The limo driver told me it was Clint Eastwood’s house. It was certainly some kind of mansion, hanging high in the hills over Hollywood. But Warner Brothers were currently using it for another artist of theirs, Jeff Lynne. In the immaculately-tended grounds we sat and talked; despite his rock star shades, my interviewee seemed like a wary Birmingham boy who’d never quite adjusted to this new way of life.
In the present century Jeff Lynne’s ELO have been revitalised as a recording and performing unit. But back in 1990 when this interview was done, Lynne seemed to regard the old band as defunct. His thoughts that year were mostly with the Traveling Wilburys and his own solo debut, Armchair Theatre.
The article was written for Q magazine’s issue of July 1990.
“Oh, by the way, this isn’t my place, you know,” Jeff Lynne is at pains to explain, while he waves a hand to indicate the palatial house and grounds high up in the hills above Los Angeles. “It’s only something we’ve rented for the Wilburys to work in.”
Indeed the soft Brummie voice – the kind of accent whose every sentence seems to curl up at the ends in plaintive apology – sounds a thousand miles removed from these sumptuous surroundings. And leaving aside his spiralling reputation for studio wizardry, you can detect in his mild, bloke-ish manner another reason why the rock aristocracy has adopted him as a musical make-over specialist. When you buy in Jeff Lynne, you aren’t hiring a sparring partner for your ego.
Currently squinting, and not without reluctance, into the spotlight of a promo campaign for his first solo album, Lynne is one of entertainment’s backroom boys at heart.
“I’m not planning to tour because that aspect of it was never what I wanted to do, which was just to make records. As soon as I made my first one, in 1968, I knew that was what I liked best; I couldn’t wait to get in and do another one. In fact I used to find it a real drag because I used to spend months on the road thinking, Shit, I could be in a studio…”
Since he drew the ELO story to a close five years ago, Lynne’s name has cropped up on the writing and production credits of albums by everyone from Brian Wilson to Roy Orbison (whose last LP, Mystery Girl, he helped shape into a fittingly grand finale). And there he is, of course, as “Otis Wilbury”, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with eminent fellow-Travelers Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and George Harrison.
“You can’t replace Roy,” Lynne muses. “It’s impossible. Roy had the best voice of anybody I’ve ever heard in rock’n’roll, just magnificent.” And yet, he says, the Big O’s much-lamented exit did not persuade the other Wilburys their show was over. “No. We’d become this unit, we were all good pals. I don’t remember exactly what we thought. It was a real shock and a horrible thing to happen, but we never went, Oh that’s it, we can’t do that again. We always knew we were going to do another one. And now it’s just the four of us.”
With a follow-up album due around October, the quartet have already recorded the basis of 14 new tracks; they’ll re-convene in early July to polish off the vocals. “The Wilburys is not grandiose or anything, it’s pretty straight guitar music, so there’s not a lot left to do except sing all the tunes properly… It’s really quick. We write ’em quick. When you’re doing your own record you sit there going, Oh I’d better change this, change that. The Wilburys isn’t like that, it’s more thrashing and banging and whooping.
“Me and George had the idea for the Wilburys when we were doing his album [Cloud Nine] way back in ’87. After we’d finished for the day we’d be having a few drinks and listening back to stuff, having a laugh, and once we had this idea: let’s have this group where we have our favourite people. And I said, Ooh, I’ll have Roy Orbison and he says, Ooh, I’ll have Bob Dylan, and I was working with Tom and we both said, Hey what about Tom? That’d be good.
“And that’s how it started, as this little idealistic thing: if you could have who you really wanted, who would you have? It was all talk for about a year, until George needed an extra track for a single in Europe; we got a few chords to it, got half the song done and we hadn’t got a studio to record it in. So we phoned Bob and said, Can we come and use your studio for a bit? And we got hold of Tom and Roy, and we all went over to finish this tune that George had started, just to help him, really, to do it real quick.
“Anyway, the record company heard it and said, Oh, you can’t put that on as an extra track, you’ll have to do an album…”
Is there a natural divide in the band between its US and UK factions?
“I know what you mean but no, it doesn’t actually work like that. Tom’s got a fabulous sense of humour and Bob does too. There’s no problem with it. You never go, Blimey I hadn’t better say that because he might think I mean something bad. There’s no ego problems or misunderstandings.”
Is Dylan as – um – strange to work with as his legend would suggest?
