Artist: Electric Light Orchestra
Title: Mr Blue Sky
Description: single; album track, Out Of The Blue
Release date: 1977
First heard: 1977
1977 was the year punk broke wide open: God Save The Queen, Damned Damned Damned, Sid replacing Glenn Matlock, The Clash, Oh Bondage! Up Yours, Blank Generation, Never Mind The Bollocks. I, meanwhile, could be found sitting cross-legged on the carpet of the family living room listening intently to the Concerto For A Rainy Day, which comprised Side Three of Out Of The Blue, a double LP whose generous gatefold sleeve, complete with lyrics, gave a 12-year-old something to get his head round while the lush, orchestral music flowed from the modest speakers attached to Mum and Dad’s “music centre”.
Crucially, I did not grow up with an older brother. Many of my male friends did. As a consequence, they had more “mature” taste in music, which usually meant progressive rock or heavy metal, and it meant LPs, not 45s. It’s a truism, that younger siblings get into older music, secondhand. But if you’re the eldest, you’re the canary in the mineshaft, figuring it out for yourself. (My younger brother Simon used to sneak into my bedroom and listen to my punk records when I was out, but that’s in the future.) I discovered ELO, and their classic sixth and seventh long-players A New World Record and Out Of The Blue, through my Dad. They were his band. I was being handed down my formative musical taste – hey, my first favourite band! – from a parent. (I liked my Mum’s Elvis records, too.)
ELO’s was pretty sophisticated symphonic rock – literally Dad rock, if you will – and a natural evolution from the asunder Beatles who’d enraptured Jeff Lynne’s generation so, but it wasn’t prog or metal, it wasn’t intellectual or visceral. It wasn’t cool. It was pop music played by rock musicians and a longhaired string section, wasn’t it? Nevertheless it was electrifying to my 12-year-old ears, and lit my fire.
I loved Mr Blue Sky then, when it became their seventh top 10 hit and I love it 35 years later. Can you imagine how many times I’ll have heard it in the interim? (It’s on Smooth 70s, my default kitchen radio station, at least once a day.) It does not tarnish. From the clearly faked “radio announcement” and crude thump-thump-thump intro riff, through the cloudbursting joy of its verses (“don’t you know, it’s a beautiful new day, a-hey-hey”) and the punched-up chorus, they cook with gas for a full five minutes, using Vocoder and choral effects to tip a simple pop tune into sepulchral glory. It takes a certain chutzpah to illustrate the line “running down the avenue” with a panting sound – and indeed to link the songs in the Rainy Day concerto with what sound like BBC rain sound effects but which Lynne actually recorded in Munich. It’s so uncool it becomes cool. Little wonder if stands up so well to the test of cover versions, my favourites being one by the Delgados, and of course Jim Bob’s mournful take, which he recorded for my Radio 4 sitcom of the same name, and which I will always cherish.
Having selfconsciously forsaken ELO in my teens, and found some new bands of my own, I rediscovered them in young adult life when all bets were off again, and I found that I really appreciated the craft. If you know Out Of The Blue, you’ll know The Whale, for instance, a haunting instrumental, and Birmingham Blues, a personal hymn to home: just two examples of the band’s versatility and voracity. I joined the ELO Fan Club and memorised their names and taught myself how to draw them all; that’s how much I loved them. And I knew which band member appeared where in the airbrushed inner sleeve illustration of the bridge of the logo spaceship. And Mr Blue Sky was my favourite song by my favourite band.
Until 1979, which is the year punk broke wide open in Northampton.