Transcript 116–Mr. Blue Sky

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and sometimes it’s almost like I know what I’m doing.

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[PR/PSA]

Here’s a neat bit of trivia for ye today: during the body of the show we’re going to talk about an unusual musical instrument that’s mistaken for something else, and that got me to thinking about another song that has an instrument that’s kind of hard to identify. Listen to this clip; it’s from Walter Egan’s 1977 hit “Magnet and Steel”. Now, I’ve equalized the clip to emphasize the higher frequencies, so it might sound a little odd, but I also wanted to make it a little easier for you to hear the instrument. Listen for the “tink-tink-tink, tink-tink-tink” sound here:

[MAGNET & STEEL CLIP]

Got that? That’s the instrument I want you to identify. Let me give it to you one more time:

[MAGNET & STEEL CLIP]

I know what I thought it was, and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. So what instrument is that? I’ll have that answer to that question near the end of the show.

I’ve seen in several places—including a quotation from John Lennon—that the Electric Light Orchestra is what the Beatles would have sounded like if they’d kept going in the 1970s. And I tend to agree with that assessment, even if Jeff Lynne kinda put his foot on the scale a little bit when he worked on the Anthology singles in the mid-90s. BUT—this comparison takes on extra weight because “Mr. Blue Sky”, the song we’re looking at today, was in particular compared to a bunch of different Beatles tracks after it was released.

Let me tell you something: when this double album, Out of the Blue, was released in 1977, it created a bit of a sensation with the advance sales, and the TV ad—yes, kids, sometimes record labels aired commercials for new albums—showing the ELO spaceship for the first time, and I got a copy as a birthday gift in early 1978, by which time there had been three singles from the album released, so this was clearly a big deal by then. And I think I listened to that album for a few months, solid. And despite that, there are a few things I didn’t catch, but I’ll get to those shortly.

Before we talk about “Mister Blue Sky,” we need to talk about that entire side of the album. Side Three of Out of the Blue was essentially a rock and roll suite of songs called Concerto for a Rainy Day. And while all of the songs are connected to one another, they were recorded and mastered as four separate tracks on the album. Each track addresses the weather and how it’s going to affect your mood. The first two tracks, “Standin’ in the Rain” and “Big Wheels,” both take place in rainstorms, but by the third track, “Summer and Lightning,” it looks like the sky is about to clear and finally we get to “Mister Blue Sky,” where the sun finally breaks through and everything is wonderful again. And similarly, the tone of the songs goes from somber to bright and peppy. Jeff Lynne explained that he wrote most of Out of the Blue, and the Concerto for a Rainy Day, while he was holed up in a Swiss chalet, looking for something to follow up A New World Record, ELO’s previous album. He told the BBC, “It was dark and misty for two weeks, and I didn’t come up with a thing. Suddenly the sun shone and it was, ‘Wow, look at those beautiful Alps.’ I wrote ‘Mr Blue Sky’ and 13 other songs in the next two weeks.”

[STANDIN’ IN THE RAIN]

But it’s not just the weather theme that’s tying stuff together. If you listen in on the beginning of “Standin’ in the Rain”—and you ARE—the first thing you hear when the song starts in earnest is a crash of thunder, but it’s not thunder you’re hearing in this case. In fact, it’s keyboardist Richard Tandy announcing the Concerto for a Rainy Day through a Ring Modulator…

…“What’s a Ring Modulator?” I hear you asking, and I’m glad you did. A Ring Modulator is a signal processor that takes the input of a signal, usually a guitar or a synthesizer, and uses that input to modify a carrier signal that can’t be heard. The two tones together create a kind of metallic, robotic sound. The frequency of the carrier determines what that final output is going to sound like. So for instance, if you took this sound:

[RM1]

And ran it through a Ring Modulator set to 2.5 Kilohertz, it comes out like this:

[RM2]

Nowadays ring modulation is actually built into synthesizers. Anyway, they took Tandy’s voice, popped it through a Ring Modulator and got that. That said, some of the thunder and rain noises were, in fact, recorded by Jeff Lynne from just outside that chalet in Munich.

[BIG WHEELS SEGUE]

Likewise, at the end of “Standin’ in the Rain,” we hear Tandy again through the Ring Modulator, setting us up for the next track by reciting some of its lyrics…

He’s saying, “The big wheels, keep turning, they turn forever and ever.” And with almost no break in between we’re into the next track, “Big Wheels.”

Now, “Big Wheels” ends again with Tandy saying “Big Wheels” through the Ring Modulator, and again it’s a very tight jump to “Summer and Lightning.” The songs are lightening in tone.

[MR BLUE SKY]

Now, “Summer and Lightning” doesn’t have any modulated voices, but it does pretty much segue into “Mister Blue Sky”, as it fades out, leaving behind the sound of static, which then gives way to a piano and a radio announcer, both with the lows equalized out to sound kind of tinny.

