By Ken Sharp
It’s a perfect day in Los Angeles. A deep blue sky paints the horizon, and as the ELO song says, “there’s not a cloud in sight.” Upon entering Jeff Lynne’s studio enclave nestled high in the Hollywood Hills, I’m met by the awe-inspiring sight of a wall filled with more than 50 gold and platinum records for Lynnae’s tenure with ELO and The Traveling Wilburys and his heralded production work with George Harrison (“Cloud Nine”), Tom Petty (“Full Moon Fever” and “Highway Companion”) and The Beatles (1995’s “Free As A Bird” and 1996’s “Real Love”).
Two vintage jukeboxes occupy corners of the room and are filled with the tracks that comprise Lynne’s musical DNA: The Beatles, Del Shannon, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, The Four Seasons, The Ronettes, Eric Carmen, The Righteous Brothers, Them, The Chiffons, Ringo Starr, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Dion, Carl Perkins, Ritchie Valens, The Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis and The Supremes, among others.
A life-size, R2-D2 Star Wars robot shares space with two wooden horses plucked from an ancient merry-go-round. The bar across the room is barren, save for a quartet of miniature Beatles figures adorned in “Magical Mystery Tour”-era psychedelic finery standing guard over Lynne’s lair. A lavish record company award signifying sales of more than 50 million ELO albums rests atop the pool table, almost as an afterthought.
Despite Lynne’s extraordinary achievements in the music industry, the man himself is modest and unassuming. It’s been more than 20 years since the release of 1990’s “Armchair Theatre,” and Lynne seems rejuvenated. He’s been readying the release of not one but two albums: “Long Wave,” a passion project culling Lynne’s interpretations of songs from his formative years, and “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of the Electric Light Orchestra,” a one-man band set of re-recordings.
Goldmine: You have not one but two albums coming out: re-recordings of ELO classics and a standards album. What sparked this burst of activity?
Jeff Lynne: I don’t know what led to all of this activity really. But I do remember listening to “Mr. Blue Sky” on the radio, and I thought, “You know, this doesn’t sound like I thought it did when I made it.” I’ve thought this many times about those old ELO records, but this time around I thought, “You know what? I could have a go at this and re-record some of the ELO tracks.” So I started doing that, working on the one song, “Mr. Blue Sky,” and had it finished and played it for a few people. I said, “I think it’s much better than the original version; what do you think?” and they all agreed and felt it was much better. Then Craig (Fruin), my manager, said, “Try another one and see how you get on with that.” I tried another one, which was “Evil Woman,” and that turned out really well. I played that around to people and asked what they thought, and they agreed that it was better. Who’d have thunk it? So I ended up doing the whole lot. It was literally one at a time for a while. Also, in between that, I started another record, “Long Wave,” which I’ve been wanting to do for a few years. All together, it’s probably taken me about three years to finish both albums, because I played everything myself.
GM: So Richard Tandy, your longtime friend and fellow ELO member, didn’t participate?
JL: No, Richard didn’t play on any of them. But we filmed a concert in this room with Richard and I playing eight old ELO songs, and we’ll keep putting them up on my website. It’s also gonna be shown on the BBC, as well as the new documentary (“Mr. Blue Sky”).
GM: “Long Wave” is a record you’ve been wanting to do for a while.
JL: Yeah, I’ve been collecting all these old tracks that I used to listen to as a kid off iTunes and various other things just to learn them. I’d literally play them a hundred times before I actually started even trying to learn how to properly play them. The arrangements of them were what was putting me off. They sounded so complex and fiddly and grandiose. And I just tunneled into them and kept listening to, say, just the bass, for instance, or just the guitar part. And once I’d got it, I’d get the guitar and play the chords, just simple chords. They sounded like they were all sorts of weird chords, but what I found out is they were just crossover notes in the arrangements. When you finally uncover that and play the rhythm guitar it’s just a simple, lovely little tune.
GM: What I like about the record is you don’t slavishly attempt to mimic these songs. They all ultimately sound like Jeff Lynne songs; your personality really comes through. For example, the Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “If I Loved You” sounds like something you would have written.
