Twelve years ago, Jeff Lynne was on the road in America, the leader of one of the splashiest and most commercially successful rock tours anyone had attempted up to that point. Emerging each night from a massive spaceship, he and the Electric Light Orchestra entertained more than a million fans with their heavily orchestrated pop tunes, dancing cellists and caroming lasers. As the band crisscrossed the U.S., its double album Out of the Blue was flying out of stores, eventually selling about five million copies and yielding two huge hits, "Sweet Talkin' Woman" and "Mr. Blue Sky."
Though ELO continued to release records for the next eight years — and, indeed, scored numerous hits — the summer of that tour marked the beginning of a long, downhill slide for Lynne. "I just lost my way, totally," he says. "In the beginning, ELO was supposed to be very avant-garde, very off the wall. And then, once I started having hits, it drifted from that. Suddenly the record companies and managers were clamoring for hits. And I tried to cater to the fuckers. And it grew into this monstrous thing that I didn't want. I got to feel trapped, and I didn't have a clue as to what was going on. It was a fuckin' drag."
Lynne pauses and lights a cigarette. Now 42, he looks much the same as he did back in 1978. He's still got the beard, the mustache and the frizzy hair — though it's a bit thinner, with a few strands of gray in it — and he still keeps his eyes hidden behind tinted aviator shades. He takes a drag from his cigarette and continues: "It's like another era now. It's a different world. I branched out and did this whole other thing. And I consider myself very lucky. Everybody comes down for a while. And the thing is, most people stay down."
It's one of the hottest days in the history of England — the temperature has climbed into the upper 90s — and Lynne is sitting on a park bench in the middle of London's posh Mayfair section. He's in town to promote his first solo album, Armchair Theatre. But in the years following the breakup of ELO in 1986, Lynne's career has taken so many unexpected turns that there are plenty of other topics of conversation. Since producing George Harrison's 1987 comeback album, Cloud Nine, Lynne has become one of the most in-demand producers in rock. Among his credits are Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, which was the singer's biggest-selling album ever, and tracks for Randy Newman, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson and the late Roy Orbison. Lynne also served as co-producer of The Traveling Wilburys, Volume I, the debut album by the all-star band that featured Orbison, Petty, Harrison, Bob Dylan — and Lynne.
In fact, Lynne has just driven to London from Harrison's house in Henleyon-Thames, where the two have been mixing tracks for the next album by the Wilburys, due this October. "After the first album, we all wanted to do a bit more," Lynne says. "It's not very often you get to work with all these people together. It's almost like a club. It's a relief to everybody to be able to do something a bit off the wall, rather than worrying, 'Oh, I can't say that because I'm George Harrison.' It's fun, and we can do what we like."
Sessions for the album began in April at a 1920s-era house the group rented high above Beverly Hills. As on the first album, the recording process was entirely spontaneous. "We just set up in the library, the four of us with acoustic guitars and Jim Keltner on drums, and we just started writing songs," Lynne says. "We actually sit down and do them right on the spot. We got the first song going in half an hour, and we started recording it in probably an hour. One take and it's done. Then we start another one. If we get stuck, there's always somebody who'll go, 'Well, hang on, if we can't get out of that, let's go over here, let's try this chord.' Sometimes it's me who says that. Sometimes it's Bob, or Tom, or George. It's really like a co-op."
While much of the music is collaborative, the Wilburys tend to rely on Dylan for the lyrics. "We all throw in ideas and words," Lynne says. "But when you've got a lyricist like Bob Dylan — well, what are you gonna do?" After the release of the first album, the music business was rife with rumors that Dylan was a reluctant Wilbury, not eager to help out with such promotional chores as videos and interviews. "Yeah, there were those rumors," Lynne says somewhat evasively. "But I think it was because it was such a wacky idea. I don't know whether Dylan even felt that he should be doing it. But he never ceases to amaze me. It depends on his mood — well, that's not the right word, I suppose. But sometimes he'll go in and he'll sing the best fuckin' thing you've ever heard. Like equally as good as any blues singer. But he doesn't always do that...."
This time around, the rumor mill has it that the Wilburys will actually hit the road. Lynne confirms that a tour has been discussed — "at night, when we've had a few beers" — but adds that the logistics and the band members' heavily booked schedules may render it impossible. And later, after taking refuge from the heat in a nearby pub, Lynne flatly denies another rumor: that singer Del Shannon had been tapped to replace Orbison in the Wilburys before Shannon committed suicide earlier this year. "That was never planned," Lynne says. "Del didn't think that, either." The story probably came about, Lynne says, because he and Petty had recorded four songs with Shannon prior to his death; though the tracks are not quite finished, Lynne hopes they will eventually be released.
