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A Quietus Interview

It's A Livin' Thing: Jeff Lynne Interviewed By Simon Price
Simon Price , November 2nd, 2015 09:31

Jeff Lynne, super-producer to the rock aristocracy and the only constant member of the Electric Light Orchestra, is bringing ELO back to life. He tells Simon Price about working magic with old tape machines, Sunday morning football in the Seventies and Dirk Diggler's monster cock

You don't get to meet Jeff Lynne in his Hampstead home. You don't get to meet Jeff Lynne at his Beverly Hills base. You don't get to meet Jeff Lynne on the ramp of a giant circular red/yellow/blue neon spaceship, like on the cover of those ELO records.

You get to meet Jeff Lynne in a suite inside a mock-posh Victorian hotel off Sloane Square, with chintzy upholstery, 19th century paintings on the walls, and bone china in the kitchenette, because this is where he's entertaining journalists to promote the first new Electric Light Orchestra album since 2001, Alone In The Universe.

You smile at the Brummie bathos in a little exchange between Lynne and his assistant/manager. “Do you want a cup of tea?” “Yeah, I'll have the same again.” “The same cup of tea?” “No, I can't have the same cup of tea, obviously, cos I've drunk it. But some tea, in the same cup.”

You remind yourself, as you sit down, that you are about to speak to someone who, for all his down-to-earth West Midlands modesty, possesses the same sort of astonishing gift for arranging the sounds in his head into perfect symphonic pop music as Brian Wilson, Barry White, Phil Spector, Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, Isaac Hayes, any of those guys.

You see him there, with that frizzed hair, those never-removed aviator shades and that benignly bearded face, and you get flashbacks to every Top Of The Pops appearance, every video and every record sleeve, because the thing about Jeff Lynne is, he really looks like Jeff Lynne.

You remember how utterly you adore 'Sweet Talking Woman', 'Mr Blue Sky', 'Confusion', 'Don't Bring Me Down', 'Showdown', 'Can't Get It Out Of My Head', '10538 Overture', 'All Over The World', 'Xanadu', 'Livin' Thing', 'Evil Woman', and 'Telephone Line' (oh my god, 'Telephone Line'), always have and always will.

You throw professional distance out of the window, and you lay your cards on the table.

This might kill the interview before it's even begun, Jeff, but I need to say that I think you're a genius.

Jeff Lynne: Well, thank you very much for that, but I'm just someone who's good at something. That's all. I'm crap at everything else.

Was one motivation for making this comeback a desire to (re)gain the respect your music deserves, but hasn't always had?

JL: Yeah, a few people have said that. I'll tell you what, Tom Petty made the best rationale for that: I always had too many hits! Too many hit singles. And people don't like that. Writers, they just don't forgive you for that. If you have too many, they think there's gotta be something wrong with you. You must be like Perry Como, know what I mean? And it's just a weird thing that happened. But now they're starting to realise: these songs are still hanging around. So it couldn't just have been a fluke, with novelty tunes and that. You know?

You had most of your hits in the Seventies, when the preferred format for 'serious' music was meant to be the album. You made concept albums, you made double albums, all the things that 'serious' acts were meant to do, but you also had a string of hit singles.

JL: Yeah, and that killed it! It's weird, I know. Because the albums I did, they used to sell millions. So it's a double-edged thing. Anyway, that's what Tom thought, and I'm beginning to agree with him.

Did that change as you went along? Were you perceived as serious, respectable and cool at first, then that tailed off?

JL: I don't think I was ever cool. In the early days, or later on. It was a bit of a mess to start with, trying to play live. Playing live wasn't my favourite thing in the world. Never has been, but that put me off from the start. That experience of having a group with a peculiar line-up like that, meant you couldn't do justice to the record. I was trying to recreate a 30-piece string section, but with two cellos and a violin, and a Mellotron and a Wurlitzer.

This was new territory, I suppose. No-one had even tried it before.

