Out of the Blue: Jeff Lynne & the Return of Electric Light Orchestra
“I played everything myself on this one and did all the vocals,” Jeff Lynne tells me of Alone In The Universe, the new album from his revived classic band Electric Light Orchestra.
“Except my daughter does a couple of background vocals,” says legendary producer and musician. ”She grew up in America, so she’s got the twang, which I just love the sound of.”
Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra, as it’s billed these days, played in front of 50,000 fans in London’s Hyde Park last summer, prompting the frontman – who has spent the bulk of the years since ELO’s demise in 1986 behind a mixing desk as a producer for a host of famous names, including George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and, of course, The Beatles – to dust off his Les Paul and make a new album.
“I was really inspired,” says Lynne, seated in the control room of his home studio in Los Angeles.
Alone In The Universe is full of the trademark, instantly hummable tunes that Lynne has always effortlessly delivered, easily matching the timeless quality of ELO’s mid-’70s heyday. As for Lynne being the only remaining member of the original group, he says it was an easy transition.
“I’ve always done it that way, and I’ve always made the track like when we used to be in the studio with the rhythm section playing. I would always lay the rhythm section down separate and I would concentrate on all the overdubs, which is the best part for me – I love doing that. So it starts with a click and then ends in a bang.”
Shy by the relative standards of other rock legends, Lynne is known for his reclusive nature, but he’s remarkably easy to talk to, and always ready with a joke and a laugh. While he’s on his own these days, it’s not just the signature ELO sound that shines through. The album cover also harkens back to the band’s classic albums.
“It’s a really nice cover, I think,” Lynne says of the art for Alone In The Universe. “I don’t really look too deep into anything. I just try to make music that’s good and have artwork that’s good. I don’t look any deeper than that as long as it fulfills its role. It creates an atmosphere, the artwork, and there’s even some lenticular art as well.”
“I had just a little outline of ‘When I Was A Boy,’ that was it,” Lynne tells of the album’s earliest traces, dating back three years. “I had a couple of other bits, but none of them were even the shell of a song yet. So there’s some bits on the album that come from ideas that might be a couple years old, or three maybe, but the whole album was basically built on [the Hyde Park] appearance. That’s how it came about.”
“When I Was A Boy” will be instantly recognizable to fans of ELO’s late-’70s classics like “Telephone Line,” “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” and “Mr. Blue Sky.” It’s chock full of Lynne’s trademark orchestrated guitars and keyboards, while lyrically hearkening back to his youth in post-war Birmingham, England.
“That song is very meaningful to me, because it contains the actual truths about how I felt about music from when I was little,” Lynne says of the song. “But it’s also a story about any kid growing up wanting to play the guitar. It’s not just about me, anybody could have that story.”
As for the rest of the songs, which hang together nicely, Lynne says they’re almost all new but were not written with any overarching theme in mind.
“It wasn’t really a concept,” he says. “I was writing them to order. Probably the last seven were written this year from new ideas, maybe with a couple of tiny bits from last year. It was all done kind of brand new, like a brand new album from scratch, really. From sit down to write it to record it.”
After Lynne folded ELO in 1986, he says he put down his guitar and songwriting notebook and spent his time learning the studio.
Then, while out at dinner one night with pal Dave Edmunds, the guitarist told him that former-Beatle George Harrison, who hadn’t made an album in nearly five years, wanted to meet him. He wanted to make a new album, and was curious if Lynne was interested. Stunned and honored, when Edmunds asked if he could pass along Lynne’s number to Harrison, Lynne unsurprisingly answered yes before Edmunds’ question had even passed his lips.
For 10 years Lynne and Harrison became nearly inseparable. They recorded Harrison’s comeback album, the global chart-topper Cloud 9, founded the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, and found time to work on multi-platinum records by both Petty and Orbison, among others. Then, in 1994, Lynne got the call of a lifetime, when he was tapped to produce “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” the first new music released by the Beatles since 1970, for the Anthology project.
“It did seem like a dream, yeah,” Lynne says, with his typically deadpan delivery. But as much as he loved Harrison, he says his biggest thrill was working with and befriending his hero, Orbison.
