As anyone who exists within my orbit has been unable to escape knowing, there’s a new ELO album due out November 13th, the first in 15 years, although Jeff Lynne’s been active in recent years, either rehashing classic ELO songs or other people’s songs, and re-releasing some of ELO’s stuff with brand new tracks cooked up in his
hermitage studio tacked onto the end. It’s not like there’s been any shortage of my favorite musician on the planet this year. What’s funny is that this year – which, from my adult perspective, has sucked horribly – would’ve made six-or-seven-year-old me incredibly happy. New Star Wars! New ELO! New pictures from a planet we’ve never seen before! If I had only the responsibilities of a six-or-seven-year-old, I could’ve enjoyed this year immensely.
I think that’s why the “new ELO” part of that equation is so important to me. It’s musical comfort food. It’s my grandmother’s gooey-but-not-too-gooey grilled cheese sandwiches in aural form. ready to stick in my ears next time I want to remember the warm fuzzies of childhood. Which, granted, isn’t how one normally thinks of grilled cheese sandwiches. Naturally, the impending relaunch of Star Wars for my sons’ generation is also eagerly awaited. But which did I discover first?
Would you believe me if I told you that Star Wars and ELO are intimately intertwined in my head? Sit back, put your feet up, and I’ll tell you the story. A long, long time ago…
That’s no ticket to a small moon, that’s a space station!
The year was 1977. I was five. I’d just seen Star Wars. And I was fanatical about it. Every flashlight was now a lightsaber. My white bathrobe, to which I’d never given a moment’s thought before, was suddenly just like Luke’s clothes for most of the movie. And keep in mind, this complete and total immersion in the world of Star Wars came before the home video era was within affordable reach for my family. There were no DVDs, no VHS tapes, no way to rerun the movie. There weren’t even action figures until the following year, because no one had ever bothered to create a toy line in tandem with an unproven, upcoming movie – the toys didn’t show up until 1978.
This almost batshit crazy immersion in Star Wars was down to three things: The Story of Star Wars, an LP narrated by Mr. Roscoe Lee Browne, which was basically the entire movie boiled down to key scenes, narration, music and sound effects, condensed to album length, with the narrator reading from a script that would be considered improbably literate and too full of ten-dollar words by modern standards. The second thing was the heavily illustrated hardback Star Wars storybook (still intact and now handed down to my padawans), and the third thing was the soundtrack.
Here’s the funny thing: I had the soundtrack on 8-track. I had a little 8-track player in my bedroom which had a built-in light organ (sort of the forerunner to Atari Video Music, basically a box of lights responding to the signal attenuation of the music output to the player’s speakers). And I played the living daylights out of that soundtrack, at deafening volume. Want to know how to get a five-year-old, who’s been exposed to kids’ music and little snippets of rock and country radio here and there, hooked on symphonic music in 1977? Your answer came courtesy of John Williams.
And damned if I could be convinced to stop playing the Star Wars soundtrack at deafening volume and listen to anything else.
My brother, fortunately, had a bright idea, one involving a little bit of misdirection, and another 8-track tape that he already had in his possession. He told me he had something else I’d want to listen to, and it sounded just like Star Wars. But was maybe a bit cooler.
You have to admit, he had a point. Suddenly, I was hooked on the sound of an orchestra and rock ‘n’ roll. But wait a minute, there was more to it than mere sonic coincidence. One of the other songs on that album – perhaps the best one – was basically a little science fiction short story set to music.
So, in this summer that I’d suddenly become a science fiction fan for the rest of my life, and a student of space exploration soon afterward, there was now a rock band doing songs about an alien expedition observing humanity incognito? Holy crap, it was excellent to be alive.
A little album called Out Of The Blue came out shortly thereafter, and surely this band ELO “got” me – their logo was suddenly a giant spaceship. (As it has remained ever since.) Try as he might to distance himself from the “spacey” excesses of his 1970s and early ’80s production sound, Jeff Lynne seems like he’s got to be a fellow nerd. He’s already fessed up that Voyagers 1 and 2 inspired the title track of this latest album. Face it, Jeff: you’re an anorak. A fellow anorak.
So that’s the story of how these two lovely things that started in the ’70s became intertwined like strands of DNA. To me, they’re just part of the same wonderful thing – and I’m always up for more of either one.