Building a backing track – Mr. Blue Sky by E.L.O.

A bit of a long winded one this week. Sorry folks!

You may recall that, in my last post, I mentioned Songcrafters.org, a musicians’ forum I use to share my tunes and collaborate with other like minded people. Having hit a bit of a dry spell, writing wise, lately I’ve been concentrating on doing covers. Kenny, one of the guys on the site, suggested doing a Jeff Lynne tune or two & we settled on “Handle With Care” from the Travelling Wilburys’ album “Volume 1”. A nice little tune that took little more than an hour to knock together, so I suggested something a bit more challenging as a follow up, Mr. Blue Sky, from the ELO album “Out of the Blue”. This is a summary of how I got to grips with the backing.

To begin with, a quick listen to the song made me realise it would take weeks to transcribe properly, so I cheated and downloaded a midi file of it from the net. There are plenty of them out there, but beware! Free midi files make a good starting point for a song, but they’re rarely 100% correct. For example – whoever had programmed the drum part on the one I used obviously had no understanding of how may limbs a drummer has. They imagined that Bev Bevan (ELO’s drummer) could use both his hands to play a fill on the snare & toms whilst maintaining a ride cymbal rhythm at the same time (maybe he had a 3rd stick gripped between his teeth?). That, and some shocking timing errors meant that I junked the drum track part of the midi file and began again. The drums were done from scratch using Cakewalk Studio Instruments – the “Slight Beef” pre-set kit. A great all round acoustic drum kit VST.

The piano & string section parts weren’t too bad though, albeit with a little quantisation needed to bring everything in time. In the end this was pretty much all I used of the midi file, but it still saved me a lot of work, as Richard Tandy’s piano part (ELO’s keyboard maestro & the only original member alongside Jeff Lynne in the current line up) is quite “twiddly” and when you’re entering each note as a mouse click in the piano roll view of a DAW, it can get a bit laborious.

For the piano sound I used a free plug in VST I’ve made great use of in the past called “4Front Piano” – it has a really good honky-tonk sound that I love. You wouldn’t want to use it for a Chopin or Debussy tune, but for rock & pop it’s perfect. And the string section is once again Cakewalk Studio Instruments.

The bass line was (as ever) played on my cheap no-name bass bought off Ebay for less than £100. I always record this through my Vox Tonelab ST on a patch I cobbled together for it & add compression in the DAW to even out the sound a little. Guitar-wise I used my telecaster for the rhythm guitar parts, which I double tracked & panned left/right, and played what little lead there is on my Harley Benton Les Paul-alike. As usual, they were recorded through the Vox Tonelab with no FX other than the basic amp/cabinet models with reverb added in the final mixdown.

So, that’s the technology dealt with, how about looking at what’s happening in the tune…

First of all, what key to do it in… The original version is in F major, but Kenny asked if we could drop it a semitone. No problem. Here’s how it begins:

The intro is a piano playing an E major chord (now we’ve dropped the key a semitone), joined by the drums hitting a bass drum on each beat. Then the bass & guitar come in, again hitting the E major chord four-square on the beat.

The verse is the following chord progression:

|E / / / |E / / / |E / / / |D#m7 / G#7 / |

|C#m / / / |F# / / / |D#m / / / |G# / / / |

|A / / / |B11 / / / |E / / / |B11 / / / |

There’s a wealth of theory just in this section of the song if you look for it. Here are a couple of highlights: The D#m7 – G#7 – C#m sequence is a II V I progression straight from the world of jazz standards: you’ll find that kind of thing in tunes like Autumn Leaves and Georgia On My Mind. Then the B11 chord is simply an A major triad played over a B root note. Again quite jazzy, but you’ll also find a similar chord in Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town”.

