40 Years Ago: Electric Light Orchestra Unveil a New Lineup on ‘Face the Music’
For their fifth album, Face the Music, which came out in September 1975, Electric Light Orchestra changed things up quite a bit. Band members were replaced, a new recording studio was chosen and, most importantly, the focus was put squarely on the songs as opposed to being a symphonic concept piece like its predecessor, 1974’s Eldorado.
Yet the way Face the Music begins is certainly misleading, with the minute-and-a-half intro of “Fire on High” containing everything from a chanting church choir performing Handel’s “Messiah” to a backward message courtesy of drummer Bev Bevan, who declares, "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back. Turn back." Along with similar uses of the technique sprinkled throughout Face the Music, these reversed snippets were clearly a shot at allegations that Eldorado's title track included backward Satanic messages.
It’s no secret that the biggest influence on ELO frontman Jeff Lynne was the Beatles. He created the group with the purpose of filling the void left in the wake of the 1970 breakup of the Fab Four. But Lynne went in the opposite direction of his idols; he initially focused on the experimental elements the Beatles tried out on their later albums and then built a collection of songs that made for a more streamlined work deeper into the band’s career.
Perhaps that’s why, at first, ELO turned off so many U.K. listeners, who required more immediacy than patience when it came to new music; in the U.S., fans were more open to alternative sounds, including the country-rock boom that was popular at the time.
“Fire on High,” despite a prog opening, quickly blossoms into a driving and sprawling shot of brilliance with frenetic acoustic and soaring electric guitars coupled with Bevan’s phenomenal drumming, which was featured more prominently in the mix this time.
To open the record with something so distinct and insurmountable wasn’t so much a sign of things to come as it was an indication of the zigs and zags Face the Music makes during its 36 minutes. “Evil Woman” became ELO’s biggest hit to date, not-so-coincidentally referencing the Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole” in its first verse; “Strange Magic” -- a ballad that crept into the Top 20 -- followed.
Among Face the Music's hidden gems is the third single, which didn't chart: the driving “Nightrider,” sung partially by new bassist Kelly Groutcutt, who would take lead on “Down Home Town” and “Poker.” And then there's closer “One Summer Dream,” which features uncredited backing vocals by girl-group songwriter Ellie Greenwich, and is the album's most Beatlesque cut, with production hinting at the work Lynne did with the new Beatles tracks “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love” from the Anthology releases in the '90s.
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