Sky Blue Sky:
Going Back in Time with Jeff Lynne
The Electric Light Orchestra may’ve once performed shows on a stage made to resemble a giant futuristic flying saucer complete with laser beams, but even by that point the older sounds Jeff Lynne had enthusiastically absorbed as a younger man had been heavily informing his music for many years, be it the obvious influence of The Beatles’ expansive middle and later periods, or the equally vital impact of pre-Beatles rock ‘n’ roll from the ‘50s and early ‘60s – after all, ELO’s pomped-up reinterpretation of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” was their first big hit in 1973, and Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” would be covered during many of their early shows.
As ELO began to peter out in the mid ‘80s, Lynne turned his focus toward studio production and collaborations, working with an array of prominent artists – most of whom had either influenced him or shared similar influences – such as George Harrison, Dave Edmunds, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Duane Eddy, Del Shannon and Brian Wilson. With Harrison, Petty, Orbison and Bob Dylan, he put together the Traveling Wilburys, originally a one-off recording lark that subsequently resulted in two very successful albums (the second following Orbison’s death) and a handful of beloved hit singles. It was a golden period during which seemingly every artist with whom Lynne worked saw his career revitalized, at least momentarily.
Though not as high profile, in the last dozen years Lynne has continued to produce an impressive array of faces both familiar and fresh, from Harrison’s bittersweet farewell (2002’s posthumous Brainwashed) and Petty’s highly underrated 2006 album Highway Companion to portions of Regina Spektor’s Far in 2009.
This year, after an extended drought of anything bearing his own name on the spine, Lynne released not one but two new albums. Truthfully, neither one signifies some grand comeback. One of them gives itself away from the title – Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. No, not the original recordings – Lynne has gone the ill-advised route of re-recording eleven of ELO’s greatest songs with the intent of “improving” them. Granted, the new versions are quite good – it’d take some doing to kill such wonderful songs – but don’t be fooled. It’s ELO in name only, unless you consider Lynne to “be” ELO (which he apparently does, if 2001’s Zoom album is an indication).
Though it contains no new original compositions, more revealing and rewarding is Long Wave, Lynne’s first solo album in 22 years. On it, he pays homage to the music that’s moved him over the years – most of it from his childhood in Birmingham, England during the 1950s and early ‘60s – remodeling a variety of tunes including the Everly Brothers’ “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” Chuck Berry’s “Let It Rock,” Charles Aznavour’s “She,” Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” and Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”
Lynne, who’ll turn 65 on December 30th, took a few moments to speak about these new odes to the past as well as his experiences working with many of his musical heroes.
I think you’re responsible for introducing Roy Orbison to a whole new generation of people. How did you guys meet?
“I loved him so much, his music. I used to play his songs every night, probably for five years, it just never ended – I just got so into it, I couldn’t live without it at night. I just sat down with a cassette with it on. And one night, I asked my manager to see if he could get ahold of Roy, and he did. He got Roy’s number for me, and I called it. It was, like, really scary to talk to him! But I eventually did after trying a couple of times, and he invited me down to Nashville, to see if we could write a song together. And he had heard of my stuff, you know. Anyway, we did that and nothing came of it. But I got to know him a little bit and about a year later, I had a phone call and it was Roy Orbison, and he said, ‘Hey Jeff, I’m in Malibu and I’m ready to work!’ So I said, ‘Oh! Great, fantastic!’ So we got together and the first thing we wrote was ‘You Got It’ with Tom Petty as well, he was in the same room. We all…we just sat around and wrote it, like, really quick. It came in a really short time, like about an hour, and I produced that one and it became a great big hit for him.”
Why did you choose “Running Scared” to cover on Long Wave?
“During those times we’d get talking about his old records and how wonderful they were, and he told me that his favorite one was ‘Running Scared,’ so I thought I would do a tribute to Roy with that one. It was very hard to do – obviously I can’t do it like Roy did, but it’s my version and it’s as good as I can get it, so that’s about it, really.”
You took more of a straightforward approach on that song.
“Oh, ‘Running Scared,’ I didn’t want to touch that. I didn’t want to go off on a tangent there, because I’d never change the melody for anything. It’s just the arrangements I would change. But on Roy’s record, it was such a beautiful record, it was so simple. It was almost unbelievable that it could go so many places with so few chords and so few words and it tells a whole story and it’s like an opera. And it lasts two minutes and ten seconds. Marvelous.”
The other versions on Long Wave more obviously bear your mark.
“Oh, my own twist on every one, and none of them are anything really like the originals because of the arrangements. What I found difficult to get through was the arrangements of these old songs. There were lots of woodwinds flushing about, all over the place, and I wasn’t very keen on that part of it because it would always stop me from sorta liking the tune. I tried to make it more of a basic rock ‘n’ roll kind of feel, with just guitars and piano, and cellos. I went out of my way to make it different from the originals so if you hear the originals, you would probably go, ‘Oh, fuck, that’s different!’”
You’ve been very fortunate to be able to work with so many of your musical heroes prior to their passing. Your version of Del Shannon’s “Jody” is included on Japanese pressings of Long Wave, and I understand he was one of the first rock ‘n’ rollers you ever saw play a concert when you were young. Then in the 1970s, Del was the first artist you produced and collaborated with outside of ELO, and later you also co-produced his last album, Rock On!, which was released posthumously in ’91. As with Roy, at that point I don’t think many people knew about him, at least beyond my age group.
“You have to be of a certain age, you know. It’s a shame that he ended his own life, but he was fantastic, Del. He had the most powerful voice that I had ever heard, and you know the song ‘Runaway,’ obviously. That is an amazing story in itself because he told me about it, years later than ‘Runaway,’ but when I got to meet him first of all in the early ‘70s. He was such a big hero of mine, I couldn’t even believe that I was meeting him – what a great guy, and he was so funny. He was always funny, and really wacky humor! And he liked to drink in those days, he was very fun, and he told me the story about ‘Runaway.’ He got on the road and somebody sent him his record in the mail, ‘Runaway,’ and he got a record player and he played it. And his managers had sped it up a semi-tone, like really making it go fast, but it actually works when you consider it. I’ve tried it slowed back down again and it does sound way better sped up. I thought that was a rotten thing to do to the artist without telling him, but it did actually work!”
Do you think the experience working with Del on that final album helped you in finishing George Harrison’s last album, Brainwashed, after he passed away in 2001?
“No, not really. Actually, Del was still alive when we were doing it – he died just after we were finished. Which was a horrible thing, but it wasn’t a similar situation at all. With George, that’s why it was me and [Harrison’s son] Dhani doing it. Because I really wanted Dhani to be happy with it, and I didn’t want to do much to it because, you know, [George] wasn’t there to say, ‘What the hell are you doing with it?’, you know. I wouldn’t want to take liberties with somebody that is not here to defend himself. So that’s why I left it pretty sparse and what George had played, mainly. Dhani and I played some acoustics on it, I think, and that was about it, really. Some harmonies, but it was more or less as George had finished them.”
The “Concert for George” at the Royal Albert Hall in November 2002, exactly a year after he passed away – that was obviously an amazing evening and tribute. Tell me, what was going on that night and what were you thinking? Weren’t you pretty involved in getting it together in the first place?
“Yeah, I was very involved. The one scary thing for me that night was we had to do [The Beatles’] ‘The Inner Light’ with the Indian musicians and Anoushka Shankar on sitar. That was pretty tough, because we only had one run-through and it was in somebody’s office, with the [original recorded version] and all, and then we were into it, doing it live, and it was pretty nerve-racking because it was being filmed and everything, and it was like 5,000 people there. And it was really…it went down great, luckily, but I was worried that either I was going to forget the words or do a bum note, you know. We hadn’t really rehearsed at all. Overall, the night was a beautiful tribute to George and everybody was just…you know, there was a great feeling on stage – ‘George, yeah, here you go mate!’ Everybody was totally in the same groove.”
You do two Richard Rogers songs on the new album. What sent you down that track?
“My father, really. My dad was nutty for those Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein songs – and they are brilliant, there is no doubt about it, but those are the ones I was referring to earlier. The arrangements are just too much for me to take on board. It’s just too much going on. So I put the record on and I played it like a hundred times, just listening to it, learning the guitar part, and once I got the guitar part and I laid that down, the song [‘If I Loved You’] was suddenly so simple and beautiful. It was easy for me to record, and I made it as not a big flowery thing, but a nice contiguous kind of cello part.”
I was listening to the original version of that from the musical Carousel. It was originally a duet. Did you prefer the female parts or the male parts?
“[Laughs] Oh, I’m not telling. Actually, I like the female part best on that record, on that version that came from the film. The soundtrack.”
The Shirley Jones part?
“Yeah. I could obviously never sing like [Gordon MacRae] – great singer but very old fashioned and deep, deep voice, lots of vibrato, and I can’t sing like that, obviously, so I had to do it in my own style. They are so different that you wouldn’t even believe it.”
On the Mr. Blue Sky record, what song do you feel like you made the greatest tweaks to?
“I would say that they are all equal, because I put the same amount of love and care into all of them. I started with ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ because I’d just heard it on the radio, like I do – I’d hear [ELO songs] on the radio and I’d go, ‘Hmm, that doesn’t sound quite as good as I thought.’ And I’d start listening to it in depth and I’d think, ‘Wow, I can do it better than that,’ so I thought I’d do ‘Mr. Blue Sky’ again from scratch and see what it sounds like. So I did, and I had great fun doing it. I started with a click and just built it all up with me playing everything. And I played it to my manager, and he said it sounded much better, and so I really wanted to do some more. I did ‘Evil Woman’ and ‘Strange Magic,’ and I had a great time doing them, and I think they turned out much better. What I tried to get was… it was all, like, wooly, and I know why it was wooly because the way I recorded it originally was on tape, of course, and there were never enough tracks for me. Even 24-track, I’d have to bandstand all the time, band tracks down, and that wears the tape out slightly and it makes it sound a little bit wooly and not very punchy. So you just lose a little bit of the attack, and the good bits, the high end and everything, goes a little bit the more you bandstand. And so I wanted to rectify that and make them clear again and make them like I imagined them in the first place. With all the clarity back and the bottom end and the punch.”
You included “Do Ya” on Mr. Blue Sky. That song was originally recorded and released on the last single by The Move in 1972, then rerecorded by ELO for A New World Record in 1976. So this is your third go at it!
“Yes, it was the B-side of [The Move’s ‘California Man’] but they swapped it to the A-side and it got into the top 40 [Ed. note: Actually, more like #93; however, the ELO version was a major hit, going Top 20 in the U.S.] The reason I did it again was because I always thought it was a great song but I never quite got it in The Move, I never quite captured it as I wanted it, and I thought I’d do it again.”
Your vocals are much clearer on the new version of “10538 Overture,” especially. What about the natural changes in your voice, over the years? Do you like your voice more now than you did 20 or 30 years ago?
“Oh yeah, I like it much better now, because it’s filled out a little bit more. I’ve got a cold at the moment, so don’t worry about that. But it’s got a little more depth to it, but it’s still got the top in it, which is great. Because I haven’t been blasting it out on stage for the last 30 years – I’ve been producing and just singing in the studio, which I love to do. So, I saved it – rather, I’ve spared it – from the bashing, and it’s turned out a nicer sound. I enjoy singing. I’ve enjoyed singing these couple of albums so much, because I’m much more confident about my singing on these because of the extra depth.”
So I don’t suppose there are plans to blast out your voice and tour the U.S. anytime soon?
“No, there’s no plans at all for me to tour at the moment – but I never say never.”
Photo by Martyn Atkins.