In the 1970s the Electric Light Orchestra owned the airwaves in Britain and the US. They’ve racked up 27 hits in the UK alone, including Sweet Talking Woman, Telephone Line and Mr Blue Sky; songs which fused Beatles-inspired harmonies with swooping riffs and lavish strings. Behind it all was Jeff Lynne, the group’s perma-bearded, sunglasses-wearing guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and producer.
ELO disbanded in 1986. Lynne revived the brand briefly for 2001’s underwhelming Zoom album before calling time on the group again. “I thought that was it for ELO,” admits Lynne, who spent the 2000s producing albums for George Harrison and Tom Petty and making the occasional solo record.
But the man – and the brand – have enjoyed an Indian summer, beginning with September 2014’s headline appearance at BBC Radio 2’s Festival In A Day in front of a 50,000-strong crowd at a sold-out Hyde Park in London, and culminating with a just-released new ELO album, Alone In The Universe.
In 2015, the 67-year-old Jeff Lynne – still bearded, still wearing those sunglasses – has been on the comeback trail. And he can’t quite believe his good fortune.
Was it the Hyde Park show that inspired you to make the new album?
Yes. I’d made a couple of tracks before I came over, but that gig convinced me to finish the album. It had been twenty-eight years since I last played live [with ELO], so I didn’t know if anyone would still care. I thought half of them might have gone home by the time we played.
You thought you’d be playing to a half-empty park?
Yes. I was very nervous. Then when I saw all those people there, my next question was: I wonder if we’re going to be any good? But the love I felt coming off that crowd… Sometimes I couldn’t hear myself sing – they were louder than me.
Your last two albums – Armchair Theatre in 1990 and Long Wave in 2012 – were credited to Jeff Lynne. Why did you decide to bring back the ELO name now?
It’s now Jeff Lynne’s ELO – because it’s mine and it’s about time I owned up to it. There have been other variations [former ELO drummer Bev Bevan formed ELO Part II in 1990]. So I wanted to make it clear what this is. It’s not a big-headed thing… [laughs]. Well it is, actually… But I play all the instruments on this album.
Is it easier being a one-man band than working with session musicians like you did in the seventies?
Yes. There’s no one there to hold me to ransom any more [laughs]. When we made [fourth ELO album] Eldorado, the string players were sat there with copies of The Daily Mirror on their music stands, watching the clock, waiting to go home as soon as they could.
It sounds like a very personal album. Presumably the song When I Was A Boy is about you growing up in 1950s Birmingham.
That’s exactly what it’s about. Listening to Radio Luxembourg on a crystal set, and later on my mum’s transistor radio, and wanting to make music of my own.
How did you start making music?
I was round my friend’s house, and I looked in his cupboard and found a plastic Elvis Presley guitar with one string on it. I learned how to play every Shadows song – on one string, using one finger.
When did you get the other five strings?
When my dad bought me a Spanish guitar. When I Was A Boy is about that period of time – wanting to do this thing I was hearing on the radio but not knowing how to, learning chords, teaching myself. I later had that guitar restored, because I’d had it since I was fifteen and it was cracked and I’d carved Ringo’s name into it. Restoring it cost me two thousand quid. But that original two quid was well spent.
What about the song Dirty To The Bone, with the lyric: ‘She’ll deceive you till the cows come home’? Is that a song for ex-wives and ex-girlfriends?
Yeah, it’s for all future ex-wives. It’s fictitious, but you could say it’s a generic song for anyone who’s ever done a number on me.
This album is a family affair as well, with your daughter Laura singing on two tracks…
Yes. She sings on Love And Rain and One Step At A Time. She loves to sing but doesn’t know if she wants to do it as a career. I have two daughters and they’re American through and through. They have the twang.
You been living in Beverly Hills for more than thirty years now. How come you’ve never lost that Birmingham accent?
You can’t, apparently [laughs]. Not if you come from Birmingham. Nah, I don’t want to lose it. If I started twanging I’d sound a right twat. I know where I’m from, and I quite like the sound of it, because it’s so stupid…
You’re saying the Birmingham accent is stupid?
Ha, not stupid. But it’s just so strange to have a Brum accent in LA. People here think it’s quite exotic, though – “Ooh, I lurve the way you talk.” You don’t hear anyone saying that in Birmingham.
ELO were famous for their spaceship logo. The title track on your new album was inspired by reading about the space probe Voyager 1. Are you very interested in space?
I am, yes. I read that Voyager 1 [which was launched in 1977] has now gone out of our solar system. It got me thinking: what is the loneliest thing in the world – ever? It’s got to be being alone in the universe. Then I changed it into a song about a personal relationship. Because a bit of metal floating in space is interesting to me, but not necessarily to everyone else. It’s quite hard to understand, this Voyager thing, but it’s a good job I know Professor Brian Cox.