JL: No. And I can see why. Because there weren't pick-ups in those days, so you had to have microphones on the cellos. And of course they'd feed back, and you had to turn them off, and you wouldn't hear the cellos after about five minutes, that'd be the end of them. So my memory of that early ELO stuff is horrible. Really grim.

That's sad, because the records are so great.

JL: No, this is really early on, when we first started trying to play live gigs. The records have been good, I think. Some better than others. And some worse than others. Haha.

Glancing across at the magazine rack, you've got a copy of Rolling Stone with people like Frank Zappa, David Bowie and Pink Floyd on the cover. I wonder if one reason your songs aren't perceived as being as serious as theirs is because so many of yours were striving for utopia. They're uplifting, and driving towards a better place. Whereas the vogue was to be writing about apocalypse and doom-laden scenarios. Some of your records did that, but mostly not. Do you know what I'm saying?

JL: Yes, I do. But this record, Alone In The Universe, is about exactly that: being the loneliest thing in the universe. The songs on this album are all about loneliness and stuff like that. And I got it, really, by thinking back to my favourites when I was a kid. Del Shannon and Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison was unbelievable, my all-time favourite. See, I've been a producer as well as making my own records, and to work with Roy Orbison on 'You Got It', to produce it and write the song, was fantastic. I couldn't ever wish for anything more fun than that. And he was such a lovely guy. But he died just a month after his song had just gone in the Top 10. So he never got to see it get to No.5.

And Roy Orbison's music was so often about loneliness.

JL: Oh yeah, that was the point I was trying to make. But sometimes he'd have a twist in the tale, like [sings] 'But wait, what do I see/Is she walking back to me?' So I tried to do one with a twist on this album. 'I'm Leaving You', that is. Cos she says she's leaving him, all the way through, then he says 'Ah, actually, got some news for you, mate.' That type of thing. But I do love lonely songs. Love 'em.

Songs like 'Showdown' are so dark, and so is '10538 Overture'. That could almost be Sabbath.

JL: Well, I don't know about that, but... That was dark. I wrote it [about] kind of about a nutcase. You know, and he had a number on him. And he was running about the place doing crazy things. And he ended up falling off a cliff. So it wasn't a happy song.

The last time I was aware of you being musically active was just a few years ago when BBC4 made a documentary about you, and you were in the process of remaking your classic records. Are you someone for whom the work is never finished? You're always seeing faults in it and can't let it lie?

JL: No. I'm not, actually. It's just certain songs, and it's usually the vocal I don't like. I've either thrown it away too much, or I haven't recorded it well, or I'm too far from the mic. It's just odd little things like that. And I knew that I could make them better, technically better, to please me. So that I don't go "Ohhh, ouch!" all the time, and "Oooh, what is that?!" So that's why I did that. There's one song I re-recorded called 'Steppin' Out', which I really messed up on the original, on Out Of The Blue. I can't even listen to the song, on that record, cos of the vocal. It's just so flimsy. It's not even thrown-away, it's just not any good. So I wanted to sing it properly, nice and close to the mic, so that it actually did say what I wanted it to say, at last. So it was a kind of thing for me, not for anyone else.

There were 15 years between ELO's first farewell album Balance Of Power in 1986 and your comeback Zoom in 2001, and there's pretty much 15 years between Zoom and this album...

JL: Oh yeah, I'm regular as clockwork, me!

And obviously there are various factors in that, but is perfectionism one of them?

JL: Not really, no. Because I've been producing all these other people in between those things. I don't sit around thinking 'Oh, I wonder if I should make a record?' Cos people want me to produce them, and if I like the person I'm producing and like their music, like for instance Tom Petty or George Harrison or Paul McCartney or The Beatles – there's a lot of 'em, that I've done – I love doing that, as well. That is such a treat for me. To make them sound how I want them to sound, kinda.

Do you think you've had more respect from your fellow musicians, including the names you've just mentioned, than you've had from the wider world?

