On an all too rare visit to England, Birmingham musician Jeff Lynne chats to Martin Hutchinson about his two new albums and his illustrious career.
Jeff Lynne was born in Birmingham on December 30, 1947 and has the same birthday as one of his musical heroes, Del Shannon, who he ended up producing.
His rise to prominence started when Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, one of the best bands on the Birmingham scene, disbanded after both Mike and guitarist Roy Wood left (Roy to form The Move).
The remaining three members of the band recruited 18 year-old Jeff.
“I’d been hanging about learning the guitar and recording stuff at home,” he says. “I’d bought a B&O tape recorder for 120 guineas (about £130, which was a lot in those days) and I learnt how to record sound on sound on it (overdubbing) in that little front room in Shard End.”
The Idle Race, as the band changed their name to, also made it big on the local scene, but despite being championed by the likes of DJs John Peel and Kenny Everett (who was honorary president of their fan club), they failed in their bid for stardom.
The band’s two albums were mainly written by Jeff. The second was also produced by him. The songs were touches of whimsy with more than a hint of an influence from The Beatles (who received a name check on the track Girl in the Window).
Eventually, the band’s lack of commercial success prompted the fledgling producer to accept Roy Wood’s second invitation to join The Move in 1970.
Jeff’s condition on joining The Move was that he could be a part of Roy Wood’s vision that became The Electric Light Orchestra. The initial shows were rather fraught, as Jeff remembers.
“There was a famous occasion when the seven of us in the band outnumbered the audience and another time the neck busted off Roy’s cello. That caused a bit of a kerfuffle,” he smiles.
ELO’s first album, released 40 years ago in 1972, spawned the hit single 10538 Overture, which Jeff wrote. But Roy then left to form Wizzard.
“I didn’t know Roy was gonna leave. But we’d done about half a dozen gigs and we weren’t getting on as we used to and he decided to leave. That, of course, left me to pick up the pieces.”
From then on, Jeff and ELO could do no wrong. A string of hit singles ensued. Livin’ Thing, Don’t Bring Me Down, Xanadu (with Olivia Newton-John – their only Number One), Sweet Talkin’ Woman, Wild West Hero and, of course, Mr Blue Sky cemented Lynne’s reputation as an excellent songwriter.
“It was pretty damn amazing really,” he says of those days.
The band’s tours grew to be enormous and for their 1978 world tour they had lasers and a giant spaceship that rose into the air.
However, Jeff wasn’t the biggest fan of touring.
“I don’t hate it,” he emphasises. “I just prefer to be in the studio making new stuff. I toured because I had to. I call it doing the legwork.”
Jeff wanted to produce other artists’ work and disbanded ELO in 1986. Drummer Bev Bevan formed ELO Part Two a few years later, touring and recording an album, and Jeff released an album under the band’s name in 2001 entitled Zoom.
And despite all the rumours of bad feeling between the former Move members Lynne, Wood and Bevan, Jeff says it’s all nonsense.
“We’re still mates although I haven’t seen ‘em for nearly 20 years. We all went our separate ways and I wish them all the best.”
After ELO, Jeff went into production work and worked with the very best, Brian Wilson, The Everly Brothers and Del Shannon among them. Then, after producing albums by George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison, Jeff co-founded the super-group The Traveling Wilburys with Petty, Harrison, Orbison and Bob Dylan.
The Wilburys recorded two albums (the second without Orbison who had passed away) with great success and Jeff also brought out a solo album entitled Armchair Theatre.
He also produced The Beatles when Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney reunited to record Free as a Bird, around an old tape of John Lennon’s vocal.
Having seemingly been quiet for a few years though, the Birmingham-born musician is back with a brace of albums; both with a nod to the past. But why two at the same time?
“Well,” he muses, “they are quite different albums and despite working on them for the past three years they were both finished at the same time.”
Mr Blue Sky – The Very Best of The Electric Light Orchestra sees Jeff revisiting his hits and re-recording them
“I recorded these songs again because over the past few years when I’ve listened to them, they have sounded a bit woolly. Also,” he adds, “I’ve got 30 years’ more experience as a producer, so I decided to make them more punchy. I couldn’t use any of the old tapes but I was faithful to all the original arrangements.”
Among those on the album are, of course, Mr Blue Sky, Strange Magic and Telephone Line.
And as a special treat there is a brand new track called The Point Of No Return.
Of all the songs he recorded with ELO, he cites Mr Blue Sky as his favourite.
“Of the hits, yes, but I also love Take Me On And On from the Secret Messages album.”
The second album, Long Wave, is so titled as it is full of covers of songs he used to listen to on long wave radio when he was younger.
Jeff takes up the story.
“Basically, I was forced to listen to these songs as a kid. My dad had the radio on all the time and it would be on pretty loud.
“He used to say ‘Ahh, this is the stuff’, but I just couldn’t understand it. It was the arrangements that got me, they were so complex. But the years went by and I started to understand them and I wanted to record them.”
“Then when I worked out the songs I found that they were really quite simple. I don’t read music so I learnt all the songs by ear and I love all that music now.”
The songs include such classics as She.
“I’ve wanted to do it for years,” Jeff says. “Like all the songs, I couldn’t sing it like the original and I wasn’t going to sing it like me (as the singer with ELO). I made She into a harmony song and did the three-part harmonies.”
There’s also Smile, Love is a Many Splendoured Thing and a superb version of Beyond The Sea.
Naturally, Lynne has included a Chuck Berry song – Let It Rock.
“I had to,” he says. “I love Chuck Berry ‘cos that was what started us all off.”
As with Mr Blue Sky, Jeff has worked mainly solo on the recordings.
“I’ve had help from Marc Mann on the strings and my eldest daughter Laura has put some backing vocals on. Apart from that I play virtually everything.”
“I love recording on my own. I get a sense of satisfaction and I’m a nutter for getting it right.”
The good news is that we could also soon get to hear some new compositions from the 64 year-old Brummie.
“I’ve got eight new songs so far for a new album I hope to have out next year.’’