How did you meet him?
I met him at Eric Idle’s. Eric lives a few miles from me and he has a regular jam night. He always has good people come along, and his pals are my pals as well. Brian turned up to that, and I loved talking to him. He’s also a very good musician.
Your list of celebrity pals is impressive. Are you still in touch with your fellow Traveling Wilburys Bob Dylan and Tom Petty?
I’ve not seen Bob for years. I see Tom quite a lot. Maybe we could work together again. I don’t see why not. We did three albums together, and the first, Full Moon Fever , was my favourite. Of all the people I’ve worked with, though, Roy Orbison was my favourite.
I’m Leaving You, on Alone In The Universe, sounds very Roy Orbison.
Yeah, that’s my attempt at a Roy Orbison song. I’ve been a fan of his ever since I heard [his 1960 hit] Only The Lonely. Roy’s songs always had that little twist in them. That’s what I love about them. And that’s what I’ve done here: ‘You’re leaving me, you’re leaving me… No, I’m leaving you.’
When you played Hyde Park, only keyboard player Richard Tandy remained from the classic ELO line-up of the 70s.
Just Richard, yeah. He’ll be with me when we play again. I’ve known him since I took his place in a group in Birmingham called The Chantelles [in the mid-60s]. Richard taught me my first – and probably last – jazz chord. But he’s the only one from those days.
Do you ever speak to Bev Bevan?
No. We’re not in touch. Not for thirty years or more. That’s all gone.
Why did you re-record those old ELO songs for the 2012 album Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best Of Electric Light Orchestra?
Because I used to listen to some of those old songs and go: “Oops” or “Ouch”, because we only had a given amount of studio time to make them and we made mistakes. There were things I didn’t like, so I re-recorded them. Some people think they sound exactly the same. But it made me feel better.
You’ve said you never enjoyed touring in the seventies. Why was that?
My memory of touring in the wonderful seventies was that it was crap and I hated it. I just remember having to catch planes all the time – three planes to get to one gig – and playing loads of gigs in a row with no day off. I used to smoke back then, and I’d stay up till three in the morning, smoking and drinking and shouting, so my voice was always going. You always seemed to be standing in some airport at ten in the morning eating a hot dog cos you’ve missed breakfast in the hotel. I’ve given up smoking since then.
What about drinking?
Oh no [looks appalled]. I can’t give up everything. I still like a drink.
So you don’t miss being part of a band any more?
No. I have an engineer. But you can get a million sounds now just at the push of a button – including a string section [laughs]. These days you can get the ‘cellos’ to do slides and glissandos. I love being in the studio and just building a song up. I don’t make albums like other people. It’s like I’m working on a building site: the drums are the first floor, then the riffs and the harmonies go on top of that…
Did you build this new album at home, then?
Yes. I recorded it in every room in my house. Every room is wired up for sound – the bedrooms, the bathrooms…
What sound do you go for in the bathroom?
Cowbells. Silly things like that. Anything bright-sounding that needs some top end on.
You’ve just co-produced Bryan Adams’s new album, Get Up. How did that come about?
We first met when I went to see him at the Birmingham NEC. Then he came to see me in LA last year and said he wanted to do a rocking album – all uptempo. He left some ideas with me, and I did all the backing and sent them to him through the internet. Then he sent them back with his vocals on, through the internet. We did three or four songs like that. It was a brilliant new way of working that I’d never tried before – not even in the same room together. But you’d never know to listen to it.
Apart from Bryan’s new album, have you listened to any other new music recently?
No. I haven’t listened to the radio since I started making my new album. It puts me off. If I’m in a taxi and the driver has the radio on I ask them to turn it off. It’s not interesting to me. If I’m being driven somewhere it’s usually to make music, so I’m always thinking about an idea I want to try out.
What about when you’re not making a new record – do you listen then?
[Laughs] I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t making a new record.
You once said you’re rarely happier than when you’re in the studio with the headphones on, thinking: “This is the bloody life.”
It’s true. But these days I don’t do those ridiculous twenty-hour recording sessions any more. I may only do five hours a day now. I’ve got my girlfriend and I like to go out for dinner and have some fun.
And you’re going to be touring again?
So my manager tells me [laughs]. I’d had enough of playing live until I played Hyde Park. That’s given me a taste for it. But we won’t tour like we did in the seventies. It’ll be more fun. I never thought this would happen, but lots of places want to have us now. I still can’t quite believe it.
Alone In The Universe is out now via Columbia.