Then we come to the first chorus. This is slightly reminiscent of the minor key descending bass part you can hear in The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” as it goes like this:

|C#m |C#m7/B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |A   |

Next we come to the solo, which is just the verse chord progression with an E major scale melody played over it. Then we’re into another verse followed by a chorus. This chorus deviates from the first one by the addition of a 3rd repeat without the chord sequence, which is replaced by a syncopated bass riff played against a ride cymbal hitting quarter notes. Working out this riff took me the best part of a day! I finally nailed it though and here it is:

Blue Sky Riff

After this chorus we come to the voice box/vocoder part – where the line “Mr. Blue Sky” sounds like it’s being sung by Metal Mickey (a kids TV show robot from the ’70s – if you’re interested in ELO, then you probably remember it, if not ask Mr. Google!). Not having the necessary piece of kit to replicate this, I did my best with the good old Vox Wah pedal. As an aside, Jeff Lynne could have just done this part over a verse chord sequence, but once again, he throws us a curve-ball. Here is what is going on chordally under this part:

|E Bm/E |E |E |D#m7 G#7aug |

|C#m (add9) |F# |D#m |G# G#7aug |

|Asus#4 A |B11 |E |B11 |

And to hear it “naked” click HERE.

Let’s not forget that this song was a chart hit from 1976 – not some obscure jazz fusion piece from side four of a Mahavishnu Orchestra double album! Proof, if ever it were needed, that musical sophistication and commercial success don’t have to be poles apart. Basically, in order to have a hit you DON’T always have to dumb down and chase the lowest common denominator… Are you listening, Mr. Cowell?

Anyway… on with the tune. After the talk box part, we’re back into a standard verse (albeit with a slightly different ending), where we introduce a choral ensemble ooh-ing and aah-ing their way through the chord progression. Not having a choir at my disposal, I grabbed another free plug in, DSK Synthtopia 2, which has a passable choir sound in it. I’ll be using this again for the full-on choral part towards the end of the song. After this verse we come to the final chorus which is kind of a mixture of the first two chorus parts – we have the descending, minor key bass line, followed by that syncopated bass riff.

Next, we’re into the choral part proper. The feel of the drums and bass on this now change radically & go into more of a swing feel, with the bass outlining the chord progression in a jazz style “walking” manner. Speaking of chord progressions, here’s what’s happening underneath the choir:

|C#m |B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |A |

|C#m |B |A |E/G# |

|F#m |E |D |D |

|A |A | (end on) E

The melody for this part wasn’t too difficult to figure out – once you know what the chords are, it’s a simple matter to logically figure out the right notes for the melody,and add some counterpoint. As well as the choir sound, I doubled this part up on the string section.

And finally… that BIG key change for the outro. This was missing completely from the midi file I began with, so I had to transcribe it & do the whole thing from scratch… hopefully I got somewhere near! It begins on a chugging C chord at 126 BMP (down from the 175 bpm of the rest of the song). We’ve also lost the shuffle feel from the rhythm and gone to a “straight eighth-note” feel. This section has a melody which makes good use to the augmented 4th interval to give an unsettling effect. Again, this melody was done on the piano with the string section & choir pitching in to help it build as it goes along. The big finale is based around slowing the tempo right down to 70-ish BPM over the following chord progression:

|D/A |A/C# |C9 |C9 |

with a simple F# A F# two note melody taking us most of the way to the end on a big D major chord with the string section playing a D major arpeggio in the bass providing a real sense of “safe landing” after all the twist & turns the song has thrown at us.

What a true genius Jeff Lynne is: he wrote this tune when he was in his mid 20s – every last complex part of it. At that age I was still bashing out “We Are The Road Crew” on power chords & could never have conceived this level of sophistication, let alone managed to write something of this calibre! And what an utterly fantastic band ELO continue to be – check out their new album, “Alone In The Universe”. Meanwhile, click HERE to listen to my version of Mr. Blue Sky. As soon as it gets some vocals, you’ll be the first to know.

Until then…

Have Fun!

John

UPDATE…. You can now hear the finished version on the Songcrafters website HERE

John Robson Guitar Tuition

John Robson… Guitarist

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