Jeff Lynne (©MartynAtkins)
A veteran rock artist and producer salutes early pop classics and retools his ELO hits
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
"I learned so much working with George and Tom and Paul and people like that," says Jeff Lynne. "Doing ELO was very insular. I really didn't get to hang out with groups or musicians. So it's been great to have a bunch of these great people around, and I think the experience shows."
Of course, when "George" means Harrison, "Tom" is Petty, and it's "Paul" as in McCartney, it's a little hard to know who qualifies as "people like that." For the last several decades, Lynne has been among the most elite producers in rock, working on such landmarks as the two Traveling Wilburys records, Harrison's "Cloud Nine" and Petty's "Full Moon Fever." When Harrison, McCartney and Ringo Starr reunited for the Beatles' "Anthology" project, they didn't call George Martin to produce; they had Lynne do it.
In all of that time, though, the former mastermind and co-founder (with Roy Wood, his earlier bandmate in the late, great Move) of Electric Light Orchestra didn't release any music of his own. His only solo project was "Armchair Theatre" in 1990. But this week, Lynne is putting out two new albums: "Long Wave," a celebration of the pop standards and early rockers he grew up with, and "Mr. Blue Sky," on which he has re-recorded ELO's greatest hits, including "Evil Woman," "Livin' Thing" and "Don't Bring Me Down." Along with these albums, the new documentary "Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO" will be airing on Palladia and VH1 Classic.
In speaking to Lynne on the phone from Los Angeles, it seems like completing these two albums gives Lynne a sense of full closure with his past -- exploring the first music that he loved, from "Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing" to Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock," and bringing his most familiar work with ELO up to modern audio standards. Now he'll turn his attention to finishing an album of new songs, planned for next year.
"I still love to get a song and finish it, with a beginning, middle and end," says Lynne. "There's a real sense of accomplishment when you get it there. And being a one-man band, playing every instrument, is really my favorite thing to do."
MSN Music: Were these projects planned as albums from the start, or were they more like experiments that just kept going?
Jeff Lynne: Well, I was always going to make "Long Wave" a cohesive thing with a theme, which I guess is that it's all songs that I heard on the radio as a kid growing up. With "Mr. Blue Sky," I just attempted that one song to see how much better I could get it, with more experience and new technology. I played it to my manager and he said "Yeah, it does sound so much better." So I did "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic," and I was rolling then and did the whole thing.
I would hear the ELO songs on the radio, and they always sounded a little woolly, not sharp or punchy enough. I would always wish the piano and the guitar sounded better.
Was this a matter of having recordings of these songs that you own, like Van Morrison did when he re-recorded the "Astral Weeks" album?
No, I've owned them from day one. It was never about ownership. I just wanted to try to improve them, and I'm convinced that I did! I wanted it to sound exactly the same, just more solid, with more clarity.
How did you choose the songs for "Long Wave"?
I listened to iTunes, old albums, and the ones that jumped out at me, I'd consider and then listen to them in depth. They're all from that period of learning when I was a kid. To get inside any of them is quite amazing, like going to university.
It was a bit cheeky for me to do "Running Scared," but I couldn't resist it after Roy told me that it was his favorite that he ever did. I had no idea what the hell was going to come out of my mouth, but Roy Orbison was just superb and simple and brilliant, and just to have a go at one of his was a luxury.
Was there any one of the old songs that felt like a breakthrough when you recorded it?
Learning the parts to "If I Loved You," the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. When I was a kid, I would hear that song a lot around my house. I never understood the music, it was too complicated, it seemed inaccessible. But using this thing I call "tunnel hearing" -- which is to listen only to the instrument you want and shut out the rest, listen to each part separately and learn them -- I saw that it's really very simple; it's the arrangements that were complicated. So I changed it to my style, simpler, with harmonies rather than flutes and strings and things like that.
Why are so many Brits drawn to these standards? Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, now you ...
But what they did was a totally different thing: What they did was to copy those old songs, except for the one Paul wrote himself, which was great. I made them into my own style, with new arrangements. The point was to sound like me doing them, not try to sound like the old records.
Was it hard to go back and forth between the two albums?
Well, I always have three heads on -- the producer, songwriter and the singer -- and most of the time, they argue. It is three different points of view, and I take each one seriously. And with a new studio and a great engineer, it's just been work, work, work. I've been working six days a week for the last three years.
So with all of this older material finished, how is work towards an album of new songs progressing?
I've got eight songs toward a new album, so I just need another three or so. So maybe some time next year. I've been a songwriter since 1968. They're different types of songs now, but the process is still the same. You've still got to sit down and write it. You still need to be inspired or else it just sits there looking at you.
Alan Light is the co-author of Gregg Allman's best-selling memoir "My Cross to Bear." A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.