The announcer tells us it’s going to be a sunny day, and suddenly we’re back into full fidelity sound and we’re carried along, down this bouncy, happy road…

[after first verse]

So as I mentioned earlier, “Mr. Blue Sky” as a track was directly compared to the Beatles. In fact, it was compared to SEVERAL different Beatles tracks, including the general happiness of “Martha My Dear”, the complexity of “A Day in the Life,” the hypnotic effects of “I Am The Walrus”, the bass line of “Hello Goodbye.” I’ve even seen a VERY academic analysis of the song’s harmonics, comparing the first four chords and harmonic rhythm with “Yesterday.” Seriously, it’s insane how deep this document goes, and I have to admit that because I’m no musicologist, I barely understood half of it.

Now, electronic voices come back to the Concerto, but this time it’s a regular vocoder that Richard Tandy is using. In the bridge of the song. Tandy sings “Mister Blue Sky” three different ways, but I also need to call your attention to the other thing going on there, and throughout the record really. You may notice a cowbell sound being used to emphasize the transitions through each segment of the record, but that’s not a cowbell.

Believe it or not, that’s Bev Bevan banging on the side of a fire extinguisher with his drumstick, and if you watch videos of the band in action, you might catch him banging on an honest to goodness fire extinguisher.  

And once again, one of the things that really struck me about the song is something that struck another reviewer. Dominic King from the BBC noted that what he called the “musical ambush” at two minutes and 51 seconds is just thrilling.

Listen in as Jeff Lynne sings the words “I’ll remember you this way” and there’s absolutely ZERO pause between that and the last iteration of the chorus…

…I just love that. And the other thing that King and I both liked is the last segment, which he described as a Swingle Singers/RKO Tarzan Movie/Rachmaninoff symphonic finale. King describes it as “Kitsch, yet truly exhilarating”…

The song was the second single from Out of the Blue, and while it was a Top Ten single in the UK, it only made it to Number 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart here in the US. In fact, when I got the album in February of 1978, I wondered when this was going to be released as a single. Turns out it already had come and gone, and it just didn’t get much airplay in my part of the country. But the song met a similar chart fate in Canada, Ireland, and Germany, and it only peaked at Number 87 in Australia.

In 2012 Jeff Lynne went back into his home studio and re-recorded this, and a bunch of other ELO tracks, which was the source material for the album Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. But this part of the song is missing from that album, and likewise nearly all of the “orchestra” part of Electric Light Orchestra is missing, with a credit for “string arrangements” made to Marc Mann. The fact is, Out of the Blue is pretty much the last time Jeff Lynne used Mik Kaminski, Hugh McDowell and Melvyn Gale to record the string parts, though they do appear in some subsequent videos. Even since the reformation of ELO in 2014, the orchestral end of things remains sadly lacking.

Oh, and the electronic voice comes back here at the end of the song, when we hear Richard Tandy closing out side three of the album.

Most people hear that as a heavily distorted “Mister Blue Sky” but in fact he’s saying “please turn me over.” Remember, this was in the heyday of vinyl records, and so he’s telling you it’s time to flip the record over so you can listen to Side Four. So let’s do that: flip the record over and drop the needle on Side Four so I can finish out this thing:

[SWEET IS THE NIGHT]

OK, so what’s left? The song has been covered a few times. In 1998 it was a band called Nerf Herder, which gave it a little bit of a punky edge, in 2014 a teenager named Connie Talbot, who got her fame from the Britain’s Got Talent TV show, recorded it on her album, and Weezer released their cover in 2019. They’re all pretty faithful to the original, though none of them appeared to think that the fire extinguisher was necessary.

And, of course, the song has been used in a bunch of TV shows, including as the theme to a short-lived NBC series called L A X., plus it’s appeared in about a dozen films, perhaps most famously in the opening credits of the 2017 film Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where a dancing Baby Groot works his way through a huge alien battle.

And weirdly, it’s played before the start of every Birmingham City Football Club match. Now that team’s nickname is the Birmingham Blues. And it’s weird because Jeff Lynne, who is a big fan of the team, wrote a song on the same album that was meant to be homage, called “Birmingham Blues.” So why “Mr. Blue Sky”? Possibly because the fans connect the song to former player-turned-Manager Trevor Francis, who is supposed to be a friend of Jeff Lynne.

And finally: in 2018, researcher Jacob Jolij did some research. He studied over 100 songs from the past 50 years, plus he surveyed over 2000 people. And through his research he determined that “Mister Blue Sky” is the world’s happiest song. This is something we’re going to revisit in a future show, methinks.

And now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about the instrument that Walter Egan uses in the chorus of “Magnet and Steel.” Let’s hear the clip once more without all the equalization:

[MAGNET AND STEEL CLIP 2]

Did you guess glockenspiel? That’s what I thought it was for a long time, but in fact what we have there is Steve Hague playing a toy piano. Specifically, he’s playing a very professionally made piano built by a company called Schoenhut, which specializes in pro-grade toy musical instruments built for children. I couldn’t discover which model he used, but Schoenhut pianos run anywhere from about $100 to $300. They’ve been in the business for nearly 150 years and have never had a safety violation in their entire history, making Schoenhut one of the safest toy makers ever. Oh, and while it’s Steve Hague playing that piano, Walter Egan says that the idea of using it came from co-producer and backup singer Lindsey Buckingham.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when The Kinks invite us to Come Dancing.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you next time.