As much as I might’ve tried to tell myself otherwise, it was inevitable that setting up a turntable in our living room would lead to me settling back into my old record collecting ways. I tried to fight it by pulling a short stack of my perennial faves from the attic archives and hoping that would hold me over, but all it did was whet my appetite and get me to thinking about roads not taken.
My tastes had been fairly rigid during my initial crate-digging days, when I viewed vinyl primarily as a vector for imports, oddities, and other stuff as yet unavailable on compact disc. As many records as I purchased back then, I passed on countless opportunities to acquire quality material on the cheap. Those regrets only grew in hindsight, thanks the continental drift my musical tastes had experienced since 1996.
It was pointless to kick myself over not anticipating the person I’d be twenty years down the pike, but it did set me to searching about for albums that reflected my broadened interests. At the top of that list was Electric Light Orchestra.
At the time, ELO maintained a strong presence in the custom playlists I used to get my through the work day. The band occupies a weird niche in my nostalgia-scape. They had next to no presence during my formative years. My parents were more into singer-songwriter stuff, and the ambient rawk soundtrack of 1970s North Woburn trended more towards Zep, The Stones, and The Who — with some minor deviations along the lines of Kiss and Sabbath.
Apart from the inescapable “Don’t Bring Me Down,” my only childhood experiences with ELO involved their inclusion in Big Secrets chapter dealing with hidden messages in pop music. I didn’t really get into them until the later Nineties, as an indirect consequence of Lil Bro’s embrace of classic rock and my ongoing attempts to make sense of the Me Decade.
Despite that delayed (no pun intended) discovery, no other band evokes my childhood memories of the Seventies the way ELO does. Something about their high-pitched harmonies, pulsing prog-pop arrangements, and airbrushed iconography resonates at just the right frequency to trigger lucid memory dumps of playing with my army men on the living room carpet, visiting weird museums with my parents, or the sinister allure of the Boys’ Club Carnival’s pinball tent.
It’s not nostalgia for a place I never visited, because I did inhabit this realm in parallel with ELO’s music. We may not have crossed paths, but I’m acutely attuned to its cultural spoor.
And that’s how 1976’s A New World Record and 1977’s Out of the Blue became the first albums I bought for my new turntable.
Of the two, A New World Record got the most spins by far, being a much tighter and consistent affair than the mixed bag of tracks sprawled across Out of the Blue‘s double-LP set. (Honestly, I bought it entirely on the merits of its side one, which features the double whammy of “Turn to Stone” and “Sweet Talkin’ Woman.”)
To admit to liking ELO is to invite a litany of familiar criticisms — “too disco,” “the songs all sound the same,” “Fab Four fanfic in music form” — which miss all miss the point of their appeal. I don’t listen to ELO in search of anthems. It’s well-crafted — and occasionally ambitious — musical comfort food which invokes baroque memories of a baroque (and just plain broken) era. The two ELO albums set the current pattern for when and how I listen to records, where I arrive home in the evening and throw something on to assist the post-work decompression process. Or I’ll spin a record to provide background music while doing my weekend chores around the house.
At the moment — in the moment — it feels like the best thing in the world.
I considered following up the purchase with a few more ELO albums, but never went through with it. Most of the other songs by the band worth hearing could be found (in abbreviated form) on K-Tel comps which offered more bang for the buck, while my ever-revolving cycle of tastes shifted away from classic rock jams. The 2016 election also played a part, as it disrupted my psychic equilibrium and tainted certain rituals and items though temporal association.
Even so, when the shit hit the fan that night, I was able to find some meager solace in the track which kicked off A New World Record.
“When I looked around, I was heading down. Won’t somebody throw me down a line?”