Future Schlock: The Quiet Comeback of ELO’s Once-villified Album “Time”

I’m unsure whether to pity or envy the Baby Boomer. Their mid-20th century childhoods were filled with visions of a grand future filled with stainless-steel cityscapes traversed by robots and flying cars. After spending three years riding the subway in Philadelphia, which both looked and smelled more like a public restroom than a place to catch a train, I got a glimpse of the disappointment it must have felt to have been promised jetpacks and instead get the cracked tiles and piss stains of the Broad Street line.  

Today, visions of the future focus more about incremental improvements in tiny pieces of distracting personal technology, or about preventing a climate disaster. The possibility of a family trip to space has been replaced by faster wifi. The hope for a colony on Mars has been replaced with the hope that we don’t hard-boil the planet. The future isn’t fun anymore. Though the predictions they were fed would ultimately disappoint our parents’ generation, there is a yearning among my generation for that grander, more exciting, more optimistic, and more transformative mid-century vision of the future.

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This partly explains why, around the middle of the 2000s, a largely forgotten album by Electric Light Orchestra began circulating among twenty-somethings, and was cited by artists such as Ladyhawke and Grandaddy as influences. Released in 1980, Time hits a sweet spot between campy futurism and theatrical sincerity—a perfect combination for a generation that both laughs at and secretly wants the Baby Boomer’s grandiose visions of the future. Time is a hypercharged science fantasy that uses thick layers of synths, studio tricks, and infectious, epic melody lines (imagine Queen with vocoders) to tell the story of a man plucked out of his timestream and dumped into the year 2095, complete with flying cars and tickets to the moon. When Jeff Lynne belts out lyrics about a “brand new time transporter” and “the very latest hovercar,” Time is speaking to the yearning my generation has for Boomer futurism while also being over-the-top enough to couch that yearning in a more acceptable and fun-as-hell absurdity.

Time’s utter lack of restraint on nearly all fronts is a large part of what makes it such a joy to listen to for my generation, and what made it so frustrating for those Boomers listening in 1980. It’s an album crammed with walls of synthesizers, processed drums, vocoders, rapid-fire tape edits, drum machines, and lyrics about unrequited robot love. For an early 80s public that was already sick of prog rock, tired of waiting for the future they were promised as children, and moving toward dystopian futurism, Time’s epic, goofy plotline and studio trickery was not looked kindly upon. As stated by Rolling Stone in their middling review upon its release: “If ELO’s not careful, they’re going to end up becoming the kind of cheese that squirts out of an aerosol can.” It’s telling that the biggest hit on the album was also the least futuristic: the nostalgia-laden rock revival single “Hold On Tight,” complete with Elvis-like vocals.

Further dampening Time’s reputation at the time was that its release coincided with a perceived decline in ELO’s quality, resulting partly from the lukewarm reception to ELO’s prior album (the disco-centric Discovery) as well as the soundtrack frontman Jeff Lynne co-wrote for the infamous movie flop Xanadu. Like ABBA’s The Visitors—another synth-heavy 80s album by a mega-selling 70s group that would eventually be rediscovered—Time would vanish off the radar for the next two decades, waiting for a new generation to appreciate it.

But it took awhile. “ELO are basically the UK Eagles,” wrote Andrew Gaerig in Stylus magazine in 2005, “a band of dinosaurs with hundreds of radio hits, above-average musicianship, and almost no following among hipsters.”But thanks to the 80s revival that was just beginning to explode in the middle of the 2000s, hipsters would soon discover that ELO had at least one album worth following. Time’s epic synth leads and hyped-up production were like catnip for those scouring vinyl bins for lost 80s classics.  

But with the exception of Time, ELO may remain the UK Eagles. I discovered Time before hearing the rest of ELO’s catalog, assumed that most of their output would be as epic, energetic, and inventive as Time. I devoured all the ELO I could get my hands on. However, with a few notable exceptions like “Mr. Blue Sky,” most their albums seem instead to be a string of play-it-safe AM radio hits—competent but bland. Jeff Lynne has always been a solid songwriter with a gift for usual arrangements that work in a pop context. It was perhaps his decision to fully unleash his inner geek that made Time such a breathless experience.

The result is that Time is on track to be thought of alongside—or perhaps as even better than—their world famous Out of the Blue as the band’s most lasting accomplishment. For a younger generation who never experienced the hopefulness presented in science fiction of the 50s and 60s, Time is a chance to explore it, but with just enough epic ridiculousness to keep that exploration from being tedious or pretentious. Largely maligned in its day, an appreciation for ELO’s vision of the future would have to wait until, well, the future.

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