Thoughts on Electric Light Orchestra’s “Twilight”

I. “I Have A Message From Another Time”

When I was a kid listening to my sister’s record collection with her, I went through a phase where I always requested “Twilight” by Electric Light Orchestra; she had the 45 rpm single, not the 1981 LP Time that it opened. The song is preceded by a short prologue, also included on the single, a hymn-like instrumental over which a robotic voice intones a portentous introduction: “Just on the border of your waking mind/ There lies another time/ Where darkness and light are one/ And as you tread the halls of sanity /You feel so glad to be/ Unable to go beyond.” The music builds like a dam about to burst, swelling in intensity; echoes of laughter and spacey sound effects can be heard layered in (this transition was my favorite part of the record, and I think the sense of expectancy it created was what attracted me to it). After that build-up, “Twilight” proper opens with a soaring, horncall-like synth line and a bombastic drum intro, and then the chugging symphonic rock that is an ELO trademark explodes into action.

The lyrics of “Twilight” (sung by composer/frontman Jeff Lynne sans vocoder) tell the story of a man beguiled by visions and phantasms, caught in the liminal space between night and day: “Am I awake or do I dream/ the strangest pictures I have seen/ night and day and twilight’s gone away.” The chorus continues the theme of being captivated, unable to separate dream from reality: “Twilight/I only meant to stay a while/Twilight/ I gave you time to steal my mind away from me.” But while the words beg for release, the music speaks only of rapture: if this is really a dream, who would want to wake up?

No resource is off the table for Lynne as he demonstrates his studio wizardry: the disco rhythms of earlier ELO productions are replaced by a more contemporary-sounding rock beat, but the strings are still there; Lynne multi-tracks his own voice, the chromatic harmonies and countermelodies building on the legacies of the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees; there’s a burbling background pulse reminiscent of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and a Gershwinesque piano solo; it even builds up to a dramatic major-to-minor shift echoing the introduction from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, aka the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like I said, Lynne doesn’t hold back when he wants to go big.

I don’t know that I would usually list ELO or Jeff Lynne as musical artists who influenced me, but revisiting this song and album makes me think that perhaps I should. I’ve always enjoyed the maximalism of Lynne’s production work as he out-Wall of Sounds Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, bringing their meticulous sense of construction into the disco era and beyond. It’s often cheesy, like selections from a Las Vegas buffet piled too high on a small plate, but I’ve come too far to deny my love for that kind of excess, and at his best Lynne combines his operatic inclinations with a perfectionism that keeps his ideas focused and the various layers clear: under the (sometimes literal) bells and whistles are the most addictive musical hooks he can come up with.

Perhaps even more formative than “Twilight” for me was “Video,” Lynne’s contribution (as a solo artist) to the soundtrack for the 1984 film Electric Dreams. Within the film, “Video” is a poppy love song written by a sentient home computer to impress its owner’s musician neighbor. The computer, tasked with writing an original song, turns on the TV for inspiration, listening to and rejecting several commercial jingles (“too simple . . . too long . . . “) before hitting on “Get that Pepsi Spirit!” and deciding it’s perfect. “Now: backwards,” the computer says, and the reversed sound of the jingle segues into Lynne’s song over a montage of the main character’s first date with his new girlfriend. I was about ten when I saw this film for the first time, old enough to know that computers didn’t work that way, but the song and the scene in the movie still fascinated me. “Now: backwards” is still a useful strategy for getting started.

Later, when I started using computer sequencers for real, I indulged in the usual tricks of playing back florid Switched-on-Bach-style compositions at inhuman tempos; you can bet that I had that Pepsi Spirit. A friend said that I must have been the kid who watched things on fast forward and reverse when I first got a VCR, grooving on the sense of speed, which, yeah, I probably did that, too. But I guess I was as fascinated by technology as Lynne obviously was: he was having fun with this one, channeling Thomas Dolby or the Buggles in addition to his own pop inclinations. “Self-parody” can be hard to identify: sometimes giving free rein to one’s impulses is more authentic than staying cool; it’s “good taste” that is the performance. Full of more samples and sound effects than a morning DJ’s soundboard, “Video” represents the craftsmanship of ELO brought to bear on something as trite as a commercial jingle: but after years of songs and albums on a symphonic scale, Lynne still knew the value of the “silly love songs” that had always been the backbone of pop music and the primary-color emotions that drove them.

II. “I see Daicon’s making its rounds again in everyone’s recommendation feed XD” –YouTube comment

Speaking of letting it all hang out, I hadn’t given “Twilight” much thought at all for years, and had kind of forgotten about it, until I was recently introduced to the short film that preceded Daicon IV, a Japanese sci-fi/anime convention that took place in 1983. One of several fan-made animations that welcomed con attendees at the time, Daicon IV is the mash-up to end all mash-ups. It was put together by a team of artists, including Hideaki Anno, who would go on to form Gainax, an anime powerhouse that put its stamp on the medium (and raised standards across the industry) in such works as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Two years previously, their Daicon III film had depicted a young girl given a task by some friendly visitors from outer space: carry a glass of water while fighting her way past some of pop culture’s most famous monsters and robots, who try to stop her. Although unassuming in appearance, the girl has a few tricks up her sleeve, including a ruler that doubles as a sword and a backpack that hides a jetpack and missile battery. Along the way, recognizable icons like Godzilla and the starship Enterprise blow up. When she reaches her goal, she finds a daikon radish withering in a drought-stricken field. Yes, the whole thing turns on a pun. After she pours the glass of water on it, the revived daikon turns into a giant daikon-shaped spaceship, and she is beamed aboard to be its captain; the ship departs for the stars.