JL: Well, I doubt it, but thanks very much. That’s very kind of you. When I was a kid, my dad used to play that song all the time, and I also used to hear it a lot on the radio. “If I Loved You” was from the musical “Carousel.” I used to listen to it, and my dad would go, “This is the stuff — Rodgers and Hammerstein — this is the greatest.” And I’d go, “I don’t get it, Dad; what the hell is it? It’s too fancy and too grown up.” It didn’t mean a thing to me, because I couldn’t understand it. That’s a song I never thought in a million years I’d ever sing. So, come 45 years or more later (laughs), I’m listening to this again and go, “Hang on, let’s strip all that gear off it. I couldn’t sing it like Shirley Jones and Gordon McRae did in the film. They sang it in a more operatic style. So I tried to make it in my own kind of style and worked on trying to make it sound nice. The whole point of “Long Wave” was to make it so it was mine, really, not some watered-down version of somebody’s else’s versions. So I wanted to make them all sound like mine, and that’s why I stripped the songs bare, which helped me make them as good as I wanted them to sound. Whenever I had to go the mic and start singing all these songs, I was filled with terror because I thought, “What if this sounds like something I didn’t want it to sound like and that I couldn’t escape from?” So I made myself get it right. On “If I Loved You,” I did 10 takes of the vocal and listened to them all separately to see what was good and what was bad. By the time I finished it, I was so thrilled with it. I hadn’t f**ked up the vocal and found I could listen to it without cringing or without noticing anything wrong, because there wasn’t anything wrong. So it was really a labor of love. I tried very hard to get all of the songs to sound as good as I could.
GM: How did this music find its way into your work as a songwriter, from the Idle Race to The Move to ELO?
JL: There’s one chord sequence that I really like that Richard Rodgers used a lot, and it wound up in some of my songs. Say you’re in the key of C and you rise to C augmented, and then you go to an F chord, and then it goes up to F diminished — “naughty” chords, as George (Harrison) would say (laughs). You’d climb up all these chords, and it would sound really simple. But with all of the arrangements placed over it, you couldn’t tell that’s all it was. Once I was able to learn it properly, just playing that on the guitar, I realized I’d written at least four songs with that chord sequence, even when I was a novice songwriter. I recognize that it’s been a big influence on me forever.
GM: Being a huge fan of Roy Orbison, I assume you could have chosen any number of songs to cover for “Long Wave.” But you wound up doing “Running Scared.” Why?
JL: I’ll tell you why I chose “Running Scared.” When we were in The Wilburys doing our thing playing guitars and doing vocal parts, we got to talking. I asked Roy, “What’s your favorite of your songs?” And he said, “‘Running Scared,’ that’s my favorite. I certainly didn’t mess that one up.” As if he messed any of them up! He was very modest. I thought to myself, “That’s my favorite, as well, and all the others, too (laughs). They’re all my favorites.” So that’s why I did that, as a tribute to Roy, but obviously I can’t do it like him. Again, I have to do my version of all of these songs. I’m not trying to pretend to be him but trying to do it as best as I can in my own way.
GM: Your love of Roy Orbison has been reflected in your own songs. An example: There’s a part in “Endless Lies,” a song from ELO’s 1986 album “Balance of Power,” that is pure Roy.
JL: (Laughs.) It’s funny that you should say that. I went down to Nashville a few years before we formed The Traveling Wilburys just to say hello to Roy and see if we could sit and jam and try and come up with a song. Anyway, while I was there, I played Roy “Endless Lies” in his house, and I went, “This is me trying to copy you in the middle; have a listen.” He listened, and he chuckled, and he went, “That’s actually pretty good.” (Laughs.) He was chuffed.
GM: “She” is another standout on the record. I personally wasn’t familiar with the original, only Elvis Costello’s version.
JL: That was the first song I recorded for “Long Wave.” Charles Aznavour did the original. I always loved the simplicity of that song. The old record was very basic and very sparse. The main instrument on it was bass. It seemed like it was a live performance, but the bass line was so beautiful, and these piano chords tinkling. That’s all it was. It was a very small, tiny little song. I thought, “I’m never gonna do it like Charles Aznavour; I’ll do it like me, and do it in three-part harmony, which is what I’m good at.” I made it into my version of “She,” and it’s totally different.
GM: Can you recall the first song you wrote that knocked you out, something that was less imitative of your influences and more Jeff Lynne?
JL: It might have been one that was so different and so quirky from the Idle Race days. I listen back to some of that stuff and go, “What the hell was I thinking?” (laughs) There’s some really wacky Idle Race song that I find a bit strange, but as a pop song with a memorable tune, “Come with Me” is a pretty good one. “On With the Show” I like a lot. I also like “Skeleton and the Roundabout,” too. I still like all those Idle Race songs, but I just find them so weird (laughs).
