FMQB Retro-Active: Ken Sharp Reviews Jeff Lynne's ELO Live In Concert and Chats with the Unique Performer
September 15, 2016 Jeff Lynne's ELO
@ Hollywood Bowl
September 11, 2016
Back in 2001, Jeff Lynne was slated to tour with a new version of ELO in support of his then new album, Zoom, but unfortunately, despite a few warm-up shows, which included an episode of VH1 Storytellers, those dates never panned out. Flash forward 15 years and Lynne and a new company of talented cohorts, which includes original ELO alum keyboardist Richard Tandy, are selling out arenas and stadiums in record speed around the world. His music, once castigated by misguided music critics as calculated pop fluff, is now hailed as classic pop and in the words of the 1980 ELO song, the band is now recognized for its musical mastery “all over the world.” The Hollywood Bowl hosted a sold-out three night stand for Jeff Lynne’s ELO and you couldn’t have selected a more perfect venue to showcase his expansive brand of timeless majestic pop. Backed by a stellar band and accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra led by conductor Thomas Wilkins, the 18,000 plus crowd in attendance were transported on a wave of consummate pop elation as classic pop hit after classic pop hit unfolded in grand fashion on that hallowed stage.
Opening with “Tightrope,” culled from 1976’s A New World Record, which merged a powerful classical opening into an effervescent melodious pop explosion, the 100-minute show was a glorious affirmation of the songwriting smarts and innate pop panache of Messr. Lynne. As the night unfolded, Jeff Lynne’s ELO delivered a master class of spectacular songwriting, inspired musicianship and cinemascope sized arrangements.
Always a reluctant performer, Lynne was in fine voice and proved adept and comfortable attacking his songs with precision and tangible emotion. Witness the desolate loneliness of “Telephone Line,” blue melancholy of “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” and Randy Newman flavored grandeur of “Wild West Hero,” which proved especially resonant and successfully tapped into a deeper well of emotion and pathos when set against the frothy pure pop transcendence of such durable smash hits also performed this evening numbering “Livin’ Thing,” “Evil Woman,” “Showdown,” (a song cited in a ‘70s interview with John Lennon a as favorite), “Sweet Talking Woman,” “Turn To Stone,” “Don’t Bring Me Down,” “Shine A Little Love” and “All Over The World.” The band’s tight rendering of ELO’s first record, “10538 Overture,” laced with its signature descending guitar passages (which Cheap Trick cribbed for the song “Downed”), was a music 101 lesson demonstrating the perfect marriage of pop, pomp and power.
In terms of the show’s overall impact, it also didn’t hurt that the visual presentation was stunning with the Hollywood Bowl literally turned into a visual spaceship as threads of lasers and a symphony of lights and colors worked in perfect tandem to rain down across the outdoor venue. Racing towards the finish, “Mr. Blue Sky,” culled from Out Of The Blue, perhaps ELO’s most beloved song, closed the set pre-encore, it’s optimistic blast of jaunty Beatle-eque magic (shades of “A Day In The Life”) sent the audience into rolling waves of joyous rapture. Returning to the stage for a raucous rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” a standard in the band’s ‘70s concert performances, Lynne’s ingenious reworking of the ‘50s chestnut, weaving classical elements into the song’s meaty rock steady groove, was further enhanced by bursts of spectacular fireworks that filled the Hollywood sky making it the perfect send off for a night of breathtaking pop bliss.
An interview with Jeff Lynne
Decades since ELO first disbanded, the band has gotten bigger and bigger. Their inventive orchestral pop/rock farmed by mastermind Jeff Lynne’s "everything but the kitchen sink" production shamefully didn’t garner the respect and accolades they deserved from a jaded press corps. But in 2016, ELO is now rightfully regarded as high art. As architect of ELO’s sound, Lynne is now being afforded the respect he deserves as one of music’s most consummate and skilled record makers. The new Jeff Lynne’s ELO album, Alone in the Universe, has been greeted with exceedingly positive reviews; its lead-off single “When I Was A Boy” is a magnificent display of Lynne’s songwriting and production talents, sounding a bit like a tune John Lennon would have cut had he lived.With Jeff Lynne’s ELO on tour, this seasoned musical maverick is back the where he belongs, making music that can turn the grayest sky a marvel hue of blue.
ELO was not an instant success. Did you feel eventually the band would break through, or did you have your doubts?
I didn’t think: “I wonder if this is ever gonna do any good.” I liked our records but realized that some of them were just so uncommercial. Now one of my favorite ELO albums is On The First Day because of its simplicity. There’s only a few people playing on it, two cellos and one violin instead of a 40-piece orchestra. So I think that was a bolder thing to do at that point than to have a big orchestra. But eventually I got tired of the limitations of that kind of sound, and that’s when I started putting the big orchestra in.
In terms of the template for the ELO sound, you once said you wanted to take off where the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” left off.
