Looking back on the career of a British rock legend
The last member of classic ELO still in ELO, and one of the last surviving Wilburys, Jeff Lynne, turns 75 today.
Personal flashback time. Six years ago, three of us had pre-show beverages near Radio City Music Hall. One person, a writer whose primary beat is hard rock and heavy metal, Dio horns and logos that look like Rorschach tests and all. Another who grew up in Cleveland, getting snuck in to see bands like Devo, the B-52s and Clash before they turned 18, then enjoying all sorts of no wave and noise after moving to New York. Then there was me, whose tastes expanded later after first being immersed in Top 40, a woman whose second album she ever bought with her own money was ELO’s best album, A New World Record, (and got Out of the Blue for Christmas later that year).
And all three of us were looking forward to the show, part of ELO’s first tour in the States in over 30 years, equally. And afterwards, our anticipation had turned into smiles that betrayed our utter lack of disappointment. And therein lies a small personal example of Lynne’s appeal — a man whose work sat squarely in the middle of the overlap of three music writers’ Venn diagrams.
Lynne grew up in Birmingham, a city not unlike cities in America’s Rust Belt cities if, say, Detroit had been bombed heavily by Nazis during World War II.
Beatles worship was not uncommon for lads of Lynne’s age, in his late teens and early 20s when the Fab Four were in their run from A Hard Day’s Night to Abbey Road.
By the end of 1966, Lynne was a member of the Nightriders, soon to be renamed the Idle Race. Despite some nifty Lynne-penned songs, particularly on their first album, they went nowhere commercially.
Lynne had hit it off with Roy Wood, who’d left the Idle Race the year before he joined. Wood, who produced the Idle Race’s debut album, had joined The Move.
Knowing that the two got along, The Move asked Lynne to join in 1969 after Trevor Burton’s departure. Still trying to get the Idle Race to take off, he declined. But when their eponymous second album tanked after its September release, he didn’t need 10,538 overtures, just a second.
By this point, Wood was looking to start a new project, one that would incorporate more orchestral ideas. This intrigued Lynne, while Wood wanted a second songwriter to take the pressure off him.
The side project took precedence, as the remaining members were mostly more interested in ELO than in The Move. Indeed, by the time of Lynne’s second Move album, 1971’s Message from the Country, they were already working on the first ELO album. That final Move album was a contractual obligation.
While one can hear the seeds of Lynne’s future hits in his early writing, it wasn’t quite there. The Idle Race material, as good as it was, carries plenty of the twee psychedelia of the period. And his songs on The Move’s Looking On stretch on too long, lacking focus.
The elements come into sharper focus on Message from the Country, as Wood and Lynne employ overdubbed vocal tracks, of the kind that would become very familiar to listeners of ELO and Lynne’s future productions.
The final Move recordings were released on a maxi-single that included Lynne’s “Do Ya”,in which he and Wood traded vocals, was a catchy rocker that Lynne would re-record years later on New World Record. Wood’s “California Man”, later covered by Cheap Trick, revealed that Lynne’s fixations weren’t limited to four lads from Liverpool. Wood had written it as an homage to pre-Beatles rock-and-roll, his favorite, Little Richard, and Lynne’s favorite, Jerry Lee Lewis.
However simpatico the pair were at the time, it didn’t last long. That old chestnut– artistic differences — popped up again. Both men knew those differences weren’t going to change, so Wood pulled the trigger and left.
He was off to a run of often well-regarded albums first with Wizzard, then solo. Then he pretty much walking away from the music business. 1987’s Starting Up remains the only album of new material he’s released since Jimmy Carter was president.
Lynne, meanwhile, took the Electric Light Orchestra idea and ran with it.
The idea of incorporating orchestral ideas and instruments into rock wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off, given the band’s size and the technical limitations of the time.
“And it was murder to start with, you know, because it used to sound like a big pile of old dustbins being chucked down a flight of stairs. That was the opening number,” quipped Lynne on Raised on Radio in 2019.
But Lynne and the band adjusted with how to pull the material off live, overcoming sound quality issues and not being able to carry a full orchestra on tour.
Lynne and the band plugged away, experiencing some singles success in the U.K., but nothing in the U.S., even as each of their first three albums charted higher than the one previously.
“I never used to think about what was on the charts or anything. It’s why I didn’t have any hits,” Lynne said.
