Last week, the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its nominees for induction into 2017’s Hall of Fame class. The Hall of Fame is famously subjective, and one could make a case for any of the candidates, all giants of Boomer culture: the group Yes popularized progressive rock; Journey perfected arena rock; Tupac defined West Coast hip hop. But by far the most-deserving nominee this year is the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO).
ELO formed in 1970, hoping to pick up where the just-disbanded Beatles had left off. Founded by Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, and Roy Wood, ELO sought to fuse the raucous energy and bold experimentation of rock with the refined musicality of classical orchestration. Even the band’s name suggests this goal. “Light orchestras” were smaller string sections then common in the group’s native United Kingdom; the “electric” reflected the group’s desire to throw guitars into the mix. Though ELO went through many stylistic and personnel changes—Wood left shortly after formation, and only Lynne and Bevan remained in the group during its entire original 1970-1986 run—its work largely lived up to this founding mission.
The most technically impressive aspects of the band’s discography come from this successful fusion of classic music and rock. This started with “10538 Overture,” the group’s debut single, in which a simple, hypnotic opening guitar riff is joined by strings and horns. Other examples abound throughout the band’s discography, though a few stand out. Take ELO’s rollicking, bravura cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” which combines up-tempo rock riffs with recreations of snippets from Beethoven’s actual work. Or “Rockaria!,” which alternates in both music and lyrics between opera and rock, which eventually reach a culminating fusion. Like the Beatles before them, ELO did what some thought impossible: they merged classical music and rock. That alone merits a spot in Cleveland.
But ELO advanced rock in other ways as well. In 1974, ELO produced an entry in the still-nascent genre of the rock concept album with the musically lush and lyrically rich Eldorado. Working with a full orchestra, ELO produced songs that both stand alone as fantastic hits (“Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” and “Boy Blue”), and, when listened to in sequence, tell the story of a daydreamer who gets lost in his own fantasy world (as in “Poor Boy [The Greenwood]” while failing to keep reality completely at bay (as in “Laredo Tornado”). And in 1981, ELO released Time, another concept album. Time exchanged Eldorado’s orchestra for an artfully-played synthesizer, and moved its narrative from a fantasy realm to an imagined future. Bouncing from propulsive synth-pop (“Another Heart Breaks”) to soulful melancholia (“Ticket to the Moon”), it’s just as skillfully-produced.
ELO, of course, wasn’t just an art rock band. The group’s classical foundations produced irresistible symphonic pop rock that yielded twenty top-forty U.S. hits. Songs such as “Evil Woman,” “Telephone Line (the most Beatle-esque non-Beatles song),” “Do Ya,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” and others remain in regular rotation on classic rock radio (and in movies and TV), for a reason. ELO has also sold 50 million albums worldwide, and at peak fame in 1978 had the most successful tour up to that time. For combining artistry and accessibility, it’s hard to beat ELO.
The clearest evidence, however, that ELO succeeded in its mission to pick up where the Beatles left off—and, therefore, deserves a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—is one simple fact: The Beatles agree. John Lennon so enjoyed the ELO hit “Showdown” that he named the group “Son of Beatles.” Jeff Lynne, ELO’s primary creative force after Wood’s departure, was part of the rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison (and Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison). Shortly thereafter, Lynne produced Harrison’s 1987 comeback album Cloud 9, and would later produce Paul McCartney’s well-regarded 1997 album Flaming Pie. And when, in the 1990s, the surviving Beatles wanted to use some John Lennon demo tapes as the foundation for two new Beatles songs (“Free as a Bird” and “Real Love”), they hired Jeff Lynne to produce.
For all of these reasons and more, ELO deserves inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You can vote for ELO here. And you should. Disagree with me all you like, but how can you disagree with The Beatles?