GM: To this day, the songs you penned for The Idle Race are among your most imaginative and creative, with songs like “I Like My Toys,” “Follow Me Follow,” “Imposters of Life’s Magazine” and “On with the Show.”
JL: I think the different styles that I drew from for The Idle Race came from the songs I used to listen to on the radio at my mom and dad’s house, all that old-fashioned stuff when I was really little. Stuff like George Formby, who George (Harrison) was a big fan of. He was actually in his fan club. George Formby was fantastic. So I think that’s where all those quirky influences came from early on. And it was that psychedelic period, so I was sort of mixing up vaudeville with psychedelic kind of ideas and coming out with old-fashioned tunes with really weird little bits (laughs). It’s all very odd, but I have to say I do like it. Those were my formative years. It took me such a long time to find my actual voice that I wanted to sing in. I’m finally using it now on “Long Wave.” I’ve finally learned how to sing, and I’m finally singing as good as I wanted to sing. I haven’t been practicing singing or anything, but I think these tunes lifted me up a gear and made me try even harder than I’ve ever tried before. My voice has gotten deeper over the years. I haven’t lost the top note, but now it’s gained a couple of lower notes that it didn’t have — resonance. I suppose that happens as you grow older.
GM: How did seeing your hero Del Shannon perform live in the ’60s impact you?
JL: I first saw Del Shannon play when I was 13 at Birmingham Town Hall, and it just blew me away. I’d never heard a live group until then. I couldn’t understand why the drums sounded like tin cans. They sounded peculiar. Of course, on the record it didn’t sound like that. It took me a while to get used to the real sound of cymbals. But, anyhow, Del was amazing. I finally got to know him and hang out with him in the early ’70s. He was a lovely guy, very sweet. I’ve been lucky in that all my heroes have been really sweet to me and always wanted to work with me, which has been fantastic. I can’t ask for more than that. But deciding to make music my career happened when I found a plastic Elvis Presley guitar in my friend’s wardrobe in Birmingham. I was just going through his cupboards, being nosy and went, “Aw, what the f**k?!” And there was this plastic guitar. I hadn’t even touched a guitar before in my life. I must have been 15 at the time. I said, “What the hell are you doing with this? How come I haven’t got it?” (Laughs.) I persuaded him to lend it to me, and he didn’t want to, but he eventually did. I took it up to my house, and I learned all The Shadows’ numbers and all the instrumentals in the world on this one string on this little plastic neck with a picture of Elvis up there. It was really difficult learning how to play all those songs on one string because you had to start in the right place, or you couldn’t get to the last final note. I used to play this every night. One night, my dad came home, and he must have really noticed that I was really having a bash at this thing like mad, and he brought me an old Spanish guitar, which was fantastic. I went, “Wow, and it has six strings on it!” (Laughs.) It had steel strings, and it was tough as hell to play. You needed a clamp to hold your hand down on the fretboard (laughs); it had massive action, probably half an inch off the neck at the 12th fret. But I loved playing so much. I learnt how to play on that guitar. Funny about that guitar. I’ve still got it, and it cost two pounds when he got it for me. I had it fixed by Danny Farrington, the famous guitar luthier, and it cost me $2,000 to get it playable (laughs). It was only a £2 guitar (laughs.) Once I had that guitar, I said, “That’s it for me mate. I’m set now.” I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I had the confidence to know that I knew all about it.
GM: Speak about your early work with a sound-on-sound tape recorder and how it helped facilitate your eventual prowess as triple threat: songwriter-arranger-producer.
JL: I was looking for some way to make demos of my songs. My friend’s dad owned a hi-fi shop in Birmingham. He asked his dad if there were any machines you could record on and bounce one track to another. He said, “Yes, I have the best one, a B&O (Bang & Olufsen) 2000 Deluxe.” It was a dead posh little tape machine then, and cost 120 guineas (laughs). I had to pay for it on the drip because I wasn’t old enough to sign off on it. I wasn’t 21 yet. I got this tape machine halfway through my days in The Idle Race. During that time, I started getting used to recording, working with a machine. I’d be recording guitar on the left and switch to the right and put the sound-on-sound lever up and play a bass and then switch it back and play along with it as you go and add an instrument each time. I ended up sometimes with 20 instruments and the sound was very degraded (imitates whirring sound).
GM: Do you still have those demos?
JL: Oh, yeah. Some of them are good. I used to have a piano stool in that room, and it got the best snare drum sound ever.
