Monday, December 17, 2007

Music: Out of the Blue-Electric Light Orchestra's 30th Anniversary edition

I got this preview CD in the mail to review last Tuesday February the 13th, and wasn’t able to write a single word about it down for three days… Why? Because I’ve become completely consumed by the incredibly clear memories of sights, smells and sounds that just listening to it repeatedly generates. The only way to describe it is that “out of the blue” (pun intended) some pieces of music will cause long-lost recollections to lock into your head that you haven’t thought of in years… or decades.

This album/CD is the soundtrack to one of the most glorious periods of my life, and at the time I didn’t know or even care who the Electric Light Orchestra was! Now it’s linked to one of the best pieces of art I’d ever created.

I’d been commissioned to do a painting for a friend who told me money was no object. This ditsy blond wanted me to surprise her boyfriend with a huge science-fiction painting… on his bedroom ceiling? The first thing I told her was that considering the logistics, it was impossible to do a large painting in one afternoon, especially on a ceiling… especially as a surprise! I mean really, he’d notice me wandering in and out of his bedroom, not to mention the scaffolding or the smell of paint for a week or more? On top of that, what if they moved away?

Unphased she informed me that that’s what I was getting the big bucks for to figure out. Oh and by the way; I only had 10 days to complete it.


As with all clients, I ask them to bring over a piece of music that they like, so I can get a feel for their personality. While we tried to work out the details of the project, she put on his absolute favorite album, which turned out to be Out of the Blue by someone named ELO.

The moment Turn to Stone started I was hooked.

After about two hours of discussing what she said he’d like, I borrowed the double album, made a tape of it and began working. In my career every painting I’ve ever done has a soundtrack attached. I merely have to look at it to hear The Mamas and the Papas greatest hits, Pink Floyd’s Animals album, Alan Parson’s Turn of a Friendly Card etc. etc. The tape of Out of the Blue went with me wherever I went, and it got to the point where I’d memorized the thing without even realizing I had.

In the midst of Sweet Talkin’ Woman (appropriately enough) I found the solution to the “surprise honey!” problem and told her I’d take the job. I also informed her I didn’t need his house key and that she should call me in about a week to pick it up. This frustrated her to no end, because I flatly refused to tell her exactly how I was going to do it!

For two days without touching paint to anything I relaxed with a pair of headphones trying to figure out Gary and why this album was his all time favorite. With pencil to sketchpad, lead singer/founder/producer Jeff Lynne’s voice on Summer and Lightning followed by Mr. Blue Sky began putting fantasy science fiction pictures in my head and on paper, and within hours I had the concept for it.

I started with the smooth back of a cheap piece of 8’ X 4’ wood paneling. In a few days I had a day scene of two opposing cliffs taking up the outer thirds of both sides of the painting. At eye level on both cliff edges were ancient castles with towers and domes. A dark hooded monk stood on the brink waving something at his twin on the opposite side who seemed to be returning the gesture.

Miles below in the middle third, I put a futuristic city on a flat plateau’s floor, with a river running through it and nifty buildings and air cars flying around in traffic patterns. Through the light blue haze above, I created a huge dead star that could barely be seen through the afternoon clouds and took up nearly the whole sky. Orbiting it was a bright and blinding dwarf star.

I almost called her to pick it up early, when while listening to Sweet is the Night, inspiration hit yet again.

In the next few days I made some major alterations and when I was done, she arranged to get him out of the house for a few hours and I went to work in his bedroom. With some friends, we lifted it up, added a clear piece of plexiglas to protect it and after some electrical wiring I pronounced it finished just as they returned home.

She was still fuming because I wouldn’t let her see it in advance.

When I was ready, I called them in and he didn’t notice anything; after all who looks at the ceiling every time they enter a room? The bolts that I used to put it up there with were painted over and became three-dimensional components of a few overhead hovering space ships or a tree that overhung the scene.

To the strains of Mr. Blue Sky he was absolutely blown away… but I wasn’t done yet.

I closed the curtains to darken the room and turned on black lights. The regular paint I used for the day scene didn’t fluoresce, and I’d gone over it a second time with fluorescent paint to create glowing lanterns in the monk’s hands, the dead star glowed a cracked dull orange and yellow and the dwarf companion star was truly blinding. The overcast in the day scene disappeared into a clear night that was filled with stars and a green quarter moon hidden by the non-glowing cloud paint.

In the valley below, the city lights now paled in comparison to a rocket taking off from a spaceport in the middle of town to dock with (what else?) the flying saucer from his favorite album cover. On the plexiglas I painted more flames for the star and the rocket, and components of the castles, so that when you moved your head they seemed to be three-dimensional and the flames seemed to dance.

Needless to say I got a huge check…

As the years passed I put Out of the Blue away and went on to other projects, listening to it occasionally if it was in the car’s tape player. As with all CD/albums there are songs you love that never get much airplay on radio and after a while you forget about them as you move on musically.

Such was the case with Track 12-Summer and Lightning. I bawled my eyes out the first time I heard it again last Tuesday. Listening to a classic piece of music like this sort of taints today’s music somehow and makes you want to go back to a simpler time when singers actually sang. A time when a hit song didn’t have the same three-second set of notes played over and over and over again while some guy told you how tough he was, the size of his gun, how many cars he owned or how many ho’s he could get.

The packaging of this CD is magnificent and frustrating at the same time. It comes as a uniquely designed little hardbound book as opposed to a dinky plastic thing. Within the 24 pages is the fascinating story of how the group was formed by Jeff Lynne, how the album was recorded and facts about the group members. It is loaded with dozens and dozens of photos and any fan would love the collection… if it weren’t for one little thing—no lyrics were included!

In the center is a little “assemble by inserting tab A into slot B” paper model on its own little pedestal of the spaceship on the cover. This is a scaled down duplicate of the original model that came with the first-run vinyl albums. I wouldn’t recommend actually cutting it out and building it though, as it’s very fragile and would probably get lost within the first week of display.

Now the really frustrating part: The disc is contained in a slotted thick paper flap at the back of the book, and is stuck in there so tightly that you have no choice but to squeeze thumb and forefinger to pry the thing out! As anyone knows, it’s a definite no-no to touch the bottom of a CD with your fingers unless you actually like skips.

The most painful part of the CD depends on if you’ve previously owned the 12” vinyl album. The magnificent artwork on the outer cover was wonderful… full sized, but shrunk down to the size of a CD case, hardly does it justice at all unless you have a magnifying glass handy. The album cover was the first time anyone had seen the ELO flying saucer and when looked at from above it became their logo on all their following albums and posters.

As for the CD extras?

Wild West Hero-alternate bridge, is what appears to be part of a rehearsal session for the finished song, in which Jeff harmonizes with others a cappella at home… but it’s only 24 seconds long.

The Quick and the Daft (Some electronic CD playback displays—mine included—have it listed as The Quick and the Draft) is an absolute classic Jeff Lynne/ELO instrumental at its finest, but at only 1:49 long. I plan to loop it to make it longer on my computer, it’s that good, but it’s that short.

Latitude 88 North doesn’t have that ELO “oomph”, which is probably why it wasn’t included on the original double album, but it’s enjoyable. It reminds me of a garage band that somehow talked some string players into jamming behind them.

The love of that musical era, the memories that will come flooding back, and the concept of what really good music used to sound like make this CD well worth purchasing.

WARNING: Reproduction of this article is forbidden without the author's permission
© 2007 by Jet in Columbus

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