We grew up listening to Electric Light Orchestra on the radio, but we never knew much about the band until…well, they weren’t really a band anymore.
The more ELO we heard, the more we loved. It’s a phenomenon that still occurs frequently (and wondrously) whenever we latch onto an old group and begin rifling through its catalog. We were too young to attend live rock concerts during the Ford and Carter administrations, but we’d pore over our parents’ (and uncles’) vinyl albums, marveling at the artwork and conjuring (deliriously inaccurate) mental images of the sorcerers behind the fantastical sounds.
Formed at the dawn of the ‘70s by ex-Move members Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevans, and Roy Wood, ELO expertly married infectious melodies and catchy pop hooks with the sweeping strings of a full symphony orchestra.
That wasn’t anything new, in and of itself. Other bands had taken similar paths in the fertile progressive era: Yes, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Genesis all employed strings on their earliest LPs, too. But few embraced the synergy of pop and pomp as successfully as Lynne’s musical miscreants. Earning notice with their self-titled 1971 debut and 1973 follow-up (ELO 2), the band captured imaginations while tickling eardrums with “10538 Overture” and “Roll Over, Beethoven.”
Wood dropped out early (along with cellist Hugh McDowell) to form Wizzard even as Lynne settled in on vocals and guitar and Bevans fortified the drum spectrum. Keyboardist Richard Tandy became a full-fledged member, as did violinist Wilfred Gibson and cellist Mike Edwards.
Violinist Mik Kaminski signed on for the group’s next effort, On the Third Day, which yielded a minor hit in “Showdown.” The ensemble got bigger the following year, when Lynne tapped composer Louis Clark to arrange strings on 1974’s Eldorado (“Can’t Get It Out Of My Head”).
Most proggers ditched their string sections by the late-‘70s, with some leaning towards virtuosic arena rock in the face of punk and New Wave—but ELO stuck with theirs. Lynne’s instincts served him well: The blend of lush strings, throbbing rhythms, and heavenly vocal harmonies presaged disco, which exploded into the mainstream after the Bee Gees dropped Main Course and Saturday Night Fever.
So the ELO hits just kept coming: 1975’s Face the Music spawned “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” and “Fire On High.” 1976’s A New World Record gave us “Livin’ Thing,” “Telephone Line,” “Rockaria,” and (Move remake) “Do Ya.” And just when you thought they couldn’t one-up themselves, ELO delivered Out of The Blue—featuring “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” and “Mr. Blue Sky”—in 1977. A massive tour saw the group perform onstage alongside a giant UFO prop, with laser lights flickering and ethereal smoke billowing from fog machines. ELO played to a crowd of 80,000 at Cleveland Stadium and sold out Wembley Stadium a whopping eight nights in a row.
But changing tastes and evolving keyboard technology found Lynne downsizing the string seciton as the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s. 1979 effort Discovery bore vestiges of the band’s trademark symphonic sound—as on disco-powered hit “Shine a Little Love”—but radio anthem “Don’t Bring Me Down” was steeped in a guitar-driven, throwoback-‘50s blues-rock vernacular that carried over to 1981’s Time (“Hold On Tight”) and 1983’s Secret Messages (“Rock and Roll Is King”). Kaminski and Clark were still in the fold, creating the lush orchestral sounds fans came to expect—but the final album issued by the classic ELO lineup (1986’s Balance of Power) consisted more of synths than actual strings.
Lynne called it a day, redirecting his energies to the production side of the studio glass: He helped arrange and record critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) albums by fellow future Traveling Wilburys George Harrison (Cloud Nine) and Tom Petty (Full Moon Fever). But percussionist Bevans continued touring the old stuff (with Clark) as ELO Part II. Alumni Kelly Groucutt (bass), Hugh McDowell (cello), and Kaminski (violin) came on board for the “new” ensemble’s first studio release—1990’s Electric Light Orchestra, Part II—and carried the torch through 1994’s Moment of Truth. Exhausted, Bevans sold his share of ELO rights to Lynne, who thereafter forbade anyone else from using the handle.
