Video of the Week: Vocal Analysis of Electric Light Orchestra’s “Telephone Line”

Songs You May Have Missed #477


Electric Light Orchestra: “Fire on High” (1975)

Sometimes it just works out that one of an artist’s best works never follows one of the paths through to legacy status. People who either actually owned Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album on vinyl or are big enough fans to have purchased it in a more recent format probably agree that the album-opening “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding” medley is among Sir Elton’s finest moments.

Similarly, “Fire on High”, the instrumental curtain-raiser on ELO’s fine 1975 release Face the Music, is a definitive Jeff Lynne/ELO song.

But the two major threads a pop song can follow to a timeless popular status (think “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Hotel California”) are continued radio airplay and inclusion on Best-of compilations. And although “Fire on High” got FM airplay in its day (as opposed to actual top 40 radio airplay, which was on the AM dial in 1975) you don’t really hear it on the oldies formats today. And as for being included on greatest hits collections, well, since it was never a single in the first place, the people who compile such collections don’t seem to think it merits inclusion.

In other words, ELO fans from back in the day most likely remember it. But to the younger generation fans–those who came to the band via a greatest hits collection or digital downloads of such perennials as “Mr. Blue Sky” and “Don’t Bring Me Down”–this is probably unfamiliar. If so, enjoy! And do check out the catalog further. Face the Music, A New World Record and Out of the Blue represent the band’s peak. And all three contain great album tracks to be explored.

Electric Light Orchestra were much more than their hit singles.

Oh, Oh, Telephone Line–How ELO’s First Album was Given its Title by Mistake

no answer

(Reprinted from

Claim: A record label inadvertently mistitled the U.S. version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s debut album because of a misunderstood phone message.

Status: True

Origins: In the early 1970’s Jeff Lynne, Roy Wood and Bev Bevan, members of a group called The Move, developed a concept for fusing rock and classical music. All three continued to bide their time recording and performing as The Move while they assembled the collection of classical instrumentalists they needed to flesh out their “Electric Light Orchestra”. Meanwhile, their manager, Don Arden, managed to line up a recording contract for the nascent group with Harvest Records (UK) and United Artists (U.S.)

After some delay while The Move wound down, the Electric Light Orchestra finally recorded their first album, which was released in the UK by Harvest in December 1971 and (in line with common practice for debut LPs by new groups) assigned the eponymous title of Electric Light Orchestra. When the same album was released in America by United Artists three months later, however, it bore a completely different title: No Answer.

Why the switch?

As groups such as the Beatles had learned years earlier, American record companies had no compunctions about retitling (and even rearranging) the LPs of British groups to suit their notions of what would sell in the American record market. But what possessed United Artists to reject a straightforward album title in favor of one that seemingly made no sense? After all, No Answer wasn’t the name of a song on the LP, the phrase wasn’t found in any of the album’s lyrics, and it certainly didn’t signify anything of importance to the American record-buying public.

The answer is that the title was an accident, the result of a misunderstood phone communication.

The legend differs slightly in some of the details from telling to telling, but the basic premise is that when United Artists was preparing to schedule Electric Light Orchestra’s debut album for release in the U.S. someone from United Artists (either an executive or his secretary) placed a call to someone connected with ELO (either an executive at Harvest Records or the group’s manager) to find out, among other things, what the LP should be titled. The caller, having failed to reach the desired party, jotted down the notation “no answer”, a phrase which was mistaken for an album title and assigned to the U.S. version of the group’s debut record.

This all sounds like a story a PR person might have concocted to garner some free publicity for a new band, but no one has ever offered a plausible alternative explanation for the origins of the No Answer album title, and Bev Bevan, ELO’s drummer, affirms that the familiar account is true:

Bevan confirms the story that the album was called No Answer in America due to a misunderstanding. The American record company phoned to discuss the title with ELO manager Don Arden, but his secretary couldn’t contact him and replied with the two words that became immortalized on the album sleeves.

