Written by Paul Tingen
Mr. Blue Sky is inarguably one of the most instantly recognizable songs of all time. It is also the most upbeat song ever released. A cognitive neuroscientist has delivered a scientific foundation for Mr. Blue Sky being the world’s number one feel-good song, and a survey not long afterwards proved the point, when Mr. Blue Sky was voted the “happiest song of all time.”
The sunny nature of the song is the most likely reason why Mr. Blue Sky has become such an intrinsic part of popular culture. It also makes it rather odd that the song was not immediately recognized as a masterpiece when it was first released forty-five years ago, in 1977.
Instead, for the first 25 years after its first release, Mr. Blue Sky was seen as simply one of many hits written by Jeff Lynne and performed by the Electric Light Orchestra.
Exactly when Mr. Blue Sky made the dramatic shift from slightly obscure seventies hit to culturally significant, all-time classic is not entirely clear, but its use in a 2002 Volkswagen commercial is often regarded as a turning point.
Since then the songs has featured in movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), The Magic Roundabout (2005), The Game Plan (2007), Martian Child (2007), The Invention of Lying (2009), Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009), Megamind (2010) and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). The song has also been used in TV series like The Office and Dr Who.
In addition, “Mr. Blue Sky” was played during the awards ceremony of the 2011 Football League Cup Final, the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the closing ceremony of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and used for the promotion for the 2022 Commonwealth Games. Naturally, Mr. Blue Sky has been covered by many acts, including in 2021 by The Muppets’ house band, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
All this means that liking Mr. Blue Sky is no longer a guilty secret, and the Electric Light Orchestra itself has been rehabilitated, from decades of being regarded as the epitome of uncool to becoming one of the most beloved acts on the planet.
In this blog we look at the history of the Electric Light Orchestra and Jeff Lynne, how they made Mr. Blue Sky, and we analyze what makes the song great, and why it makes people feel so good.
The Electric Light Orchestra was founded in 1970 in Birmingham, England, by singers and guitarists Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne who were both part of a band called The Move. Inspired by the way The Beatles incorporated orchestral instruments in their music, the two started the Electric Light Orchestra.
The Electric Light Orchestra’s first, self-titled album was released in 1971, and the lead single, “10538 Overture,” was a top ten hit in the UK, and pushed the album to number 32. The Electric Light Orchestra soon found itself at the heart of a musical movement called symphonic rock, which was very popular in the UK, and a precursor to prog rock.
In 1972, the band took to the stage with two cellists and a violinist, which became their most common line-up and part of their trademark sound. In the same year, the Electric Light Orchestra spent several months recording its second album at Air Studios in London. Wood left halfway, leaving Lynne as the de facto band leader.
The album, called ELO 2, was released in March 1973. It was only moderately successful, but yielded a single, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” that was again a top 10 in the UK, and a minor hit in the US.
The songs were shorter and the song writing was sharper on ELO’s third studio album, On The Third Day, recorded at De Lane Lea Studios and AIR Studios in London. It was released at the end of 1973, and its lead single “Showdown” continued the band’s upward momentum.
The Electric Light Orchestra enjoyed its American breakthrough with its fourth album. Recorded at De Lane Lea, and released in 1974, Eldorado marked the first time Lynne fully realised his vision of orchestral, Beatles-influenced rock. The song “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head,” became a top 10 hit in the US, and as a result, Eldorado became the band’s first US gold record. Strangely, it did little in the UK.
ELO’s fifth studio album, Face The Music (1975), was recorded at Giorgio Moroder’s Musicland Studio in Munich, with Reinhold Mack engineering, and included “Evil Woman,” which became a big hit in the UK and the US, as well as “Strange Magic,” which reached to number 14 in the US.
Just like its predecessor, the album did little in the UK, but went gold in the US. ELO had by now also built a reputation as an impressive live act, making use of the latest advances in PA amplification and piezo pickups, so the cellos and violin could be heard. The band was called, “the world’s first touring rock ‘n roll chamber group.”
ELO’s big international breakthrough came with their sixth album, A New World Record, which is widely regarded as a masterpiece and the band’s magnum opus. Again recorded at Musicland by Reinhold Mack, and released in 1976, it reached the top 10 in many countries, including the UK and the US, and it went platinum in both countries. Hit singles from the album included “Living’ Thing,” “Rockaria,” “Do Yah,” and “Telephone Line.”
