You could not meet a more unflappably matter-of-fact pop legend than Jeff Lynne. As he sits in the library of a venerable London hotel, his mellifluous Birmingham, England, accent is completely untouched by 20 years spent living in Beverly Hills (after two marriages, he’s currently dating Kiefer Sutherland’s ex-wife, Camelia Kath), and he still rocks the look of an unusually affluent ’80s roadie: shaggy hair, beard and sunglasses.
The 67-year-old’s genial normality means that he was never exactly a pop star even when Electric Light Orchestra, the band he formed as sole writer and producer in 1970, was in its string-sectioned glory. ELO placed 18 singles in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. Between 1972 and 1986, it toured arenas with a fiberglass flying saucer and mastered a brand of wistful, opulent, retro-futurist pop whose latter-day fans include Daft Punk, The Flaming Lips, director David O. Russell and Ed Sheeran, with whom Lynne duetted at the 2015 Grammy Awards. When Lynne dissolved ELO in 1986, he happily segued into the role of co-writer/producer for the likes of Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and all three of the surviving Beatles, and became the most unassuming member of baby-boomer supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, co-starring Petty, Orbison, Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
Returning as Jeff Lynne’s ELO (as it is now officially called) after a relatively quiet period, he regards his comeback — an ecstatically received live show in front of 50,000 fans in London’s Hyde Park in 2014 followed by his first new album in 14 years, Alone in the Universe — as just the latest pleasant surprise in a career full of them. “Obviously everybody’s out to make it if they can,” he says, “and I was lucky enough to do OK.”
What was the elevator pitch for ELO?
An ordinary band with two cellos and a violin. The strings were usually feeding back because there were no pickups in those days. They used to run around the stage like loonies, playing them in midair, so the tuning was dreadful but it was a good spectacle. Charging around the stage with those great big spikes on the end of them, it’s a wonder nobody got impaled.
ELO is back in vogue now, but when were you least fashionable?
Ten or 15 years ago. We were going to try to do some shows, but there was no interest. That all changed over the last five years or so. I think a lot of people realized that what I was doing wasn’t just mindless pop. It was sensible pop.
When was the first time you knew you could write a hit?
I suppose it was “10538 Overture” [in 1972]. I was chuffed with that. I remember thinking, “Wow, I can actually write one,” because I thought I couldn’t. My old band’s records, The Idle Race, hadn’t done much good except with the faithful few. Then I think “Evil Woman” [in 1975] was the one. I wrote it so quick. That’s when I got to grips with the production and songwriting at once.
When ELO was at its peak in the late ’70s, did you worry that you didn’t have the personality to be a proper pop star?
Probably. Because I wasn’t and I didn’t pretend to be. I don’t consider myself a star. I consider myself a songwriter, singer, producer and guitar player. I can sing OK, and I can write tunes.
You famously hated playing live. Was it the performing or everything else that came with it?
It sounded like shit, that was the problem. Everyone’s stuff was crap then. I’m a producer, so I get really picky. It wasn’t bad. I make it sound like it was awful. It just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
What happened to the giant spaceship you used on the 1978 tour?
I think it got broken up at the end of the tour. It would have cost hundreds of thousands to store the bloody thing. It was a big monster. It was a bit of a pain in the behind, really, because it took two days to get to the next venue so you’d have to do the show after that without it, and of course people would be going, “Where’s the flying saucer?” I should imagine they’d be a bit miffed.
Did it ever malfunction?
Yeah, it used to go wrong now and again. We were all on hydraulics and you’d come up through the stage, but sometimes it would get stuck and all they could see was your head. “Get me out of here!” Really embarrassing.
Q Magazine named “Livin’ Thing” as its top “guilty pleasure.” Does that concept annoy you?
Yeah, because it’s actually a very clever tune. It goes through two relative minors in one sweep. You don’t see many of those. I liked pop. I didn’t like all the pretentious meandering of 20-minute songs in the early ’70s. I just wanted to make a nice, concise three-minute tune that had a good sound to it. Pop to me is actually the strongest form of music, because it’s so hard to write a good melody that lives on for 40 years.
You successfully embraced disco on 1979’s Discovery. Did you ever check out the clubs?
Yeah, I went to Studio 54 once. It was all right, I suppose. It was full of film stars and all that. I just liked the four-to-the-bar basically. The bass drum going bang, bang, bang, bang.
What song has made you the most money?
