Armchair Theatre Still A Showstopper

30 years later, the solo debut from Jeff Lynne remains an unsung Wilbury era classic

Jeff Lynne Armchair Theatre, Reprise 1990

It sometimes seems odd when the leader of a band, the one responsible for writing the bulk of the material and sustaining the artistic vision, opts to go out on their own.

Didn’t Pete Townsend have enough of a creative outlet at the helm of The Who? Didn’t Mick and Keith find enough satisfaction sticking solely with the Stones? 

With that in mind, it makes one wonder why Jeff Lynne, the chief musical mastermind behind ELO, would feel the need to go out on his own. After all, all the group’s efforts following the departure of Roy Wood, with whom Lynne conceived and cofounded Electric Light Orchestra, ELO’s initial incarnation, were essentially owing to Lynne alone. 

With that in mind, Armchair Theatre, released in the U.S. on July 2, 1990, boasts both significance and similarities. The songs shed the strings, ELO’s consistent calling card. Likewise, with the exception of keyboard player Richard Tandy, who appears on two of the tracks, Lynne assembled an entirely new crew to help him record this individual effort. Most of the musicians were relatively obscure, with only an occasional exception. Lynne’s fellow Traveling Wilbury George Harrison lends slide guitar and backing vocals to roughly half the tracks, and Del Shannon, a onetime potential Wilbury, adds cooing background vocals to the Beatle-esque “Blown Away,” a cowrite with yet another member of that all-star ensemble, Tom Petty.

Notably, Lynne’s  collaboration with Harrison would prefigure his role overseeing the new additions to the Beatle Anthology albums that followed five years later. 

BMG Compact Disc Club ad for Armchair Theatre

Still, many, if not most, of the tracks that grace Armchair Theatre might have found a fit on any later ELO album, particularly “Every Little Thing,” the album’s first single, “What Would It Take” and “Don’t Say Goodbye,” due in large part to the swooning multi-tracked vocals that have always been a prominent part of their output. That said, there are some interesting diversions from the norm as well — the rockabilly redux of “Don’t Let Me Go,” the exotic, gypsy-like sway of “Now You’re Gone” and the two archival covers, “September Song” and “Stormy Weather,” each of which predate a later trend borne by certain rockers to revisit standards of a, early vintage era.

It would be another dozen years before Lynne opted for another solo sojourn, 2012’s Long Wave, an album consisting entirely of covers. No matter. He reconciled his artistic inclinations by renaming a reformed incarnation of ELO “Jeff Lynne’s ELO,” leaving no doubt as to who remained at the helm. Given the fact that his first solo venture received mostly positive reviews but somewhat lackluster sales, it wouldn’t seem to make sense for Lynne to lay back in his armchair, when he could, instead, simply reboot the brand.

 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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