The Meaning Behind “Livin’ Thing” by ELO and How Its Lyrics Have Been Misinterpreted over the Years

ELO delivered some of the catchiest rock hits of the ’70s and ’80s, a by-product of Jeff Lynne’s sharp sense of songcraft combined with his top-notch production skills. “Livin’ Thing,” which was chosen as the lead single off the 1976 smash album A New World Record, stands as one of the most enduring and endearing of those hits.

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What was the song about? How did Lynne save it with a last-second change? And how have people misinterpreted the lyrics over the years? Let’s explore “Livin’ Thing” and how this hit came into existence.

Making a “Livin'”

ELO, aka Electric Light Orchestra, began when two members of the popular ’60s British band The Move launched a side project that would attempt to meld rock music with classical elements. One of those men, Roy Wood, didn’t stick around long, leaving Jeff Lynne in charge of the musical direction of ELO.

It wasn’t long before Lynne found a winning formula within the group. The classical touches made the band sound unlike other rockers in the ’70s. But none of that would have mattered if Lynne hadn’t been able to consistently deliver snappy singles on the regular. From 1972 to 1975, the band had posted five Top-20 singles in the UK and another three in the U.S.

Keeping up that pace wasn’t easy, yet Lynne was just whetting the appetite of his fans for what was about to come. New World Record, which arrived in 1976, proved to be the band’s biggest hit album yet. “Rockaria” hit the Top 10 in the UK, a remake of the former Move song “Do Ya” scored big in the U.S., and the touching ballad “Telephone Line” was a monster everywhere.

Oddly enough, “Livin’ Thing,” the first single from that album, was very nearly a lost cause. Lynne loved the music for the track, which included some inventive chord changes. The original lyrics, however, were about a holiday that Lynne had taken in Spain, which wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that would prove relatable to a wider audience.

As he headed into the studio to record the song, Lynne realized the lyrics wouldn’t fulfill the full potential of the music. On the spot, he tossed off some new words in barely a half-hour’s time. Those lyrics did the trick, as “Livin’ Thing” did indeed turn into a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. But they’ve been the cause of much speculation over the years. People are always wondering: To what does the title phrase refer?

Some have speculated Lynne was making a statement about abortion. Others felt the references to waves and streams meant the “Livin’ Thing” was a whale. The song’s inclusion in the final scene of Boogie Nights, when Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler character reveals his prowess to the cameras, has only confused matters further. But you shouldn’t look too much into it, because Lynne simply meant that love is a “Livin’ Thing.”

What is the Meaning of “Livin’ Thing”?

Now that you know what the “it” is in the line It’s a livin’ thing, you can appreciate what Lynne was doing with the lyrics here. He presents the ups and downs of love in the verses, with the watery metaphors signifying the way a relationship can take you on a journey (and occasionally make you a little seasick).

The peaks are glorious: Sailin’ away / On the crest of a wave / It’s like magic. But if you don’t tend to your love, it can end up going the wrong way fast: Taking a dive / ‘Cause you can’t halt the slide / Floating downstream. When it all turns on you, it can indeed feel like it’s all a bad dream.

The chorus ramps up the urgency with those staccato violin blasts and Lynne singing in falsetto about the importance of holding onto the good stuff: It’s a livin’ thing / It’s a terrible thing to lose. Don’t go looking for any wild meanings in “Livin’ Thing.” Keep it simple, and let the magic of ELO wash over you like one of the benevolent waves referenced in the song.

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Photo by Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Image

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