Jeff Lynne returns from a decade-plus hiatus this week, releasing not one, but two new albums. The first is Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra, an album where Lynne re-records 12 ELO super-hits. The second is Long Wave, a collection of covers of songs from the '50s and '60s that marks Lynne's first official solo album since 1990's Armchair Theatre. Lynne talked with AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine about the creation of both albums.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine: Congratulations on having the two albums coming out. I was curious which one you started on first. Was it Long Wave or the ELO re-recordings?
Jeff Lynne: They were done more or less simultaneously. I was working on them both for the last three years.
STE: What was the impetus for the ELO re-recordings?
JL: I used to listen to them on the radio, my old ELO records, and go "Oh wow, it's not quite as good as I thought it was." It's not that it's bad – it just doesn't quite sound the way that I thought it did when I originally recorded them. Since then I've had many more years – like 30 more years – experience so I thought I'd try re-recording "Mr. Blue Sky" to start with, just to see what I could get it to sound like. And I was very pleased with the results. I played it for my manager and he said, "Oh wow, it sounds so much better. Why don't you try another one and see how you get on?" I did "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic" and they came out really well, crisp and clear. That's what I was looking for. The old ones, not that they're bad – I still like them very much – but they got a bit wooly in places, just sort of not punchy enough.
STE: Are there any specific songs that bother you? Is "Mr Blue Sky" one of the ones you hear on the radio and immediately hear the wooliness?
JL: Yeah, that's one of them. I mean, they all have that kind of effect on me. I just wanted to give them more clarity and presence and hopefully that's what I did. It was great fun revisiting them. I knew them inside out anyway, because I've been playing them onstage for years as well. It wasn't a big deal to learn them again, because I've never forgotten them.
So it was a good thing I finally accomplished this. And it's been years since I felt that way about them – that I would like to try [recording the songs] again – and I had the time to do it, so I thought, "Let's do it." This time around, I got all the time in the world, there's no deadlines, no tour, nothing waiting in the wings for me to rush it with, so it was a pleasure to actually do it again and really take a lot of time over them. Because in the old days, I would do an album in six weeks and then take it to the record company, they'd put it out and I'd be on tour again three weeks later promoting it. So it was quite a hectic time in those old ELO days.
STE: The method of production is much different now than it was back then. Did you record digitally?
JL: I've learned so much as a producer in those years, and the technology that has been invented during that period, and the whole recording scene is totally different. Using digital is so much more fun than the old analog stuff. It's been about 10 years since I've used tape now.
STE: Do you miss it at all?
JL: Not one little bit. Except maybe the only thing I might miss is tape phasing, which you can never quite get – you can get it nearly as good but not quite as deep as on tape. Apart from that, the digital system is just magnificent compared to what we had 30 years ago.
STE: And it really seemed like you were pushing the limits of what the studio could do back in the '70s with the original ELO recordings.
JL: We probably were stretching it a bit, because I wanted probably a little bit more than it could do at the time. I didn't know there weren't really any rules – you just tried to bend it, bend the sound and shape it. You still do the same thing in digital but what used to take days now takes minutes. That's the difference.
STE: Does that let your imagination run a little wild?
JL: Well, certainly you could go mad if you wanted to! [Laugh] You could go completely nuts in the studio because now you can do the most ridiculous things – stuff you would never want to do, but could if you wanted. You know, it's really amazing between a tape recorder and a digital system.
STE: Were any of the songs particularly tricky to re-record? Did any of them pose a problem or was it all fairly easy?
JL: Not really a problem, some of them are harder to get sound-wise than others. There were certain sounds on some of them that are quite difficult to get again. I like to hear a bit of room on things, let some air move in natural recording, and that's a sound that you really can't get unless you physically do it. Record it in quite a big room with a couple of mics at a distance and that's when you get the old-fashioned kind of room sound on a record. That's the sound I still love. It's an inspiring sound to me.
STE: I like your point about the new versions being clearer and brighter. It's interesting to me because they have those qualities but they don't sound cold; there's a warmth to them.
JL: There's a reason for that, and it's because it's all recorded analog first. That's how the sounds begin their life, and that's why it's warm still.
STE: You've revisited "Do Ya" three different times now. What's the enduring appeal of that song?
JL: Ha! When I wrote that one, I was actually in the Move and it was a song I was doing in my front room in Birmingham on my B&L tape recorder. And I got a great sound on the original demos. I was really loving the song, the actual backing track that I made. As luck would have it, they put it out in America and it got into the Top 100 for some reason, which was great, it was a surprise to me. When ELO started to do well, I thought that "Do Ya" should be brought into an ELO mode and it worked great. And that's why I recorded it again. This time, I recorded it again because I wanted it in me Top 11 [Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra].
STE: You said you started working on Long Wave at roughly the same time you were working on these new versions of ELO. Was it a nostalgic frame of mind that brought you back to these songs that are largely from the '50s and early '60s?
