Surely you have seen pictures of Jeff Lynne. As the leader of the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), there was a period of time when his face adorned publications as varied as Rolling Stone, Melody Maker, Time, Newsweek, and even People. With his curly halo of dark hair, neatly trimmed beard, trademark aviator shades, and his ever present Les Paul guitar, Lynne was the epitome of rock and roll cool. After reading the interview published in Classic Rock Magazine (by Bob Hughes – January 2020), I have another adjective to add to this list: fanboy. This is not meant to be a negative description of Lynne. We have previously discussed the whole ‘marketing a rock star (or band) by honing a certain image’ schtick. The bottom line here? The images created by record companies to market (read: sell) a band and their music don’t always give the public a true sense of who the musicians really are. The image creation algorithm used to market Jeff Lynne and ELO certainly portrayed the band as ‘rock star cool,’ but it was a thin glossy coat of paint that told us little about the men underneath. As we shall see, Lynne’s fingerprints can be found on a variety of major music projects spanning the last five decades, but he has never let it go to his head. He is just as much a music fanboy as the ‘punters’ (British slang for ‘everyday Joes’) who crowd the stage front at every rock concert.
A Brummie by birth (more Brit slang for those who hail from Birmingham, UK), his father bought him his first guitar for two pounds. Lynne played it until his fingers bled. He progressed enough to convince his dad to sign the papers for him to buy an electric Burns Sonic guitar and a ten-watt amp. His parents were not overly encouraging about his prospects. His dad leaned toward classical composers but he himself could not write or read music. Even after he had a few hit records under his belt, Jeff’s mom kept trying to convince him to get a proper job. Once he bought his parents a new house, they began to see that he had indeed found a paying job.
As a teen, Lynne had tried his hand at a few different occupations. Looking back, he now refers to them as, “Lot’s of [other] silly jobs, some of them very nice, some of them grim.” He recalled one such job as a window dresser in a department store: “I was only fifteen or sixteen. You had to put these dusters on your feet and go into the window at C&A in Birmingham. I was thinking: ‘What if one of my mates comes past?’ I lasted until noon, then I snuck out the back way. I never went back.” When Lynne got a call from singer/drummer Roger Spencer of The Nightriders to audition, he passed the test. At the age of eighteen, he began his real calling: professional musician. The Nightriders soon changed their name to The Idle Race and pictures of Lynne at that time show him to be a clean shaven, mop-topped young man typical of bands from that era. Asked by Hughes what ambitions for stardom the Idle Race had, Lynne replied: “I probably would’ve been happy enough just playing club gigs in Birmingham. There were so many of them you could play a month straight without repeating yourself. You’d play every night of the week and, for a couple of years, every night of the year. It was a great experience and a great way to learn. Then I started writing my own stuff and just developed from there.”
Lynne next joined The Move, a band he described as, “…not as famous as they used to be when I joined. It was okay, but we didn’t really do anything good or play anywhere other than little clubs. We joined to make ELO.” The ‘we’ here refers to Jeff and Roy Wood. The two of them had a vision that sounds today like the foundation of what would become the Electric Light Orchestra. It was difficult because amplifying the stringed instruments involved microphones and not pick-ups like those used for guitar and bass. This gave live performances an uneven balance and it took some time to get things right. In less than a year, Woods left because he didn’t feel like it was working. Left to his own devices, Lynn set up a small studio in his parents front room and it was in that space that he would record ELO demos to send off to the record companies. Lynne remembers, “It was right by the bus route, so I used to get these giant buses rumbling through my demos.”
The turning point for ELO came with the success of Evil Woman and Strange Magic (both from the 1975 album Face The Music). These two songs brought enough acclaim for ELO to begin touring in America. Lynne describes their first touring adventures across the pond after putting together a newer version of the band: “We seemed like such a strange group for an American audience, with two cellos, a violin, Mellotron, and a bit of French horn. It was just an odd sound.”
“The first tour was supporting Deep Purple, which you wouldn’t think would be a good match, but we went down great. So we started touring America on our own and it just gradually built up from there. I think the biggest one was in Cleveland in front of about sixty thousand people.” The hits kept coming from 1976’s A New World Record and their next album Out of the Blue. One could not escape ELO on radio or television, yet by 1986, Lynne felt it was time to wrap up the band. “I just wanted to start producing other people. I started with George [Harrison], then I ended up producing Paul [McCartney] and after that the two Anthology Beatles tracks, which were John’s [Lennon’s] two singles,” Lynne said. He got to meet Harrison when he worked with him on George’s Cloud Nine album in 1987. They took a short get acquainted holiday to Australia, found they had a similar sense of humor and became fast friends: “When we got back, the whole of England was frozen solid. George and I started to make these tracks, and I co-wrote a few with him [including When We Was Fab]. It was just fabulous fun.”
