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This just in: It’s perfectly OK to admit you dig ELO. Sorta like those folks who slapped “Disco Sucks” stickers on their Camaros and Pee-Chees in 1979 now can smile and dance to it.
Oh, and the Electric Light Orchestra definitely dabbled in disco.
But the story of the man behind the strings-heavy band that scored hit after hit in the 1970s and early ’80s has remained largely untold. Casual music fans might think Jeff Lynne faded into pop obscurity after the hits quit comin’, but that certainly isn’t the case: He has been one of the most sought-after producers of the past quarter-century.
Lynne’s career was celebrated Wednesday at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles with a star-studded screening of the new biodoc Mr. Blue Sky: The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO. The film features testimonials from such rock luminaries as Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and Joe Walsh, who proclaim their affection for ELO and discuss Lynne’s talent as a meticulous but unobtrusive producer and his general good-guy status.
Walsh, Petty and fellow Heartbreaker Mike Campbell were among the boldface names at the screening, which was followed by a brief Q&A with Lynne moderated by Scott Goldman, vp of the Grammy Foundation. The evening also served as an awareness-raiser for the Oct. 9 release of two Lynne albums.
Long Wave is a solo collection of songs that were major influences on his life, ranging from such pre-rock standards as “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” and the Charlie Chaplin-penned “Smile” to ’60s classics including “Mercy, Mercy” (the first single) and “Let It Rock.”
The other new record celebrates the 40th anniversary of the band that gave the pop world such gems as “Evil Woman,” “Livin’ Thing,” “Don’t Bring Me Down” and the sports-highlights staple “Fire on High.” Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra is a collection of oldies that Lynne painstakingly re-created instrument by instrument and vocal by vocal. It’s recording is featured prominently in the documentary.
“There was a big reason I wanted to re-record these ELO songs,” Lynne says. “When I listen to the old versions, they don’t sound the way I thought they did when I first wrote and recorded them. I wanted to use the experience I’ve gained producing records ever since and have a completely new try at them. I’m not saying the old versions aren’t good; I like them very much. We were doing our best, but experience and technology also play a big a big part, and these new ones sound much more solid and tight.”
The film chronicles Lynne’s career from his earliest days in Birmingham, England, through his ELO years and ongoing gig as producer extraordinaire. Mr. Blue Sky is hardly a warts-and-all portrayal – about the toughest words used to describe Lynne are “control freak” -- but it’s an interesting and enlightening film about, as it was introduced, one of popular music’s greatest stories never told.
Among the film’s best tales: A young Lynne waits for delivery of the first 45 bearing his name as songwriter: “Imposters of Life’s Magazine” by his band The Idle Race -- a 1967 period piece in name and sound. When the anxious burgeoning tunesmith finally gets the record, he is deflated to see that it’s credited to one “G. Lynn.” “It was my really big moment,” he remembers, “and it just turned to shit.”
The Story of Jeff Lynne and ELO is something of a misnomer in that it really doesn’t spend much time on the band. Rather, the inclusion of ELO in the title supports the notion that Lynne’s name simply isn’t that recognizable to many. But there’s no doubt just about every fan of pop’s past half-century knows the music he has produced. The list is impressive: Along with ELO and many others, there’s George Harrison’s Cloud Nine, featuring the No. 1 single “Got My Mind Set on You”; Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open and Full Moon Fever (Lynne co-wrote “Free Fallin’ ”); The Traveling Wilburys, of which he was a member; and the final albums by Roy Orbison (“It was Jeff who really got him comfortable with recording again,” Petty says) and Del Shannon, both cited along with The Beatles as Lynne's biggest influences.
Speaking of the Fab Four, it was Lynne who was called when the surviving members reunited to record John Lennon’s “Real Love” and “Free as a Bird” for inclusion in the mid-’90s Anthology series. The story of the grueling effort to record the latter song is among the movie’s highlights.
Of the obvious pressure and burden of recording McCartney, Harrison and Starr together, Sir Paul says: “You want someone who can control the situation without appearing to. You wouldn’t know [Lynne] was pulling the strings.”
During the postscreening Q&A, Lynne was asked how he handled that task. “When it’s The Beatles, I’m really polite,” he said. “Usually I’m an asshole.”
An audience member asked whether Lynne is planning any concerts to promote the two new albums. From behind his trademark shades, the guest deadpanned: “Live shows are fun – sometimes. But you have to practice for months on end.” Later, the man who staged the ELO concert extravaganzas of the ’70s said he’s thinking about doing “some scaled-down kind of shows.”
Another guy in the crowd noted how well Lynne’s voice has held up -- a fact that’s backed up in the film. “My voice does seemed to have improved,” he replied. “It’s gotten older, deeper and more resonant. It’s softer.”
So after years on the sidelines – maybe “behind the bench” would be more accurate -- the documentary, new records and some planned reissues have the 64-year-old Lynne ready for the next phase of his career. Now it’s the public’s turn to take notice.
“I’m glad you’re doing this movie,” Petty says onscreen, “because someone should.”
Watch the Lynne-fronted ELO performing "Do Ya" on The Midnight Special circa 1976 below.