For those of you who listen to classic rock regularly, you will undoubtedly be familiar with the Electric Light Orchestra classic, Fire on High. This song has always stood out to me as unique when I get the pleasure of hearing it on the radio. The song is sectioned into two very distinct themes. The extremely ominous intro and the remainder of the song which plays like a high-octane instrumental theme song for an epic action sequence yet to be written. This has long since been my favorite radio song and always warrants a strong twist of the volume dial when the first few notes drift from the speakers.
This is a song in which could turn the right atmosphere into a very creepy and exciting environment. In fact this song has been used several times by amusement park rides for just such a purpose. (Including a length of time as the theme for the Gyrosphere ride at Seabreeze Amusement Park here in Rochester, NY.) When I was younger I was always a little put-off by the intro and thought it to be extremely out of place. I have since come to appreciate all aspects of the song, but still never truly understood the purpose for the stark contrast between the two sections of the song.
I heard the song on the radio this morning on my way to work and knew that today was the day to find out, what the reason for the tone and abstract murmurs at the beginning of my favorite song were all about. As it turns out, the intro of the song is what those in the biz call Backmasked. The song was composed and produced as the opening track of the 1975 album Face The Music, in the era of the turntable, and was encrypted with a hidden message that only revealed itself when the listener stopped the record and spun it in reverse with the needle in place. Unfortunately, I have not had the pleasure of this experience first hand, but I will make a note to browse through my parents old vinyl collection to find this track. But, we do have computers today which allow us to record and share our experience with others.
“The music is reversible, but time isn’t. Turn back. Turn Back. Turn Back. Turn Back.”
Artists often never explain fully their motivation behind great songs like this, opting instead to allow each listener to draw their own visceral conclusions. But my favorite interpretation I have come across was posted on the forums at Songfacts.
“I always interpreted this song as the soundtrack to the rebellion of Satan and his angels in Heaven. “Fire On High” would refer to Heaven be on fire from the terrible battle. The first part is the secret conspiracy and buildup to the revolt, then when the heavy guitars come in that is the beginning of the actual battle.” – Jeff, Boston, MA
I think I am attracted to this idea of the battle between Heaven and Hell partly because of a series of books I read when I was much younger. Two of Frank Peretti’s novels, (This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness,) focus on the literal battle between Heaven and Hell, raged on Earth between Angles and Demons. These books painted a vivid picture of what the appearance of this invisible, but ever-present, battle would look like for us humans. That aesthetic has stuck with me through the years as a powerful visual that reasserted itself with things like a powerful soundtrack combined with a theological interpretation of the instrumentals.
Whatever your beliefs, whatever your subjective interpretation, whatever your choice in music, I think we can all agree that ELO’s Fire on High is truly a great song.