GM: What instruments did you have in your makeshift studio in your parent’s front room at your house in Birmingham?
JL: It was a primitive set up. I had an acoustic and electric guitar, a piano, a Mellotron. I got a bass by then, one of those Hofner Beatle basses. So in ’68, I could make complete records in my front room, even in those days, with bass, drums, guitar, piano, vocal, harmonies. The sound might not have been top-of-the line studio quality, but you could still hear the ideas. I was also learning a lot about mic placement. For example, to get this great snare drum on the piano stool, I’d have to put the mic in a certain place. I realized it sounded much bigger if you placed it the wrong way, so you were getting the sound reflection off the wall. It sounded like, “WHACK!” It would be a revelation to me. And then, for the bass drum, I’d put a mic with some foam rubber over it and punch it for the bass drum sound. It was a really powerful bass drum sound. So that was all a great education for me. I was teaching myself everything without leaving the front room of my mom and dad’s house (laughs.) And it was brilliant learning how to construct a song and make it so you could play it for somebody.
GM: Was there a lot of trial and error in terms of learning your production skills, or did it come naturally?
JL: No, it was all trial and error and a total learning curve. But I knew what I wanted, and I hadn’t a clue how to get it early on. I’d make lots of mistakes thinking, “That must be how you do it,” just by guessing.
GM: What inspired you to become a producer?
JL: I learned how Roy (Orbison) used to sing in the studio in the early days, when putting down these masterpiece vocals. He’d be standing behind this coat rack with all these coats hanging over it, so he could have some separation. That’s all they had was a coat rack (laughs). They hadn’t even invented baffles yet. But the sounds that came out of those records was wonderful. All those people, all at once: violins, backing singers, two guitarists, two basses. So that inspired me to want to become a producer. I thought, “Oh, I wish I knew how to do that; that’s the one thing I’d love to do.” To me, the pinnacle of the music business was to be a record producer.
GM: In terms of the template for the ELO sound, it’s claimed that you once said you wanted to take off where The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” left off.
JL: 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 me dad did. He had them catalogued in his mind. So the music came through him to me, ’cause me 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 me dad, who was musical. In fact, he showed me what harmony was when I was only about 5 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 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.
GM: When you were recording the ELO songs for “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of The Electric Light Orchestra,” what were the challenges you faced?
JL: With today’s technology, things are much easier. But also with another 35 years experience, I know so much more than I knew then. So I’ve got the answer to most things now, although there are still some surprises along the way, or some things won’t work as you expect them to do, even though you’ve been doing them for years. But the learning aspects of making of all these records with George (Harrison), The Wilburys, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison — what wonderful fun I had, absolutely marvelous. I learned a lot doing those records, so today I’m a much better producer than I was when I first started working with George (Harrison). I had a year off from ELO and just worked in my own studio and learned every little nuance of my own studio at home, whereas before I would always get an engineer and say, “Get us a sound with no bass in it, but I want it a bit spiky right there.” I learned how to do that myself, so I didn’t have to rely on anybody and didn’t need to have an engineer around all the time. But when you do a proper recording, you need to have a good engineer like the one I’m working with now. His name is Steve Jay, and he’s a great engineer, I love working with him. He’s got infinite patience, and he’ll have a go at anything with me.
GM: How did you go about dissecting the tracks?
JL: I just made them up straight from listening to the old ELO records. Also, they’re a lot more in time, as these are made to a click track, where on the original versions, it was the four of us jamming, so there was not actual strict time about it.
GM: Why did you choose to record all the instruments by yourself?
JL: I just love playing all those instruments, and I just love when I listen back and know everything on there I played. I’m just silly like that; I think it’s great. It’s so much fun to be a one-man band with the best equipment in the world. It’s such a pleasure. I’ve got a wonderful big piano to play, and I’ve got wonderful guitars to play, great basses, good harmonies to sing. It’s just so much fun.
GM: John Lennon was a big fan of “Showdown.”
JL: Yeah, that’s true. I was working in the Record Plant overdubbing some girl singers onto the end of “Evil Woman.” Ellie Greenwich, the famous singer-songwriter, and two other girls did the part (sings “You’re an evil woman”). It was great to have them. While we were there, May Pang (one-time girlfriend of John Lennon) came into the studio and told me that John had said that ”Showdown” was one of his favorite songs and he thought it should have been No. 1, but UA [United Artists] never got their fingers out, meaning they didn’t put enough in to promote it. That’s what John thought, so that did it for me. I remember writing that song in my mom and dad’s front room. I’d left home by that time, but had set up all my gear in my studio in the front room because I hadn’t moved anywhere that had enough space to have anything. So I’d go back there to make demos. I remember writing that one. It was in C minor, and I remember it lingering about. I knew when I played this riff that it was gonna be great. That was the one time when I took it into “The Cutting Room” and there was this nice guy there, and he just had scissors to do his editing (laughs). He got the tape and put the tape in between his fingers and his thumbs and just went (imitates scissors cutting) and I said (nervously) “What!?” Are you sure that’s the right place?” And he said, “What do you think?” and he was smiling when he did it (laughs). He said, “And you’ll soon find out.” (Laughs.) It was rolling a cigarette with one hand, and he does this with an edit with a really important part of the music. He joined it up, played that song and he said, “You know, this song has such class,” and I was thrilled, because I’d never heard the word class attached to anything I’d done before (laughs), and I was really happy with that.
GM: A song like “Livin’ Thing” is a perfect example displaying what your pal George Harrison used to call as having “naughty chords” — diminished/augmented — very un-rock and roll chords. Where did that influence come from?
JL: Yeah, you’re right, “Livin’ Thing” had an augmented chord. George (Harrison) used a lot of those chords, too. I think the influence of using those types of chords came from the “Long Wave” sort of songs. Trying to marry the two styles together, trying to put those funny old Victorian chords into a new song gives it a good lift. It makes it more of a special song, because it’s got a weird chord in it, and nobody knows how to play it. “Livin’ Thing” has that. There’s a few of mine that have those type of chords in it. I tried to make the songs a little different. “Livin’ Thing” would have had a much more normal run-of-the-mill chord sequence otherwise; the chorus would have been C, A minor, F and G instead of C, A minor, D minor, G augmented and back to the C. That G augmented chord adds a little bit of tension and uplift to the song. That chord is more along the lines of the “Long Wave” songs than the pop idiom. I’m sure I was bringing in those type of chords subconsciously, but I was exposed to all those chords early on, and I’m obviously gonna take them on board with all the more rock and roll chords. I’ve used wacky chords in a lot of my tunes, like “All Over the World,” which has a naughty one, as well (laughs).
GM: Naughty means good.
JL: Yes, naughty but nice (laughs).
GM: In the ELO days, you’d cut a track without having any lyrics and then finish it off and sing the song. Do you still operate in the same manner today?
JL: I still do it like that. I like to do the music first, record it and then write lyrics and sing it. I’ve always got a little tune in my head vocally 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.
GM: Was that especially challenging in the ’70s when you were under immense pressure to release one album after the other?
JL: 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.
GM: With “Don’t Bring Me Down,” there’s always been much speculation of what you’re singing in one part of the song. Set us straight. What the heck are you singing? Is it “Roose?” “Groose?” “Bruce?”
JL: (Laughs.) I’ll tell you what. That’s all a misunderstanding. I was in Musicland Studios in Germany, and I was putting a lead vocal onto the song and there was a gap (sings “Don’t Bring Me Down”), and I just sang “Groose.” I was doing it just to fill a hole up, I wasn’t gonna use it. Then the engineer, Mack, who is German, suddenly got on the talkback and said, “How did you know that word?” And I said, “What word?” And he said, “Groose. It means ‘Greetings’ in German.” I said, “F**king hell, I never knew that.” (Laughs.) Anyway, I said, “Let’s leave it in, then, it sounds all right, ‘Groose.’” Of course, when we started playing it on the road, everybody’s singing “Bruce!” (Laughs.) And I’m going, “Oh, shit.” I’m not gonna go about explaining every night that it’s not “Bruce,” it’s “Groose.” (Laughs.) So I said, “Oh, f**k it; I’ll sing Bruce.” and I’d sing it that way during shows. But it was really “Groose.” Mystery solved (laughs).
GM: Back during ELO’s heyday in the ’70s, you were on such a whirlwind schedule. How did you ever find time to write songs?
JL: I’d write a lot on the road and lay down song ideas into a cassette player. I had an electric piano in the dressing room, and I’d write songs for the next album. Some nights, I’d get stuck, and other nights I’d sit down and come up with two ideas. You never knew what was gonna happen.
GM: How were you able to tap into that channel of inspiration?
JL: There certainly is a zone, and once you hit it, you feel like you can just keep doing it until you mess it up — you keep the momentum going and things will keep coming. With the “Out of the Blue” album, I was in this Swiss village up in the mountains and had been there for two weeks and hadn’t come up with a bloody thing. I was just down the pub every night (laughs). I stated to worry after two weeks. “Holy shit. I’m gonna be in the studio in two weeks’ time, and I have no songs.” One day, I got up, and it became the start of me writing 11 songs in two weeks. I wrote the other one in Munich, Germany. Once you tap into that zone, nothing seems too hard, but if you’re not tapped in, forget it.
GM: Would you write songs primarily to please yourself or with your audience in mind?
JL: You can’t really write for what your imaginary audience would like. If you don’t like it yourself, you can’t expect anybody else to like it. I wrote what makes me feel good when I hear it, and I’m happy with it. I go, “Wow, that’s as best as I can do,” and I hope that other people will think so, too. If you write for an audience, you’re gonna second guess yourself all the time.
GM: Is it more difficult to write songs that knock you out today?
JL: It does get harder the longer you’re doing it. When you’ve been a songwriter for 45 years, it’s quite hard to think of new things, especially lyrically and musically, because there’s only so much you can do without repeating yourself. To try and not repeat yourself is the way to go, and I hope I don’t.
GM: Working with today’s technology, with Pro Tools, it 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?
JL: I think the way it happened is the best way, because you gradually learn, and 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 have 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 f**ked it all up.
GM: Are you working on a new album of original songs?
JL: Yes, I’ve got eight new ones so far. I’d like to get them out next year. I played all the instruments on it. I love it. You can’t keep me off them instruments (laughs.)
GM: Before ELO took a long break and resumed with 2001’s “Zoom,” the band’s last album was 1986’s “Balance of Power,” which remains a strong record with stellar songs like “Getting to the Point,” “Heaven Only Knows” and “So Serious.” There’s a somber and resigned tone to much of the material. Did you know going in this would be band’s swan song?
JL: Yes. I agree. I love that album. To me, “Balance of Power” is one of my favorite ELO albums. It was supposed to be the last ELO album at that point. It was the end of a series of albums I had to do to fulfill my contract. That album didn’t break through like it should, because of politics with the record company not promoting it, thinking “Let’s cut our losses.”
GM: Pick a few ELO songs you’d like people to rediscover.
JL: 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.
GM: Having worked with everyone from The Beatles to Tom Petty, Brian Wilson to Roy Orbison, Randy Newman to Regina Spektor, when looking back, can you single out your favorite production?
JL: I do love that Brian Wilson one I produced (“Let It Shine”). We wrote that together, and it worked out well. 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.
GM: I understand there was a third track you worked on with Paul, George and Ringo called “Now & Then.”
JL: We started on it. It was good, but it never got finished. It never got developed enough as a song for us to ever go back and seriously finish it, but it could be finished one day.
GM: In the late ’60s, you recorded “Girl at the Window” with The Idle Race in which you sing, “John and Paul and Ringo and George were playing lovely tunes from the window of the room by the light of the moon.” Years later, you‘d not only go on to produce The Beatles as well as Paul, George and Ringo, and John championed one of your songs as a favorite. I imagine it must be hard for you to believe your good fortune.
JL: Yes, it’s very hard to believe. Most things that have happened to me in my career would have been very hard to believe. I would have been perfectly happy joining a group called The Nightriders, my first professional group, and just staying with them and playing all the pubs around Birmingham. That was the height of my ambition then. But, of course, as soon as you do that, then a new ambition comes. “What about if we played in London or Liverpool?” (Laughs.) Everything comes as a great bonus. Whatever kept me from going to work in a factory is all a bonus. And I still have a lot of ambitions. I might want to have a go at a film score one day. I’ve shied away from it before, hearing horrible stories about a committee of editors going to chop the shit out of it, and just as you get it right, they’ll say, “Can you cut this down for me?” I just don’t like to hear those stories, and that’s why I’ve never done it up to now.
GM: Finally, among ELO fans there remains great interest in the unreleased track, “Beatles Forever.” Is there any chance it will ever be released?
JL: I doubt it will ever come out. It’s a bit sycophantic (laughs). I wrote it as just a bit of fun. I had a song that I’d done, and I’d called it “Beatles Forever” as a working title and started to think what it would be about. It could be about their great harmony and beat, so I built this song out of it, and it was quite good. But it’s kind of a bit too reverential. It’s like, “All right, we get it, you like The Beatles.” (Laughs.) GM