Rock Flashback: ELO and the Spaceship

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jeff lynne Rock Flashback: ELO and the Spaceship

Jeff Lynne, 2005. I wouldn't ask about the tapes if I were you. (Getty Images/Kevin Winter)

The date was August 16, 1978, just a couple of weeks before my freshman year in college was to begin, and the [lastfm link_type="artist_info"]Electric Light Orchestra[/lastfm] was coming to town. My friends and I had bought our tickets earlier in the summer, and while none of us acknowledged it at the time, it looked like it would be our last hurrah together before we went off to different colleges.

ELO was touring on the album Out of the Blue that summer, and they were on the road with one of the most elaborate stages anybody ever mounted — a giant spaceship that opened up to reveal the band inside. The American leg of the tour had begun in Omaha, Nebraska on June 30, but not every venue got the spaceship. If you saw ELO that summer in Birmingham, Roanoke, or Dayton, you saw ELO on a regular stage — the venues in those cities weren’t big enough to handle the spaceship.

The spaceship looked pretty cool. It was not cool to play in, apparently — it got so hot that the band’s instruments would sometimes go out of tune. The band’s solution to that problem led to trouble.  Promoters of their Detroit shows sued the band, claiming that the whole thing had been a “sham and a hoax,” and that ELO had merely pantomimed along with tapes for two nights. The group acknowledged that some of what the audience heard had been on tape, but only parts that couldn’t be performed live; they also admitted that taped versions of the songs were kept running while the band played, and if somebody’s instrument went out of tune, the taped part could be substituted.

We didn’t hear any of that from our seats at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin, on that August night. In fact, we couldn’t hear anything. ELO’s sound was mixed so loud that we couldn’t identify the songs, only figuring out what we were hearing if, by chance, the song contained a soft part. I left the arena that night as disappointed with a show as I would ever be.

As it turned out, that show wasn’t the last hurrah for my high-school buds and me, but the tour was the last stand for the original, seven-member edition of ELO. The string players left the band after that, leaving ELO a more conventional four-piece rock band.

Here’s ELO on the Out of the Blue tour at Wembley Stadium in London. It’ll give you a look at the spaceship stage. They’re performing “Roll Over Beethoven.” First time I’ve heard it.

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