On the surface, ‘Mr Blue Sky’ masquerades as yet another Electric Light Orchestra compilation featuring most of the usual suspects. There’s more to this 2012 release than just mere “greatest hits” however, since Jeff Lynne has succumbed to artistic licence. Although many ELO records remain beloved by a cross section of pop, pomp and prog rock fans, Lynne felt that by more more modern recording/production techniques, those old hits could do with a dusting down and polishing up and so, has completely re-recorded each of the tracks included here.
…Or so says his official line. Earlier in 2012 Def Leppard made threats about re-recording their back-catalogue since they were effectively being screwed by their record company. If these tunes exist via a similar dispute to the one that plagued the Leps, then fair play to Lynne, he has done a fantastic job. If, as he claims, these were recorded to tweak and improve and nothing more, he has still turned in a fantastic job.
While these re-recordings undoubtedly please Lynne by fixing whatever he thought wrong with them previously, thankfully he never stretches the fans’ goodwill by adding anything too outlandish; the arrangements (although a little shinier all round) by and large stick firmly to their original blueprints. As such, they are far more concerned with utilising modern technology and Lynne’s further experience as producer – that doesn’t actually make the works of ELO more palatable for more modern ears. As such, it would still be easy for a non-fan to accuse them of sounding quite dated in terms of their falsetto vocals, analogue synthesisers and use of vocoders, all dished up with an abundance of flared-trousered, hair-permed goodness. From a fan perspective, on the other hand, if that’s why you loved (and continue to love) ELO, you certainly wouldn’t want any of that to change. Leaving no stone unturned on this selection of tunes, the tweaking is only ever relatively minor, but even so, for those who know the hits inside out, the amendments really jump out – and often in a good way.
So what’s so different? Most obviously, on the always brilliant ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, Lynne has opted to make the “Bruce!” chorus vocal marginally less silly, but more importantly, taken the piano part near the end and pushed it to the fore. The result sounds not unlike something from a wild west bar-room. Despite these two relatively obvious differences, everything else closely mirrors the 1979 recording, so much so that the rattling noise at the very end is even re-recorded! The differences on ‘Evil Woman’ and ‘Livin’ Thing’ are even more slight: on the former, we are given a crisper rhythm guitar part (a change for the better, probably) while on the latter, the pizzicato strings are more audible than ever before. Both are certainly changes which fit the claim that Lynne only wanted to improve things rather than change them per se. Similarly, ‘Do Ya’ benefits from a much louder lead guitar, which too, is a welcome amendment considering its place as one of the band’s rockier tunes.
One of ELO’s signature pieces, ‘Mr Blue Sky’ has become a radio staple and it is almost unthinkable that a version may exist that isn’t exactly the same as the one we’re heard regularly for decades… Sadly, the spruced up 2012 recording doesn’t quite have the all round greatness of the original (or indeed, most of these re-recordings). There’s certainly more definition between the chorus vocals and some may see that as a plus, but the drum sound doesn’t quite cut it and Jeff’s lead vocal doesn’t appear quite as sparky as before. Everything’s almost right, yet – perhaps due to the sheer complexity of the piece – it doesn’t improve on the original version even slightly. Perhaps ‘Out Of The Blue’s material was trickier to amend, since ‘Turn To Stone’ also comes out rather flat, with a particular weakness during the multi-tracked section of voices at 1:51. To the non-ELO fan, those voices on the original cut can sound rather ridiculous with their falsetto; here, with a huge phased effect added, they don’t actually sound any less ridiculous or over-blown than before, they just sound a little gurgly. On the plus side, the strings during the second half are more pronounced (though almost certainly provided by keyboards), but this has the knock on effect of making the drums sound somewhat woolly. If this disc features any cuts that make you want to reach for your beloved originals rather quickly, these two are the most likely. [Also, Jeff’s re-recording of ‘Mr Blue Sky’ isn’t as much fun as Holmes’s 2011 cover, which you can hear here.]
There are literally dozens of subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) differences peppered throughout the numbers on this collection; you can spend time spotting the rest for yourselves, since with this kind of project, therein lies most of the fun – after all, you wouldn’t want a review to spoil all of the surprises…would you?!
For those who want more than revisited material, this compilation also features a previously unreleased track. With roots dating back to 2009, ‘Point of No Return’ is an excellent three minute pop tune, driven by ringing guitars. A simple chorus and a general Wilbury-esque sound means the bulk of it would have sounded just as good in the hands of Tom Petty if Jeff had passed it on. However, a subtle backing vocal – slight falsetto, no words – and a brief string sound creeping in at the end helps to give it just a little more of that ELO magic. Although this sounds a little flat when measured against those Electric Light Orchestra classics, it is a welcome addition to Lynne’s back catalogue and is certainly far more enjoyable than anything included on his 2012 solo record ‘Long Wave’…
Revisiting past works out of perfectionism/vanity (delete as appropriate) can be a tricky business. When Kate Bush re-recorded a bunch of vocals for her ‘Director’s Cut’ project, the results were more than misguided; when Squeeze invited listeners to ‘Spot The Difference’ in 2010, their approach may have been far more traditional, but when Difford and Tilbrook began to sing, that the “difference” became more than obvious. With ‘Mr Blue Sky’s revisitations, Jeff Lynne, mercifully, fairs far better than both: he’s created a record that still entertains the casual listener with the ELO hits, while simultaneously giving the hardcore fan something to think about. ‘Mr Blue Sky’ is a sharp reminder of why Lynne is considered by many to be one of pop music’s master craftsmen.