There's one stipulation that comes with my invitation to visit Jeff Lynne at his house: Don't tell anyone where he lives. This is mentioned more than once. He's been kind enough to invite me over in front of his new disc of refurbished works, Mr. Blue Sky – The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra, out today.
The thing is, Lynne is a bit of a homebody. Kind of private. In the opening scene of the new documentary chronicling Lynne's life and work, Mr Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO, Paul McCartney calls him shy.
You may have known that Lynne is friends with McCartney, considering he worked on Sir Paul's album Flaming Pie and on Beatles songs that came out in the '90s. In fact, Lynne is a bit of a name-dropper. Bob, George, Roy, Tom….You can probably figure out those Traveling Wilburys. One tends to forgive him, though, considering he is music royalty of the highest caliber. In fact, it's as much as I can do to not jump on top of his velvet couch and start screaming, rock hysteria style.
So, I won't mention where he lives, but I will say it's lush, sprawling, quiet, and tucked away at the end of a street where few cars pass with views that overlook Los Angeles. It is the perfect haven of solitude for a man who went around the world again and again as the leader of '70s rock outfit Electric Light Orchestra. A man who now just wants hang out at his home studio and make music, which he calls his favorite thing in the world to do.
“It's really private,” Lynne, 64, says of his workspace. “I can make a lot of racket and nobody can hear me.”
In said studio, the afternoon sunlight illuminates the mural of a jungle scene — think monkeys and toucans — painted on the wall above the massive mixing board. There are at least a dozen guitars. I spot a platinum album for Lynne's work as producer on the 1995 Beatles anthology. “Free As a Bird”? He did that. “Real Love” too. He also co-wrote “Free Fallin,” produced albums for Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Del Shannon, and sold millions of records with ELO. You could call his Traveling Wilburys the greatest super group in the history of popular music. I would.
“It was so simple in the old days,” Lynne says. “You put out an album, people promoted it, it got in the charts, and you had a hit. It must have been the golden age of rock and roll.”
It's rare to find a photo of Lynne without his aviators on, and he doesn't take them off while we talk either. He wears jeans, a neatly pressed black button down shirt, black socks and black Vans slip ons. He is warm and funny and quick to laugh, like a jovial uncle with a million stories that just happen to include meeting Tom Petty on the street and subsequently writing Full Moon Fever together.
We're sitting in a vast, cedar-lined, high ceilinged room where Lynne sometimes records. The vibe is upscale hunting lodge. The fireplace is practically bigger than my apartment, and the far wall is lined with framed gold records. I lose count at forty.
Surely many of these are for the ELO classics that still populate rock radio playlists. For Lynne though, many of these songs were never quite right, which is kind of why I'm here. Lynne has spent the last three years in his studio, re-recording ELO's biggest hits from scratch. Seriously. “I listened to the songs,” Lynne says, “and I thought, 'that doesn't sound as good as I remember.' I was quite an inexperienced producer when I made those albums.”
The newly refurbished tracks make up Mr. Blue Sky – The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra. The album also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the band. Lynne worked six days a week perfecting songs including “Do Ya,” “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” and “Don't Bring Me Down.” He did this at home, mostly on his own. “I just love playing all the instruments and going back and thinking 'fucking hell, I did all that.'”
The new old songs sound excellent — clean with the thousand layers of upscale instrumentation, cellos, violins, etc., that made Electric Light Orchestra one of most ambitions acts of the 1970s and early '80s. To my untrained ear, the primary difference on the new recordings is Lynne's voice. It's slightly warmer, lower, more mature, the result of age and a maybe a few wild nights on the road. “I used to be a big smoker and drinker,” Lynne says. “You're on tour and of course you want to party, because that's what everyone is doing. I wasn't going to miss out on all the fun and games, but it messes your throat up.”
We do a bit of free association with the hits. “Mr. Blue Sky” was written when “I was on a mountain in Switzerland.” (He yodels here a bit). “It had been horribly foggy for days. Then the fog lifted and beams of this fabulous sunlight came down and the sky was blue. I wrote the song right there and then.” “I didn't have a clue “Strange Magic” was going to be a hit.” “Evil Woman” was “a premonition of somebody I was going to meet.” “Don't Bring Me Down,” an attempt at a “big, nasty rock and roll song. I think it came off,” he says, “because it is a big, nasty rock and roll song.”
Venturing into Wilbury territory, Lynne recalls, that, “George had written a tune. The title didn't come until we were actually playing the track. It said 'Handle With Care' on this cardboard box in the studio, and that became the song. George had one verse and then we all joined in and had it finished. “Handle With Care,” there it was. We recorded it that same night after dinner.”
“There was so much input with the Wilburys,” Lynne continues. “We were five songwriters and five rhythm guitarists. It was quite comical actually, all of us sitting around strumming acoustics. There's Bob strumming and Roy strumming and Tom strumming. I loved it. It was like 'Hey, there's George Harrison. This is a good group!'”
“We used to do the backing tracks in the afternoon around lunchtime, write the words during dinner, and put the vocal on after we ate. Each song was done in a day. With our first Wilbury album, it was 10 days and 10 songs. Amazing. Fastest thing I've ever heard of.”
Lynne then reflects on Long Wave, the collection of pop standard covers, (“At Last,” “Love is a Many Splendored Thing”), he is releasing in tandem with Mr. Blue Sky. This album was influenced largely by the music he heard his father playing during his childhood in Birmingham, England. “I kind of hated it when I was a kid, but all these years later, I get all of this old stuff. Without being too slushy about it, I've never heard songwriting as good.”
But don't get your hopes up about hearing any of this material live. “I don't actually like touring,” Lynne says. “I'm very grateful for all of the success, it was marvelous, but I had enough. I just want to be in the studio. When you've got all the gear you want in your own house, it's difficult to go out and do something else, you know?”
I nod as though this is a relatable situation. Soon our time is up. We hug goodbye and Lynne escorts me out, past myriad rock relics and through the cozy studio in which he spends most of his time. If it were my inner sanctum, I'd never want to leave either.