Jeff Lynne talks about his latest record From Out Of Nowhere, as well as reflecting on a glittering career that’s included producing The Beatles and playing in supergroup The Travelling Wilburys.
“Songwriter, singer, drummer, guitarist – you know, he can do it all,” is Paul McCartney’s opinion on the man in the dark glasses. Indeed, it was Lynne The Beatles called when they needed help.
There was a tour around the time of Zoom (2001) which didn’t pan out, and Lynne puts it down to the tech not being quite there yet.. ELO originally called it a day back in 1986 after the inessential Balance Of Power album. Lynne had had enough.
“I was fed up with the group at that time,” he explains. “I just wanted to disband it and be a producer, and not play live gigs. I was lucky enough to start with George Harrison. Then it was Tom Petty, then the Travelling Wilburys, and then Brian Wilson. You know, amazing people. I’d produce them and we’d have great big hits! Platinum albums! I had a marvellous time, and there was no gigs to go with it. You didn’t actually have to go on the road and I just loved making records with great people – and The Beatles!”
Ah yes, The Beatles. John Lennon once called ELO “son of Beatles”, which he meant as a good thing. Lynne first worked with his pal George Harrison on 1987’s smash hit comeback Cloud Nine. When the remaining Fabs decided to record some new music for the massive Anthology project in the mid-’90s, they needed a producer after George Martin had to decline the invitation due to hearing problems. Harrison fought to get Lynne involved, to work up a very basic demo recorded by John at the piano of a song called ‘Free As A Bird’. It must have been some experience for a Beatles maniac like Lynne.
“Oh yeah, it was ridiculous,” he says, laughing at the memory. “It was the most nerve-racking thing to start with, because it was called ‘The Beatles’ and all we had was John on a cassette – just his voice and piano in mono, which you couldn’t separate. So I had to build a great big Beatles track to go with it. It had to be kind of impressive or it would be less than we were used to. I had to manufacture all that with those three playing it, and then I had to somehow fit in John, which was very difficult. It was a long process that took me a couple of days to get right. I actually did it around two in the morning, ’cause I didn’t want to look like an idiot if I didn’t get it right.
“But anyway, it sounded good and was in time – the demo was out of time, because when you’re writing a song, you’re just trying to get notes down. To get it in time, I had to do a mathematical equation for all the different phrases and each phrase would be like say three or four words, so I put it into a sampler and flew them into the track, and then left it like that. Paul came in the next day and said, ‘Well done, Jeff! You done it!’ and he gave me a big hug, so I was thrilled.”
Paul McCartney is listening back to something you’ve done with John Lennon. Surely you’re thinking, “What am I going to do if he doesn’t like it?”
“That was part of the thinking, it was like bliss at some point and…”
“Fear at the other!”
While artists like The Beatles and Brian Wilson – “he was one of my favourites, along with The Beatles. It was a real pleasure and he let me sing a couple of harmonies” – might look like an obvious fit for Lynne, working with Bob Dylan in late ’80s superstar busman’s holiday, The Travelling Wilburys, appears less so.
“The thing is I’d been working with George for a couple of months, and he said, ‘D’you know what? Me and you should have a group.’ I said, ‘What? That’s good. Yeah, I’m in! Who should we have in it?’ And he said ‘Bob Dylan’. Of course, I’m half laughing, but then I realise he’s serious. So I said, ‘Can we have Roy Orbison as well?’ He said ‘Yeah, we’ll have Roy’, ’cause they used to tour together and we both loved Tom Petty. So we said, let’s have him. And of course when it’s George Harrison that’s doing it, it was ‘Do you want to join our group?’ and the answer was ‘Yes’. We did the first album in 10 days, 10 songs in ten days, so that was pretty amazing – the rough tracks, not the finished product.”
Alongside the massive success of Travelling Wilburys Vol. 1 (1988), Lynne also worked on Roy Orbison’s fantastic Mystery Girl. There are some songs on the new record one could imagine Orbison tackling.
“He could have a go at anything, he had the greatest voice ever,” says Lynne, with obvious affection. “I think I produced three songs on Mystery Girl, and I co-wrote ‘You Got It’ with Roy and Tom, which was his first hit for like 20 years. Roy was thrilled out of his mind, and then there was a phone call early in the morning. ‘Mr. Orbison is dead.’ They hung up before I could get a chance to find out more, and I thought it was bullshit, you know. It was like six in the morning that call came so I stayed awake listening to the radio, and sure enough they announced Roy Orbison had died in Tennessee. That was the saddest thing I can remember, but what a wonderful time we had when we recorded together. He was such a lovely guy.”
Of all those huge production successes, is it possible for Lynne to point at one as a favourite?
“The trouble is that there’s bits of all of them that I love equally, but I think Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever as a whole album,” he reckons. “I have more fun listening to that. There’s so many really good songs, the harmonies are really good, and I love Tom’s voice. I think that’s probably my favourite, but Cloud Nine is right there with it.”