Good grief, what keeps happening to the ELO Spaceship?
My Electric Light Orchestra fandom is inextricably intertwined with my Star Wars fandom. When I was a kid, I literally wore out the 8-track tape of John Williams’ Star Wars soundtrack – it was practically on continuous replay, set aside only occasionally to listen to Roscoe Lee Browne narrate The Story Of Star Wars on LP.
And then the tape broke. And then my heart broke. My older brother had a solution: hey, this sounds a lot like your Star Wars soundtrack, but it’s also rock ‘n’ roll. You’ll dig it. And he then popped ELO’s A New World Record album into the family 8-track player and…hey, he wasn’t wrong.
One has to admit, there’s just a little hint of Darth Vader strutting into the room with that intro. And thus began my fascination with ELO, which I’ll admit has been a bit of a lifetime love affair. More years pass between releases these days, and admittedly the band you see on tour has little to do with the band in its 1970s heyday, and sure, the studio albums are basically Jeff Lynne in a room with twelve other Jeff Lynnes, but since he wrote the songs and crafted the sound… it’s still musical comfort food to me.
And the buffet keeps coming, what with the brand new single that was just unleashed on a largely unsuspecting public. Let’s face it, Jeff Lynne’s still got it. That sound. That voice. That songwriting style. That…really battered spaceship.
Let’s talk about that for a moment. The ELO spaceship keeps landing and offloading a new batch of memorable songs every few years, but she’s taken quite a beating. Is Jeff having to work his way through Imperial blockades and the Klingon DMZ (or maybe just the Klingon DMV) just to bring us these songs?
Following the lead of the giant band logo hovering over a cityscape on the cover of 1976’s A New World Record, the cover art from 1977’s Out Of The Blue took that image literally – and perhaps tasted the zeitgeist a bit, as a little movie called Star Wars had come out, Voyagers 1 and 2 were launched, and the space shuttle was beginning to undertake flight tests off the back of a 747, and the world was suddenly geeking out over space. Cover artist Shusei Nagaoka felt all of these stirrings in the pop culture force, and showed us the ELO spaceship under construction in high Earth orbit, complete with a little ELO space shuttle (of which I’d still love a little die-cast model):
It was the most pristine we’d ever see this spacecraft.
Throughout 1978, Lynne and his cohorts in the peak ELO lineup (which consisted of drummer Bev Bevan, bassist Kelly Groucutt, keyboardist Richard Tandy, violinist Mik Kaminski, and cellists Melvyn Gale and Hugh McDowell) toured the world with an unwieldy fiberglass stage setup meant to evoke the spaceship on the album cover…only to discover that there were some serious side-effects for silly things like acoustics and the band members’ ability to navigate the stage safely, which – depending upon whom you ask – may or may not be slightly more important than whether or not it seems like the band is emerging from a UFO at the beginning of the concert.
The spaceship vanished from the cover artwork after that, though sci-fi themes persisted in Lynne’s lyrics and production style, with the 1981 album Time, in particular, being an entire concept album about a man finding himself deposited in an incomprehensible future and longing to return to his own era. But when that peak lineup disbanded after the 1986 Balance Of Power album, it seemed that we’d never see the ELO spaceship fly again. Until it suddenly did in 2000.
That was about the time that the nostalgia-driven box set trend landed at Lynne’s doorstep and he decided to revive the ELO name. A 3-CD box set of hits, coulda-been contenders, and never-before-heard songs left off of previous albums called Flashback arrived, with cover artist Boris Zlotsky showing us that time had taken its toll on the ELO UFO. The paint work on the hull was just a little worse for wear, and… was it struggling to keep from falling into a black hole!?
The spaceship reappeared the following year, on the cover of Zoom, the first ELO studio album since 1986, looking a lot less colorful – maybe they’d had to shed the excess weight of those colorful hull panels to get away from the black hole.
In all seriousness, though, the new ELO spaceship seemed to hint at some serious 3-D modelling and design work that presaged a new era for the band, and there were hints of a new tour and a VH-1 Storytellers episode – which featured an attempt to rethink the design of the UFO stage set, no less! And then…nothing. Lukewarm response to a tour aimed at large venues (and to the album itself) seemed to indicate that the time for ELO’s comeback had yet to arrive.
Another decade passed, and suddenly, Lynne was ready to tour again, in support of another new album, and the spaceship continued to exist as a 3-D computer graphic, restoring the Flashback ship’s battered version of the colorful 1977 paint job.
The yearly international tours that have ensued since 2015 have been nothing short of legendary. The stage set no longer has to attempt to emulate the spaceship’s shape, as large video screens blow the audience’s minds with quite a few non-stop scenes loaded with space imagery. (And that’s no accident; the title track of 2015’s album Alone In The Universe was, by Lynne’s own admission, inspired by some of his more fanciful thoughts on Voyagers 1 and 2 as they left the solar system. His head doesn’t just have infinite space for new songs, it would seem he has space on the brain.)
And that brings us to the new studio album, appropriately titled From Out Of Nowhere. The spaceship is once again back – and it looks as though it’s just barely gotten through some hazardous space. That one corner of the ship – apparently never to be finished – still has exposed superstructure. Other bits of spaceship guts are exposed. It almost looks as though the colorful panels we’re used to seeing have been covered by evidence of quite a few fix-it-with-whatever-we’ve-got repair jobs. Jeff Lynne apparently has his own Scotty, and whoever that is, they’re being kept pretty busy.
If the ELO spaceship wasn’t venturing into such dangerous territory and taking all this damage, might we be getting longer tours and more frequent albums? Or does the inspiration for all this music come from getting into whatever space battles one of the most venerated pieces of rock ‘n’ roll/sci-fi iconography keeps surviving?
We may never know. ELO’s new album drops November 1st.