It’s hard to imagine how anyone with an appreciation of classic pop or rock music of the past 40 years could not be affected in some way by the work of singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Lynne. It all began in the late '60s with his lesser-known releases as leader of The Idle Race, then dipped into the very early ‘70s after he joined The Move. Hit after hit poured forth from Lynne throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s with Electric Light Orchestra. The latter half of the ‘80s found the self-taught producer successfully moving into outside production work with legends like George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. Together with those three artists, plus Bob Dylan, Lynne was part of the beloved Traveling Wilburys.
Lynne co-wrote and produced more hits in the ‘90s. He also ventured out on his own for the first time with the release of his solo debut, Armchair Theatre. A monumental challenge (and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity) presented itself in 1994 when the surviving members of The Beatles approached Lynne to produce their reunion sessions. Using primitive John Lennon demo recordings, he—along with Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr—crafted the singles “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” both part of the Beatles Anthology project.
But it’s simply not enough to rattle off a list of credits and accomplishments. Songs such as “Strange Magic,” “Do Ya,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” have permanently fused with the very fabric of pop culture. Jeff Lynne’s songs are heard in movies, advertisements, department stores, and—most importantly—the stereos and iPods of music fans all over the world. His recently released solo album, a batch of non-original oldies titled Long Wave, and a collection of newly re-recorded ELO hits, Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, offer proof that he hasn’t slowed down or lost a step to this day.
I recently had the great privilege of spending some time talking to Mr. Lynne about his recent projects and storied career.
I loved the new album, Long Wave. Did you record any additional songs that didn’t make the final cut for some reason?
Well no, they all could’ve made the final cut. There was no reason why not. But I just had too many. I had enough for two volumes, really. So I just wanted to do the ones I felt were ready to go. And some are still a little bit unfinished. It’s just that you can only put so many out at once really.
The relatively brief running time left me wanting more.
Well, it is short because those songs, all of them, are only like two minutes or two minutes, 15 seconds or something. And that’s the way they used to write them in those days, which I actually love. I love short songs. I think it’s so much better to get in and get out again.
Being a skilled multi-instrumentalist, you played every part on the album and made it sound like an ensemble. Is it easier for you to do it that way, or do you enjoy the challenge it presents?
Oh, well it’s a total challenge for me to learn all the parts, every single part that goes into the song. And that’s why I do it, because it’s a stretch for me musically as well. It’s much harder music than I’m used to doing. So when I actually started on this album, which was about three years ago, I just realized what a stretch it was.
Stylistically, you cover a lot of ground on the album, going back to pre-rock standards from the ‘30s and ‘40s like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
I’ve learned a lot doing these songs. It’s made me a better musician, for sure. Learning all the parts was sheer pleasure for me. It was like going to university and discovering all these things I didn’t know about. And so absolutely, playing all the things myself was integral to doing it, really.
I feel the song choice that probably stands out the most is “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.” I was curious about how you decided to do that one.
Yeah, me too! [laughs] It’s a very strange one. I’ve always loved the tune of it, the melody. I’ve never liked the old arrangements that I’ve heard up to now particularly. They’ve always been a bit too flowery and grand. I wanted to try and make it more of a shuffle and just rock it up a bit.
It worked! It sounded like Jeff Lynne—a real highlight of the album.
Sure. With the Mr. Blue Sky album you’ve meticulously recreated the ELO sound, track-by-track, again playing everything yourself. Was there any temptation to introduce new arrangements?
No, I never wanted to change them. I always wanted to be faithful to the actual original songs, on Long Wave as well. A lot of people tend to abuse old standards, and sort of go off on their own merry little tune. I prefer to stick to what was written down, what they actually meant the tune to be. So I don’t like really altering things from how they started out. So that’s why I never altered the Mr. Blue Sky ones. All I wanted to do was make it technically better, you know—to sound better. So I started off with a click track and gradually built it up from there, layering it until it was sounding good.
Can you describe the process of creating these re-recordings?