“I loved Roy, he was like my favorite guy ever,” Lynne says, wistfully. “I got to be his pal. We were pals for about a year back in the Wilburys and making his album. It was just the most wonderful time because he’d always been my idol, and to become pals with him and have him be such a smashing, really lovely guy. And what a voice. I didn’t ever, as a producer, have to remind him how good he was. He just let it rip, let it go. And I was just thrilled to be part of that. He was too.”
So what does Lynne recall most about his hero?
“I remember he had a wonderful giggle,” he confesses. “It was really brilliant and it was quite high pitched, because he had that lovely tenor-sounding voice. It used to make us laugh in the Wilburys. We’d just laugh at his laugh, and everybody would be giggling in the end.”
Since those heady days, Lynne has produced a long list of albums, preferring to stick to the studio rather than perform live.
“He just loves the studio,” Ringo Starr told me in 2014, whom Lynne has worked with as a solo artist, as well as on Harrison’s albums and The Beatles tracks. “His house is all wired up to record. That’s what inspired me to do work at home, rather than in stuffy studios with the clock ticking. But he gets these amazing sounds. He’s not just a producer, he’s a player and a writer, so he comes at it differently than most producers. That’s why he makes great records.”
“I love recording,” Lynne explains. “I love the studio. I love doing the instrumental parts and I love playing instruments of any kind. So it’s never, ‘Oh, better get on with that now.’ I do it without thinking about it. It’s only the words that get me a bit lazy, so I just leave those till the end!”
As for the writing process that has delivered such memorable gems as “Evil Woman,” “Do Ya,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” “You Got It,” “Free Fallin’” and “Not Alone Anymore,” Lynne says it’s just part of his everyday life, though he’s as prone to the inherent hurdles of songwriting as the rest of us.
“Writing the words is like torture, really,” Lynne confesses. “I just love music so much, the words seem kind of unnecessary to me. I just like the tune and the chords. In fact, I never even listen to the words of a song for probably the first ten listens. I don’t even know what they are on some of the songs that are my favorites, because all I listen to is the melody and the chords and the bass line. So when it comes to writing the words it’s a big problem, because I really have to chain myself down to the desk. But it’s the sound and feel of the finished record that’s most important, I think.”
Alone In The Universe was made in Lynne’s home studio. But, as Starr explained, it’s not just any home studio, of course.
“Every room has six mic lines going to the desk in the control room,” he says, with a chuckle. “I use every part of the house, because every room sounds different. I use that to create a sound that’s more live, and that breathes. It’s totally natural for me because since day one in 1968, when I first got my B&L tape recorder, which did sound on sound, I was used to working by myself.
“I started in my mom and dad’s front room in England and that’s how I learned how to record all the bits myself and where to put the mics and how to get the sounds that I was looking for; even how to overload things. So I’ve been doing that ever since, and I’ve always done it the same way. By using every room in my house, that’s what makes it sound live. All the different rooms are all singing along because I like to involve the room a lot in the actual sound of the instrument and the final result is a lot of live room sounds going on all at once.”
“I never really thought about comparing it to the old stuff,” Lynne tells me of making Alone In The Universe, though he’s adamant he never let the spectre of ELO’s former glories hang over the proceedings. “I just thought about making a new album. I never tried to compare it.”
And, while he’s never been a fan of being on the road, traveling night after night to city after city, Lynne says fans will get to see ELO on the road again soon.
“As far as things look right now, we have plans to play, yes,” he says, almost matter of factly of his recently announced tour plans. But, like anyone who hasn’t played his hits much over the years, there’s plenty of rehearsal for him to look forward to.
“If I want to play those songs again, I have to relearn them like everybody else, because I don’t remember how they go sometimes,” Lynne admits with yet another hearty laugh.
“It’s either the words, now, or there’s a few chords I’ve forgotten, but it comes back immediately when I play the record, of course. I just have to listen to them again, to get back into the vibe. The band that we’ve got is just great and they learn everything perfectly. So it’s easy for me, in a way, because I just walk in and everything’s rocking along and it sounds terrific and all I have to do is join in.”
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Frequent TIDAL contributor Jeff Slate is a New York City-based solo singer-songwriter and music journalist. He has interviewed and written intimate portraits of everyone from Led Zeppelin and The Clash to Monty Python and rock musicals on Broadway. He is an avid collector of rock ‘n’ roll books and bootlegs and has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Dylan and the Beatles. [Photos by Rob Shanahan]
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