The idea for the Wilburys emerged during the recording of Harrison's Cloud Nine, when Lynne and the former Beatle would fantasize about their ultimate rock & roll band, which they called the Trembling Wilburys. That the group became a reality turned out to be only one of the benefits Lynne derived from working with Harrison. "The great thing was that we had so much fun making the record that suddenly my enthusiasm and my vision came back, and I could see what I wanted to do," says Lynne. "Luckily, it's stayed with me."
An avowed Beatles fanatic — when he and Roy Wood formed ELO in 1971, they said it would "Pick up where 'I Am the Walrus' left off" — Lynne had only met Harrison once prior to being asked to produce Cloud Nine. In 1968, when he was a member of a band called the Idle Race, Lynne was invited to a session for the Beatles' White Album at Abbey Road Studios. "George and John were in one studio, with George Martin conducting, doing the strings for 'Glass Onion,' " Lynne says. "And Paul and Ringo were in the other studio doing 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road.' It was like getting into Buckingham Palace or something. It was the rarest treat of them all."
While recording Cloud Nine, Lynne met Lenny Waronker, an accomplished producer who's now president of Warner Bros. Records, which distributes Harrison's label Dark Horse. Waronker took an instant liking to Lynne and later enlisted him to work on a number of dream projects, including producing cuts by Brian Wilson and Randy Newman. In addition, Waronker offered Lynne the opportunity to do a solo album, giving him complete artistic control. "I said, 'Oh, yeah. I'll make it, and you'll say, "It's very nice, but we don't hear a single on it," ' " Lynne says. "They said, 'No, we ain't gonna say that. We just want you to make a record.' "
Armchair Theatre — the title is lifted from an old British television series — was recorded in a studio Lynne recently built in the dining room of his 15th-century house in Warwickshire, about eighty miles northwest of London. (Lynne commutes between England and Los Angeles, where he has a house in Beverly Hills. His wife and their two young daughters spend most of their time in California.) Though a few typical Lynne touches are evident on the album — occasional strings and, most notably, his gorgeous trademark background harmonies — it has much more in common with his recent productions than with ELO. An unusual mix of material, it includes an Indian-flavored song ("Now You're Gone"), a cover of a Fifties rocker ("Don't Let Go") and versions of two standards ("Stormy Weather" and "September Song"). Lynne was moved to record the latter two after his mother died last year. "It was sort of a tribute," he says. "Plus, people just can't write songs like that anymore, with that kind of melody and chord structure and lyrics."
But while Lynne keeps trying to move farther from his past, it seems as if ELO just won't go away. Epic Records recently released Afterglow, a three-CD anthology of Lynne's work with the band. His only involvement was as an advisor — and most of his advice was rejected by the record company, though he did succeed in getting the label to eliminate some songs ELO had recorded for the soundtrack to the film Xanadu. As for the rest of the elaborate box set, Lynne says, "It's good — though some of the early stuff is unbelievable. I mean, I've never heard anything like it. I can't imagine what I was thinking."
Potentially more troubling is the prospect of a record and tour by a group calling itself ELO, Part 2, an attempt by former ELO drummer Bev Bevan to cash in on the band's lingering fame. "He wants to dig it all up again," says Lynne. "To me, it's silly. At one point, I thought about suing him — I mean, I did write all the songs for ELO, except for one by Chuck Berry, and I produced them all. But in the end, I thought, well, why go to all the expense of two years in court? I decided it isn't worth the bother. It's nothing to do with me at all."
Though he says he wants to get some rest after the Wilburys album is finished, Lynne is already scheduled to cowrite and produce three or four new songs for a greatest-hits album by Petty and the Heartbreakers, and he's got dozens of other offers on the table, including one from Axl Rose, who wants Lynne to arrange a couple of songs for Guns n' Roses' next LP. (Lynne has also collaborated on two songs with Roy Wood, his former partner in the Move and the original ELO.)
And then, of course, there's Armchair Theatre, which got off to a slow start in the U.S. Lynne hopes the album will get a boost from its second single, "Lift Me Up." But if it doesn't, he insists he won't be crushed. "My whole life doesn't depend on it doing well," he says. "The fact is, all me mates can have a copy, and they can go, 'Oh, that's a good one,' or whatever. And it is good. I'm proud of it. And if it's a success, it's a luxury. And if it's not, well, it might dent my ego a bit, but it's not a matter of life and death."