And so The Orchestra was born.
Lynne did some great solo work in the Nineties (Armchair Theatre) and 2000s (Long Wave) and still flexes his considerable muscles every now and again as producer, but he hasn’t toured in ages. His last run of dates as the “official” ELO—scheduled in support of the 2000 album Zoom!—were cancelled before the trucks even left the warehouse. All of which makes it that much more significant today, some twenty-eight years after Lynne mothballed the group (and fifteen since Bevans absconded), that Clark and Kaminski still champion the cause, taking the music of ELO to audiences around the world.
The Orchestra tunes up here August 23rd, when they play Cleveland’s Performing Arts Center at Masonic Auditorium. It'll be the first chance some of us long-time ELO fans have had to face the music in concert.
“The original ELO ceased to exist in 1986 because Jeff Lynne didn’t want to tour anymore,” said Clark during a recent phone interview, following his appearance on The Ray Carr show on WCSB 89.3 FM radio in Cleveland.
“He hated it anyway. But Bev Bevans—cofounder of the original ELO—wanted to carry on.
“So he formed a band to carry on the legacy, which after lots of legal arguments was called ELO Part II. That was the next phase of the band. But then he decided he didn’t want to carry on anymore, either, and we became The Orchestra. And here we are!”
“I’d been there since 1973,” adds Kaminski. “More years than I care to think about, really.”
And though it’s been ages since “Showdown” could be considered a hot new song, Clark and Kaminski still have fun playing all the ELO hits.
“We have to,” acknowledges Clark. “That’s what people want to come and hear.” So we do a load of them in the set. It should be good.”
“It should be everybody’s favorites,” Kaminski continues. “We try and pace it so people don’t get worn out, including ourselves. It should be a fun night. We’re really looking forward to it!”
A graduate of Leeds College of Music, Clark worked with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the late Seventies on symphonic versions of pieces by progressive rock band Renaissance. He collaborated with RPO again in the early ‘80s, matching familiar Classical and Baroque works with contemporary beats for the popular “Hooked on Classics” series. He was named president of the English Pops Orchestra in 2011.
Clark now lives with his wife here in Elyria, Ohio.
Why the relocation?
“I got married to a beautiful girl from this area. And that was that!” he laughs.
In addition to its venerable violinist and keyboardist / arranger, The Orchestra also includes Eric Troyer (guitar, vocals) and Glen Burtnik (bass). Troyer honed his chops as a session man for luminaries like Billy Joel, James Taylor, Aerosmith, and KISS. Burtnik played Paul McCartney in Broadway’s Beatlemania (alongside Marhall Crenshaw) and enjoyed several years with classic rockers Styx. He also wrote the smash 1992 ballad “Sometimes Love Just Ain’t Enough” for Don Henley and Patty Smyth.
“Eric Troyer was one of the founding members of Part II,” elaborates Mik. “He’s one of the top New York session guys. You name it, he’s done it. He’s on any record you can think of. Or most of them, anyways!”
ELO Part II bassist Kelly Groucutt died in 2009.
“Well of course, we miss Kelly,” Clark reflects.
“He was a real character, and a good friend. But there was nothing more we could do. Glen was available, and he fit in perfectly. It was a blow to lose Kelly, though.”
So, do Clark and Kaminski have any in-concert ELO favorites?
“’Standing in the Rain’ and “Mr. Blue Sky,’” says Lou. “I was going to say ‘Hold On Tight,’ because there’s no strings on that one, and we don’t have to do anything!”
“We work through the orchestral arrangements between the two of us,” chimes Kaminski. “We pick out all the important bits, basically.
“I still have the blue violin,” says the fiery fiddler. “It’s one of my trademarks, really. It’s doing well!”
The Orchestra. Saturday, August 23, 2014 at Cleveland Performing Arts Center at Masonic Auditorium (3615 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland Ohio 44115). Doors at 7:00pm, show at 8:00pm. Tickets $25.00-$100.00. Free parking is available across the street from the auditorium.