Kind of. That was never really my thing. Actually, Roy Wood said that, not me, and he left the group two months after and lumbered me with that kind of quote -- “Oh really? Thanks a lot, buddy.” (laughs) My intention behind the sound of ELO was simply to get away from what all the other groups seemed to be doing around that time. Around ’71, ’72, all the big long guitar solos were the rage, 10-minute guitar solos. I wanted to do stuff that had more of a tune. I wanted tunes ’cause I love tunes. I think that’s because of my dad. He was a tune maniac. He knew every classical piece of music there is. He’d say, “That’s the third movement of so-and-so trumpet thingie” and I’d be like, “How the hell do you know that?” And he’d say, “’Cause I know them all!” and he did. I never knew many of the classical pieces; I knew just a few. Debussy is probably my favorite classical composer—although I like a lot of the other classical composers too, but I don’t know them like me dad did. He had them catalogued in his mind. So the music came through him to me ’cause me grandma was a bit on the stage with me granddad doing vaudeville and music hall—this was way before I was born. So it did all come through me dad, who was musical. In fact, he showed me what harmony was when I was only about five years old. We were walking down the street and he was taking me to where he was working doing a job for somebody, laying slabs—flagstone—in a garden. As we walked past this building site we came upon a big concrete pipe, probably about a five-foot diameter. He said, “I’ll show you something—come and look at this,” and he stuck his head in the pipe. And he goes (imitates rising notes) “ah, ah, ah ah . . .” and it echoed into this great big chord. And I went, “Wow, that’s fantastic!” So he said, “Here, you have a go.” My voice hadn’t broken yet and I went (sings) “ah, ah, ah, ah . . .” And I went, “Wow, it’s like a bloody choir!” And so he taught me the major scale and how to do harmony in one little pipe lesson. (laughs) Who would have thought singing down a pipe would be a great education in itself, but it was.
Your modus operandi for laying down tracks was to cut the music first with no idea of melody and lyrics. Were you following this process back with the Idle Race and the Move too?
Yeah. I’ve always worked that way. I always leave writing the lyrics to the end. I always have tune running through my mind as I’m playing back a track, maybe two or three different tunes in my mind. Nobody else would even know what the tune was or the words, and I didn’t know what the words were either. I would have to spend the last three or four days in the studio writing the words to all these tracks. I love that because I’ve already got a big nice textured piece to work with, like a canvas. Instead of writing to a little guitar thing and writing words, this was writing to a completed track. I always found it nicer to have this big landscape to work with; your ideas can go in a million different directions. Not writing lyrics until the end does create a lot of those Oh shit, I’ve got to get this done because the end of the session is tomorrow. It does present that problem but that’s a good one. When you’re under that kind of deadline I find I can work better and concentrate on doing it. If I’ve got weeks to write some words I probably never will.
Do you still operate in the same manner today?
I still do it like that. I like to do the music first, record it and then write lyric and sing it. I’ve always got a little tune in my head vocally that will work but I’m still hoping a more brilliant tune will come to me between now and when I mix it. I don’t usually have any words prepared, maybe an odd word here and there. I like to try and think of the scenario and bring it to life in the tune with the lyrics and vocal melody.
Was that especially challenging in the ’70s when you were under immense pressure to release one album after the other?
Yeah, it was hard work, but the thing is I’m glad for it now. If I had not had those deadlines I’d probably still be second-guessing the second ELO album. (laughs) “It’s not quite right, I don’t know about that.” So I’m glad I had a deadline and I’m glad I couldn’t second-guess and just let it go and do its thing.
“Mr. Blue Sky” was a track that was completely finished but with no words.
Yeah, it was one of those. I’ve always been amazed at how popular “Mr. Blue Sky” is. At the time, I remember mastering it as a single in
and I remember thinking I wish it sounded better than that. It was just that the speakers were so flat-sounding in the cutting room where they cut the disc that it misled me into thinking it wasn’t sounding very good. But when I heard it finished and mastered it sounded great, so all those worries were gone.
Speaking of “Mr. Blue Sky,” it’s one of those songs that proves music can alter moods. You can’t listen to that song without it lifting your spirits.
When I wrote those words to that song, it had been vile weather. It was mist and fog and cloudy; it was just horrible. One day I got up and the weather was just suddenly all beautiful and shiny, and that’s when all the words came along for me for that song.
What’s the most satisfying set of chord changes you’ve ever put together?
I think simplicity-wise, my feeling is the simpler anything is the better it is. Being able to write simple songs is a real craft. The simpler you can get it is the best way to do it. A tune with chords that I really love is a very simple song called “Turn to Stone.” I just love those chord changes. They still make me smile when I play them today. Writing a simple song and making it memorable is what it’s all about and what you strive for as a writer. If you can get it good and simple and meaningful at the same time it’s the best feeling in the world.
You’ve produced everyone from Tom Petty to Brian Wilson to Randy Newman to Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The Beatles’ producer George Martin must have been a major influence on you.
Yes, absolutely. George has always been a big inspiration to me, just listening to the records he made. I think George Martin’s approach as a producer was very classy, the decisions he made in the studio, the way he blended instruments together, the way he pioneered bouncing tracks across and back and forth from machine to machine. He made records you couldn’t make in those days because you didn’t have enough facilities. But now everyone has a million tracks to work on—but I’m sure they’ll never come up with anything as good as he did on four-track. It’s just the class that he brings to it. He’s a wonderful musician as well and I think that the two together is what makes him what he is. He’s above the rest of everybody.