American Top 40 PastBlast, 10/15/77: Electric Light Orchestra, “Telephone Line”

Several months ago, when going through the songs on Silk Degrees, I noted that Year of the Cat and A New World Record had come into my possession at roughly the same time (the last quarter of 77) and speculated that perhaps I’d take a closer look at those two LPs someday. It appears the Electric Light Orchestra’s time has arrived. 

ELO was definitely in the running for my favorite band between 76 and 80—I guess that really started with “Strange Magic” and solidified as the singles from ANWR were released. The album was part of my haul at Christmas; I’ve never really stopped listening to it, and it’s on the short list for my top ten all-time albums. There isn’t a bad track, so ranking its songs is difficult and is going to result in slighting some great tunes. Nonetheless, let’s give it a try. (As I’ve noted before, this kind of exercise isn’t original with me–full credit goes to Jim Bartlett.)

9. “Above the Clouds.” The shortest song on the album, and I guess I’d say there’s less going on in it than the others. I don’t fly often, but when it’s daylight and I have a window seat, the lines, “The only thing you can see/Is the view above the clouds,” are sure to be running through my head.

8.“Mission (A World Record).” Just your average tale about an extraterrestrial sent to observe us Earthlings who winds up having an existential crisis. It’s one I wish I were able to rate higher.

7. “Do Ya.” One of the famed forty-four songs that were on the mix tape series that kicked off this blog. It gets knocked down a bit here because it’s less orchestral and so sounds a little out of place relative to the other tracks. 

6. “Shangri-La.” I just don’t know enough about the history of rock to play ‘spot the influence’ very well, but we’re all aware that Jeff Lynne mined musical nuggets from the 50s and 60s with abandon, particularly the Beatles. The album’s closer, a meditation on love gone wrong, name-checks “Hey Jude,” and that quiet section before the final swell maybe makes me think just a little of the fadeout/return trick the Fab Four did on “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Helter Skelter.”

5. “Tightrope.” We can tell we’re in for a great ride from the get-go of Side 1, Song 1: the long, slow string intro, the change in point of view as verse shifts to chorus, the answered cry for help. Plus, we get the magically-metered, syncopated “The city streets are full of people going nowhere making time.”

4. “So Fine.” I had a big crush on a girl in my church youth group for a big chunk of 79 and 80. My family lived in the next county over from Erlanger, and she and I went to different high schools. In December 79, our boys’ basketball teams faced off in my school’s gym. She was a member of their flag corps; they did a halftime routine to this song that night. Kudos to the coach for her excellent taste!

That’s not why I like “So Fine” so much–that’d be its energy, the buildup throughout the instrumental interlude, and that soaring chorus–but apparently there are some things you don’t forget.

3. “Telephone Line.” I can see the case for “Telephone Line” being the best song on ANWR. It’s certainly another great, dramatic piece. I think I just got a little burned out on it toward the end of its run and never fully recovered.

It’s at #18 on this show, having topped out at #7. “Don’t Bring Me Down” peaked higher, but based on the length of time on the Hot 100, it’s reasonable to say that “Telephone Line” was ELO’s biggest hit. A friend up the street from me owned the translucent green 45—I was thinking that we had a purple copy of the “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” single, but if so, I haven’t seen it in a long time.

2. “Livin’ Thing.” One of the 45s I played over and again during that frigid winter of 77, and still one of my fave AT40 songs from that period. “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle,” the B-side, was quite good as well. 

1. “Rockaria!” A near-perfect distillation of what Lynne appears to want to do on this record: create a contemporary-sounding integration of the elements of classical music and early rock ‘n’ roll. Great storytelling, too, wherein our heroine does that very thing. I loved this dearly from the first time I heard it. 

My father collected a lot of classical music on vinyl in the 60s and 70s, and at least some of it was opera, though I didn’t have the impression he was an ardent fan. Following his death, I took a few hundred slabs of vinyl to the Cincinnati Public Library for them to sell (someone had the opportunity to get some nice stuff, I know).  I kept a few of his albums for myself, mostly to serve as a small reminder of what he’d assembled; one was a 3-LP recording of Carmen.

It seems to me that “Rockaria!” (which I pronounced “Rock-a-REE-ah” back in the day) would have been right up Dad’s alley. Alas, I can’t recall him ever commenting on it. But it’s alright.

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