John Lennon loved ELO. In 1974, he proclaimed that they were the “natural heirs to the Fab Four” which more or less fulfilled Jeff Lynne’s teenage fantasies generated as a Beatles fan during his formative years in Birmingham. America also loved ELO. England? Not so much. Sharon Osbourne? More on her later. Even Phil Lynne, Jeff’s father, told him, “The trouble with your tunes, son, is they’ve got no tunes.”
ELO overcame a rough apprenticeship to become a big deal on both sides of the pond, if not all over the world, but it ended for Lynne in 1986. Lynne loved working in the studio more than touring so he shelved the band in favor of working as a producer and songwriter for others. The music he produced with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Joe Walsh (to name but a few) is a fair testament that he does know his way around the production business. He had an inkling of this career direction from the time he attended his first live gig (Del Shannon best known for his first big hit Runaway). He disliked the fact that live sound of the drums was not the same sound he had heard on Shannon’s records. He left school at age 15 and joined his first professional band, The Idle Race, but his musical education was just beginning. Lynne has spent his lifetime picking apart the music of his idols (Orbison and the Beatles among them) because he says, “It’s the way they built ‘em (the songs) that intrigues me.” His work with Petty, Orbison, and Harrison on various projects spawned The Traveling Wilburys. The Wilburys produced hit music largely directed by Lynne more or less for the love of it. Who else could have dragged Bob Dylan into the project when Dylan really didn’t need collaborators to work with?
With ELO on hold and a busy dance card, Lynne didn’t give his old band much thought until 2014 when he revived ELO for a sold out show at London’s Hyde Park. Surprise by the crowd reaction, Lynne procured a new record contract with Columbia records. The resulting album (Alone in the Universe) that came out in November of 2015 was ELO’s first new music in 15 years. That is where Jeff Lynne’s ELO stands today, but how did the Electric Light Orchestra see the light of day to begin with?
It began with the psychedelic British band The Move whose biggest hit came at the peak of their fame in 1967 (Flowers in the Rain). Lynn joined The Move in 1970 and according to him, “By the time I joined The Move, they were moving into cabaret, and I didn’t want to do that.” Lynne, The Move’s frontman, Roy Wood, and drummer, Bev Bevan, began experimenting with what they described as a “a ten piece mini-orchestra that would carry on where the Beatles I am the Walrus left off.” While their self titled first album produced a moderate hit in the U.K. (10538 Overture) Lynne recalled the album as being “a self-indulgent non-event.” Both Wood and Lynne had a difficult time working together (“like having two bosses in the band” was Lynne’s assessment) and Wood solved the problem by walking out during the recording of ELO2 to form Roy Wood’s Wizzard.
America first took notice of ELO when their version of Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven hit the airwaves. Having a hit on the radio was fine, but the band was having some difficulty producing their live sound effectively. Beven describes this period’s live sound as rather chaotic: “There were about four years of whistling, belching, and groaning sounds” that resulted from the difficulties they encountered mixing the violin and cello sound with the rest of the band. Lynne admits that he may not have been the best at communicating to the rest of the band how the sounds in his head would translate to the music they were recording. As musicians came and went from the early band, their sound evolved and their live performance improved. Lynne was somewhat empowered when Lennon anointed ELO “the son of Beatles”, a sentiment that somewhat tempered his own father’s “your tunes got no tunes” statement (which had spurred Lynne forward with thoughts of, “Okay, I’ll show ya.”).
The first five albums released between 1971 and 1975 (Electric Light Orchestra (1971), ELO 2 (1973), On the Third Day (1973), Eldorado (1974), and Face the Music (1975)) saw the band developing a sound that was not at first universally embraced. They really didn’t get up to speed, so to speak, until 1976’s A New World Record but they began charting some singles beginning with Eldorado. Eldorado produced their first number one single in the US (Can’t get it out of my head) and Face the Music was propelled by two more hit singles (Evil Woman and Strange Magic). ELO appeared on the popular US concert series The Midnight Special a record four times (1973, 1975, 1976 and 1977), more than any other band. As they became bigger and bigger in the states, their profile began to rise in England and they eventually charted 27 top 40 singles between the two.
By the time they started the Eldorado sessions, Lynne had tired of overdubbing strings so he decided to try using a full orchestra of session players. Using Musician Union members, there were some conflicts that developed over their time on the clock, some of which spilled over and were caught on the recordings. At one juncture, string players could be heard on tape angrily slamming their instruments away while the band was still recording. Enter ELO manager Don Arden who had a reputation for being one tough cookie. Arden convinced the president of the MU to come to the studio along with the revolting session players. Arden convinced the union president to fix the problem (the MU president was no pushover and sported the nickname ‘Dr. Death’) and he did . Dr. Death insisted that the session be completed and the union picked up the tab for their services that day. Jeff Lynne had a sound in his head and even cranky musicians weren’t going to prevent him from getting it down on tape.
Arden’s next move was to send his daughter, the future Mrs. Ozzy Osbourne, Sharon Arden on tour with the band. They weren’t exactly a wild bunch as the bored Sharon reported: “Touring with ELO was like running an old-age pensioners’ club. All they wanted to do was sit in their rooms doing their knitting.” None-the-less, Don Arden was surprised when the tour generated an American Express bill of over 150,000 Pounds for clothes, jewelry and booze. It turned out to be from Sharon and not ELO. To jazz up their stage presence, they had a special cello built that would explode on cue (‘explode’ is a bit too dramatic – it would fall apart in a puff of smoke when a button was pushed. It was then re-assembled for the next show). Eventually they invested in a laser show that was so dazzling, the first use in Los Angeles gave planes landing at LAX problems. Then came the $100,000 stage that resembled a space ship. Through it all, Lynne liked the mothership, but not enough for him to want to keep touring. Lynn let Bev Bevan continue touring under the ELO name through 1986 but eventually bought out Bevan’s share of the band’s name. This leaves him sole owner of the ELO’s legacy.
Jeff Lynne’s ELO played a short promotional tour in support of the new album including a full concert for BBC Radio 2 and the first two live dates in the US in thirty years. Performing on the round of the usual US talk shows and a ten date 2016 European tour prove Jeff Lynne isn’t allergic to being on stage. One of my favorite albums from the last two years found Lynne producing tracks for Joe Walsh’s album Analog Man. When the CD was released, Lynne was there on stage at The Troubadour playing a few tracks with his old friend offering more proof that Lynn isn’t just a studio recluse.
Still, I have no doubt history will repeat itself and Lynne will hunker back down to his first love when the new Jeff Lynn’s ELO tour is done. As far as who he will be working with next, my crystal ball isn’t clear. It is a sure bet that he will be sitting in a studio somewhere, writing songs and running the board. With his trademark shades and headphones on and faders under his fingers, he will be thinking,“This is the life for me.”
The top piece video of Mr Blue Sky is from the 2014 Hyde Park concert that inspired him to make Jeff Lynn’s ELO a recording and touring band again.