With ELO enjoying great success, the plan was to make the follow-up a double album. In the spring of 1977, a chalet was booked for four weeks in a small town called Bassins, just north of Lake Geneva, where Lynne planned to write the songs. However, he suffered writers’ block, in part induced by consistent bad weather.
Legend goes that one day Lynne woke up to a clear blue sky, and hey presto, Mr. Blue Sky was born, and the slightly nonsensical lyrics explained.
Lynne’s writing struggles are hinted at by the rather uninviting original working title for Mr. Blue Sky, which was “Thou Shalt Not No. 7.” even with his writers’ block lifted, Lynne only wrote the verses for Mr. Blue Sky in the Swiss chalet. The rest of the song was written during the actual recording sessions for the album at Musicland Studios in Munich, in Germany.
The Out of the Blue sessions took place from May to August and were again engineered by German engineer Reinhold Mack, with Lynne producing, as was customary with ELO since the band’s second album.
Out Of The Blue pioneered the use of the vocoder. Lynne later said that he was inspired by the vocal sound in Sparky’s Magic Piano, a 1950s children series of audio stories, which was created using a Sonovox, an early version of the talk box.
During the recordings for Out Of The Blue, Lynne learned that a prototype of the Vocoder 2000 synths had just been built in Stuttgart, a three-hour drive away, so they brought it to Munich. In addition, drummer Bev Bevan played the famous fire extinguisher on the song, providing its now iconic sound.
Out Of The Blue was released in October 1977, as was the album’s lead single and opener, “Turn The Stone.” The seventeen-track double album continued the upwards momentum of previous albums, going to number 4 and platinum in both the UK and the US, and being extremely successful in many other countries. “Mr. Blue Sky” was released as a single in January 1978, reaching to number 6 in the UK and number 35 in the US.
The Electric Light Orchestra continued its upwards curve with its next album, Discovery (1979), which turned out to be its most commercially successful. It contains the band’s biggest hit, “Don’t Bring Me Down.”
Lynne and ELO also provided one half for the soundtrack for the movie Xanadu, which was released in 1980. The album, went to number one in many countries, and the title song, with singer Olivia Newton-John as a guest performer, became a massive world-wide hit.
Another ELO album followed, Time (1981), which was another UK number one, but by the mid-eighties the momentum was lost, and band members started to leave. After two more moderately successful albums, Secret Messages (1983), and Balance of Power (1986), ELO disbanded completely.
Jeff Lynne went on to work as a producer, in 1987 producing George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, and the two musicians then formed the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup that also included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, and that recorded two albums. Following this, Lynne produced solo albums by Orbison and Tom Petty. Lynne also released his first solo album, Armchair Theatre, in 1990.
In 1994, Lynne produced two new songs by The Beatles, which were based on demos recorded by John Lennon: “Free As A Bird,” and “Real Love.” Following this, Lynne contributed, as a producer, musician and/or songwriter to solo albums by Ringo Star and Paul McCartney, as well as Roger McGuin, Joe Cocker, Aerosmith, Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler, Joe Walsh, and others.
Lynne revived the Electric Light Orchestra name at the turn of the century for an album called Zoom (2001), on which he played all instruments, apart from guest performances by former ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and a few others.
Lynne continued his one-man-band adventures by re-recording a collection of Electric Light Orchestra classics almost entirely by himself. The title of the resulting album, Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra (2012), acknowledged the enormous popularity of the song in the 21st century.
Presumably spurred on by the continuing rehabilitation of ELO, Lynne released two more albums under the banner Jeff Lynne’s ELO: Alone In The Universe (2015) and From Out Of Nowhere (2019). The latter went to number one in the UK.
As part of this rehabilitation, Jeff Lynne’s ELO performed at the Grammy Awards in 2015, with Ed Sheeran, and the band was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017. Artists like The Flaming Lips and Super Furry Animals acknowledged them as influences, and some people draw a direct line from ELO to Daft Punk.
The changed perception of the Electric Light Orchestra in this century is in part most likely simply a sign of the times, as many critically derided acts from the seventies and eighties are now highly regarded.
But it also clearly is do some degree due to the astonishing rebirth of Mr. Blue Sky, from half-forgotten seventies hit to one of the most popular classic songs of all time, and one of the most-streamed and downloaded songs of the 1970s.
