- 12 Dec 19
The re-emergence of the Jeff Lynne-led Electric Light Orchestra has given any sane pop fan cause to rejoice. He talks about his latest record From Out Of Nowhere, as well as reflecting on a glittering career that's included producing The Beatles and playing in supergroup The Travelling Wilburys.
While in this day and age we might throw the sobriquet of 'legend' at any 'hero' that makes it back from the bar without spilling the round, Jeff Lynne - the mastermind behind the Electric Light Orchestra, with sales in excess of 50 million records, and more whistleable hits than you could shake a milkman at - surely warrants it. If the point of pop music is to lift the spirits and allow a smile, then he's one of its masters. But don't ask me, let's check with an expert. "Songwriter, singer, drummer, guitarist - you know, he can do it all," is Paul McCartney's opinion on the man in the dark glasses. Indeed, it was Lynne The Beatles called when they needed help, but more of that later.
Lynne's From Out Of Nowhere, released under the heading Jeff Lynne's ELO, to differentiate himself from other versions of the orchestra, is another collection of pop perfection, complete with that patented Lynne sound and requisite UFO on the front. When Hot Press puts it to him that this slab of classic ELO could have come out any time in the last 45 odd years, he takes it as the compliment it's meant as.
"That's great, thank you very much," says Lynne, down the phone from his LA home. "It's got the sort of sounds I've always made, and the old guitar sound on it I used to like in those days, so you're probably right. I wanted to do a more up-tempo album, more optimistic, just more fun, I suppose."
Fun is what it appears Lynne has been having over the last few years, since his return to live work which started - after a successful couple of songs at the Children In Need event - with a Hyde Park appearance in 2014, for which 50,000 tickets were sold in about 15 minutes. 'Time Of Our Life' from the new record expresses Lynne's surprise that so many people want to see him, but he can't have been that taken aback, surely?
"It's true, I'm always shocked when there's a vast number of people, because it was a long time ago. But we've a great group now, a 13-piece, all wonderful musicians. It's the best group I've ever had or been with, and that's made a big difference. I really enjoy playing with these guys. It's so much fun, it's tight as anything, but it's also got a free feel to it."
Despite all these musicians, Lynne still insists on doing the studio work himself.
"I love to play all those instruments," he nods. "It's the most fun there is I think, making an arrangement and then playing it."
And he gets to do it all in the comfort of his own home.
"Yeah, I've got lots of rooms in my house. I've got a control room and there's about five other rooms that I use that are wired up for sound, so I can get a lot of variance in the sounds. It's not like just being in one studio room where it tends to all sound the same."
Short commute too?
"Ha! It's a nice roll out of bed, have a cup of tea and there you are, in the studio!"
This live renaissance has influenced the album, in that Lynne went looking for material that might work better in front of an audience.
"I always felt like, 'Aww I need some more up-tempo stuff', because it's hard. I mean, we always used to go down fantastically well because we saved a few up-tempo ones for later in the show, but I just fancied a bit more guitar."
The music of ELO could never be accused of over-simplification, and advances in technology have allowed Lynne to deliver it as it was intended.
"Oh yeah, it's much easier, you've got enough people in the group to preform it as it should be - we have six harmony vocalists, so I can have always have my three-part harmony in a song, which I could never do in the old days. It's just perfect, because everyone can cover everything."
There was a tour around the time of Zoom (2001) which didn't pan out, and Lynne puts it down to the tech not being quite there yet.
"The way I record, I like to use lots of tracks for various things," he explains. "There wasn't really the technology we've got now and the great keyboards we've got. It just wasn't the right time, Pro Tools wasn't that good at that point. It's all now come together at the same time - I want to do it and the stuff is there to use, and I've got it!"
ELO originally called it a day back in 1986 after the inessential Balance Of Power album. Lynne had had enough.
"I was fed up with the group at that time," he explains. "I just wanted to disband it and be a producer, and not play live gigs. I was lucky enough to start with George Harrison. Then it was Tom Petty, then the Travelling Wilburys, and then Brian Wilson. You know, amazing people. I'd produce them and we'd have great big hits! Platinum albums! I had a marvellous time, and there was no gigs to go with it. You didn't actually have to go on the road and I just loved making records with great people - and The Beatles!"
Ah yes, The Beatles. John Lennon once called ELO "son of Beatles", which he meant as a good thing. Lynne first worked with his pal George Harrison on 1987's smash hit comeback Cloud Nine. When the remaining Fabs decided to record some new music for the massive Anthology project in the mid-'90s, they needed a producer after George Martin had to decline the invitation due to hearing problems. Harrison fought to get Lynne involved, to work up a very basic demo recorded by John at the piano of a song called 'Free As A Bird'. It must have been some experience for a Beatles maniac like Lynne.
