Electric Light Orchestra's 15 greatest songs ever, ranked

13 October 2023, 11:39 | Updated: 5 April 2024, 18:50

Electric Light Orchestra wanted to "pick up where the Beatles left off..." and from there Jeff Lynne took the group to global acclaim.
Electric Light Orchestra wanted to "pick up where the Beatles left off..." and from there Jeff Lynne took the group to global acclaim. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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There's genuinely no other band quite like Electric Light Orchestra.

It's difficult to pinpoint Jeff Lynne's brainchild, given they roamed through various musical territories.

You can feel the beat of disco thumpers, the outlandish space-age iconography, the orchestral arrangements of triumphant classical pieces, and the gentle, intricate harmonies that were directly influenced by The Beatles.

Formed in 1970 with Roy Wood - who left in 1972 to pursue Wizzard - that was in fact the original intention with Electric Light Orchestra, to "pick up where the Beatles left off..."

After Wood's departure, ELO was solely Lynne's vision, who arranged and produced all of their output, and wrote the majority of the group's songs too.

That was until 1986, when he decided to call it quits and pursue other ventures which included the Traveling Wilburys.

But throughout that period, Electric Light Orchestra were a constant in the charts, scoring a total of 27 top 40 songs in the UK, and 15 top 20 songs in the US.

50 million records sold and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction later, they're widely regarded as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.

That said, here are the greatest 15 Electric Light Orchestra songs, ranked in order from top to bottom.

  1. 'Calling America'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Calling America | Official Video, Remastered

    'Calling America' was Jeff Lynne's final foray into the top 20 of the US charts - which featured on the final album before ELO disbanded, with Lynne finding the project increasingly tiresome.

    Despite that, the track contained all the hallmarks that made ELO the masters of pop rock.

    Paying homage to The Tornados' 1962 instrumental chart-topper 'Telstar', 'Calling America' is very much seen as a follow-up record.

  2. 'The Diary Of Horace Wimp'

    ELO - The Diary Of Horace Wimp - Top Of The Pops 26 Jul 79

    Released as the second single from 1979 album Discovery - the band's first UK number one album - 'The Diary Of Horace Wimp' was a top ten chart hit itself.

    Lynne said it's "a song about a lucky lad who somehow defies the odds and gets the girl", despite being too shy and continuously tardy as "the football match is played on a Saturday".

    With shades of Citizen Kane in the music video, Lynne mirrors Orson Welles uttering "rosebud" right at the end by saying "Horace Wimp" in a close-up.

  3. 'Telephone Line'

    Jeff Lynne's ELO - Telephone Line (Live at Wembley Stadium)

    Regarded by critics as "the best Lennon-McCartney collaboration that never was", ELO's 'Telephone Line' was the band's biggest hit in the US after its 1977 release.

    Featuring on 1976 album A New World Record, the song describes a man hopefully waiting for a girl to call him on his telephone, and imagines the possibilities of how their conversation will pan out.

    As ELO's stateside success was on the upward curve, Lynne consciously used an American ring-tone at the beginning for added appeal.

    He explained: "we phoned from England to America to a number that we know nobody would be at, to just listen to it for a while. On the Moog, we recreated the sound exactly by tuning the oscillators to the same notes as the ringing of the phone."

  4. 'Last Train To London'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Last Train to London (Official Video)

    Written about "a certain period when it seemed we spent years on trains going back and forth from Birmingham to the various TV and radio stations in London", 'Last Train To London' was a UK top ten hit for the band in 1979.

    The fifth single to be released from their epic Discovery album - as a double A-side with 'Confusion' - it didn't quite fare as well in the US.

    With its funk rhythm sounding suspiciously similar to Heatwave's 1977 floor-filler 'Boogie Nights', it's certainly one of ELO's biggest hip-shakers.

  5. 'All Over the World'

    All Over The World Jeff Lynne's ELO Live with Rosie Langley and Amy Langley, Glastonbury 2016

    Celebrating the gift of life, 'All Over The World' was also celebrated by critics and fans on both sides of the Atlantic.

    It nonsensically featured in the 1980 fantasy musical Xanadu, which wasn't at all celebrated and was in fact a major box office flop.

    Despite the association, 'All Over The World' still managed to reach No.11 in the UK charts and No.13 on the US Billboard charts.

  6. 'Xanadu' (with Olivia Newton-John)

    Olivia Newton John Xanadu Original Version Remastered HD (1980)

    The lead track from the eponymous flop musical featured none other than Olivia Newton-John, the film's central star.

    Her presence combined with Jeff Lynne's operatic disco instrumentation was enough to propel 'Xanadu' to the top of the UK charts in the UK and around Europe in 1980, and the top ten in the US.

    Many die-hard fans of the band felt this was the beginning of the end for ELO however.

    Venturing deeper into disco they initially became more successful, though diminishing returns resulted in their demise only six years later.

  7. 'Turn To Stone'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Turn To Stone (Official Video)

    Though the opening song to 1977 album Out Of The Blue, 'Turn To Stone', was the only single not to reach the top ten of the UK charts after its release, the song has since become one of ELO's most played.

    In 2008, Jeff Lynne was awarded a BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) Million-Air certificate for having one million airplays.

    Due to its highly complex and layered recording, the band had to rely on tapes to reproduce the same sound in concert, an indicator of Lynne's mastery in the studio and on the stage.

