The Lynne Crowd: 5 Great Under-the-Radar Tracks from ELO

Few classic rock acts were quite as consistent in pumping out hit singles in the United States during the ‘70s and ‘80s as the Electric Light Orchestra. Thanks to Jeff Lynne, the ELO mastermind who had a way with a hook (both musical and lyrical) as well as a production touch that ensured their songs sounded fantastic even on tinny car radios, the band churned out a pack of singles that still looms large in the genre today.

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But if all you know are those big hits from this band, you’ve missed out on some serious brilliance. Here are five songs, from most recent to eldest, that might be somewhat hidden from casual fans. If you’re in that group, you need to check out these songs from ELO ASAP.

1. ”Is It Alright” (from the album Balance of Power, 1986)

Balance of Power is the group’s most underrated album, so it makes sense that a song from that record is below the radar. By 1986, Lynne had mostly stripped the group of its orchestral trappings, and they were mostly trading in for a slicker, modern rock sound. He was also starting to lose his interest in keeping the band afloat, which is why the album would be the last ELO LP for 15 years.

“Is It Alright” wasn’t chosen as one of the album’s singles, but it feels like maybe it should have been. It’s a simple message to a friend who decided to shove off for greener pastures (or at least what they thought would be greener pastures). There’s both compassion and hurt emanating from the narrator, and there’s not a wasted moment on the track.

2. “Hello My Old Friend” (from the Secret Messages reissue, 2018)

After the success ELO enjoyed with the double album Out of the Blue, you might have thought that their record company would be thrilled with another one. Instead, Lynne was rebuffed by CBS records when he wanted to release Secret Messages as a double disc in 1983. He had to truncate it to a single, 10-song album, which required some editing.

One of the songs that was left on the cutting-room floor was this transporting, inventive ballad that imagines a youthful hometown now ravaged by time. It’s like a more sorrowful “Penny Lane,” and when it finally saw the light of day via a 2018 reissue, “Hello My Old Friend” was a revelation to ELO enthusiasts.

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3. “21st Century Man” (from Time, 1981)

Modern fans might look back at concept albums that were so prevalent in the classic rock era and scoff at the fantastical ideas behind them. But the truth is that these concepts often put songwriters in the position where they had to tackle unique subject matter, which, in turn, resulted in some fascinating tracks.

Case in point: ELO’s 1981 concept album Time, which told the story of an ordinary guy randomly transported 100 years into the future. While some might focus on the sci-fi trappings of such a tale, Lynne instead delves into the sense of displacement and loss that such a journey might engender. This beautiful ballad epitomizes that, featuring a lovely melody and a brief a cappella section that will take your breath away.

4. “The Diary of Horace Wimp” (from Discovery, 1979)

OK, so this one might be a bit of a cheat for this list, in that it was indeed a Top 10 hit in the United Kingdom when it was released there as a single. But it didn’t get that kind of exposure in the U.S., perhaps because the band pushed their more disco-flavored material in America instead.

In any case, “The Diary of Horace Wimp” fulfills, perhaps more than any other song in their catalog, Lynne’s original intent to have ELO pick up where The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” left off. Full of wild orchestral flourishes, comically stately backing vocals, and vocoder usage on tilt, and closing out with a Citizen Kane reference just for good measure, it’s part-insane, but wholly thrilling.

5. “Sweet Is the Night” (from Out of the Blue, 1978)

Because of its double-album status, there is a lot of stuff on Out of the Blue that didn’t receive widespread exposure. And because that record is a masterpiece, a lot of that stuff is great. “Sweet Is the Night” is the rare ELO song where Lynne doesn’t handle all the lead vocals, instead trading off in the verses with bassist Kelly Groucutt. It’s a song featuring the grandiose ELO flourishes that their fans love, such as the responding backing vocals, the bold strings, the brief coda. And it’s one of Lynne’s most touching love songs, as the narrator professes his devotion to someone who’s fallen on hard times, promising that the oncoming evening will bring reunion and redemption.

Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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