“It was quite a good title, though, wasn’t it?” says Bevan, the band’s drummer and percussionist.

In an odd coincidence, a similar mix-up at about the same time resulted in a Byrds LP mistakenly being released with a title of Untitled.

ELO Mix Baroque with the Beatles–And Other Treasures from Jeff Lynne Tribute Channel


Electric Light Orchestra’s live cover of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper” is from a 1974 live album called The Night the Light Went On (In Long Beach) which though recorded in the U.S. was, somewhat ironically, only released in Europe. Thus even loyal fans in this country have never come across this performance. 

Similarly to the band’s early covers of “Roll Over Beethoven” and “In the Hall of the Mountain King” this is another early example of Jeff Lynne’s fusion of classical music with rock and roll, later achieved more seamlessly on hits like “Livin’ Thing” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman”.

Note Lynne’s sly amendment to the lyric, changing “she’s a big teaser” into “she’s a prick teaser” (probably what McCartney wanted to say.)

This and lots more great ELO tunes appear on the YouTube Jeff Lynne tribute channel movejefflynnelo with upgraded audio, and painstakingly synched with vintage videos. It’s a treasure trove for fans of ELO and Lynne’s previous band, The Move.


I Didn’t Know That Was a Cover! Part 2

In the interest of the betterment of your overall pop music knowledge/ability to spout random trivia…here’s another installment in the always popular (with me) I Didn’t Know That Was a Cover! series. Part 2 is subtitled: I Didn’t Know That Would Become a Series! Let’s dive in:


Our first three songs are examples of artists covering themselves; that is, revisiting songs they’d previously recorded with less well-known bands.

“Do Ya”-Electric Light Orchestra

Years Before Jeff Lynne’s “Do Ya” appeared on ELO’s 1977 A New World Record LP and peaked at #24 on the pop chart, he recorded a less polished version with The Move, a band that included English rock legend Roy Wood and another ELO member, Bev Bevan. Their version came with no strings attached.


“Somebody to Love”-Jefferson Airplane

Grace Slick’s band The Great Society recorded the original version of her “Somebody to Love”, as well as “White Rabbit”. Both later appeared on Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Surrealistic Pillow album and are probably that band’s two most important/popular recordings. This clip suggests that Airplane was much the better band.


“Cherry Bomb”-Joan Jett & The Blackhearts

Another member of The Runaways was mentioned in the previous post on this topic. This time it’s Joan Jett, whose “Cherry Bomb” was first recorded with that band. While both versions have their fans, neither exactly blew up (blew up I say) on the pop charts.


“Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)”-The Doobie Brothers

The Doobies proved their versatility in 1975 by following up their first #1 single–the bluegrass-flavored “Black Water”–with an old Holland-Dozier-Holland chestnut originally recorded ten years earlier by Kim Weston.


“They Don’t Know”-Tracey Ullman

British actress/comedienne and sometimes singer Tracey Ullman was a one-hit wonder in the U.S. although several of her singles were well-received abroad. Her schtick was to update the 60’s girl group sound, and “They Don’t Know” was an irresistible nugget of retropop. The backing vocals were supplied by the same woman who provided the song itself, Kirsty MacColl. Kirsty’s version is much the same–Tracey just upped the cute factor some.


“Big Ten Inch Record”-Aerosmith

This song certainly clashed stylistically with the rest of the classic 1975 Toys in the Attic album, but I think that was the point. It’s a safe bet to be the only Bull Moose Jackson song in most Aerosmith fans’ collections.


“Unchained Melody”-The Righteous Brothers

What we have here is your all-purpose guide to “Unchained Melody”, starting with the Righteous Brothers and moving backward in time. (We will ignore versions by LeAnn Rimes, Heart, The Sweet Inspirations and even Elvis Himself, all of whom recorded versions after the Righteous Brothers, none of whom should have bothered.)