  8. 'Sweet Talkin' Woman'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Sweet Talkin' Woman (Live)

    ELO were one of the first notable bands to make use of the vocoder, a vocal synthesising instrument, and 'Sweet Talkin' Woman' put it to good use.

    It started life as a song called 'Dead End Street' however, but Lynne thought it was too morose so re-wrote the lyrics, some of which made the final cut such as "I've been livin' on a dead end street" in the third verse.

    "I'd done all the words and everything, finished it," Lynne later recalled. "And I came down the next day in the studio and I went, 'I hate that. Let's rub all the vocals off.'"

    Probably a decision he can stand by, given that 'Sweet Talkin' Woman' was a top ten hit in the UK and a top 20 hit in the US.

  9. 'Showdown'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Showdown (Live)

    Jeff Lynne wrote 1973 single 'Showdown' in the front room of his parent's house when he was still dreaming of being a major musician.

    So when his idol John Lennon offered his endorsement of the song, it sent chills up Lynne's spine.

    In 1974 Lennon said: "'Showdown' I thought was a great record and I was expecting it to be number one but I don't think UA [United Artists] got their fingers out and pushed it."

    "And it's a nice group - I call them 'Son of Beatles' - although they're doing things we never did, obviously. But I remember a statement they made when they first formed was to carry on from where the Beatles left off with 'Walrus' and they certainly did."

  10. 'Shine A Little Love'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Shine a Little Love (Official Video)

    One of the band's most commercially successful singles, 'Shine A Little Love' showcased Lynne's perfect alchemy of Beatles-esque pop rock harmony that was laden with disco appeal.

    "A bit of a disco beat on this one, and quite a lot of things going on, forty-piece string section and all," he explained in a later interview.

    "It's very jolly and bouncy and I must have been in a very good mood when I wrote it!"

    It put anybody listening to it in a good mood too evidently, as it reached No. 6 in the UK charts and No. 8 on the US Billboard charts in 1979.

  11. 'Strange Magic'

    Strange Magic - ELO | The Midnight Special

    'Strange Magic' is arguably the most George Harrison-esque track that Jeff Lynne ever penned, slightly serendipitous that they'd later become friends then bandmates when forming the Traveling Wilburys.

    Featuring on ELO's fifth studio album Face The Music, Lynne had brightened up their orchestral sound which saw them creep further up the pop charts as the decade played out.

    The twinkling ballad blends an array of trippy melodies with intricate instrumentation - 'Strange Magic' is an apt description for its composition in many ways.

    Considered to be the most psychedelic song in their repertoire, it's also one of their greatest.

  12. 'Don't Bring Me Down'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Don't Bring Me Down (Official Video)

    The first ELO single that didn't feature a string section, 'Don't Bring Me Down' is an undeniable adrenaline-inducing, fist-pumper of a rock song that was their biggest hit on both sides of the pond, if you don't include their Olivia Newton-John collaboration.

    Though, the lyrics have remained a mystery for years now, with Lynne singing "groose" after the main line of the chorus, but what does it mean?

    Apparently, it was just a place-keeper word that Lynne liked the sound of when improvising, so kept it in. It's as simple as that.

    Fans misinterpreted it frequently as "Bruce" however, so he'd fool them by singing it live instead.

  13. 'Livin' Thing'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Livin' Thing (Official Video)

    Another classic that took ELO "higher and higher" into chart success, 'Livin' Thing' reached No.4 in the UK and No.13 in the US after its 1976 release.

    Often mistaken as an anti-abortion anthem, Lynne revealed the song's meaning was slightly more mundane - it was inspired by a bout of food poisoning.

    "You'll never be able to listen to it the same again," he said. "I wouldn't want anyone to think it's about a bad paella on a Spanish holiday."

    Fun fact: Patti Quatro (the sister of Suzi Quatro) was an uncredited contributor to the song's backing vocals.

  14. 'Evil Woman'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Evil Woman • TopPop

    Every single musical part of 'Evil Woman' is instantly memorable - the bouldering drum fill, the silky rhythm, and the wriggly lead guitar during the chorus.

    That's likely why in 1975, it became Electric Light Orchestra's first bonafide worldwide hit, reaching the top ten in both the US and the UK.

    It's since regarded as one of their essential songs, and has been sampled countless times over the years.

    'Evil Woman' follows in the footsteps of rock mythology too:

    Jeff Lynne supposedly borrowed the three-chord structure from the finale of Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway To Heaven' and elaborated on it, and paid tribute to The Beatles' 'Fixing A Hole' with the lyric: "There's a hole in my head where the rain comes in".

  15. 'Mr. Blue Sky'

    Electric Light Orchestra - Mr. Blue Sky (Official Video)

    Yep, you guessed it. 'Mr. Blue Sky' comes in at number one. What else could it be?

    One of Jeff Lynne's most uncomplicated songs was also his most successful, later explaining: "It's the thought of, 'Oh, isn't it nice when the sun comes out?' And you know, it really is. 'The sky is blue, wow, what a thing.' It's a simple kid's story."

    He also admitted that it was the song that crystallised everything he loved about the band and wanted to transmit to people listening.

    "It captured what my vision of ELO was all about," he said. "All the bits that come in and out, the backing vocals, the cellos sliding, all the little naughty bits, the sound effects, everything is exactly what I imagined ELO to be."

    'Mr. Blue Sky' still does precisely that to this day, reaching No.6 in the UK charts upon its 1978 release, and since becoming their signature song.