When Beethoven rolls over

ELO was a pioneer of mashup music, and its remaining members will show off what they can do when they mix classical and rock in Israel.

elo 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
elo 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In today's musical mashup world where any pairing is possible, the notion of mixing rock & roll and classical music sounds positively quaint. But there was a time when it was considered revolutionary - and the Neil Armstrong of the movement in the 1970s was the Electric Light Orchestra. The brainchild of Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood, bandmates in the 1960s band The Move, ELO was meant to, in Lynne's words, "go where 'I Am the Walrus' left off." He was referring to The Beatles creative transformation of string sections of violins and cellos into a chugging rhythm section that could sound as powerful as electric guitars. While Wood went out on his own, Lynne pursued his dream along with The Move's drummer Bev Bevan, and ELO became one of the most successful groups of the 1970s and '80s, with hits like "Mr. Blue Sky," "Don't Bring Me Down," "Sweet Talkin' Woman," and, of course, its signature song, "Roll Over Beethoven." "It was pretty crazy to attempt utilizing classical orchestra instruments with amplified rock instruments at shows," recalled Mik Kaminski, the band's electric violinist on its big hits in the 1970s. "It was very experimental and trial and error at the beginning until it settled down. Just amplifying the instruments was a difficult task - we used to have these 40-foot-long cables snaking around the stage, and sometimes there'd be horrible sounds coming out of the amps. It took a while to sort it out." The electrified shenanigans were a new adventure for Kaminski, now 58. His first professional performance took place when he was 14 with the Leeds Orchestra at the Leeds School of Music. "Originally, I learned classical violin, but then I fell in with some jazz players. But once I tried playing an electric violin and got a taste of that, I quickly joined the other side," he said in a phone conversation from his home in England. "I used to like this violinist that played with Frank Zappa - Don 'Sugarcane' Harris - and of course Jean Luc-Ponty. And there was this real jazzy player Michael White. They taught me what could be done on the electric violin." After playing with a few local bands in the early 1970s, Kaminski answered an ad for a vacant violin post in ELO that Lynne had placed in the Melody Maker music magazine. Legend has it that Lynne hired him on the spot because he got through the audition without making a mistake. "Well, if that is true, I've definitely made up for it since then," laughed Kaminski, who's continued playing ELO music since the original group disbanded in the late 1980s, first with ELO Part II, and now with The Orchestra. His current band will be playing two shows here this weekend - Friday night at the Shoni Fortress in Binyamina and Saturday night at the Ra'anana Amphitheater. FOR THE young Kaminski, joining ELO was like a quantum leap in both his professional and personal life. "The whole ELO experience was a bit of a whirlwind. When I joined the band, I had never been out of England, or even on a plane. The next week, I'm flying to tour the United States. It's quite a head trip," he said. "We used to do three-month tours, come back for a week or so to catch our breath, and then go back out again. It was quite a change from playing the occasional pub in London. It was a whole new world for me." As Lynne experimented with the band's sound and lineup during the 1980s, Kaminski only occasionally played on the band's records, but he was a visual and musical mainstay on stage. When, near the end of the decade, Lynne decided to disband the group and concentrate on producing other artists and playing in The Traveling Wilburys with famous friends George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, his former bandmates, including Kaminski and Bevan, were intent on keeping ELO music's alive. As expected, lawyers became involved, resulting in the convoluted name change to ELO Part II. And when Bevan retired at the end of the 1990s, another evolutionary change took place when the remaining members crowned themselves The Orchestra. "We've had many legal discussions, to say the least. Jeff has the rights to the name ELO, so we settled on The Orchestra," said Kaminski. "But I think that the continuity is still there, even without Jeff or Bev. People are amazed at how close to the original sound on the records we manage to achieve." One of the reasons for that success was Kelly Groucutt, the band's longtime bass player and singer who died earlier this year of a heart attack at 63. Kaminski admitted that it was a reeling personal blow, and it left a gaping hole in the band. "It was such a shock to us, nothing sank in for a while. But we knew Kelly would have wanted us to carry on - his big love was music and performing. He wouldn't have been happy with the idea of us stopping," said Kaminski. Last month he organized a tribute concert in England in honor of Groucutt to raise funds for an exotic bird sanctuary, the bass player's chief passion aside from music. "It was a fantastic night, even his children performed with us," said Kaminski. "The proceeds went to the National Parrot Sanctuary Trust because Kelly loved parrots; they were all over his house. When you called him at home, you'd think you were talking to a zoo." With Groucutt replaced in The Orchestra, the band is back to full strength as it begins its summer touring schedule with its shows this weekend in Israel. To further emphasize the symphonic connection to the music, the group will be wowing its fans with a special surprise, Kaminski disclosed. "We'll be playing with members of the Ra'anana Symphonette Orchestra for our shows in Israel," he said. "We'll have some live rehearsal time on the day of the first show. But I know they have the music and have been going over it." Better tell Tchaikovsky the news.