“No. Bob is Bob and he always will be. And that’s why he’s Bob. He’s great, he’s his own person, he does his own thing, and he’s amazing. He’s totally himself.”
The queer sensation of finding yourself at work with a childhood idol is one that Lynne’s becoming accustomed to. It all began with the invitation to collaborate on George Harrison’s 1987 comeback, Cloud Nine.
“I was having dinner with Dave Edmunds, and just when we were leaving, late at night, he says, Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you, George Harrison said would you like to produce his album. You what? When did he tell you this? Oh, a few months ago… I eventually got asked down to Friar Park [Harrison’s house and studio in Henley-on-Thames] to meet him, which was real scary, when you’ve got such a reverence for these people, like Roy Orbison and George, Tom, Bob. But George was particularly awe-inspiring because he was in The Beatles. But once I’d hung out with him it was brilliant. We got on straight away.
“It’s unbelievable, really, you’d never dream of it, obviously. They’d always be on this pedestal, but to get to hang out and be pals with, and work with, and be successful with them is fantastic.”
As well as revered veterans like the late Del Shannon (“My first gig, I think, at Birmingham Town Hall”) and Duane “Mr Twangy Guitar” Eddy, Lynne’s production skills were called in to service ailing pop genius Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys – he co-wrote and produced Let It Shine on Wilson’s 1988 solo album. Surely that was a difficult gig?
“It was a tiny bit difficult, yeah,” he frowns, and shoots a meaningful glance out the side of his shades, “but only because of the way it was structured, with all the doctors and that stuff, and you have to go through this chain of events before you do anything. Like you’d lay down a tape, a little rough thing of a song that I wrote with him, and suddenly someone’s got a copy of it and they’re playing it to the record company saying, Look at this! What’s he trying to do?
“No foresight whatsoever. I knew what I was going to do with it, but it’s like giving somebody an unfinished thing that only you know what it is. It’s a cryptic sort of thing. They tried to cut it off at the pass but I finally got it finished and it was really good. I was proud of that piece of work; his singing is good and everything.
“They’re all nice guys. Brian’s lovely. It’s a shame he’s got so many problems with all these people messing him up.”
Emerging, these days, as something of a sound surgeon, how does Lynne go about his “consultancy” work?
“It depends whose the song is. If I sit down and write the song with them, the production becomes apparent in the first hour or so. But with Randy Newman, he already had this song, Falling In Love [which appears on the 1988 Land Of Dreams album]. What a character he is, always putting himself down. He wanted a different angle on one of his tracks, he wanted some guitar style. So I went round to his house, like this vacuum-cleaner salesman, with my guitar in my case: Hello? Mr Newman? I’ve come to do the drains.
“So that approach is where you’ve got to get from them what they want. But when you write the song together, as I did with Tom a lot, the idea for the production stems from writing the song.” (Lynne co-produced Petty’s 1989 album Full Moon Fever, co-writing several tracks including I Won’t Back Down and Free Fallin’.)
The irony in Lynne being teamed with Randy Newman will strike anyone who recalls a song off the latter’s 1979 Born Again album. Called The Story Of A Rock And Roll Band, the track has Newman hymning the praises of ELO: “I love their Mr Blue Skies / Almost my favourite is Turn To Stone / And how ’bout Telephone Line? / I love that ELO.” Newman’s style being what it is, the song was widely assumed to be sarcastic.
“Of course the press as usual said, Oh, it’s him slagging off ELO,” Lynne agrees, “but I got to know Randy very well and I said, What was that about? He goes, Oh, I had terrible trouble with that. I was going to send you a copy and see what you thought. I said, Was it a nice song or what? Was it a tribute? He says, Yeah, absolutely, I really loved them records. So there was no other side to it – he really liked it and I think he was just being silly.”
Who’s left that Jeff Lynne would really like to work with?
“Bob Seger is an interesting one. It’s just the time element, that’s the trouble. I know he’d like to work with me and I’d like to work with him because he’s got a great voice and does great songs. Maybe I’ll be able to help him on his next album.
“The trouble is, all the ones I’m really enthusiastic about are dead. It’s terrible. The ones I dreamed of working with, Roy Orbison and Del Shannon, have died in this past year. But there’s newer ones I’d like to work with and try to make them sound better, without mentioning any names.
“What I could give them is this experience which I’ve now got as a producer. I know what works and what doesn’t, and I could save them months of fucking about, because I think if I have any gift, it’s that I can pick out the bits that’ll last, the bits that are memorable. A lot of songs, you go, Oh they should have had that bit there, or moved it there and made it twice as long, and it would have been a big hit, or a nicer song.”