Earlier we mentioned some of the events that may have led to the song’s rebirth, for example its use in a 2002 Volkwagen ad, but the question remains what it is about the song itself that is so compelling, and induces such euphoric feelings that it was voted the happiest song of all time in a survey in 2019.
A Dutch cognitive neuroscientist, Dr Jolij, explained his analysis of feel-good music as follows: “I look at tempo, lyric and key. I apply a formula to music that can predict the effect the song will have on your mood. Music is intimately linked with memory and emotion, and these associations strongly determine whether a song will put you in a good mood or not. A high tempo of 150 beats per minute also subconsciously triggers a sense of energy. Combine these three ingredients together and you have the formula for the perfect feel-good song.”
At 180bpm, the tempo of Mr. Blue Sky is faster than the ideal of 150, but it’s easy to see that both the tempo and four-to-the-floor rhythm of Mr. Blue Sky are invigorating and happy hormone-inducing, as is the sound of the struck fire extinguisher. The sound introduces several parts of the songs, and in general works like a rallying call.
However, while Mr. Blue Sky does indeed start in F major, the chorus in particular has a distinct minor feel. In addition, there are many other factors that contribute to the euphoria-inducing effect of the song.
In particular, there are a number of dramatic juxtapositions. First of all between the simple, optimistic, child-like lyrics and the minor feel of most of the harmony. There’s also the fact that the song is repetitive and in some respects very simple, but at the same time extremely complex and unpredictable, in its structure and its production, and in the constant variations of the melodies.
Above all, the full-on soaring, ever-changing melodies appeal straight to the heart, and are reinforced by the staccato, four-to-the-floor rhythm. The harmony of the song sometimes uses a B instead of a Bb, with chords like G and Em, leading one harmonic analysis to suggest that the song is in D harmonic dorian, which is a minor mode.
The repetition element of Mr. Blue Sky is not only apparent in the four-to-the-floor beat that anchors the song, but also in the fact that the original 1977 version has an amazing four verses and seven choruses. However, new melodic elements and variations are introduced with almost each new verse and chorus, with melody lines that tend to be higher than preceding ones, heightening tension.
This is particularly the case in the chorus variation at 1:56, which is repeated immediately afterward but with variations in the backing track. The chorus itself is a marvel of inventiveness, with various vocal melodies coming and out in call-and-response patterns, making it difficult to establish one main melody. Yet instead of being confusing, it dazzles and hooks the listener.
The guitar solo is introduced surprisingly early, at 1:11, after the first block of two choruses, and throughout the song the arrangement becomes more and more complex with strings and choirs gradually introduced. At 2:19 this build-up is interrupted, and listeners can take a breath while listening to Tandy singing the song’s title on a vocoder. The relative lull sets up a final verse and two choruses, with yet more variations.
At, 3:13, there’s the introduction of yet another, completely different melody, with classical overtones, sung wordlessly by a choir, and repeated once. A BBC review from 2015 described it memorably as “the Swingle Singers/RKO Tarzan movie/Rachmaninoff symphonic finale. Kitsch, yet truly exhilarating.”
At 3:32, the rhythm slows down, and the last one and a half minute of the original version of Mr. Blue Sky is taken up by a completely unrelated piece of music. It’s part of the Concerto for a Rainy Day, a four-track suite that takes up the whole of side three of the original vinyl version Out of the Blue.
Mr. Blue Sky is the last song of the suite, and culminates in keyboardist Richard Tandy singing “Please turn me over,” through the Vocoder 2000, to encourage listeners to, well, turn over the vinyl record to continue listening.
Jeff Lynne’s aforementioned 2012 remake of the song leaves out the 5th chorus, and the entire Concerto for a Rainy Day end section, which cuts the length of the song from 5:03 to 3:42. Lynne explained that it didn’t make sense to include the end because it is musically unrelated and “part of a suite when I originally did it.”
Lynne used all the production skills he had accumulated over the years for the remake, and playing and singing everything himself, apart from Rosie Vela on backing vocals, Marc Mann on strings, and engineer Steve Ray playing shakers and tambourine.
Another ten years later the reputation and popularity of Mr. Blue Sky continues to grow. One reviewed called it a “miniature pop symphony,” and in this respect there are similarities with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
It undoubtedly is the combination of the amazingly strong melodies, excellent arrangements, a great production, and the general complexity of the record that means that listeners want to hear Mr. Blue Sky again, and again, and, well, again.
C 2022 Paul Tingen