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Jeff Lynne, on Songwriting, ‘Alone in the Universe’ and ELO’s Legacy (Q&A)
Decades since ELO first disbanded, its legacy has gotten bigger and bigger. The band’s inventive orchestral pop/rock farmed by band mastermind Jeff Lynne and his Technicolor “everything but the kitchen sink production” shamefully didn’t garner the respect and accolades they deserved from a jaded press corps.
But in 2016, ELO, once wrongly written off by critics, is now rightfully regarded as high art. As architect of ELO’s sound, production and songwriter, Lynne is now being afforded the respect he deserves as one of music’s most consummate and skilled record makers.
The new Jeff Lynne’s ELO album, Alone in the Universe, has been greeted with exceedingly positive reviews; it’s lead single When I was A Boy is a magnificent display of Lynne’s songwriting and production talents, sounding a bit like a tune John Lennon would have cut had he still been with us. With Jeff Lynne’s ELO onboard for a slate of U.S. shows this summer and fall, including three mega-gigs set for the Hollywood Bowl in September, this seasoned musical maverick is back in the where belongs, making music that can turn the grayest sky a marvel hue of blue.
ELO was not an instant success. Did you feel eventually the band would break through, or did you have your doubts?
Jeff Lynne: I didn’t think I wonder if this is ever gonna do any good. I liked our records but realized that some of them were just so uncommercial. Now one of my favorite ELO albums is On The Third Day because of its simplicity. There’s only a few people playing on it, two cellos and one violin instead of a 40-piece orchestra. So I think that was a bolder thing to do at that point that to have a big orchestra on. But eventually I got tired of the limitations of that kind of sound, and that’s when I started putting the big orchestra in.
In terms of the template for the ELO sound, you once said you wanted to take off where the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” left off.
Jeff Lynne: Kind of. That was never really my thing. Actually, Roy Wood said that, not me, and he left the group two months after and lumbered me with that kind of quote—“Oh really? Thanks a lot, buddy.” (laughs)
My intention behind the sound of ELO was simply to get away from what all the other groups seemed to be doing around that time. Around ’71, ’72, all the big long guitar solos were the rage, 10-minute guitar solos. I wanted to do stuff that had more of a tune. I wanted tunes ’cause I love tunes.
I think that’s because of my dad. He was a tune maniac. He knew every classical piece of music there is. He’d say, “That’s the third movement of so-and-so trumpet thingie” and I’d be like, “How the hell do you know that?” And he’d say, “’Cause I know them all!” and he did.
I never knew many of the classical pieces; I knew just a few. Debussy is probably my favorite classical composer—although I like a lot of the other classical composers too, but I don’t know them like my dad did. He had them cataloged in his mind. So the music came through him to me ’cause my grandma was a bit on the stage, with me granddad doing vaudeville and music hall—this was way before I was born. So it did all come through my dad, who was a musical person.
In fact, he showed me what harmony was when I was only about five years old. We were walking down the street and he was taking me to where he was working doing a job for somebody, laying slabs—flagstone—in a garden. As we walked past this building site we came upon a big concrete pipe, probably about a five-foot diameter.
He said, “I’ll show you something—come and look at this,” and he stuck his head in the pipe. And he goes (imitates rising notes) “ah, ah, ah ah . . .” and it echoed into this great big chord. And I went, “Wow, that’s fantastic!” So he said, “Here, you have a go.” My voice hadn’t broken yet and I went (sings) “ah, ah, ah, ah . . .” And I went, “Wow, it’s like a bloody choir!” And so he taught me the major scale and how to do harmony in one little pipe lesson. (laughs) Who would have thought singing down a pipe would be a great education in itself, but it was.
Your modus operandi for laying down tracks was to cut the music first, with no idea of melody and lyrics. Were you following this process back with the Idle Race and the Move too?
Jeff Lynne: Yeah. I’ve always worked that way. I always leave writing the lyrics to the end. I always have tune running through my mind as I’m playing back a track, maybe two or three different tunes in my mind. Nobody else would even know what the tune was or the words, and I didn’t know what the words were either.
I would have to spend the last three or four days in the studio writing the words to all these tracks. I love that because I’ve already got a big nice textured piece to work with, like a canvas. Instead of writing to a little guitar thing and writing words, this was writing to a completed track. I always found it nicer to have this big landscape to work with; your ideas can go in a million different directions.
Not writing lyrics until the end does create a lot of those Oh shit, I’ve got to get this done because the end of the session is tomorrow. It does present that problem but that’s a good one. When you’re under that kind of deadline I find I can work better and concentrate on doing it. If I’ve got weeks to write some words I probably never will.
Do you still operate in the same manner today?
Jeff Lynne: I still do it like that. I like to do the music first, record it and then write lyric and sing it. I’ve always got a little tune in my head vocally that that will work but I’m still hoping a more brilliant tune will come to me between now and when I mix it. I don’t usually have any words prepared, maybe an odd word here and there. I like to try and think of the scenario and bring it to life in the tune with the lyrics and vocal melody.
Was that especially challenging in the ’70s when you were under immense pressure to release one album after the other?
Jeff Lynne: Yeah, it was hard work, but the thing is I’m glad for it now. If I had not had those deadlines I’d probably still be second-guessing the second ELO album. (laughs)
“It’s not quite right, I don’t know about that.” (laughs) So I’m glad I had a deadline and I’m glad I couldn’t second-guess and just let it go and do its thing.
