One thing I love makes fun of another thing I love

I may be one of four people in the world who really love Electric Light Orchestra and also love Randy Newman’s “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band.”

I’m guessing Newman didn’t like what he heard of Electric Light Orchestra when he turned on his radio in the mid-1970s. He probably found the music formulaic, combining Paul McCartney’s melodicism with mimicking John Lennon’s voice and backing it with lush instrumentation, dolloping on strings like Richard Carpenter on pixie sticks.

He was generally right, of course. There is a formula to Electric Light Orchestra. (Which is the name of the damn band, by the way. You could shortcut as a fan and call them ELO, like Emerson Lake and Palmer were ELP, and Crosby Stills Nash and Young were CSNY. But the bands didn’t get to use those. Those were for we fans.)

But he forgets, in song at least, that writing like Paul McCartney isn’t easy just because Paul McCartney and, to an extended degree, Jeff Lynne are capable of doing it. There was craft in what Jeff Lynne did, and to dismiss it as trite or hackery does him a disservice, and dismisses his art.

That said, “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band” is perfect parody, a song that can stand on its own but one even better if you understand what’s being mocked. Had I been Newman’s producer, I would only have suggested he make the opening fade-in longer. That’s one of Electric Light Orchestra’s greatest and most annoying traits to me. It seems like every Electric Light Orchestra and Yes album I love starts that way.

The chorus (which doesn’t appear until 1:45, more typical Electric Light Orchestra) is:

I love their ‘Mister Blue Sky’
Almost my favorite is ‘Turn to Stone’
And how ’bout ‘Telephone Line’?
I love that E L O

It bothered me at the time. I DID love all three of those songs. (“Turn to Stone” IS almost my favorite.) But it’s still funny. ‘Almost my favorite’ is such great Randy Newman kind of writing. How could I not love it when something I loved did such a great job of making fun of another thing I loved?

Crap album, though, Randy. This one, “It’s Money That I Love” and “Pants” are it. (And then he had the audacity to rewrite “It’s Money That I Love” 10 years later on “Land of Dreams” as the inferior “It’s Money That Matters.”) That’s part of the reason “Trouble in Paradise” (No. 150 on Tim’s Big List) was such a pleasant surprise four years later.

The biggest tribute I can pay to “The Story of a Rock and Roll Band”? Often when I play it, I follow it with the real “Telephone Line.”

It fits.


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