The above clip is a little medley, a Bill Medley if you will, of snippets of the six versions of this song that matter. Here’s what you hear in succession:

  1. The newly recorded 1990 version done by the Righteous Brothers in response to demand created by the song’s inclusion in the Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore film Ghost. This is not, however, the version which appeared in that movie. This version charted at #19 in 1990.
  2. The Righteous Brothers’ first hit version, which went to #4 in 1965 and climbed to #13 in 1990 after its inclusion in Ghost. Yes, incredibly they had two different recordings of their song chart at numbers 13 and 19 in the same year.
  3. Vito & The Salutations’ fast doo wop version from 1963. Sounds like a parody of the Righteous Brothers, but it actually came two years earlier.
  4. Roy Hamilton’s #6 hit from 1955
  5. Al Hibbler’s #3 hit from 1955
  6. Finally, Les Baxter’s #1 version, also from 1955 and the only time the song has gone to the top of the charts. If you count June Valli’s #29 hit of the same year, the song had four top 40 versions in 1955 alone, three of them top ten.

If you’ve always wondered why this song carries around such a strange title, it’s because Les Baxter’s original version was from the movie Unchained (which starred football star Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch).

p.s. Why don’t football players have nicknames like “Crazylegs” anymore?

See also:

See also:

Lynne Me Your Ears: Are New ELO Recordings Better Than The Originals?

Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best

Next week will see the release of Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. Jeff Lynne has rerecorded many of the band’s most timeless classics and, judging from the music samples on, they sound fantastic.

As Lynne has said, that was pretty much the goal:

“The idea was to get them to sound better,” Lynne told Rolling Stone about Mr. Blue Sky. “Because I’ve been working for all these years  with these great people and producing records with people, I became a much  better producer. So when I listen to my old ELO songs, I used to think, ‘I wish  I’d done that a bit better.’ And in the end, I drove myself mad. So I decided I  should re-record one. I started with ‘Mr. Blue Sky,’ and re-recorded the whole  thing from scratch. I enjoyed doing that a lot, and when I listened back to it  and compared it to the old one, I really liked it much better. My manager  suggested I do another couple and see how I get on with them, and I did ‘Evil  Woman’ and ‘Strange Magic,’ and they came out really good too. So I just carried  on doing them.”

Read more:

I’m really conflicted on this one. First, I don’t think this album should be called a Best of Electric Light Orchestra. Most people consider “Best of” to be synonymous with “Greatest Hits”. And these are not the hit versions of these songs, even if you consider them to be superior to the versions that charted decades ago. It’s a misleading album title and cover.

Secondly, I’m a stickler for original hit versions–fanatically so, in fact. And the only example I can think of where an artist rerecorded an entire album’s worth of their classic hits and actually improved on the originals is Roy Orbison’s 1987 In Dreams: The Greatest Hits compilation (also misleadingly titled). The superior recording technology, smoother background vocals, ace studio musicians, and the fact that Orbison’s voice at 51 sounded, miraculously, better than it had at 25 made In Dreams a definitive document of his hits–at least to me.

In Dreams: The Greatest Hits In Dreams: Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits

Two different covers, same album.

By the way, In Dreams is sadly out of print; however, used copies are available at starting at less than a buck and I highly recommend picking one up:

Still, that was Roy Orbison. And if you could expect anyone to revisit sacred music and actually improve on it, it would be someone whose vocal talents were beyond comprehension in the first place.

Jeff Lynne has never been known to be anything more than competent as a vocalist. But he is a masterful (sometimes remasterful) producer. I’m sure the new compilation will have cracking sound, which will leave me with a difficult decision as to which versions of these songs to pledge my allegience to. With any artist not named Orbison, choosing the original versions would be a no-brainer. But back in the 70’s ELO was all about great sound. Lynne went to great pains to make an ELO album a state of the art listening experience. Maybe that’s why he can’t leave it alone–he can’t bear to see (or hear) that sound become dated, when it had been so fresh in its day.

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