Mr. Blue Sky was a track that was completely finished but with no words.
Jeff Lynne: Yeah, it was one of those. I’ve always been amazed at how popular Mr. Blue Sky is. At the time, I remember mastering it as a single in England and I remember thinking I wish it sounded better than that. It was just that the speakers were so flat-sounding in the cutting room where they cut the disc that it misled me into thinking it wasn’t sounding very good. But when I heard it finished and mastered it sounded great, so all those worries were gone.
Speaking of Mr. Blue Sky, it’s one of those songs that proves music can alter moods. You can’t listen to that song without it lifting your spirits.
Jeff Lynne: When I wrote those words to that song, it had been vile weather. It was mist and fog and cloudy; it was just horrible. One day I got up and the weather was just suddenly all beautiful and shiny, and that’s when all the words came along for me on for that song.
What’s the most satisfying set of chord changes you’ve ever put together?
Jeff Lynne: I think simplicity-wise, my feeling is the simpler anything is, the better it is. Being able to write simple songs is a real craft. The simpler you can get it is the best way to do it. A tune with chords that I really love is a very simple song called Turn to Stone. I just love those chord changes.
They still make me smile when I play them today. Writing a simple song and making it memorable is what it’s all about and what you strive for as a writer. If you can get it good and simple and meaningful at the same time it’s the best feeling in the world.
Pick a “holy s****” moment from your days in ELO.
Jeff Lynne: I think the first time that ever happened for me was the first time I ever used a big 40-piece orchestra, and that was on Eldorado on the opening tune for that— the Eldorado Overture—playing those big classic strings. I thought it sounded absolutely marvelous at the time and couldn’t believe it. It was definitely one of those moments.
That was the first time I ever used a proper orchestra and it was like, “Wow, it works!” It was a very simple thing. Once the orchestra got on there it was enormous and I was just taken aback, really.
You’ve produced everyone from Tom Petty to Brian Wilson to Randy Newman to Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The Beatles’ producer George Martin must have been a major influence on you.
Jeff Lynne: Yes, absolutely. George has always been a big inspiration to me, just listening to the records he made. I think George Martin’s approach as a producer was very classy, the decisions he made in the studio, the way he blended instruments together, the way he pioneered bouncing tracks across and back and forth from machine to machine. He made records you couldn’t make in those days because you didn’t have enough facilities.
But now everyone has a million tracks to work on—but I’m sure they’ll never come up with anything as good as he did on four-track. It’s just the class that he brought to it. He was a wonderful musician as well and I think that the two together were what made him what he was. He’s above the rest of everybody.
Working with today’s technology with Pro Tools presents infinite options. Had you had that technology back in the ’70s would things have been easier for you, or would those numerous options have slowed the process?
Jeff Lynne: I think the way it happened is the best way, because you gradually learn all the time. So when all this wonderful stupendous digital gear arrives you’re ready for it because you have exhausted the tape method and done everything you can do on it and there’s no more surprises to have from it, so I think it’s good that evolved as a process.
If I’d had all that stuff at the start like Pro Tools I wouldn’t have known what to do with it and it would have probably fucked it all up.
Pick a few ELO songs you’d like people to rediscover.
Jeff Lynne: Well, you know when I was doing new versions of these ELO songs I couldn’t stop in the end. I did enough for two albums but didn’t want to put both out at the same time. They’re all really good but I did a new version of Steppin’ Out from Out of the Blue and it’s so much better than the old one. It blows it away totally because I sing it so much better.
I’ve got more confidence in the tune. And when you come at it again from a totally new place and you’ve got a brand-new sheet or blackboard that’s empty and you’ve already done it and you know how it goes and you’re not second-guessing it, you can make the record pretty quickly. But when I put the vocal on, that’s what really clinched it—it was so much better.
It was powerful and it was clear and it was clean. I’ve done a few where I think I’ve done it way better than the old ones.
Having worked with everyone from the Beatles to Tom Petty, Brian Wilson to Roy Orbison, Randy Newman to Regina Spektor, looking back can you single out your favorite production?
Jeff Lynne: I do love that Brian Wilson song I produced called “Let It Shine.”
We wrote that together and it worked out well. Brian Wilson has a wonderful quality about him. I’m not sure if it’s the childlike simplicity, but his chord structure is so complex … and he can work out 17-piece harmony in his head instantly. He’s just brilliant, a genius.
But if I had to pick it would be the two Beatle tracks that we made into records from John’s original cassette—Free as a Bird and Real Love.
Technically that was the most daunting and physically impossible thing to do, but we got it done somehow so that was great. It was just really hard to make those songs be something that they shouldn’t have been. They were done as little demos and the piano was stuck to John’s voice so you can’t even raise his voice without the piano coming up.
Then there was also the problem of timing. The meter was not right for anybody to play to. What I did was measure the speed at the beginning, the middle and the end and just do an average, and that’s the speed that we used for them. I’m most proud of those tracks because it was the hardest thing I had to do, plus I was working with the Beatles who hadn’t been in the same room for over 20 years.
But it was actually marvelous. It was fantastic hearing all the millions of old Beatle stories. That was just what I wanted to hear.
January 20, 2021