JL: Well, you know what? I'd been thinking of doing these old songs for a few years before I actually sat down to do it. I got a few I was really desperate to do because they were so classy and full of wonderful music and quality. I just wanted to see how they worked, so I sat and listened to them – maybe a hundred times each song – just to get into it so deeply, so I learned every little instrument, all the parts, and that's how I would do it. Then I would put a click down, and then just put a guitar part down. and then the bass or whatever, and then some drums and then the piano – any audio really, I usually have a system. And what I tried to do was avoid all those big arrangements and bring them smaller again. Because they were all a bit grand, all those arrangements, on the old records.
STE: I think that's one of the really distinctive things about Long Wave is that it stays true to the spirit of the songs but also the arrangements and productions are distinctly yours, so they're pretty fresh takes on these songs we've heard many times before.
JL: Yeah! That's why I wanted to do them, to try to make them my own style, rebuilding them in a smaller way. That's why you've got to delve right to the very bottom of the song to get every little nuance of it, you know. I never really sat down to learn them because they always sounded so complicated I thought it would take me years to learn them. But it didn't. Once I sussed out the guitar part, the rest of it was just so easy. It all became simple in the mind. When I was a kid, when I used to hear them, I used to think, "What the hell is that?" It's so complicated, like the Richard Rodgers one, for instance, "If I Loved You." Sounded like the most complicated thing I ever heard. When I came to record it this time, once I got the guitar part it was the simplest little thing. It was just the arrangements that were throwing me and not allowing me to learn the song. But once I got the arrangements off them, real simple.
STE: In learning these songs very deeply, did you find any connections between your own songwriting and compositions?
JL: What I did notice is that in some of these big old songs, like Richard Rodgers for instance, I did use some of those chord changes – not the same as the song but those type of chords – in a lot of my ELO stuff. As George [Harrison] would call it, the "naughty chord" – diminished. Also the augmented [chord] is a little bit naughty as well. They'd have lots of those in those old tunes, they're always in there, and they're very odd chords, they don't behave like other chords! You can do strange things with them. I was actually doing things like they did anyway in my ELO stuff before, so it wasn't such a great big mystery to me learning them.
STE: How did you go about selecting the songs?
JL: The first one I did of all is one of the newest ones, it was "She." I selected that because I loved the song. Mainly, what drives me to do these things is the chords and the melody and if the words are good, it's like, "Wow, this is the one: it's brilliant." It's a whole package, you know, you can't resist it. I kept coming across other ones from the '50s and '60s, just gradually built it up, the collection. I probably had four or five more than that but I only wanted to do 11 of them.
STE: As you pointed out, "She" is one of the latter songs. A lot of them are from the late '50s to just before the Beatles hit, it seems.
JL: That was the sort of thing I was trying to convey, the period when I got a crystal set and used to listen in bed. And me dad had the radio on all day long when he was home, which was all weekend. So I'd hear all these songs all the time, whether it was on the radio or the record player. He was mad for music, and so I had music all day long, basically. My dad got me a guitar in late '63, and I started to learn to play that. Obviously, I was learning all the simple things, not those big complicated ones. Luckily, the lead guitarist of this local professional group called Mike Sheridan & The Nightriders, his name was Big Al. I used to go and watch 'em play and not know what the hell they were doing because it was so good – it was professional and it was sounding fantastic. I'd just go and beg for a go on his Fender Stratocaster, you know, and he was a lovely guy and he'd say, "Sure" and he'd leave it unplugged for me when they were packing the gear up at the end of the dance. And he'd show me a couple of Chuck Berry riffs or something, and I'd run up the street – because I used to live right by there – I'd run up the street and practice them until I got them in me little bag of tricks.
STE: That's an interesting thing about Long Wave. Usually when you hear a description of a "standards album" you wouldn't expect to have "Let It Rock" thrown in there or "Mercy Mercy", and I like that it has that blend of Everly Brothers and Richard Rodgers.
JL: I wanted to make it very eclectic so you couldn't really pin it down as a particular era, it's just that there's a certain style to it. That's what I was trying to do. I did them purely for the brilliance of the songs and my admiration for those guys that wrote them, including the lyricists, obviously. These are fantastic lyricists – Oscar Hammerstein to mention but one – all have something really special about them.
It's almost like when you finish [recording] one, it's like "Wow, I can't believe I actually done it." It's one of those songs that was a total mystery before, and then suddenly I've solved all the problems and I've got it and I've learned it. It's all done with all the proper care and attention and love. And that's why it was such great fun. It's such a great feeling of satisfaction from actually getting it right and listening back and going "YES! It's all bloody right! Every bit of it!"
STE: So would you do another project like this, or are you looking for new compositions of your own sometime soon?
JL: Actually, I have eight brand new compositions towards a new album next year, hopefully. I need another three songs to finish it off. I've probably got them, but I'm always trying new little bits and pieces. Hopefully that'll be next year with brand new songs.
STE: You've had a pretty busy last couple of years with the two new albums, plus you just produced Joe Walsh.
JL: I did four tracks on there [Analog Man]. It was great fun because he's a great pal. He did the solo on "Analog Man" and it blew me mind, it was so cool – it was like this drunken tightrope walker but it's a beautiful slide guitar solo. So, anyway, I was working six days a week all the time on the two albums – Long Wave and Mr. Blue Sky – and I was intently into it. It was a great productive time for me.
Listen to some of AllMusic's favorite Jeff Lynne songs: