Jeff Lynne on Being Honored by Tom Petty and Joe Walsh: 'I Never Knew If I Was Any Good at All'
“I probably won’t get the giant head,” Jeff Lynne quips as he walks into a lounge at Capitol Records following the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Thursday. “I’ll let you know in a week or so.”
That Lynne has to be concerned about this is forgivable. He has just spent half an hour listening to Tom Petty and Joe Walsh sing his praises at the ceremony. After Walsh called the ELO mastermind “a true musical genius” and “one of the greatest stars rock has ever produced,” Petty went even further. The rock icon called Lynne “the best overall musician I’ve ever met” and hailed Lynne as “the single greatest record producer I’ve ever encountered. Let’s put it this way, it says a lot when The Beatles get back together and George Martin can’t make it, they get Jeff Lynne.”
The British producer, who's a favorite among musicians, made a triumphant return to the stage last September headlining Hyde Park for 50,000 fans. That was followed by a Grammy appearance this year. There's more on the way with the first new ELO album since 2001’s Zoom nearly completed, according to Lynne, with a tour following. Billboard spoke with Lynne about his Walk of Fame honor, his own self-doubts and memories of jamming to Elvis Presley as a kid in Birmingham, England.
Do you remember when you first heard about the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
I knew it existed because of film programs. I never knew that it had rock and roll on it until probably about 20 years ago. When you start seeing those names going down there it’s like, “Should I be here or what? Where’s the other Walk of Fame? Oh, that’s my one, down by the bins around the corner.” It was just so thrilling to think of all that and then having Tom and Joe say all those lovely things, it was very moving to me. You just think you’re doing your bit and you don’t realize that it’s appreciated that much.
Most musicians say respect from their peers is the best compliment.
It is the best compliment and I never used to produce anyone else until I did George Harrison’s Cloud Nine album. That was the first outside production I’ve done not doing my own songs, but doing somebody else’s and helping to co-write some of it. So it’s been about 27 years I’ve been producing other people and still making albums of my own as well. It means the world because I never knew if I was any good at all.
Are there moments where you started to get comfortable with what you’ve done and your sound?
Not really. I actually re-recorded an album, Mr. Blue Sky, which was like 10 or 11 of my hits re-recorded from scratch. And I loved doing that, I really enjoyed having another go at them because there were a few things I’ve always wanted to change. So playing it from scratch again is like the whole thing’s changed, but I tried to make it sound exactly the same, only fixed the bits I didn’t like.
So when you think about taking these songs back on tour, they’re all fresh for you and you’ve approached them all with a new perspective.
I find that they all change over the years. When you think, “What was that about? I thought it was about something else completely different.” And when you get maybe 25 years on and you look at it again you can see a whole different story in it, really a different thing from what you imagined in the first place.
Most artists don’t like to listen to their own material.
Oh, I do, to see where I went wrong and how I could do it again and that’s why I made the album, because I do listen to my own music maybe once every few months. It’s mainly not for anybody else’s benefit but mine. That’s why I do it really, just 'cause I think, “Oh, if only I’d put this harmony there instead of that.” And so I get a chance to try it, because I have my own studio so I can do it as long as I like without having to worry about it.
How is the new album coming?
It’s going really well and it’s nearly finished. And I don’t know how much more I can say about that. I’d love to tell you about it but I can’t just yet because it’s under wraps at the moment.
But I did see where you spoke about how recording Long Wave in 2012 allowed you to shift sonically on this album.
Learning all those wonderful old Richard Rodgers and fantastic songwriters like that, I started to learn the ways of their progressions and it just opened my mind to different chord progressions than there are in normal pop songs nowadays. Those old-fashioned chords diminished, augmented and all that, minor sixth, beautiful chords, which you don’t normally use in a pop song. So it’s given me another bit of help to get something different.
Were you always such a student of music?
I suppose. I didn’t know if I should be a drummer or a guitar player so I had this plastic Elvis guitar with the one string, that I found in somebody else’s closet by the way, and also my older sister used to have all of Elvis’ records. Whenever everybody was out I’d put the records on and play drums to them on a piano stool. So that was how I learned those songs, just by banging to [them] and pretending I was in the group. I suppose like everybody does really, but I think that’s what happened. I suppose I was learning all the while then by just about how the structure is; when you stop, when you start again, simple stuff.
Do you remember the first Elvis song that you played drums to?
I can’t because she used to have Elvis’ greatest hits -- 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, that was a great album.
Is there a favorite Elvis song today?
I think my favorite Elvis one is probably “Anyway You Want Me.” My favorite recording, it’s only bass, drums, piano and a guitar, but it sounds enormous when it comes out of the speakers. Whoever recorded that, brilliant.
What is the timeline for your upcoming tour?
It’ll probably be next year.
What makes this the right time for you to do all this stuff publicly again?
It’s a mystery to me, but I think the fact we went on TV in England, did the Save The Children, a show in London, we topped that show and that went down fantastically well. Then the BBC asked us if we wanted to top the bill in Hyde Park for 50,000 people. I was like, “You’re kidding?” 'Cause the other one was just a 4,000-seater. I agreed to it obviously cause we did it and it was just fantastic and it was a real eye-opener. It wasn’t a weird crowd or anything, it was just young and middle-aged, everybody was there, everybody you could think of. So the music is still relevant to them, which is what I find amazing.
Does seeing these kids singing along and their energy reinvigorate you?
Oh absolutely, yeah. When you see these kids enjoying themselves so much and always waving their arms in the air, always singing, it’s marvelous.