The sessions went so well, Harrison remarked, “Y’know what? Me and you should have a group.” Lynne asked who else should be in the group and in an amazingly short period of time, the band that would be called ‘The Traveling Wilburys’ came to be. “George said, ‘Bob Dylan’ and I said, ‘Right, can we have Roy Orbison, then?’ George said, ‘Of course. I know Roy.’ All we had to do was ask and they all wanted to be in it.” The fifth member of The Traveling Wilburys ended up being Tom Petty. Lynne’s relationship with Petty churned out more incredible music that formed the basis of TP’s solo career.
Lynne found himself working with other people he looked up to as a young musician like Ringo, Del Shannon, Brian Wilson, and Duane Eddy. Jeff says, “I just couldn’t believe that these people [I’d looked up to] were now my mates.” Orbison had recently moved to Malibu, fairly close to where Lynne lived. He called one day and said, “Hi Jeff, it’s Roy. I am ready to work!” They had discussed working on tracks for Orbison’s Mystery Girl album (released posthumously in 1989), and Orbison was all in to work on The Wilburys record.
Having established personal and working relationships with the remaining Beatles, working on the Anthology series as a co-producer seemed to be a no-brainer decision. Lynne recalls that Paul was a little leery because of Jeff’s friendship with George. McCartney felt that perhaps Lynne would side with Harrison too much when decisions were made working on musical arrangements. As it turned out, Lynne ended up living in a cottage on McCartney’s property when they worked on the two ‘new’ Lennon tracks for Anthology. Lynne said George would roust him each morning by shouting, “‘C’mon, ya lazy bugger. Your porridge is ready!’ Then it was off to work on the new Beatles record. It was surreal. They were all Beatles to me and I wanted to do my best to make it a record they all would be pleased with.”
Back in the day, Lynne had been shocked when he heard Lennon profess his love for ELO in a guest radio DJ segment in New York. Talking about the song Showdown, Lennon said, “Nice little group, these. I love this group. I thought it would be Number One, but [label] United Artists never got their fingers out.” Lennon went on to say that had The Beatles continued, he felt that they very well could have been making music similar to ELO. Lynne wasn’t seeking validation for ELO’s work, but discovering Lennon was a fan of his work was like a cherry on top of a sundae.
Lynne is known to be a bit of a perfectionist in the studio (“But not a very good one,” he admits). At times he will revisit his earlier works to clean things up a bit: “It’s never as perfect as I would imagine. I try to be [a perfectionist], but I can never quite get it right. With some songs, it might be just one little tiny thing – maybe the strings could’ve been a bit louder or maybe the snare is too loud, whatever. There’s always a bit of that on every record I’ve ever made, except for the new one. There’s noting on there that I’ve heard – yet – that’s made me wince.”
The ‘new one’ would be From Out of Nowhere, which as the title implies, came out of nowhere. When he folded ELO in 1986, he didn’t see going back to it in the future. He was asked to put together a one off ELO appearance for an all day festival at London’s Hyde Park in September of 2014. He was apprehensive about the show even though the 50,000 tickets sold out in a matter of fifteen minutes. As the headliner, he was still worried: “We took a big chance, The crowd could’ve gone home any time, they didn’t have to wait around for us at the end. But it was still full. I remember looking through a little gap in the curtain and going, ‘They’re still here!’” ELO sold more transatlantic Top 40 hits and moved more than 50 million records (and counting) in their 1972-1986 hey day. Their songs can still be found on classic rock radio as well as movies and TV series. Lynne probably did not need to worry so much about their staying power.
The successful Hyde Park show sparked Lynne to keep the band going. The band now tours as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, but he still prefers working in the studio. Out of Nowhere was more or less a one-man operation and it easily equals ELO’s previous recorded work. Lynne is still inspired by composing and arranging: “Chords are my favourite thing, really. There aren’t many left, but I still keep stumbling across little strange quirky ones and big fat juicy ones, Finding them is so much fun.” His explained the title track, Out of Nowhere, “[Was] the first tune I sat down to write and nearly all the chords came to me at the first sitting. And that’s really how the whole album came around. I wanted to put some kind of optimism in there, too. It’s a reaction to the way things are in the world at the moment; it’s a very upside-down situation. At the same time, I didn’t want to get into politics whatsoever.”
WOAS-FM literally picked up a two disc ‘Best of ELO’ set the week before the CRM issue with the Jeff Lynne interview arrived. All we need to do now is scare up a copy of Out of Nowhere and we can put the ‘it is as good as his previous work’ statement to the test. Lynne was asked what tickles him most about one of his best known tracks (Mr. Blue Sky): that it is used as the unofficial anthem of the Birmingham Football Club or that it has been used as wakeup music for astronauts on NASA missions? Lynne laughed and replied, “Being a Blues fan, it’s got to be Birminghan. I’m just kidding. Obviously the idea that it’s been used to wake up spacemen is amazing, just the fact that someone sent my tune up there.” It seems fitting that Jeff Lynne is a music fanboy with his feet planted firmly on the ground, yet he makes music that is out of this world. Literally when it has been used by NASA.
Top Piece Video: It made them famous, cheese video graphics and all. Here is the classic ELO era ‘Bruce’ sing-a-long Don’t Bring Me Down