ELO there!

Another bit of classic cheese to come below, as I nerve myself for my weekly attempt to enjoy a movie in Laughlin, Nevada. I’m an expatriate Angeleno, and although L.A. is not what you’d call the most civilized place, at least people there do know how to go to the movies. It is still enough of a company town that most L.A. moviegoers are very well behaved, even if they do tend to sort themselves almost eerily into neat demographic categories and see exactly the movies they are intended by movie marketers to see. You will never see an 80-plus-year-old couple laughing like loons at 21 Jump Street in L.A.; they’ll be over seeing The Artist again. But here, nobody thinks anything of it.

So here’s how you go to the movies in Laughlin: First, pick your theater. You have a choice of three multiplexes, although it doesn’t really matter much which one you choose; what’s playing at one will more than likely show up at the others soon enough. So it’s really about whether you’d like to wander the echoing halls of a troubled outlet mall, head a dozen miles out of town to the Indian casino, or go down by the river and try to find the movie theater somewhere in the middle of an upper floor in the biggest casino in Laughlin.

As an aside, no matter which entrance you use, that last one requires a long walk across the main casino floor. Casino floors are intentionally somewhat disorienting, and since I have no visual memory whatever, can’t keep a landmark in my head to save my life, I’ve gotten lost in that damn casino, either coming in or going out, every single time I have gone to that theater. So now I just hug a wall until I see sky, then circle the building until I can remember where I left my car.

But it matters little, as I say. Whichever theater you choose, you’ll be dealing with a curious local custom, engaged in without distinction by young and old, singles, couples, and families: Laughlin moviegoers roam freely about their multiplexes, seeking fresh movie experiences like flocks of channel-surfing sheep seeking fresh fodder.

People sit down, presumably at the movie they’ve actually paid for, but soon grow restless and amble on out to check out another screen. And they watch that movie for a while, then set off again. And try another movie, and do it again. And they can do this all day.

Yes, some people, even most people, sit down quietly and watch entire movies. Nobody is rude enough to use a phone or talk back to the screen. But at any given showing, you can count on a continual stream of figures standing in the back, stalking the aisles, occasionally asking for information on how long since a movie started and whether it’s any good — everyone else seems to take it for granted, and the theaters make no attempt to stop it. But I find it distracting and unnerving, and finally exhausting.

I try to focus on my own chosen movie, I do. But I can’t stop wondering what anyone could possibly find to enjoy about seeing 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, maybe split up in two or more visits to a given screen, of five different movies in one day. When someone asks these people, “Did you see Hunger Games?” what can they possibly respond? And what could be behind this impulse to stay on the move in the multiplex? Is it mere restlessness, or short attention spans? Or is it a genuine search for satisfaction? Do these wanderers hope in their hearts to be someday become so engaged, so delighted, so enthralled by a movie that, even against their will, they will sit, and stay, and simply watch?

I don’t know, but the spectacle, and speculation, wear me out. And since I can’t drive to L.A. every time I want to see a movie, and I don’t like watching movies on TV, once a week or so I take a deep breath and say I won’t let it get to me. And it does, it always does.

But now, on topic: Classic Rock radio is talking a lot now about the 40th anniversary of ELO, and a fine band they are. And ELO is the topic as we roll along with our Hommage a Fromage tribute to bands, well, paying tribute to (or just flat imitating) other bands. Here’s how ELO introduced themselves, so many years ago.

Mr. Radio link for the e-mail people!

Yeah, can you guess whose stuff was stacked at the top of Jeff Lynne’s record collection? Back-masked classical clips, Victrola’d vocals, a ghoulish, stalking piano, a creepy, out-of-nowhere string-and-piano break (about 2:10), and listen to how that lone violin stabs at Lynne’s voice in the last verse. ELO were often accused in the early days of being mere post-Beatles Beatles imitators, and this is one of the tracks where you have to give some credence — a lot of credence — to that accusation.

And in “Mr. Radio,” what’s Lynne singing about? Loneliness and lost love, and comforting himself as best he can, in this case with radio shows. It’s a theme that would be revisited a few years later, much more effectively, on “Telephone Line.” But here it comes out:

Hello, Mr. Radio,
You friendly speaker,
You played my request today,
Request to see her

Your voice comes riding home
Across the air,
You travel ’round the world,
But still you’re here

Sure, sure, OK, but it sure isn’t Lennon and McCartney. And “Mr. Radio” is much more about the sound than the words, and that’s one key difference from ELO’s then-idols; with the Beatles, it’s about all of it, always, working together, and no compromises. (That’s also a key difference between Lennon’s and McCartney’s solo work and their work with the Beatles: They both made some great music alone, but they were also both absolutely capable of sloppiness, toss-offs, and riding their reputation. The Beatles were all over the place, but they never, at least to my ear, ever produced anything that was just plain lazy.)

And thus ELO demonstrates why the Beatles, though they hugely influenced how rock was done, didn’t have nearly as much influence over how rock sounds. What they did so seemingly organically and inevitably turns into mere tricks and gimmicks in the hands of, it seems, anybody else, no matter how talented that artist might be otherwise. It’s just about impossible to hear a distinctly Beatles influence on the sound of a given song without also hearing mere pastiche. And that’s exactly what “Mr. Radio” amounts to, enjoyable though it may be.

Jeff Lynne, of course, is a huge talent on his own, so he got over it and turned ELO into something all their own and made them one of the great singles bands of the ’70s. But he had to get over it first.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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