’s most successful offering.
To stay relevant over the next decade ELO delved into a few conceptual albums to keep things fresh before disbanding in 1986. Throughout their distinguished career, ELO spawned a litany of hits that will live on but usually “Mr. Blue Sky” and Out of the Blue that rank highest in most people’s minds as this timeless 17 song epic still has the power to brighten anyone’s darkest days.
Photo: Electric Light Orchestra perform in New York during their Big Night/Out of the Blue tour on September 14, 1978, L-R Mik Kaminski, Jeff Lynne (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty)