“When I was a boy, I had a dream…” recalls music mastermind/Electric Light Orchestra maestro Jeff Lynne in a song from his most recent ELO album, Alone in the Universe. The track, When I Was a Boy, is an autobiographical look back at how a young Lynne staved off loneliness, kept company by the crackling warmth of radio waves “in those beautiful days when there was no money.” And while Lynne’s ears were likely tuned to American influences like Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison in 1950s England, millions of people all over the world would enjoy similar experiences listening to his music a few decades later.
Jeff Lynne is an unassuming presence, a soft-spoken man of few words who just happens to have sold in excess of 50 million albums worldwide and, among countless other career milestones, is able to list ‘producer for the Beatles’ on his CV. His personality has always been more shyness than bravado; his trademark, ever-present shades as much concealment as they are tribute to Orbison. He never seems to have fallen for the self-indulgent trappings of rock stardom — even archival photos from his heyday in the decadent 1970s reveal no vice worse than sipping a Coca-Cola. Clean living has done him good. At 70, Lynne seems stuck in a time loop, looking a good 20 years younger. His voice, recognizable to generations of radio listeners, has aged like a fine ‘70s Bordeaux. “I can still reach those high notes,” he jokes in one recent interview. “But only if I have a stepladder.”
Lynne was just 28 when he first wailed the plaintive “Hello. how are you?” that opens Telephone Line. Still under 30 when the joyous Mr. Blue Sky saw the light of day, 31 when Don’t Bring Me Down stomped up the charts. As any fan will tell you, the hits (20 on Billboard’s Top 40 in the U.S. alone) represent only a sampling. The well of spellbinding b-sides and album tracks runs deep.
So, for the uninitiated, what is ELO’s best body of work? It’s a subject worthy of debate; it could be 1976’s tight A New World Record or perhaps 1977’s spacious double-album Out of the Blue. One thing is for sure, though. Every artist has a creative prime, and ’75 to ’79 saw a remarkable run in which Lynne generated some of his most seminal, unforgettable work. During that four-year timespan, as many ELO albums were released, the aforementioned bookended by 1975’s Face the Music and 1979’s Discovery (which plays surprisingly well alongside Daft Punk’s album of the same name). Lynne is credited as sole writer & producer on every song of every album. Certainly, good material came before and after, but these four represent the best of the best. In these collections, hits like Evil Woman rest comfortably between deep cuts every bit as good, if not better.
String of classics notwithstanding, there was a time, not so long ago, when ELO seemed relegated to dusty stacks of Rolling Stone back-issues. The question asked of Mr. Blue Sky, “Please tell us why you had to hide away for so long?” could just as easily have applied to Lynne. The colorful spaceship that heralds the ELO brand appeared permanently docked in the 20th century, with Lynne himself tucked safely away behind the musical scenes. Genius can go unrecognized in its own time, and though the passion of a worldwide fanbase has never waned, ELO’s slickly-produced art rock, at its peak, was seldom the critic’s choice.
By the latter half of the ‘80s, having been in the band and having been the band, really, for more than 15 years, Lynne was losing steam. Feeling the creativity-stifling weight of a contractual yoke, he traded the glaring spotlight for the dim twinkles of the place he felt most comfortable, the studio control room. The ELO era was over.
What transpired in the intervening years is a landmark career in itself. Chatting with pal George Harrison in the ‘80s (Lynne was tapped by Harrison to produce his comeback album, Cloud 9, in 1987), the two daydreamed aloud of forming a new band. The question each asked the other was, ‘Who would you get, if you could have anybody?’ Harrison fancied Bob Dylan. Lynne’s pick was Orbison. They got both. In no time, Tom Petty climbed aboard, rounding out the lineup. After playing with the others as an all-star band and co-writing/producing individual work for Harrison, Orbison and Petty (Orbison’s You Got It & Petty’s Free Fallin’ being just two of the successes these sessions yielded), Lynne’s most high-profile gig of all was yet to come.
In the mid-‘90s, a trio of lads called Paul, George and Ringo were keen to work off scratchy and incomplete tapes left behind by their absent bandmate, John, to make new songs. The task was technically daunting, and by the Fab Three’s own admission, the risk of egos clashing was high (decades of being revered as demi-gods can have that effect). Someone from the outside would have to oversee the project, call the musical shots. All those millions of albums sold and gold records under his belt, Lynne was no less intimidated. He got over it and rolled up his sleeves. In the end, McCartney, dubious at first, gave a hug of approval and a “You did it.” It was a vindication, the ultimate stamp of approval, an earning of the cheeky praise Lennon had bestowed years earlier when referring to ELO as “son of Beatles.”
The early 21st century saw Lynne carrying on as producer for other artists (Regina Spektor and Eagle Joe Walsh, among them) and putting out his own new material at a leisurely pace — including an ELO album in 2001 and a solo effort in 2012.
Time and fashion can be as circular as that famous ELO spaceship logo. Like a translucent blue 12-inch on a turntable, good things have a way of coming back around. To new generations, what was once regarded as retro kitsch becomes just plain cool. For vinyl collecting millennials, there was something undeniably appealing about a guy who never autotuned a note, had a seemingly endless supply of timeless hooks in his back pocket and used violins, cellos and the random vocoder to make it all shine.
A few years ago, the current ELO revolution began in earnest. Bolstered by the overwhelmingly positive response to a UK DJ who put forth a simple question to listeners, ‘How’d you like to see ELO back?’, Lynne released Alone in the Universe in 2015. That same year, he played the Grammys, where Beatle Paul sang along to Evil Woman from the front row. Taylor Swift and Queen Bey got on their feet and shook their backsides like it was the first day of summer, 1979.
In 2017, Lynne and his little Birmingham, England band were feted with Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame honors (a sure sign that a paradigm shift in what was considered legit had occurred), inducted by Dhani Harrison (real life Son of Beatle). Director James Gunn chose an ELO classic for the opening credits scene of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Gunn went on to Tweet, “If the Guardians had a house band, it would undoubtedly be Electric Light Orchestra.” Children barely born or being conceived around the time Alone in the Universe was released now dance and sing along, like Baby Groots, to Mr. Blue Sky, a tune that debuted when Star Wars was brand new. Lynne’s stellar year was capped off with a show before a sold-out audience of 60,000 at his home country’s largest stadium, Wembley. The (spacetime) machine properly oiled, all systems were go to take the show on the road.
“They’re gonna get hot down in the USA!” promises Jeff Lynne in the ebullient All Over the World, ELO contribution to the Xanadu soundtrack and one of the best party anthems ever. The song was only a year old the last time Lynne played a Houston show, in 1981 at The Summit (that’s Lakewood Church to you). Now, after what seems a lifetime, Jeff Lynne’s ELO is on course for another triumphant landing.
For boys and girls of all ages, dreamers kept company by radio waves, the wait is over.