Electric Light Orchestra's Time: A retrospective

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Apr 7, 2017

On Friday, April 7, 2017, among a host of others, including Journey and Pearl Jam (really, y'all making me feel old with this, damn), Electric Light Orchestra joins a host of other great musical acts by taking their place in the hallowed halls of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

ELO has had ties to sci-fi and fantasy for a long time. You've almost certainly heard their song "Mr. Blue Sky" off the flying-saucer-emblazoned record Out of the Blue. It very notably appeared in the trailer for one of the best science fiction films of the last two decades, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But rather than talk about the entire ELO ouevre, I want to take you back specifically to the good old-fashioned future of 1981 and to an ELO album you might be less familiar with -- Time.

While Time may not technically be Jeff Lynne and ELO's first stab at a concept album, it is the first time there was ever a concept album specifically about time travel. Cool, right? There's some great tunes on it, a weird story being told within it and some interesting background to it, too. So let's dig in on one of my favorite '80s pop albums, and maybe soon to be one of yours.

XANADU NOT DO THIS TO YOURSELF, ELO

One of the first things to know about Electric Light Orchestra is that, despite their major success throughout the 1970s, in 1980 they were coming off of being associated with a bonafide box-office bomb. Yes, Jeff Lynne had worked alongside Olivia Newton-John and others to help craft the music for a musical film (and later just regular-type musical) you might not remember, almost certainly have not seen, but whose infamy you are almost certainly aware: Xanadu. It was a roller-skating musical fantasy that was exactly as corny as you'd imagine. Actually, probably even cornier. In fact, it's ... well, see for yourself:

Maybe this is my own bad taste showing, but I actually really like the theme to Xanadu. Like, a lot. "The Fall" is a pretty good tune, too. But popular? No. Xanadu definitely represented a dip in ELO's popularity as they entered the 1980s. So they needed to take a bold step. They needed to do something different. They needed ... Time.

But not too much time. Xanadu came out in 1980 and Time hit in 1981.

YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD OF ...

Before we look at the album as a whole, though, it's only natural for you to ask yourself if you've ever heard songs from Time somewhere in this crazy world of ours. And the answer is ... probably? "Hold on Tight" was part of some ad spots for the Honda Accord in 2008 that you might remember.

Or ... let me ask you this: Do you like you some anime? Ever heard of a little animation company called Gainax? Or a a series called Evangelion? Gurren Lagann, maybe? You probably have. These are some boilerplate-type hugely popular anime series we're talking about.

Well before Gainax was Gainax they were a bunch amateur animators going under the name Daicon Film. One of the animations they made for the opening to Daicon IV in 1983 featured another song off of ELO's Time called "Twilight." Daicon did not get copyright permission to use the song or rights to use any of the many major eastern and western animated characters who also appear in the animation.

Despite all that, however, the video is AMAZING. See for yourself:

Despite my personal love for ELO's Out of the Blue, I had never heard Time until I saw that Daicon IV video. But I recognized Jeff Lynne's voice immediately and consumed Time like a ferocious wolf. Like a ferocious wolf who is a fan of Electric Light Orchestra and knows how to use a Sony Discman.

TIME - THE ALBUM NOT THE CONCEPT

The very Phil Spector-esque wall of sound Jeff Lynne and ELO were known for was still very much in full effect for Time, but the instrumentation had changed significantly from albums previous. With Time, Jeff Lynne moved away from the usual heavy use of orchestra in favor of something more electric. Songs ranged in style from reggae to new wave to rockabilly.

And, yes, this is an album (sort of) about traveling in time to the distant future of 2095. I include the "sort of" because, while Jeff Lynne is very technically proficient musically, he's a little more fluid and experimental with this lyrics. So just what exactly Time is supposed to be about is a bit of a mystery, even to Lynne himself.

Here's what we do know. It's 1981 and a man's consciousness starts drifting into another time, into a state of Twilight (like the song title, you see) and he suddenly finds himself in 2095. There he encounters an android woman who is an IBM (naturally) and also a telephone, as you do. Does she have Snapchat? Who can say? It was 1981. But she's not exactly designed for love, which leaves the time-traveling narrator feeling very lonely. He gets a ticket to the moon, but that doesn't help. He walks the streets where he used to live but everything is changed. All the while the man is missing someone he once loved long ago when things were so uncomplicated back in 1981.

It's not a terribly uplifting about the future or time travel, but with ELO's previous concept album Eldorado featuring Wizard of Oz imagery on its cover, it's hardly a surprise that Lynne would revisit the notion that there's no place quite like home.

Despite the sad narrative, a lot of the songs are very up tempo. I love "Twilight," obviously, but the song about the android, "Yours Truly, 2095" has a great beat to it, too. "Ticket to the Moon" has some fantastically dramatic lyrics and "Here is the News" is New Wave gold.

And there were some bonus tracks to Time released in 2001, including "When Time Stood Still," which has instrumentation that always evoked something very mid-'80s Peter Davison Doctor Who for me.

And bringing it back to time travel, the goofiest thing about the concept record is that Jeff Lynne himself doesn't actually know if his narrator actually traveled in time or just imagined it all. In Lynne's own words, "This is what I'd like to know, because it's baffled me since I wrote it, if he has actually gone, or if he's just thinking about it. It could be real, or it could be a dream; I'm not sure. I'd rather not say, because I don't know either. I'm supposed to, but I don't."

So, dealer's choice. Personally, I definitely think my man leapt through time to 2095 because the android lady who is also a phone sounds very plausible. To be honest, I suspect a lot of people I know right now are part phone.

Electric Light Orchestra will be inducted today into the Rock and Roll Fall of Fame today but we won't see the induction until later this month on HBO. In the meantime, I would recommend making a little time to listen to Time.