That changed on the fourth album, Eldorado, which, ironically enough, felt like the album was the truest realization of what Wood and Lynne envisioned when coming up with the concept. But in addition to songs in that vein like “Boy Blue” and “Poorboy (The Greenwood),” Lynne came up with a killer single that remains one of his best almost a half-century later –“Can’t Get It Out of My Head” — a beautifully lovelorn ballad in which the orchestral elements serve the melody and the hook.
AUDIO: Electric Light Orchestra “Can’t Get It Outta My Head”
It was ELO’s first chart hit in the U.S., starting a string which would set a record that remains to this day. The group would have 20 top 40 hits here, to date the most a group’s had without a No. 1.
Lynne may not have paid attention to the charts, but he was starting to hone in on how to get there. The proggier elements of his sound took a backseat.
Ironically enough, all these years later, one of the lowest charting of those hits is probably the song that gets associated with ELO first. “Mr. Blue Sky”, off 1977’s Out of the Blue, peaked at 35 early in 1978. It’s full of enough references that one can play “Spot the Influence” with multiple Beatles songs, but the multi-tracked vocals and orchestral elements are pure Lynne, where the verses and chorus both stick in the head.
Lynne was starting to come into his own, crafting hit after hit.
“Evil Woman” could have been disco in someone else’s hands with its masterfully arranged strings performing the duties guitar easily could have.
“Strange Magic” is more low-key, melodically putting pre-disco Bee Gees through the Lynne filter.
“Livin’ Thing” feels like it’s going to take a trip to Spain with its opening, but it’s a feint on the way to a soaring chorus.
VIDEO: Electric Light Orchestra “Livin’ Thing”
“Telephone Line” is part of the long lineage of sad phone songs, part of a decade that also saw the likes of Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show’s “Sylvia’s Mother” and Jim Croce’s “Operator (That’s Not the Way It Feels)” become hits. Here, Lynne’s character pours his heart out to a verse/melody structure that is pure Lennon/McCartney without sounding like pastiche.
Lynne went back to the sadness well for “Turn to Stone”, full of longing and set to a verse that sounds like Jeff Lynne on Broadway and an energetic chorus.
It turned out that Lynne was able to bring disco into his sound in a way that didn’t feel forced like others did at the time. Out of the Blue’s “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” takes a song where the verse is as infectious as the chorus and sets it to Bev Bevan’s drums from right under the mirrorball. Discovery’s “Shine a Little Love”, with its almost-staccato chorus and “Last Train to London”, aiming to soar with its strings, are even more obviously aimed for the dancefloor
The biggest hit off Discovery, and in fact ELO’s biggest hit, not only avoids flirtations with disco, it avoids the trademark strings altogether. “Don’t Bring Me Down” is a shining example of Lynne’s love of pre-British Invasion rock-and-roll. Set to a stomping backbeat, it’s a tale of a relationship where the two partners are on different paths — the woman with her fancy friends and crazy nights and the exasperated guy feeling left out. It’s catchy and, dare I say, a bit tongue-in-cheek, especially when the falsettos kick in on that line that’s either “Don’t bring me down, Gruß” or “Don’t bring me down, Bruce.”
Lynne also helped the pleasure part of the movie Xanadu’s guilty pleasure equation with the hits “I’m Alive” and “All Over the World.” It wasn’t the easiest of experiences. Lynne was originally set to do the score before the director changed course. Then the final scene was filmed to a demo version which meant that they had to hit those cues in recording the studio version. That was all well and good, but the demo was not in time.
VIDEO: Xanadu “I’m Alive” scene
It didn’t matter because, flop film and all, the track became a huge hit. It answered the question, “What if Olivia Newton-John were ELO’s lead singer?” She delivers a joyous vocal that lifts the song in a way that suits it more than Lynne. For all his all-star production work to come, it’s a pity that there wasn’t a Newton-John album with him in the control booth.
As easy as it would be to blame Xanadu’s status as a kitschy flop, the truth is that ELO ran out of steam in the ’80s. Lynne started off well enough with 1981’s Time, which has held up better than it seemed upon its release. Unfortunately, that album’s increasing reliance on synthesizers found fewer hooks and more overblown production on 1983’s Secret Messages. By the release of Balance of Power three years later, Lynne seemed tired of the whole thing. He broke up the band, but he wouldn’t be lacking something to do for long.
