45 Years Ago: Jeff Lynne Becomes the Maestro on ‘ELO 2’
In the 13 months that separated Electric Light Orchestra’s 1971 debut LP and the band’s 1973 follow-up ELO 2, the partnership between founders Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne fell apart. The former Move members – who had bonded over a desire to make symphonic strings a cornerstone of a new rock project – agreed to go in different directions by mid-1972, with Wood leaving ELO to begin yet another new group.
While the onetime Move frontman formed Wizzard, Lynne and drummer Bev Bevan stayed the course with ELO. Having already begun making the band’s second album when Wood quit, Lynne and Bevan forged ahead with touring pianist Richard Tandy, as well as additional cellists Mike Edwards and Colin Walker, violinist Wilf Gibson and bassist and backing singer Mike de Albuquerque.
Lynne, who had shared songwriting and singing duties with Wood on The Electric Light Orchestra, became ELO’s head honcho, creating tracks that would display his obvious love for the melodic experiments of the Beatles along with plenty of sawing stringed instruments. Originally planning on writing a concept album called The Lost Planet, Lynne ditched the concept but kept the prog-rock trappings, as ELO indulged in songs of epic lengths.
“Kuiama,” which Lynne wrote as a protest of the violent conflict in Vietnam, remains the longest track in ELO’s catalog (running past 11 minutes). Additionally, the shortest song on ELO 2 (the nearly seven-minute “In Old England”) would be the longest contribution to any other ELO studio record.
“Some of the songs are a bit longer than they might be,” Lynne later reflected. It was “all very experimental and sometimes a bit over the top. … It taught me a bit about where to go musically and where not to go.”
Now ELO’s sole leader, Lynne was also honing his vocal chops while making ELO 2, which might be part of the reason he employed a cheap microphone to disguise his singing on the band’s cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” Regardless, Lynne’s raw vocals and blazing guitar became the counterpoint to proggy synths and the driving strings (which quoted actual works by the titular composer).
Released as a single (which edited down the album version to a more radio-friendly four and a half minutes), “Roll Over Beethoven” became a big hit for ELO, rising to No. 6 on the charts in the band’s native Britain and perhaps helping ELO 2 become a Top 40 album when it was released in January 1973. ELO’s epic cover also become the band’s first hit in the U.S., going to No. 42.
In his 1980 biography, drummer Bevan said that “Roll Over Beethoven” was “perhaps the most important single we ever made.”
Although “Beethoven” was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the single’s parent album differed in how it was presented in Europe and North America. While the U.K. version of ELO 2 featured a cartoony cover of a light bulb in space, created by legendary design group Hipgnosis (those responsible for iconic sleeves for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin), the U.S. edition sported a starker version of the same concept. It also had a different title (Electric Light Orchestra II) and contained an even longer version of “Roll Over Beethoven” (which was an accident made by ELO’s stateside label, United Artists).
Meanwhile, ELO 2 would be the group’s last studio album with English label Harvest, because ELO would jump to Warner Bros. for On the Third Day – released later in 1973. It was also the last of the band’s albums to be credited to “The” Electric Light Orchestra; the group would drop the article from then on.
“The” was gone, but ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven” has remained a big part of the band’s live incarnations. Through the ’70s and ’80s and in Lynne’s most recent touring version of ELO, the symphonic twist on Chuck Berry continues to be the group’s preference for an encore.