50 Years Ago: Electric Light Orchestra Debut, Then Splinter
Electric Light Orchestra's initial tour got underway a few months after their Top 40 U.K. hit debut album arrived, and there were issues from the first: issues with cost overruns, issues with the sound and issues with the fragile creative partnership between Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne.
Their first LP – called The Electric Light Orchestra in the U.K., and No Answer in the U.S. – had introduced a gutsy new amalgam of rock and strings. As ELO made their first stage appearance on April 16, 1972, at a south London pub called the Greyhound, it became clear that this is where many of the problems started.
Adding those orchestra guys meant ballooning the budget. "It costs us approximately £200 in traveling expenses, roadies and wages before we even get on the stage," ELO drummer Bev Bevan told NME back then. That was $530 in 1972 or the equivalent of a whopping $3,645 at modern exchange rates. "If we have to hire the hall, if we are promoting, you can almost [triple] that figure. But we're prepared to lose a little money in the experimental stages of the band."
The bigger problem: Cellos and violins could scarcely be heard over ELO's guitar-based frontline during this more primitive time in the history of onstage amplification. They appeared to be fiddling along in silence.
"Perhaps people don't realize all the problems there are in amplifying all those string instruments we have," Wood added in the same NME interview. "We're still sorting them out. It's one thing to dub them on the album, and quite another sorting out the balance onstage."
Electric Light Orchestra were founded in tandem with the Move, a more rock-focused group that also featured Bevan, Lynne and Wood. ELO were meant to provide an outlet for symphonic-leaning experimentalism, and maybe an entry point into the U.S. market, which had largely ignored the Move.
"I knew that I wanted to get a new band together, so why not advertise for violin, cello and French horn rather than guitar players?" Wood told Rob Hughes in 2012. "But there weren't that many people who wanted to travel with a rock band and play classical music, which is one of the reasons I got involved with Jeff Lynne. It was easier for the two of us to have a go at it."
Watch the Move Perform Just Before ELO Formed
Keyboardist Richard Tandy began his long stint as the band finally coalesced, while French horn player Bill Hunt was held over from the sessions for The Electric Light Orchestra. Classic-era cellists Hugh McDowell and Mike Edwards would soon join. Early lineups also included violinist Wilfred Gibson and cellists Andy Craig and Colin Walker.
"It was really just a case of getting the best musicians available," Wood told NME in 1972. "Bill Hunt and Richard Tandy are [fellow] Birmingham lads, and the others are just the best Musician's Union guys we could find. The other guys are on wages because that's the way they wanted it, but we're beginning to settle down more as a band and get to know each other."
But Wood was being overly optimistic, and not for the first time. Whatever musical chemistry they'd managed in the studio was quickly dissipating out on the road.
The second scheduled ELO show in London was canceled just a couple of days later, reportedly over continuing sound issues. When they returned to performing, Wood started causing extended stage delays and wearing increasingly outlandish outfits. Rumors of in-fighting between Lynne and Wood subsequently became common.
"We did maybe 20 dates," Bevan told Rolling Stone in 1974, "and it never sounded any good. It sounded terrible, in fact. There were too many people onstage, and Roy would change instruments every number, so there were like five-minute gaps between numbers. He used to wear these old black glasses that you couldn't possibly see through, and every night he used to fall over stuff, crashing into the floor. It must have been really boring to watch."
Outwardly, Wood remained upbeat. "We're still improving and just about through the experimental stage, which is why I'm looking forward so much to doing the next album," he optimistically told NME in 1972. "The first album was a question of using any musicians available or doing it all ourselves, but this will be the band as it is onstage live — an entity."
Watch Roy Wood in Concert With ELO
But then Wood abruptly exited, just months into his tenure with the Electric Light Orchestra. The Move folded, as Wood moved on to form Wizzard. He took the crazy outerwear with him. Meanwhile, Lynne was left to fix ELO's continued sound issues.
"We suffered along like that for about three months," Lynne told Rolling Stone in 1974, "and then somebody said something about Barcus Berry pickups, and we tried one on the cello and it was fabulous. Suddenly it sounded good, like real strings. We got that sounding good, with the Moog, so suddenly from terrible whistling, banging, farting sort of noises we used to create came all these lovely, rich string sounds. In about a week, we changed the sound of the group to more or less the sound we've got now."
Hunt and McDowell left Electric Light Orchestra for Wizzard, a project that Wood said he hoped would be a little more lighthearted. "ELO got a bit serious," Wood told writer Hughes decades later, "and the guys in Wizzard just wanted to drink beer and have a laugh, which suited me. It was a different way of looking at it all." But McDowell quickly returned to ELO, and Wizzard split a couple of years later – reportedly, in part, because Hunt's propensity for smashing pianos had made touring prohibitively expensive.
Wood continued as a solo artist, arguing all along that he had no ill will toward Lynne. "The press always like to make out that the reason I left ELO was because Jeff and I had fallen out, but that's not true," Wood told Hughes. Instead, he said, their manager was to blame for their split.
Don Arden was "stirring the shit between me and Jeff, who started getting edgy about all that. Don knew that he'd earn more money if Jeff and I were in separate bands, so it was a divisive strategy – and neither Jeff nor I were grown up enough to ring each other up and say, 'Look, there's something going on here,'" Wood concluded. "So I ended up just leaving. I thought I was better off going while we were still mates."