George Harrison was no stranger himself to walking away after a tired album. Gone Troppo, the end of a run of eight post-Beatles albums in 12 years, had been the worst of his career. But he was ready to do something besides produce movies and garden. He got word to Dave Edmunds that he wanted Lynne, who’d produced Edmunds twice, to produce him.
The result of that wasn’t just Cloud Nine, Harrison’s often-stellar comeback. Harrison’s offhand comment to Lynne that they should be in a band together led to the Traveling Wilburys. Production of that album forced a break in recording of another Lynne production, a Tom Petty album that would be called Full Moon Fever. All three albums would eventually be in the Top 5 at the same time — Harrison’s best album since Living in the Material World (if not All Things Must Pass), the charmingly relaxed busman’s holiday of the Wilburys and the biggest-selling album of Petty’s career (which no doubt shocked former suits at MCA who were set to scuttle the album under the mistaken belief it “didn’t contain a hit.”).
VIDEO: Traveling Wilburys “Handle With Care”
Lynne also got the chance to co-produce one of his childhood heroes, “Lefty Wilbury” himself, Roy Orbison. The man, whose songs like “Only the Lonely” were formative parts of a young Lynne’s pre-Beatles personal soundtrack was grateful and determined to make the most of his comeback opportunity. Lynne proved to be a good choice of collaborator.
“You Got It”, one of the songs Lynne produced, would be Orbison’s first chart hit since 1966 and his biggest since “Oh, Pretty Woman” 25 years prior. Orbison sadly never got to fully enjoy the comeback, as he died of a heart attack only a month after completing Mystery Girl.
Lynne was on a roll. His sympathetic production work, which managed to bring his musical touchstones in contact with the artist,combined with no shortage of harmonies and acoustic guitar underpinnings.It was all quite polished, sometimes too much so, but it worked more often than not.
His work as a recording artist mostly took a backseat after ELO’s dissolution. Oddly enough, it was when he produced himself again that his hit run stopped. Lynne’s solo debut, 1990’s Armchair Theatre, has held up reasonably well, if it’s a little too comfortable in that armchair for its own good. The man who’d polished a knack for writing singles had made an album mostly devoid of them.
And with that, Lynne backed away from the spotlight. He got the chance to co-produce more of his heroes. An intended comeback vehicle for Del Shannon, who was rumored to be a replacement for Orbison in the Wilburys, turned tragic when Shannon committed suicide before the album was released. Were John Lennon still alive, it’s not a stretch to think he would have joined the three other Beatles in having solo albums co-produced by Lynne. And he worked on albums by fellow heritage artists like Joe Walsh and Bryan Adams as well as producing Harrison and Petty again.
Lynne did dip his toe back into ELO waters with 2001’s Zoom. Certainly better than the last couple of releases under the name in the ’80s, it had the misfortune of being released in 2001. By that point pop tastes had changed. The singles charts the week of Zoom’s release were topped by the “Lady Marmalade” cover from Moulin Rouge, with greats like Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott, the somehow enduring Train, Lifehouse’s ubiquitous “Hanging by a Moment” and, very unfortunately, R. Kelly all in the Top 10.
These were not Lynne-friendly times on the pop charts, not that Lynne seemed worried at that point.
If Lynne wasn’t adaptable to the changes that happened to pop music over the last 30 years, it wasn’t necessarily to his detriment, even if chart success disappeared.
To his credit, the man didn’t often try to chase trends. There was no attempt to go louder and distorted when alternative rock was huge. There were no records with Lynne trying to rap. When he’s written music over the last 20 years, it’s still the same commitment to finding the chords and melodies to serve the song. It’s still finding inspiration in the music of his youth, along with that of his glory years.
He brought back the name, this time as Jeff Lynne’s ELO, telling Paste at the time, “There are other groups pretending to be ELO. I think this makes the distinction between the real one and the ones who pretend.” The resulting albums — 2015’s Alone in the Universe and 2019’s From Out of Nowhere — may not approach his peak, but there’s plenty of worthy songcraft to remind one of why he was successful in the first place.
After over 50 years in the business, it’s rather fitting for a man from Birmingham to be a craftsman. Rather than machinery and power tools, he plied his trade with vocals, guitar and a keen ear determined to make what sounds good to him.
And as metalheads, no-wave skronkers, Top 40 geeks and many others could attest, it still sounds good to a lot of people.