Jeff Lynne Recordings: Sonic Sparkle
IN THE opening sequence of the documentary “Mr Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO”, Mr Lynne, a British musician, saunters through his stately, panelled drawing room while plucking a ukulele. He steps outside into his garden, crosses a footbridge, and sits in a wooden chair on a grassy knoll. The camera pans around to reveal the Los Angeles skyline in front of him.
The scene says a lot about Mr Lynne and his five decade-long music career. As a singer, songwriter and producer he is known for sunny melodies and bringing clarity to labyrinthine layers of sound. With his band, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), Mr Lynne combined a love of classical strings and rock music into a series of albums (including “Out of the Blue” and “Discovery”) that helped to define the glossy sound of FM radio in the 1970s. The band had a number one hit in America with “Xanadu”, a 1980 track featuring Olivia Newton-John, and worldwide chart success with singles such as “Living Thing” and “Don’t Bring Me Down”. Mr Lynne has also crafted hit records with Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and three of the Beatles; few musicians have earned so prestigious a perch. But now, he rarely performs concerts and prefers a quieter family life to that of the average rock star.
His 1977 song “Mr Blue Sky” was prominently featured in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games in London this summer, yet Mr Lynne is “surprised and pleased” by the sudden upsurge in interest in him because of the documentary, which aired on television in Britain and America last month. The film, directed by Martyn Atkins, examines Mr Lynne’s life—from his early years growing up in Birmingham to his musical success. Famous friends, such as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Tom Petty, are all interviewed in the course of the documentary.
Mr Atkins’s film also documents Mr Lynne’s note-for-note re-recording of ELO’s greatest hits, for which he played nearly all of the instruments and then produced the tracks on an Apple computer in his living room studio. The resulting album, “Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra”, released this autumn, landed him on the Billboard Top 200 (his first appearance since 2001) and on the current UK album charts.
Re-recording the old songs had little to do with money and everything to do with technology, claims Mr Lynne. “It was a gradual thing of listening to an old ELO song on the radio and going, ‘Hmm, it doesn’t sound like I thought it did.’ The songs were getting a bit woolly.” His updated versions have more sonic sparkle than the original recordings. New technology (such as “Pro Tools”) has much to answer for here. With such equipment, Mr Lynne explains, “you don’t have to compromise.”
As well as his own back catalogue, Mr Lynne was at the producing helm of Tom Petty’s “Full Moon Fever”, George Harrison’s “Cloud Nine” and the Travelling Wilburys’ albums (a side-project with Bob Dylan, George Harrison and others in the late 1980s). He established himself as both tunesmith and technician—balancing the intricacy of his songs’ arrangements against simple choruses and clean production.
Mr Lynne’s love of arranging is something he attributes to his childhood memories of the standards, several of which he recorded at home for his recent solo album, “Long Wave”. It includes compositions by Charlie Chaplin, Don Everly, and Chuck Berry, but he likes the Rodgers and Hammerstein number the best. “I never dreamed I would sing ‘If I Loved You’ [from the 1945 musical, “Carousel”],” he says. “It’s such an un-rock ‘n’ roll song. My dad used to play that one all the time. I think I managed it by doing my own arrangement.”
The documentary and recent recordings show that Mr Lynne’s singing voice has retained its precision and warmth, especially with ballads such as “She” and “Love is a Many-Splendoured Thing”. Mr Lynne says he gave up touring in 1982, “so my voice has been spared every night of shouting all night long.” Of Orbison’s stylistic influence upon his singing, Mr Lynne says, “His voice could make you shudder with pleasure.” But producing has always been his passion, and he is enjoying being prolific at the moment, even if his most frequent client is himself. “I’ve been working six days a week for three years on my own stuff, so that’s pretty good, isn’t it?”
“Long Wave” and “Mr Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra” are out now. “Mr Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO” will be available for pre-order from iTunes in December 2012 and on DVD in 2013
Photo: Screen shot from Mr. Blue Sky
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