The last time Electric Light Orchestra announced live dates, in 2001, they were cancelled due to low ticket sales, something that assuredly wouldn’t happen were they to tour now.
The cultural affiliations that got them classified as prog-pop foolishness no longer prevent serious reappraisal, and mainstay Jeff Lynne currently finds himself critically recast as a songwriting and arranging genius. This gig’s 50,000 tickets sold out in 90 minutes.
Their set is the culmination of Radio 2’s annual one-day music festival, an event that strives to show that the nation’s biggest station has a handle on both past and present. Paloma Faith and Kacey Musgraves represent the new cavalcade of sparky chameleons who flit seamlessly between Radios 1 and 2, but are overshadowed by Blondie and Billy Ocean and their dozens of hits.
Inevitably, they themselves are resoundingly trumped by Jeff Lynne’s ELO (as they’re currently known, highlighting the fact that Lynne and keyboardist Richard Tandy are the only original members). Supported by the BBC Concert Orchestra and – seriously – Take That’s backing band, they present the sort of spectacle that financial advisers would now nix on the grounds of expense and unfashionableness. It’s 1970s maximalism revived in an era that’s forgotten how restorative it can be to succumb to symphonic pop songs and a monster light show. If the budget doesn’t run to recreating the spaceship that once hovered over the stage, it is at least there in spirit.
Lynne, who retains hair, beard and sunglasses, changes absolutely none of the arrangements. A pre-digital ringtone eerily pierces the heart of Telephone Line, the cellists buzz like prog hornets as they flesh out Ma-Ma-Ma Belle’s abrasive guitar top line, and on Turn to Stone a lone violin breaks away from the ranks to add a couple of spiralling curlicues – the sort of minute detail a lesser arranger might have omitted. Painstakingly restored to life – a month’s rehearsal went into this single show – each of the 17 songs is an intricate three-minute concerto.
Lynne, as retiring as anyone could be while planted in front of a stageful of churning activity, is plainly unprepared for the school-disco joy that greets the night’s biggest barnstormers, Livin’ Thing and Mr Blue Sky. There may be a world tour, he tells the crowd. This time, he can be sure that there will be a great deal of interest in a band who rival Abba for pop symphonies.
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