Few songs have a more uplifting feel to them than “Mr Blue Sky” by ELO (that’s Electric Light Orchestra if you’re feeling posh…).
Jeff Lynne, the creative force behind ELO…and the Move, the Travelling Wilbury’s and the latter stages of Roy Orbison’s career, amongst many other achievements…wrote “Mr Blue Sky” on a songwriting trip to Switzerland when, after a couple of grim weeks weather-wise, the sun came out and everything was right with the world again.
Not all of us can enjoy songwriting trips to Switzerland for a few weeks…that’s the sort of thing you need to have bona fide rock star status for, I suspect…but at least we can all appreciate the symphonic composition Jeff Lynne was inspired to write on his Alpine getaway.
“Mr Blue Sky” always feels to me like a musical representation of the world immediately after the dark, post-apocalyptic clouds have parted and the first rays of sunshine poke through the gloom to warm the surface of the planet once more.
ELO had always been an interesting band. They’d grown out of The Move…a group which, amongst others, included ELO frontman Jeff Lynne, ELO drummer Bev Bevan and future Wizzard frontman Roy Wood.
The Move did very well in late-1960’s Britain, with hits including “Flowers In The Rain” and “Blackberry Way”. “Flowers In The Rain” has its own unique entry in pop music history as the first record played on BBC Radio 1 in September 1967, after the BBC decided to set up the UK’s first dedicated pop music radio station and take on the pirate radio stations at their own game.
Both Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood wanted to take their music in a more classical direction, and brought in instruments which weren’t…and still aren’t…heard very often on pop records, and even less frequently seen on stage alongside a rock band. (Cor Anglais, anyone?)
When records involved string sections, they tended to be used only for the studio recording, and rarely went on tour. Even when they did, the string section was usually out of the spotlight at the back of the stage somewhere.
ELO put their string section up front, like a lead guitar might be in most other bands, and created some interesting sounds as a consequence, making ELO unique. From the very first notes of the intro, you knew you couldn’t be listening to anyone else.
To this day, ELO’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven” is my favourite version of that great song…which takes nothing away from Chuck Berry’s tremendous original, of course, but the ELO version sounds so different it’s almost like you’re listening to a completely different record. That way, it’s possible to enjoy both the ELO version and Chuck Berry’s original alongside one another without being disrespectful to Chuck Berry’s genius.
Bold from the success of ELO’s somewhat counter-cultural orchestral sound since the early 1970s, by the time 1977 came along, Jeff Lynne was in full symphonic mode.
ELO’s “Out Of The Blue” album was as much a testament to Jeff Lynne’s orchestral skills as it was to his expertise in pop music composition.
The “Concerto For A Rainy Day” segment of “Out Of The Blue” wrapped up with “Mr Blue Sky”. It’s role in the musical story being told was to symbolise the end of a rainy day and the return of sunshine once more…which it does perfectly…
Sun is shining in the sky
There ain’t a cloud in sight
It’s stopped raining, everybody’s in a play
And don’t you know
It’s a beautiful new day, hey, hey
There’s something very soothing about the orchestral accompaniment to “Mr Blue Sky”. In the same way that I sometimes listen to classical music radio when I just need to dial back a little after an intense day, Jeff Lynne’s orchestration on “Mr Blue Sky” does exactly the same job of relaxing you.
Somehow, feeling more relaxed makes you more susceptible to the message in the lyrics, I think. It’s almost a form of musical hypnosis, where the soothing tones of the hypnotist relax you to make your brain more receptive to their message…
Running down the avenue
See how the sun shines brightly in the city
On the streets where once was pity
Mister Blue Sky is living here today, hey, hey
Somehow, with “Mr Blue Sky”, you don’t just see the sun shining brightly in the city, you can feel the sun shining brightly as you listen to it…no matter what the weather is outside.
I don’t know exactly how Jeff Lynne made “Mr Blue Sky” into a song you feel every bit as much as listen to, but whatever he did, it’s the work of genius.
I also feel the need to acknowledge the work of Bev Bevan on the drums for “Mr Blue Sky”. He’s often seen as a “four beats to the bar”, hard-pounding drummer, rather than someone operating at the more creative end of his profession.
That criticism is, I’ve always felt, a little unfair. If a straight four beats to the bar is what a song calls for, then that’s exactly what a drummer should be playing. And there’s no question that Bev Bevan’s drumming on all the other Move and ELO tracks does exactly what it needs to do to make their songs power along.
But, as part of my long-running campaign to get drummers the respect they deserve, Bev Bevan’s work on “Mr Blue Sky” is about as far away from the stereotypical “four beats to the bar” as you’re likely to find.
He spends large chunks of “Mr Blue Sky” riding the cymbals and hardly touching a drum head…there are stops and starts in there, rather than just powering through regardless…and for the last minute or so of “Mr Blue Sky” you don’t hear any drums at all as the orchestral section builds to its final crescendo.
As you’re listening to “Mr Blue Sky”, please pay particular attention to Bev Bevan on the drums. I think his contribution to this song is a key part of the brightness of it, with his cymbal work keeping the tone light as the choir and orchestra take the lead.
At the same time, just as light follows dark, so does dark follow night.
When you’ve got sunshine and blue skies around you, appreciate what you have and give thanks for the glory you’re experiencing. It won’t last for ever…
Mister Blue, you did it right
But soon comes Mister Night, creeping over
Now his hand is on your shoulder
Never mind, I’ll remember you this
I’ll remember you this way
Hold those good feelings close for as long as you can. And when night comes, that way you’ll still have the memories of a day spent in the company of blue skies, sunshine, smiling faces and people you love.
There are very few songs in popular music which rival the positive and uplifting experience of listening to “Mr Blue Sky” on the radio.
If you’ve had a great day, it cements that experience in your mind as you build your memories for tomorrow. If you’ve had a dreadful day, it reminds you that blue skies and sunshine are just around the corner, and gives you the strength you need to keep going.
Throw in Jeff Lynne’s superb composition skills, some nifty orchestral work and a light, bright tone on the cymbals to move things along and you’ve got a near-perfect pop song.
So whatever sort of day you’ve had, you’re bound to enjoy every moment of Jeff Lynne’s composition…it’s ELO with “Mr Blue Sky”…
If you’ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2RlgNHKcydI9sayD2Df2xp