JL: Yes. Musicians I've worked with, they all like me stuff. Obviously. That's why they ask me. And they understand what I can do, yeah. And people say I've got me own sound, you know, but that's just the way I started out. I started out with a B&O, Bang & Olufsen, a Beocord 2000 Deluxe. I've still got it, still works. It's just two channels, but you can bounce up and down on it. You can bounce twenty tracks if you want, left to right, right to left. What happens, of course, is that the tape gets more saturated and you get more hiss as you go. So, ten bounces, I could make a record on that. Noisy, a bit distorted, but it still sounded good. And I learned then, about mic positions and all that kind of thing. Where the actual sound was, the real sound that you wanted to hear. Sometimes it might be twelve feet away, and sometimes it might be right up close. You don't know till you try it. So I had this little studio, in my mum and dad's front room. I had my tape machine and my record player right next to each other, so I could do the best phasing on earth. Do you like phasing?

I love phasing. Who doesn't love phasing?

JL: Oh, I love phasing. Sometimes I used to stay all night, just phasing stuff. And recording it.

These days, you can just press a button and there it is.

JL: It's not as good, though, as tape phase. There's something about the 'wow' of it, and the vocal moving across your headphones, and you go "Awww, fantastic!" That sort of stuff. So I've been experimenting with sound, right from the very start. From when I was 20, probably.

In the Seventies, ELO's records sounded like the future. But here we are: this is the future, we're living in it. Making this record, did you have to decide whether to make a record that reached even further and sounded like 2015's idea of the future, or make one that sounds like the ELO that people recognise?

JL: You know, I didn't even consider any of the old records. I've got this new sound, because I play all the instruments on this one. It's something I love to do. I especially love drums, and I love bass. I love guitar, obviously, but I've always played guitar. And piano, I play a bit of piano. I'm not a virtuoso on any of them but I'm good enough for recording purposes. Cos I know how to fit 'em in and how they should stack up and what should be where. On this album, I didn't want to have big bloated orchestras all over it. Like, having a 30-piece string section was fine for the first three times, albums-wise. I'd be going "Oh great! Strings today!" But after that, it became. "Oh. Strings today. So fed up with these ffff... strings." But I was stuck with them, kinda. But this time, it's been so long that I can do pretty much what I want. There's only strings on, maybe, parts of three songs.

There are a few hints here and there, though, that are gonna make people smile with recognition. Little throwbacks to older songs. For example, 'Dirty To The Bone' is about a woman who's evil.

JL: To put it bluntly.

And 'Love And Rain' has a bit of a 'Showdown' feel, I thought.

JL: Oh, that's good. Cos 'Showdown' is probably my favourite one.

Well, let's talk about 'Showdown', then. 'Showdown' was a great SOUL record, wasn't it?

JL: It was. And it's amazing, cos I didn't know it was really great or anything, but when I took it to the cutting engineer at EMI, he was just there on his own and he put the tape on, and he did one of those magic edits between his fingers, without even using the block to cut it with, like 'SNIP', and I thought 'Shit, he's meant to have cut a bar out', but of course it was perfect. Brilliant guy, he'd been there forever. And the tape plays, and he goes 'Ohhh, that's a bit of class, that is.' And that was one of my first productions.

And this was before Bowie had done Young Americans, or any of that.

JL: Yeah? I don't even know about that. I don't know when it was in comparison to other stuff. But I'd have a go at any type of music, whatever I could come up with. Usually I'd write on the piano, in those days. Sometimes, the guitar. But when the EMI guy said that, I was so chuffed. I couldn't believe it. Cos I'd produced it and written it, you know.

This is a bit of a curveball, but I want to show you something. (I show Jeff an old black and white photo given to me by a Brummie minicab driver called John Parker, who used to work as a plugger for CBS and was on a few occasions the Phantom Flan Flinger in Tiswas. It's a team line-up of amateur football team Idle Movers FC, featuring a young Jeff Lynne when he was in pre-ELO band The Idle Race, Roy Wood of The Move/ELO/Wizzard, and the cabbie himself in goal.)

