Jeff Lynne Explains How Electric Light Orchestra Came Back to Life

The Traveling Wilbury on ELO's new LP, why most past members aren't along for the ride and what's happening next

Next month, Jeff Lynne returns with 'Alone in the Universe,' the first ELO album in 14 years. Credit: Peter Still/Getty

On September 14th, 2014 an extremely nervous Jeff Lynne walked onstage at London's Hyde Park for his first major Electric Light Orchestra concert since the group folded in 1986. "We were fenced off by the BBC, and I couldn't see the audience," he says. "I was walking up the stairs with my fingers crossed, hoping that people hadn't gone home since they already saw the act they came to see."

But as he burst into the opening notes of "All Over the World," he saw a sea of 50,000 fans singing along. "I felt such relief that all these people were there, screaming and clapping to every song," he says. "It made me feel really good. I was just knocked out, just the most wonderful crowd I'd ever seen. I had so much fun doing it, I decided to come back and do a new album."

This wasn't the first time Lynne attempted to resurrect Electric Light Orchestra. In the summer of 2001, he released Zoom (the first ELO album since 1986's Balance of Power) and booked an ambitious arena tour to promote it. He taped a VH1 Storytellers concert and a PBS concert, but ticket sales were so dismal, the entire tour was canceled. "That showed me I probably shouldn't even bother," Lynne says. "My manager spared me the details of everything, but I wasn't too demoralized because I got some tunes in films and I just love recording."

It seemed like a permanent death sentence for ELO, and in the aftermath, Lynne returned to his day job as a record producer, but slowly he began seeing a groundswell of interest in his old band and offers began coming in. Getting the band back onto the stage still remained a distant thought until BBC DJ Chris Evans began pushing the issue on the air. His listeners responded in such overwhelming numbers that Lynne agreed to give it a try.

After the triumphant Hyde Park show, Lynne returned back to his Los Angeles home full of energy, which he transferred to the sessions for ELO's upcoming album, Alone in the Universe, out November 13th. The LP was cut across 18 months at Lynne's home studio, with the singer-songwriter playing nearly instrument himself. "I did everything except the shaker and the tambourine, which my engineer Steve [Jay] played," says Lynne. "It was just a two-man exercise, with him manning all the lifeboats and me doing all the singing and playing."

The end result, credited to Jeff Lynne's Electric Light Orchestra, has a vintage ELO feel with a few modern touches. Lead single "When I Was a Boy" was inspired by Lynne's memories of his childhood. "My interest in music grabbed me when I was a boy," he says. "I used to go under my bed listening to the crystal set [radio.] There weren't many good stations back then. You only got about an hour of pop music and that was on a Saturday night. That's what led to the song, which was one of the quickest I've ever written lyrically and musically."

The title track was inspired by an article Lynne read about the Voyager 1 probe leaving the solar system, becoming the first man-made object to enter interstellar space. "It tickled me thinking about that," he says. "I mean, how lonely can you get? I sort of turned it into a missing-somebody type of deal like Voyager 1 was missing Voyager 2, so I turned it into people."

Lynne's singing voice is remarkably well-preserved, especially considering that he turns 68 in December. That's at least partially due to the fact that, unlike most of his peers, he hasn't blown it out on the road. ELO, which had huge success in the 1970s with massive hits like "Evil Woman," "Mr. Blue Sky" and "Don't Bring Me Down," saw their fortunes decline as musical tastes shifted in the 1980s. They last played a real tour in 1982 and disbanded completely after a tiny run of shows four years later.

Months after the tour wrapped, Lynne was asked to produce George Harrison's 1987 album, Cloud Nine, which was a huge comeback for the Beatle, giving him the hit "Got My Mind Set on You." "It gave me a whole new career," says Lynne, who crafted big singles for Tom Petty and Roy Orbison in the following two years before teaming up with them, along with Bob Dylan, in the Traveling Wilburys. "It was a marvelous time," says Lynne. "I thought to myself, 'Wow, I should have been doing this years ago.'"

The others members of ELO didn't have anywhere near the success Lynne had on his own, so in 1989, drummer Bev Bevan formed a group called ELO Part II, which by 2000 evolved into the Orchestra with a rotating crew of musicians. This roped Lynne into all sorts of legal battles, causing bitterness that persists to this day. "It's water under the bridge," he says. "But I don't like talking about them. It's just people pretending to be ... What happens is that the name gets changed to ELO, or the promoter changes it, and I have to sue them every time."

Lynne says he hasn't spoken to Bevan in about 30 years, but original ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy was on hand for the Hyde Park show and will be involved in all future live activity. (No other past member is involved in the new group.) "Richard is my lifetime man in the group," says Lynne. "He'd be in the studio with me when other people wouldn't be. It's just my choice. He's a great musician, a great piano player and I really enjoy his company."

There are no ELO shows on the books right now, though Lynne says his manager is planning some big concerts in England in the spring. Plans for American shows are a little more tenuous, and the hope is obviously to avoid the Zoom fiasco and book conservatively. "It would probably be a mixture of theaters and arenas in America," says Lynne. "To be honest, I love theaters because the sound is always so much better."

For now, Lynne is taking things one step at a time. "As far as more shows, we'll see what happens," he says. "It it goes well, I'll certainly do more stuff. Let's hope it goes well."