Daicon IV begins with a short recap of the first film’s events, remade with even better quality animation. The screen goes black after the daikon ship has flown away. Then as a flowing starfield fades in, the notes of ELO’s “Prologue” start up. The lyrics appear on the screen over a superimposed silhouette of the daikon ship. At the transition to “Twilight,” the young girl from Daicon III, now grown up, reappears as a sexy young woman in a Playboy bunny costume (why? well, why not?): she has returned to continue the fight, or to take it to whole new worlds. Again, Bunny Girl (as she is usually referred to) battles a range of popular villains and monsters from Japan and the West, ranging from kaiju to Darth Vader, while yet more characters from manga, anime, science fiction, and American superhero comics look on or make cameo appearances.

The fluidity and beauty of the animation and the range and density of references are incredible, and setting the whole thing to ELO’s song gives it a dramatic sweep greater than Daicon III’s similar outline. It functions as a music video for the song and takes advantage of “Twilight”’s sense of tension and release to play with the audience in a similar manner. The action on screen shifts from hand-to-hand combat to Bunny Girl riding a flying sword into an aerial dogfight, and finally the sword divides itself and strikes multiple targets like the air-to-air missiles seen in Daicon III. During a dramatic pause in the song before the final chorus push, the fighting gives way to a supernatural transformation: an explosion, seemingly the nuclear detonation that would be the culmination of all the destruction from before, turns into a whirlwind of cherry blossoms that sweep away the old order, blowing away the cities of the modern world and even emerging from the ground, prying loose the pavement and highways choking the earth and raising mountains in their place; the daikon ship fires a beam that signals a renewal of the natural world, with whole forests springing up instantly; seen from above, the surface of the brown earth is covered by new growth; finally, we zoom out to a glimpse of the entire solar system, which turns into the Daicon IV logo (perhaps suggested by the musical reference to 2001—whatever, it fits together perfectly). Whew!

Daicon IV is a complete sugar rush: “Twilight” already lays it on thick, and the animators pushed themselves to create the visual equivalent (note that their use of the song, like their appropriation of pre-existing characters and visuals, was totally unauthorized: although they sold copies of the film on laserdisc—leading to its appearance on YouTube and elsewhere—it has never been “officially” released due to the legal complexities of “sampling” so many properties). The effect, particularly if you’re already a fan, is the same emotional reaction we get from crossovers—all your favorites, together for the first time!—amped up to kaleidoscopic levels. Looking back at the effervescent Beatles medley that made Stars on 45 a hit in 1981, Tom Breihan points out that “It mashes the ‘Oh shit, I love this song!’ button like a toddler playing Nintendo. . . . The point is to tickle whatever part of your brain holds affection for those songs, and then to keep tickling it. The point is the recognition.” One could certainly say the same thing is happening in Daicon IV. Now, I’m unabashedly a fan of medleys and mash-ups—see the name of this blog, for one example—and there’s no doubt that Daicon and similar projects play with fans’ affection and nostalgia, but I don’t recognize half of the references in them, and the effect still comes through for me. One could argue that the rapid-fire montage is itself stimulating: just the highlights, all killer, no filler. Familiarity with the characters adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not strictly necessary. (Note how the introductory sequences for so many anime series and Western cartoons employ the same quick-cutting devices to get the audience hyped up for what’s to come.)

I wish I had known about the Daicon films before I wrote about Ready Player One: jam-packed with visual references married to a surging pop anthem, they represent exactly the kind of “fangasm” RPO is going for, and were probably an influence on Ernest Cline while writing it. Shots from Daicon IV were iconic enough to be paid homage in subsequent anime, some of which I had seen without realizing the original source. (Another YouTube video I watched, explaining the film’s origins and influence, cites the shot of Bunny Girl flexing her muscles after overthrowing a giant Gundam mech as particularly iconic: “There it is: the first Gainax bounce,” he says as Bunny Girl’s chest jiggles. I didn’t really need that phrase to be stuck in my head, thanks.) Weirdly, I had already seen Otaku no Video (“Fan’s Video”), the fictionalized story of Gainax’s origins, but not having seen the original I didn’t quite put together how foundational Daicon IV was. Rewatching it, Otaku no Video turns out to be full of references that would have been obvious to anyone familiar with the original fan film, and even stops to include a clip of the cherry blossom sequence so the animator’s in-film stand-in can point out how amazing it is!

Both Ready Player One and Otaku no Video depict victories for fandom. RPO is meatheadedly optimistic about the prospect; Otaku no Video is more cynical, parodying moral watchdogs’ concerns about the wasted lives and near-criminal deviancy of the otaku, and bitterly aware of how business conflicts can poison the wells of art and fellowship. Ultimately, it has more insight into the current, often toxic state of modern fandom. But it, too, acknowledges that fandom is a force that can change lives for the better. For the youthful artists who created Daicon IV, those struggles lay in the future, and part of the film’s exuberance is its hopefulness, and yes, naivete. Daicon IV’s sequence of destruction and renewal (a theme present in watering the daikon in Daicon III, but now spread to the entire world) suggests that being a fan is bigger than just following your favorite series and characters: it is transformational, a way to imagine and access a better world by uniting across fandoms and harnessing their combined creativity and enthusiasm.

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