JL: Haha, oh yeah. That brings back some good memories. Sunday morning football, freeze yer balls off. That was the Idle Race team and The Move team. The Idle Movers, was it called? Yes, there's me. And there's Dave Pritchard, rhythm guitarist with The Idle Race. Greg Masters, bass guitar, Idle Race. Roger Spencer, drummer, Idle Race. Roy Wood, Micky Hopkins, that's Jimmy White, haven't seen him in a million years but he was a good laugh, and Bob Old, roadie. And that's about it. We'd get together on a Sunday, various musicians from Birmingham, play a game, then down the pub for a few pints.

Was there a lot of camaraderie among local bands?

JL: It was nice, the Birmingham scene, cos there were two or three clubs that we all used to hang out in. When I first went professional, which is when I got a job with The Nightriders, I suddenly realised I was on the same level as everyone else cos I was a professional musician and I was getting £15 a week. Instead of £4 a week when you went to work. So when me mum used to say "You can't do that, you can't be one of them, you've got to get a job and do proper work, not that rubbish", you know, she wasn't into it at all, and it became a bit of a joke. She'd come bounding up the stairs, "Come on you, you lazy bugger, get out, get to work", and this one time she came up, and she had a shock. I was holding the sheets down, going, "Nope. Listen, mum. I've never got to get up, ever again. I'm a professional musician now." Hahaha! That was the greatest feeling. Cos I was so fed up with: "(bang bang bang) Get up you lazy git!"

Have you ever been tempted to write your memoirs? Most musicians do, eventually.

JL: People have asked me to do 'em, and I always go, "No, not at the moment. Let's wait for something good to happen." [LAUGHS]

The Hyde Park gig you played for BBC Radio 2 last year, which I reviewed for tQ, was incredible. I don't know how it felt from the stage, but in the middle of the audience there were people crying.

JL: I tell you, I was blown away. Because I was really nervous at the start, thinking, "What if they've all gone home?", after so-and-so, you know, whoever was on before. [It was Blondie.] And it was just... blimey. As we walked up the stairs, onto the stage, and I saw there were still 50,000 people there, and it was, "Ah, thank goodness!" And they went mad: "Yaaaay! Fucking hell!" So it was the most wonderful feeling, to have them not gone home, but they're there. And not only are they there, they LOVE it. And every song, they sang along really loudly, and I could hear them singing above me, sometimes. It was an unbelievable feeling. And of course now that's, in my mind, easily the best concert I've ever been involved with.

Has it given you a taste for doing some more?

JL: Yeah! I'm gonna do some more, yeah. Maybe a couple of festivals or something. My manager's working on it now, for next year.

You're still working with (original ELO keyboardist) Richard Tandy. Over the years, I know there have been many legal issues, but has there ever been any hint of working with the other former members?

JL: No. Except Richard. I haven't seen any of the others for about 35 years.

'Livin' Thing' was used in the film Boogie Nights, in the famous scene when Dirk Diggler finally unfurls his monster penis. What did you make of that?

JL: Well, funnily enough, I went to a preview with the director P.T. Anderson. I sat next to him and watched it. And I didn't know what it was gonna be. He didn't tell me. I've got two young girls, they'd have been teenagers, and I was worried, because I knew it was rude but I didn't know exactly what it was. I knew it was about the porno industry. So I was a bit worried for the girls, but probably they knew more than me about it anyway, haha. Kids today, they're well up on most things. So I went to see it, and it was fantastic. Because when he gets his cock out, it's like the music's coming right out of the end of his cock! "Diddle-iddle-eee! Doo-doo-doo!" I thought, "What is he, a snake charmer or what?"

I want to ask you about 'Don't Bring Me Down'. And I'm not going to ask the question everyone always asks, because that's been done to death...

JL: Haha! Oh, I can't think what that could be...

(I'm referring of course, to the long-running 'Bruce!'/'Grooss!' debate, as settled definitively in a Caroline Sullivan interview for the Guardian last year.) But just the feel of that record, that piledriving sound. It's almost robotic. At the time, I'd never heard anything like it.