I did “Mr. Blue Sky” first to see what the difference would be, recording it now as opposed to recording it 35 years ago. And it was a big, vast difference because of the facilities I’ve got now in my studio, like an 80-channel analog desk. Then I can go into the digital stuff from that. So it’s like the best of all worlds really. There are no moving parts. It’s analog and it sounds really good. The difference is, in the old days I used to try and stuff thousands of instruments onto these little few tracks and they just would tend to wear the tape slightly, a little bit. And so they’d be a bit hissy and have a lot of top missing out of them from bouncing down tracks over and over again. I knew it was a little bit naughty in those days, but I had to do what I had to do to get the song finished, how I wanted to do it. So that’s the main difference really. Now they’re all clean as a whistle. There’s no wear and tear on the tape, so they’re all clean for the first time.
Would you like the new ones to replace the old, in terms of radio airplay? Or should they just exist comfortably alongside the old ones?
I think they can exist together. But personally I’d love to hear the new ones played rather than the old ones. Because when I listen to the old ones now I go, “Oh my goodness, I wish I’d done that a bit better,” or “I wish I hadn’t worn the tape out quite so much.” There’s always some reason that I go, “Hmmm, I don’t know, I don’t think so.” So they can co-exist, but I do prefer to listen to the new ones.
We’re coming up on the ten-year anniversary of the Concert for George, which itself marked the first anniversary of George Harrison’s passing. Did you organize that tribute concert with Eric Clapton?
Basically Eric organized it. I just helped in any way I could, like by singing four of the songs. Or five, was it? Four, I think.
Including a pair of duets, you did five songs. My favorite was the very first one you did, “The Inner Light,” with Anoushka Skankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, on sitar.
Oh yeah, that was a scary one! You know, I mean with Ravi standing right there.
Had you played with classical Indian musicians prior to that?
I had before, previously on my album Armchair Theatre. I had probably eight Indian drummers. George conducted them for me in my house in England. We recorded them in a hall. It sounded fantastic. George really knew how it works, this technique called the tihai. Which is a God knows how it works. I don’t really. Somehow you count backwards and you end up finishing on the right note. And I don’t know how to do it, but he could do it.
That sounds pretty interesting.
Big, long strings of numbers and it all works out. I don’t know. I’ve no idea how it works. And, of course, I had these two great classical Indian singers on there too, on a song called “Now You’re Gone.” And I was thrilled with them, they were such brilliant singers. Mournful and just so sad, their voices. Beautiful.
You helped induct George Harrison, as a solo artist, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. You, Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison, and Prince performed “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Do you know whose idea it was to get Prince involved?
Um, you know I really don’t know. It just sort of happened. The next thing I knew, we were playing together, rehearsing one of them. I don’t know how it happened, but it must’ve been somebody at the Hall of Fame I would suspect.
Do you remember what you were thinking when Prince stepped up and launched into that epic solo?
Well yeah, I was thinking it sounded pretty good, actually! [laughs] It was great, I enjoyed that. But obviously it’s always tinged with sadness when it’s for someone who’s no longer with us.
Yes, of course. The second Traveling Wilburys album, Vol. 3, is also tinged with sadness, as it was recorded after the passing of Roy Orbison. It’s less talked about than the first, but there’s some great playing on it. Whose idea was it to bring in the late, great Gary Moore to play lead guitar on “She’s My Baby?”
Oh, it was George. Gary was friends with George at the time, that’s how he got invited in. Of course, I knew him as well a little bit and he was a really nice guy. And we just got him in because we were working at George’s house and he lived not far away at that time. He just came in one day and overdubbed his guitar.
Well, really it’s that I can see my total lack of experience as a producer. But I like some of the songs. It’s just that some of the ways that they’re recorded is a little bit odd, the things that I did when I wasn’t very experienced. I mean, we’ve all got to start somewhere. I had started producing with The Idle Race. I’d done one album before The Move. And so those were my second and third albums [as producer] as part of The Move. I didn’t have all that much experience, like I say.
Good songwriting though, "Open Up Said the World at the Door" deserves to be a Classic Rock radio staple. Was that a period of growth for you as an artist?
Well, I probably wrote half the songs on each of the albums, me and Roy Wood. So I don’t know, I don’t really think about it in terms of progressive or whatever. I was just still learning. And I think they’re good, I think we did our best on them. And some of them sound pretty good. They’re just a bit rough, production-wise.
Special thanks to Jeff Lynne for his time. The long-awaited documentary Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO is currently airing. Check the official Jeff Lynne website for more information.