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The Story Behind The Song: 50 years of Electric Light Orchestra's '10538 overture'

In many ways, Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra picked up where The Beatles left off. In fact, this was precisely what Lynn and his bandmates had intended. From 1970 onwards, ELO carried the torch of British pop experimentalism, earning the praise of the masses, the critics, and many of their idols, including John Lennon himself, who once described the outfit as the “sons of The Beatles.”

It all began with ‘10538 Overture’, the first song ELO recorded and released as a group in 1971. The single was originally written for Lynne’s group, The Move but quickly expanded beyond the band’s usual sonic parameters. As Roy Wood explained during an interview with the New Musical Express in 1971, “We started recording a Move album, and Jeff had this song that was meant to be for the Move, but in the meantime, I’d developed an interest in the cello and one day when Bev went home on the train from a recording session Jeff, and I had a bit of spare time, so we tried it with the cello. I ended up putting six cellos on it… I was playing cello more aggressive, like a guitar. That was 18 months ago.”

During that session, Wood layered his cello part six separate times, creating the warm, orchestral backing that would come to characterise ELO’s subsequent records. “We listened to it, and that was the birth of the ELO sound,” Wood began, later commenting that the reason he liked the song so much was that you could tell the cello parts were being played “not as a cellist but as a rock guitarist.” The overall effect is one of rusted orchestral bliss. Thanks to ELO’s use of Harrisonesque descending chord progressions, ‘10538 Overture’ sounds as though it could have been plucked from the darker corners of Magical Mystery Tour or Sgt. Pepper’s.

‘10538 Overture’ evokes The Beatles’ more avant-garde works on a lyrical level, too, with ELO sharing John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s taste for faintly unhinged characters: As Bev Beven told Trouser Press in 1976, “The original idea [of the title for ‘10538 Overture’] was taken from a neighbour that Jeff’s parents had. He was a bit lacking in the brains department. He was a really weird guy—he thought that he could fly. You’d hear crashes from next door—he’d taken off from the ceiling or something. He used to walk around the streets with this weird dome cap on and a propeller on his head. He used to have letters and numbers written across his forehead, and Jeff got the idea from that. It flowed nicely.”

According to Bevan, it was those numbers that inspired the title of ‘10538 Overture. However, Roy Wood would later cast doubt over Bevan’s claims. During an interview with BBC World Service, Roy Wood revealed: “There was a number on the mixing desk, ‘10538’, it was in Phonogram studios. And we… ‘Oh, that would do!’ We used the number off the desk. ” The likelihood is that both Bevan and Wood’s versions of events have a kernel of truth to them. Bevan himself would later recall that Jeff couldn’t remember the exact series of numbers the deranged neighbour used to write on his forehead, forcing the band to pluck the sequence from the mixing desk.

‘10538 Overture’ was initially released only in the UK. After doing well in the UK charts and garnering ELO much praise from critics, the single was given its US release a few months later. On hearing the single, someone from the band’s American Record label phoned up to find out the name of the upcoming album. Nobody picked up the phone, so the label employee wrote down ‘No Answer’ on the paperwork, a phrase which was accidentally used as the name of the album in the US for a time. For Bev Bevan, ‘Overture’ was one of the best songs ELO ever wrote and certainly the best song of their first album. It gave the band their first hit, establishing them as guardians of a flickering flame left to burn unaccompanied in The Beatles’ absence. Today it sounds as fresh as ever.