Lynne’s own apprenticeship was served scuffling around the 1960s Birmingham beat circuit. His first group of any note was The Idle Race (his production debut came with their second album); the band’s 1968 slice of George Formby-esque whimsy, Skeleton And The Roundabout, is still prized by connoisseurs of British pop-psychedelia. In 1970 he was lured away by fellow Brumster Roy Wood, joining The Move for the closing phase of their career (taking in the hits Brontasurus and Chinatown, and one impressively durable album Message From The Country).
From the outset, though, Wood and Lynne were hatching plans for a project to supersede The Move. In 1972 they launched a rock-with-strings concept called The Electric Light Orchestra.
“At the experimental start of ELO – The Move was still going, just hanging on by the skin of its teeth – we didn’t know what we were doing. It was like, Oh, let’s have a cello, and Roy learned these cellos, scraping away, really good fun.”
Their inaugural gig, at the Croydon Greyhound, was a shambles.
“I was probably too drunk to notice. In those days you couldn’t hear anything because there was no way of amplifying the cellos and stuff. So we used to have this habit of going down the pub for quite a long time before we went on – it numbed the pain a bit.”
Curiously, the ELO adventure had barely begun when Roy Wood left, to form Wizzard. Lynne still looks puzzled when he considers his partner’s abrupt departure: “I don’t know. We were both sort of producers, and it got to the point where you’d go to the studio and it’d be who could get to the desk first: I’m doing this bit! No, I’m doing this bit! And it got to be childish, really. And he’d already formed this other group, Wizzard, without telling us. There was no notice. He said, I’ve got this other group, see ya!
“So we weren’t friends for a little while, but we’re good pals again now. I still see Roy occasionally, in fact I just produced a couple of tracks for him. I don’t know what he’s going to do with them, we just did them in my studio for a laugh, just to work together again.”
ELO, meanwhile, lurched through the ’70s to become one of the biggest acts of the decade.
“It wasn’t an overnight thing. The fourth album suddenly went gold in America, that was the one with all the big strings on. I was looking to try and make a bigger sound. I’d been so busy trying to track this one violin and cello for hours, to make it sound like an orchestra. It was a pretty ambitious thing – Eldorado, it was called – and it was almost impossible to play on stage, so what happened was, for intros and stuff, to pretend there was a big sound I used tapes, like Beethoven’s 5th, and then it would just be the group again. You needed something because it had this grandiose name, the Orchestra, and really it was just this group with a cello in it.
“My producer’s head wouldn’t let me enjoy it. I mean, it was always fun, you could have a laugh and get drunk and mess about, but I wasn’t getting any pleasure out of playing: [mimes playing guitar and looking at watch]. Oh, only another half an hour to go. It just got to be a ritual in the end, and it started driving me crackers. We had loads of success – 19 Top 40 hits in America, and all that stuff – and I’m grateful to all the people that liked it, but that wasn’t what I was doing it for.”
ELO peaked, in Lynne’s view, with the late ’70s albums A New World Record and Out Of The Blue. “There was no way of following that, but there were contracts to fulfil, so I was forced to do things I didn’t want to do, just because of signing bits of paper when you don’t know what you’re doing: Sign that? Oh yeah, of course, thank you! You can have 50 quid and all the brown ale you can drink. You don’t realise what you’re getting into. So it turned out I had to do another 93 albums for ELO.
“And as soon as I was free of the last one [in 1986], it was right at the time that George called me, after Dave Edmunds had given him the number. It was exactly the right time. It turned out fantastic in the end. George’s album was a big hit, he had a Number 1 in America. So that was the start of my new career and my new attitude, probably ’cos I was enjoying it again.”
Ensconced with George on the Cloud Nine album, the pair were visited by Warner executives, who suggested Lynne make his own album for them… hence Armchair Theatre, the solo debut, appearing this month: “It’s all natural, all done by hand, no sequencing, no digital bits. It’s made like a proper record with drums, bass, guitars, pianos, which I love to do. ’Cos I went through all that digital period, learning all that hi-tech stuff, how to be a typist, pushing all these buttons, and it drove me mad. That’s not music, it’s a computer thing. I’m not interested.
“The main thing is just doing it, and having somebody asking me to do it, and giving me money to do it. I think that’s brilliant. I can only be grateful.”