The coolest thing about getting HBO on cable TV way back in 1980 or so, other than having the ability to watch R-rated movies in our own living room, was the fact that they also showed cool concerts. In fact, one of the first things I ever watched on HBO was a concert by the Electric Light Orchestra, live from the original Wembley Stadium in England.
In support of their 1978 smash Double LP “Out of the Blue,” the shows on this tour not only featured the band’s trademark symphonic rock classics and eye-sizzling laser light show, but they also opened with the band emerging from the same gigantic spaceship that was featured on the album artwork. Sure, it looked like a life-sized version of the classic electronic memory game Simon, but what a spectacle!
When I learned a couple of years later that ELO was touring again with a date scheduled in Chicago, only about an hour away from the small town in Illinois where I grew up, I knew I had to go check them out in person. Still just teenagers, my best friends and I all had our driver’s licenses, but there was simply no way any of our parents were going to let us drive into Chicago. One set of parents drew the short straw and “volunteered” to take us to the show.
On the day of the concert, the four of us piled into the car with a brave pair of parents and headed up to the Windy City for the concert, which was to take place at Chicago Stadium. Then home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks, this venerable old stadium sat at the absolute bulls-eye of one of Chicago’s most decrepit neighborhoods, with parking almost as atrocious as at that other Chicago sports landmark, Wrigley Field. Nonetheless, we gamely eased our way around the winos and picked our way past the panhandlers, until our party of six finally reached the relative safety of the rickety old joint.
Although nobody knew it at the time, The Electric Light Orchestra had peaked in popularity right about the time of the concert I’d seen on HBO. This time around, they were on the road in support of their 1980 album “Time,” which marked somewhat of a stylistic departure for the veteran group. Following the disco-tainted “Discovery” album and a goofy but good half-a-soundtrack for the rather silly movie Xanadu, “Time” was a high-concept theme album about a man transported into a dystopian future who just wants to return home.
Ironic, then, that “Hold On Tight,” the most popular song on the album, only became famous because it was used in a coffee commercial.
“Time” was certainly a different-sounding album for the group. Gone was the lush orchestral sound that had become the group’s trademark, replaced by a futuristic, heavily-synthesized embryonic electronica with a dash of rockabilly. It still sounded like ELO, just an ELO that had, well, stepped into a time machine and been launched into the future. (Co-founder Jeff Lynne had even taken the ill-advised step of shortening the band’s official name to “ELO,” as if to emphasize the move away from its symphonic roots. I’d joked at the time that “Electric Light Four-Guys-And-Some-Synthesizers” just wasn’t catchy enough.)
As we settled into our seats, nine o’clock to the stage, and dabbing at the blood trickling from our noses due to our high altitude, we were practically giddy with expectation. Hall and Oates was the opening act, and I’d heard a DJ speculate in an interview with them a few days before the show, that more people might be coming to the show to see them than ELO. Their set was met with polite applause. Then the lights dimmed, the crowd roared, and out rolled…a robot.
“Just on the border of your waking mind, there lies, another place, where darkness and light are one…” Jeff Lynne’s lyrics poured forth from the mechanical storyteller which, no surprise given the date, bore more than a passing resemblance to one R2-D2. The crowd went wild and the show was underway.
It’s odd that I don’t remember many specifics about the concert itself. I remember the stage was often bathed in blue; I remember they played all of their huge hits from the ’70s – loudly – and I remember the sweet scent of my first contact high from the pot smoke which hung in the air, visibly blue once the house lights came back up.
Rock concerts are like romances, in that you always remember your first. The ELO show circa 1980 wasn’t the best show I’ve ever gone to, (the winner there is Pink Floyd’s “Delicate Sounds of Thunder” tour), but it made the type of impression only a first experience of its kind can make. To this day, some 31 years later, the Electric Light Orchestra, in all of its various forms, remains my favorite band in the world.
About 15 years ago, Electric Light Orchestra, Part II, a spin-off band featuring many original ELO members and the trademark ELO orchestral sound, but not mainstay Lynne, went on the road to support their “Moment of Truth” CD. Knowing this was as close as I’d ever get to seeing ELO perform live again, I made the short trek down to San Antonio to check ’em out.
Instead of the 15,000 concertgoers packed inside the old Chicago Stadium, which has long-since been torn down, there were maybe a thousand or so aging, diehard fans tucked inside what was essentially a large club. Not surprisingly, the spectacle wasn’t nearly the same as that first show, but the music still carried the night…AND the surroundings were so intimate, that I got to have my picture taken with the late, great bassist Kelly Groucutt.
The Electric Light Orchestra rocks on in the eternally young land of Classic Rock radio and YouTube, while Lynne, co-founder and drummer Bev Bevan, and other surviving members of the band in all its incarnations keep ELO’s music alive in performances around the world.
For me, the Light was lit on a cold Chicago winter’s night over three decades ago…and the Electric Light Orchestra still burns brightly to this day.