Though he fronted the Electric Light Orchestra since its 1970 inception and was part of the short-lived Traveling Wilburys, Jeff Lynne is primarily a behind-the-scenes figure. The studio has always been his primary playground more so than the stage, and beyond his own endeavors he’s produced the likes of fellow Wilburys George Harrison, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison as well as Brian Wilson, Dave Edmunds, Del Shannon, Joe Walsh and others. And then there was that other little gig, working with Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr on the new songs they recorded for “The Beatles Anthology.”
Lynne himself has recorded just one solo album, “Armchair Theatre” in 1990, but he emerges on Oct. 9 with two labors of love: “Long Wave,” a collection of rock oldies and pop standards he heard on radio while growing up in England; and “Mr. Blue Sky — The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra,” comprised of one-man recreations of 11 of the group’s favorites plus the new song “Point of No Return.”
Lynne talked with Billboard about weaving this particularly kind of “Strange Magic” and keeping music a “Livin’ Thing” in his life…
So somebody’s been keeping busy, apparently.
Yep, I’m afraid so. (laughs) I’ve been working on both these albums for probably about three years or so. The old ones, “Long Wave,” is just a labor of love, really. I just had to do them. It was an urge I had in the last few years; I really wanted to do some of these classic songs and just learn how they all went, and just learning them was a real treat. It was like going to music university to really discover all these harmonies and chord changes and bass parts and how brilliantly they’re written. So there was a lot of finding out some great stuff and really enjoying myself, musically.
And the ELO album?
That started out because I really wanted to see if I could get “Mr. Blue Sky” (the song) better, because I used to hear it on the radio…actually all my songs that are on there, I used to listen and go, “Wow, that’s not quite how I meant it.” So I tried “Mr. Blue Sky” to see what it would be like to re-record one and finish it and make it into a brand new record, and I enjoyed the results of that so much that I tried another one and another one and decided I would do the whole lot — not the whole lot, but make an album’s worth of them, just so people could hear them in a different way and probably the way I intended them to be heard in the first place.
Those songs are so ingrained and so well-loved. What were your dissatisfactions with the original versions?
They just…they weren’t tight enough. They weren’t as tight as they could have been. And some of the sounds on there, like some of the guitar sounds, didn’t sound as good as they could. Some of the piano parts were too dry, recorded too close together, things like that. A lot of technical stuff. It wasn’t the performance, particularly; it was my maybe lack of knowledge as a producer. I didn’t really understand some of the things I was doing. You start making up a song and you tell somebody you’re the producer and you get away with it, basically, but you don’t really learn what you’re doing until later on. I’ve had another 30 years’ practice of doing lots of other folks since then…and so I gradually learned a lot more than I knew at that (original) point, and now I know enough to actually know what I’m talking about.
Did dipping back into the ELO material bring any revelations about them?
I learned that a lot of these songs don’t mean what I thought they meant when I wrote them. I get comments like, “Wow, that uplifts me so much, that song,” and I never thought they were that uplifting…or that they would help people enjoy themselves more. So they’re slightly different than what I thought I was writing, but I’m much less critical about them now. Not all of them; there’s some I still don’t like, but most of them I do like and I’m less critical of those because I realize when I did them they were just coming straight off the top of me head.
“Point of No Return” puts a new ELO song into the world. Where did that come from?
That was written and tied in with the banking scandal a little bit. It was the general mood of the time like 2009 or something. It’s a story about a guy who’s not very pleased with lots of things that are going on.
Does that music feel like another lifetime to you?
It actually feels like both. It’s hard to say; the music so instant, when you play it it’s like you’re playing it right then, so it’s always kind of new. But it does have a tremendous history as well, so it’s both of those things, I’m afraid.
Any thoughts about reactivating ELO?
No, not really. I might do some little shows with Richard Tandy on piano. We made a little movie with me on guitar and singing and Richard on piano, and it came out really well so I might be doing a bit more of that. I have this documentary as well which is coming out that’s going on the BBC in October, but that’s about it, really.
What about some new music from you?
Yes there is, actually, believe it or not. I’ve got about eight tracks towards my new album, which is all new songs. It sounds good; I can’t really describe it to you. I’m hoping it’ll be ready for next year; I’ve just got to write a couple more tunes, two or three. So I’ve been real busy, and I’ve never had more fun in the studio as I have the last couple of years.