"Oh yeah, it was ridiculous," he says, laughing at the memory. "It was the most nerve-racking thing to start with, because it was called 'The Beatles' and all we had was John on a cassette - just his voice and piano in mono, which you couldn't separate. So I had to build a great big Beatles track to go with it. It had to be kind of impressive or it would be less than we were used to. I had to manufacture all that with those three playing it, and then I had to somehow fit in John, which was very difficult. It was a long process that took me a couple of days to get right. I actually did it around two in the morning, 'cause I didn't want to look like an idiot if I didn't get it right.
"But anyway, it sounded good and was in time - the demo was out of time, because when you're writing a song, you're just trying to get notes down. To get it in time, I had to do a mathematical equation for all the different phrases and each phrase would be like say three or four words, so I put it into a sampler and flew them into the track, and then left it like that. Paul came in the next day and said, 'Well done, Jeff! You done it!' and he gave me a big hug, so I was thrilled."
Paul McCartney is listening back to something you've done with John Lennon. Surely you're thinking, "What am I going to do if he doesn't like it?"
"That was part of the thinking, it was like bliss at some point and..."
"Fear at the other!"
While artists like The Beatles and Brian Wilson - "he was one of my favourites, along with The Beatles. It was a real pleasure and he let me sing a couple of harmonies" - might look like an obvious fit for Lynne, working with Bob Dylan in late '80s superstar busman's holiday, The Travelling Wilburys, appears less so.
"The thing is I'd been working with George for a couple of months, and he said, 'D'you know what? Me and you should have a group.' I said, 'What? That's good. Yeah, I'm in! Who should we have in it?' And he said 'Bob Dylan'. Of course, I'm half laughing, but then I realise he's serious. So I said, 'Can we have Roy Orbison as well?' He said 'Yeah, we'll have Roy', 'cause they used to tour together and we both loved Tom Petty. So we said, let's have him. And of course when it's George Harrison that's doing it, it was 'Do you want to join our group?' and the answer was 'Yes'. We did the first album in 10 days, 10 songs in ten days, so that was pretty amazing - the rough tracks, not the finished product."
Alongside the massive success of Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988), Lynne also worked on Roy Orbison's fantastic Mystery Girl. There are some songs on the new record one could imagine Orbison tackling.
"He could have a go at anything, he had the greatest voice ever," says Lynne, with obvious affection. "I think I produced three songs on Mystery Girl, and I co-wrote 'You Got It' with Roy and Tom, which was his first hit for like 20 years. Roy was thrilled out of his mind, and then there was a phone call early in the morning. 'Mr. Orbison is dead.' They hung up before I could get a chance to find out more, and I thought it was bullshit, you know. It was like six in the morning that call came so I stayed awake listening to the radio, and sure enough they announced Roy Orbison had died in Tennessee. That was the saddest thing I can remember, but what a wonderful time we had when we recorded together. He was such a lovely guy."
Of all those huge production successes, is it possible for Lynne to point at one as a favourite?
"The trouble is that there's bits of all of them that I love equally, but I think Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever as a whole album," he reckons. "I have more fun listening to that. There's so many really good songs, the harmonies are really good, and I love Tom's voice. I think that's probably my favourite, but Cloud Nine is right there with it."
While we're at it, what is ELO's best record?
"From Out Of Nowhere!" Lynne says with a hearty laugh.
Of course it is, but is there an ELO record that deserves more attention than it received? Lynne responds quickly.
"A very early one called On The Third Day, I think that's probably one of my favourites. I like the simplicity of it, it was before I started using the big 30-piece orchestra. It was just two cellos and violin. The songs are good, they're interesting, and they were short which I really like. They don't go on for hours, 'cause in those days bands used to play for ages - one song would last for 20 minutes. I didn't ever like that kind of stuff, really. I prefer the quick pop song, you know, in and out. If it's a good tune, that's the most satisfying thing. It doesn't drag on and on, you can just get it over with."
What would he say to people who might accuse you of being a perfectionist (as if that was a bad thing)?
"I've been accused of it many, many times. I don't mind that, because it means I'm trying as hard as I can."
Going back to our first question; has he ever been tempted to stray from his trademark everything including the kitchen sink sound?
"What I've done, I've done for a reason," Lynne concludes. "It's just how I feel about it at the time. Some albums have got some pretty wacky things on them; sometimes I do stray off the track and go a bit strange. I've got some strange ones I don't talk about! But no, I don't like that unplugged thing. I don't want that sound, because to me, that's like a folk singer just singing with his guitar. I like to have an orchestra - that's why it's called ELO!"
You can read the interview with Jeff Lynne in the Hot Press Annual – in which we distill the highlights and low-points of the year, across 132 vital, beautifully designed pages. Starring heroes of the year Fontaines D.C. on the front we cover Music, Culture, Sport, Film, Politics, the Environment and much, much more.