The Second Coming of Jeff Lynne
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.”
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