JL: I'll tell you how it was. You're absolutely right to think it was robotic, because that was one of the world's first drum machines. I cut two bars of drumming, from another song, mixed it up to two tracks, laid that onto the 24-track, and played along to that. I played everything except... I can't think what I didn't play on it, actually. Nearly everything. I played bass, and piano, and guitar. But it was like a 'robotic' drum machine. I whacked a shitload of compression on it, so it was almost like it's going backwards. You know, 'boosh, boom-boom, boosh, boom-boom...' And that's what made the sound. It was instantly good. It only took, I dunno, a day to make that.

And that sound has been picked up and run with, by all sorts of people. ZZ Top in the Eighties. And The Dandy Warhols, 'Not If You Were The Last Junkie On Earth', not sure if you've heard that?

JL: Hah. No, I haven't. Ah, right, well they're probably doing the same thing. I didn't have a compressor, of course, when I was starting out, but even with the B&O, if you plugged it into the mic input with a guitar, you could get the most unbelievable compression, by mistake. It's overloaded, like boinggg! You know how sometimes a compressor goes ching! and it'll cut off, if it's really compressed, and then it'll come back like weeeeowww!, it's like it's backwards, almost. So I used to do me demos with those sounds, a lot.

As a songwriter, are you aware of the particular bits of melody, or certain chord changes, that are gonna break people's hearts? Songs like 'Confusion', or 'Telephone Line', the way the chords work together creates a yearning quality...

JL: Thank you, I'll take that as a compliment, a "yearning quality". That is my whole thing, about music. It's chord sequences. How to get the next chord to be great, so you go, "Ohhh, that's nice." And it sometimes makes the hairs on your neck stand up, if it's good enough. Even if it's not a song yet, I'm always just stringing chords together, and imagining the melody going through it. And if I come unstuck, I'll just try a different one. Obviously there's only so many chord changes you can really use, or else you end up getting to horrible keys, and jazz and all that, which I'm not crazy about. But working in the pop idiom, it's nice to get as many good chords as you can get. So that's what I'm trying to do, before I even make it into a song.

I've got a thing about telephone songs. We live in this interconnected world now, where everyone carries their phone everywhere with them, and it a way, it means – or at least, you'd think – that no-one can ever be properly lonely. But in those days, being on the end of a telephone line was the most solitary thing in the world, if it's just ringing... and ringing... And to actually have the phone ringing, and weave that into a pop record, was an amazing thing.

JL: Thanks. Well, that was the thing. Rather than nick the American tone, when you dial America and you press those buttons and it's like a tone apart, an A and a B or something, together, slightly discordant. We recorded it on a Moog, using the same notes. So they wouldn't come at us and say, "You've nicked our telephone sound! Give us some money!" You can't be too careful. In them days, especially. But all of that stuff, I'd thought about it before. It wasn't a fluke, or anything. I thought about having those sounds in there, because I'd always loved sound effects on records. I used to love 'em when I was a kid, on Danny Kaye records or whatever.

And making an album like Eldorado, which had a story arc running through it, was quite bold.

JL: Well, as good a story arc as I could concoct. And I got away with it, hopefully. Because obviously it's quite hard to make every song about the same story. So you have to weave off and tell different little tales.

Are you aware of ELO's influence on contemporary bands?

JL: I hear it, yeah. People tell me that: "This group thinks you're great", and all that. And it's sweet, obviously I like that. It's nice to be well thought-of. And I know, because the record company always tells me "Oh, so-and-so, they love your stuff." And it's a great change from the old days, when... it wasn't that. I think I get played more now than I ever did before, on the radio, around the world. Some of those songs are 40 years old, some of the better ones are about 35 years old, which is quite a long while for them to be around, and they're still going strong. I can only be chuffed, and say thanks to anyone who likes me still.

Jeff Lynne's ELO’s new album Alone In The Universe is out on 13 November on Columbia