Modesty is a rarity in rock ’n’ roll. But for a hit-writer, producer and rock star, Jeff Lynne displays none of the super-sized ego normally associated with those jobs. It may explain why the 71-year old ELO frontman has worn sunglasses for the best part of 40 years. ‘I suppose it is sort of a “hiding-behind” mechanism,’ Lynne confesses. ‘But I’m not so bad as I used to be. And I actually need glasses now. I can’t be doing without them.’
Lynne is a backroom boy at heart, preferring the solitude of the studio to the red carpet of Hollywood. After half a century of chart success, the bearded Brummie still favours a cup of British tea over the hollow chink of the celebrity champagne flute.
He has the Beverly Hills mansion, the 50 million album sales, the legendary buddies and the suspiciously brown hair but Lynne is defiantly private and self-effacing.
He has the Beverly Hills mansion, the 50 million album sales, the legendary buddies and the suspiciously brown hair but Jeff Lynne is defiantly private and self-effacing
Throughout the Seventies he created a multitude of Top Ten smashes, including Mr Blue Sky, Roll Over Beethoven, Evil Woman and Livin’ Thing. Now he is releasing his first new collection in four years, From Out Of Nowhere, which recalls the lush ELO formula of yore. But some things never change. Lynne’s writing still has a lonesome feel. ‘That comes from my hero worship of Del Shannon and Roy Orbison,’ he explains. ‘Roy particularly had a lonely time, and when I was a kid, about 13, 14, that was a big influence on me. ’
Lynne became close to Orbison in the Eighties supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. ‘When you got to know Roy he was a lot different to the polished exterior,’ Lynne reveals. ‘He could do a Monty Python sketch all the way through, with all the voices.
‘When we were doing that song You Got It, Roy sang it well all through on the first go but I was really terrified that we weren’t getting it all on tape. But we did, luckily.’
Lynne in the Eighties with supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan
There are now just two Wilburys left, Lynne and Dylan, following the deaths of Orbison (1988), George Harrison (2001) and Petty two years ago. ‘Tom died much too young,’ sighs Lynne sadly.
You wonder if Lynne is still minded of his chums when he is working today. ‘I’m sure I’m always thinking of them at some point,’ he says, adding that he can feel the spirit of the very much alive Dylan ‘when I’m at home trying to do the words. I tell you, you don’t want Bob hanging around when you’re writing lyrics.’
Lynne also remembers his friend Harrison fondly. ‘I was great pals with George for ten years,’ Lynne smiles. ‘He asked me if I’d work on his album Cloud Nine but he said, “Fancy going on holiday first?” So, we went to Australia to watch the Grand Prix in Adelaide. It was quite a trip.’
Lynne is a backroom boy at heart, preferring the solitude of the studio to the red carpet of Hollywood
Paul McCartney describes Lynne as ‘funny, shy, ever so clever, great musician… and a total t***!’ So, Lynne laughs when I paraphrase Alan Partridge to ask: were ELO the band The Beatles could have been? ‘John Lennon used to say that kind of thing.’
Lennon was a big fan of ELO, calling them the ‘sons of Beatles’ on a New York radio station in 1974. He especially liked Showdown, describing the song as ‘a beautiful job’.
Lennon’s favourite ELO tune also features some of Lynne’s best guitar playing. ‘I did that on Marc Bolan’s guitar, a Gibson Firebird. He was in the next studio and popped in.’
As a producer, Lynne is most proud of the work he did on Free As A Bird, the single that promoted The Beatles’ Anthology 1 album in 1995. The three remaining Beatles recorded around Lennon’s 1977 demo tape and created a new track, with Lynne’s assistance. ‘I just had to improvise and come up with a few things to make it work,’ he says. ‘I did it late at night, 3am in the studio, just me and the engineer, because I didn’t want to do it in front of Paul and George. But I came in the next day and Paul gave me a hug and he said, “You’ve done it, well done!”’
‘It was super, that,’ he says quietly. ‘Really, really nice.’
‘From Out Of Nowhere’ is released on Friday. Jeff Lynne’s Radio 2 In Concert will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds on November 7