A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me enough joy to deserve a write-up, I’ll do it on the spot.
The Song: “Here Is The News”
from the 1981 album Time by the Electric Light Orchestra
peaked at #24 on the UK Singles Chart
A confession: “Here Is The News” is not my favourite Electric Light Orchestra song. It is not even my favourite song from its parent album — that position belongs to the opener “Twilight”, possibly one of the most perfect marriages of strings and upbeat rock music that I’ve ever listened to. (I admit, I know very little about pop music, but listen to it and you’ll find that “Twilight” is a song that demands twelve repetitions in fifty minutes.) And yet “Twilight”’s brilliance is self-explanatory and still celebrated whenever ELO is discussed. “Here Is The News”, on the other hand, is a song that has been almost completely forgotten and passed over when people talk about deep cuts on supposedly “underappreciated” ELO albums — and so I’m writing about this instead.
Why? Three words: “theatre”, “melancholia” and “chaos”.
It’s quite apparent from its placing on the album. It’s the middle song on side 2, which means that people will have already gone through the triple consecutive punches of “Twilight” and “Yours Truly 2095” and “Ticket to the Moon” before even arriving on this side of the LP. They will be so shagged out that they will have been lulled into sleep by the time “Here Is The News” comes on, sandwiched between two equally boring tunes. Yet if perchance you are lucky enough to be woken up by the futuristic opening of the song, you at once discover something odd. Why do these first notes sound so familiar and yet so strange at the same time? It’s that synthesized news jingle that at once catches your attention and throws you off at the same time: something that we’d find in everyday life, echoing back at us as it fades into the distance… and what’s this? The Greenwich pips? Surely an automated time-telling device couldn’t be part of a song?
The thing about Jeff Lynne, though, is that he loves turning every single tune into lushly produced melodies. (You don’t get to be the producer of the Beatles, Roy Orbison, Brian Wilson without having an ear for music.) So even while you wonder at the possible meaning of these mundane things, the synths roll on, multiply in number, and then the song really gets going, hammering out a steady rocking riff. If by now you haven’t sat up to listen, now really, shame on you.
The words are also as mundane as can possibly be, or at least nothing out of the ordinary: “here is the news/ Coming to you every hour on the hour”. Then it gets slightly weird: “here is the news/ The weather’s fine but there may be a meteor shower”. Ah, but in this album you’re in the middle of a dream state, somehow voyaging into 2095, remember? Weirdness is to be expected. In fact, you’re probably a little caught out by how similar your 2095 looks like the world of today. The news we hear, all basically our kind of stuff: “a cure’s been found for good old rocket lag”? Switch out “rocket” for “jet” and you’ve got something that wouldn’t look out of place in today’s news. No time to ponder about all of that though, here come more news, as yet another synth rolls in to tell us the latest developments of our most enlightened era. And another. And another.
And yet. Something seems wrong. You’re so busy enjoying yourself in the flow of the melody, you might not notice the unsettling feeling that’s creeping up on you. It’s a beautiful riff that Jeff Lynne’s created, and his voice is hauntingly mellifluous… but if you’d paid a little more attention, you might notice that almost all the news are depressing. “Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag,” is still about somebody committing suicide, even if it’s written in a way that simply sweeps you along and doesn’t make you think twice.
But let’s say you’ve missed these lyrical details, let’s say you’re simply enjoying the song. You can’t help but marvel at how professional it all sounds: no newscast has ever been so lovely on the ear, if only all news were performed to a rocking beat and an easily recognizable riff. (Actually, there’s a TV station in the Netherlands who think the same: they’ve introduced all their news programme with this song since 1988, but I digress.) And here come the news from other places, here come the sound of you blasting off to discover more on your own. You’re whizzing through layers of news: all coming to you from across the airwaves — left or right? You can’t tell. Come to think of it, you can’t even hear what some of them are saying, they’re just throwing all the news at you. (If you’re somehow shameless enough to check out a lyrics website while listening to the song, you’ll inevitably find that they, too, are either depressing or depressingly mundane. So much for the excitement of the future.) And so the cacophony builds and builds, and all the while the falsetto, impassive repetition of “here is the news”, “HERE IS THE NEWS”, continues to churn with news that just keeps on going relentlessly, until you no longer know which way to turn. It’s almost as if you’re slowly but surely being boxed in by walls of sound — and if you thought it’d be a fun thing to experience, here is the news: you are now confused. Unable to find a way out.
Then suddenly everything dies away — the voices, the sound effects, the synths. Then a single synth line: “here is the news”, again. But this time, there’s only one crash on the drums that echoes and dies into the night. And in that instant you are transported out of wherever you’re sitting, and into a wide plain where there is nobody else. Only you, an almost empty sky, and the echoing, harmonically perfect sound of Jeff Lynne purring in your ear, as he suddenly returns to his regular, unmanipulated voice, and utters your deepest desire, something that you didn’t even know you wanted until now:
“I wanna go home. I want my baby back.”
It’s not so much a hand as it is a coup de grace. Jeff Lynne’s voice here isn’t just astonishingly normal — now, for the first time, we’re recognizing our own pent-up emotion in that voice. It’s not even an explosion, a desperate cry for freedom: but that honest voice and sentence speaks for all of us. For yes, we hadn’t realized how lonely we were until he spelt it out. We felt this vague unease at being besieged by all the news of the world and all the problems of daily life here in 2095, but now we realize we are UNHAPPY, too, because of how all maddeningly familiar it is. All the stuff that’s happening around us? Simply too, too much. We want out of this mind-numbingly depressive state of mind, we want to go back to our own time, whenever we came from. We came to 2095 in search of a better future: here we discover that everything has remained the same.
And then the final theatrical flair. Things suddenly return to normal — this is a song, after all, you’re not seriously getting melancholic over this? — and then a final piece of news. “Somebody has broken out of Satellite Two… look very carefully, it may be you”. The “you” refuses to die away: immediately you recognize that it is you who are the fugitive. You do not even have to be prompted to start running (in your mind, of course, this song isn’t that good). And so this song ends with you running away from — from what, exactly? The news? Or the time itself? This song provides many things, but it does not provide closure.
What is certain is that this is perfect drama. This is, of course, nothing new in pop music: practically any love song you can think of sets up a scene, telling (or rather, letting you imagine) a story. Nor is Jeff Lynne the perfect guy to sell you a bunch of feelings — great as I think the guy is, I can think of a dozen other songs with more soulful singing that him. But the thing that strikes you about this one is how different the scenario is. No longer is there a happy couple for you to focus on; nor do you have the luxury of raging against the world along with the singer. In this song, Jeff Lynne leaves you alone to face the agonizing news of the world and, at the point it most matters, at the point you are about to crack from all of the despair you recognize, rejoins you to break your heart with one devastatingly simple sentiment. And in that sense, it’s a drama through and through.
When we think of drama, we gauge its effectiveness with a lot of factors — believability is, of course, a huge one, but I’d argue that the rawness of the emotions is even more important. After all, when we go to the theatre or to the cinema, we look to have our heartstrings pulled, to feel sympathy/empathy with some of the characters we see onstage. And so it is with pop music: when discussing the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” in my previous piece, I mentioned the idea of pop being pure escapism, how the feelings we experience within it are basically what we wouldn’t get in real life. It might be the same here — where else are you going to experience travelling far into the future, only to be confronted with its news? And on that level, it succeeds.
Yet I feel there’s more. What makes “Here Is The News” special for me is in how you don’t even realize you’re part of the story at first. Most other songs go out of their way to make you empathize with them or make you the target — you know, the way “Paint It Black” makes you feel Mick Jagger’s depression or “Martha My Dear” makes you feel like the silly girl Paul McCartney’s talking to. In “Here Is The News”, however, you’re sitting down to watch a piece of the telly — heck, the MV for this song even spells it out for you — and all the time the song is going, you don’t even realize that you’re slowly being enveloped by the screen. It draws you in slowly, inexorably, not by telling you what you’re feeling, but by actually letting you feel. So when all is said and done, “Here Is The News” is not simply a deep cut on an ELO album — it’s an excellent piece of theatre, one that allows you to locate your melancholia amongst the detritus of everyday life, and then swiftly sends you spinning out into space, reeling from this new discovery of feeling.
(Cover copyrighted to Jet and Columbia Records — though surely, with a cover this astronomical, with the globe a drop of water, it surely belongs to all of us? :))