Probably “Mr. Blue Sky.” It has been in a lot of films, and they pay fortunes. When I wrote it [in a [in a Swiss chalet] it had been mist and fog, and I was up in the mountains. I couldn’t see bugger all for a week and didn’t come up with any songs. Then the sun came out, and I wrote “Mr. Blue Sky” as kind of a joke. It turned into a really nice song.
Jeff Lynne’s 3 Favorite Synchs
ELO long has been a darling of music supervisors and ad directors, as the band’s leader makes his top picks
“Showdown” in Kingpin (1996)
Bill Murray (left) and Woody Harrelson face off at the bowling alley to the sound of ELO’s slow-burning 1973 hit. “They shut off all the dialogue and noise, and kept it clean as a whistle,” says Lynne.
“Mr. Blue Sky” in a Volkswagen Beetle commercial (2003)
Lynne’s optimism is the ironic soundtrack to an office worker’s routine in this ad from VW’s pre-emissions-scandal days. “It’s Mr. Brown Sky now,” jokes Lynne.
“10538 Overture” in American Hustle (2013)
ELO’s glitzy debut single epitomizes this ’70s romp, appearing in both the trailer and the final scene. “I really enjoyed what David O. Russell did,” says Lynne.
When you dissolved ELO in 1986, was the plan to move into production?
I didn’t have anything in mind particularly, but as luck would have it, that’s when George Harrison got in touch with me and asked me to produce his album Cloud Nine. Tom Petty heard that and stopped me in the street in Los Angeles and said, “Hey, Jeff. Do you fancy writing songs together?” I was a great collaborator, I discovered. It wasn’t like I imagined. And of course Full Moon Fever was a big, big hit. That’s still my favorite album that I’ve ever done.
Which member of The Traveling Wilburys told the best jokes?
Roy Orbison. He had the most wonderful laugh I’ve ever heard. It was high, so it was like a giggle. He could do a Monty Python sketch on his own, all the parts, and then he’d just collapse laughing at himself.
When you were asked to produce The Beatles’ “new” single “Free as a Bird” in 1995, did you have to silence the fan in you and let the professional take over?
I’m always going to be the fan. They spent the first day reminiscing, just George, Paul [McCartney] and Ringo [Starr] and me, sitting around the table having a laugh, telling stories about the old days. Which I can never repeat, of course. Some of them were rude ones. Just to be there for that was good enough. The other bit was a bit scarier. Actually making a record out of a cassette with John [Lennon‘s] voice and piano stuck together in mono. I did it at two or three in the morning because I didn’t want to mess it up and have them go, “Ha ha! You can’t do it!” The next day Paul comes bounding out and says, “You’ve done it! Well done!,” and gave me a great big hug. It was the best thing that could ever happen.
Is it true that back in 1968 you witnessed The Beatles recording The White Album?
Yeah, that was the weirdest thing ever. I saw Paul and Ringo in Studio One doing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.” Then I went up to Studio Two, and I could hear this tune that sounded fantastic. It was “Glass Onion.” We walked in, me and the drummer from The Idle Race. John and George both shook hands and said hello. And through the glass window was George Martin, leaping about all over the place, conducting the strings. I couldn’t sleep for weeks after that.
Does it bother you that ELO still isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
No. I’d like to be in it, but it doesn’t bother me. I have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so that one will do.
How did you end up duetting with Ed Sheeran at the Grammys?
The Grammys asked us to do it. Ed said, “I asked my dad and he said, ‘That’s good, you can sing with him.’ ” He’s a sweet lad.?
Didn’t your mom ever tell you it’s rude to wear sunglasses indoors?
No, what she said was, “You did look an old wreck on the TV,” and I immediately put on sunglasses because I didn’t want to look like that. Because I’d been out all night boozing, I suppose. She always went on about my eye bags. That’s why I’ve always worn them. People would think, “He’s turned into some flashy git with his sunglasses at night,” but it wasn’t that at all. I just didn’t want to show my eye bags.
You play every instrument on Alone in the Universe apart from shaker and tambourine. Is it easier to do it yourself?
I just enjoy it more. It’s the most fun I ever have. In my house in L.A. I have all these different rooms I use. I know exactly what I’m going to get.
The new single “When I Was a Boy” describes your childhood dreams of being a musician. Did you get everything you wanted?
Yeah, kind of. It’s sort of weird to always get what you want. And it has happened over the years. Whatever I’ve wanted has come to me: the Wilburys, The Beatles … So it’s fantastic. I could never ask for more.
Listen to Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra and other artists featured in this week’s issue of Billboard.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of Billboard.