To the average fan, 22 years seems like an awful long time between solo albums. But to Jeff Lynne, it’s no big deal.
The longtime Electric Light Orchestra leader, former Traveling Wilbury and mega-producer has had his hands full over the past two decades. He even managed to squeeze in two albums of his own and release them on the same day: Oct. 9, just two weeks ago.
“It’s been a hectic schedule for me,” he said recently. “I’ve been doing interviews here and in the U.K. The reaction from the fans and press has been overwhelming. I’m not surprised by it, but I just never dreamed they really wanted to hear from me. Everybody’s been so nice, I’m just floored.”
His new album, “Long Wave,” is a tip o’ the hat to his favorite songs growing up, and the second album is self-explanatory: “Mr. Blue Sky: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra,” his faithful reworkings of ELO hits.
After 20 years leading ELO and producing such legends as George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty, Lynne released his solo debut album, “Armchair Theatre,” in 1990. It contained several Lynne originals, including the singles “Every Little Thing” and “Lift Me Up,” and a pair of standards covers, “September Song” and “Stormy Weather.” Harrison, Ringo Starr, original ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy and Del Shannon gave a helping hand. The reviews were mostly positive, but the album had limited success: It only reached No. 83 in the U.S. and No. 24 in the U.K., and there were no hit singles.
Lynne retreated to his state-of-the-art studio in California, where he feels most comfortable, and kept busy producing and collaborating with Roger McGuinn, Joe Cocker, Aerosmith, Julianna Raye and others. He then won back the naming rights to ELO, released an ELO album (“Zoom” in 2001), and began work in 2001 on what would turn out to be Harrison’s last album, “Brainwashed.”
“It broke my heart that we couldn’t finish it together before he died,” Lynne said. “It was so sad. We were very close. But the best thing to come out of it was that I was able to go back in there and complete it with his son, Dhani. George’s playing on the album was excellent, but it took us six months to get the right mix, cleaning up the vocals, and getting the perfect balance was difficult.”
For “Long Wave” (which, BTW, debuted in the U.K. Top 10), Lynne went back to the standards, choosing pre-rock and ’60s hits that influenced him.
“I revered these songs so much as a kid, but I hated them, too,” he said, with a laugh, “because I couldn’t figure out how to play them. The arrangements are so warm and friendly, but they’re a lot more intricate than the basic three-chord rock ‘n’ roll. I studied these songs meticulously, I learned every note.
“I probably listened to Richard Rodgers’ ‘If I Loved You’ a hundred times. I didn’t want to mess it up; I wanted to do right by these songs. At the same time, I was trying to improve my musical knowledge. It was like going to college.”
The trickiest was Orbison’s “Running Scared,” because of Lynne’s own friendship with the late rock pioneer.
“The original was like a mini symphony in three and a half minutes,” Lynne said. “When I got up the nerve, I thought, ‘I’m gonna sing that, oh bloody hell.’ But after the first take, it wasn’t too bad. Then after 10 takes, I thought, ‘OK, this’ll work.’ It’s no match for Roy Orbison, of course, but it’s a nice tribute to a lovely man.”
Orbison was one-fifth of the late ’80s supergroup Traveling Wilburys — with Lynne, Harrison, Petty and Bob Dylan. Working on “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” (1989) was the thrill of a lifetime, Lynne said.
“Tom and I are about the same age, so it was just so great for us to work with people we admired so much,” he said. “These were our heroes. That’s one of the highlights of my career, no doubt.”
And it’s far from over. Lynne says he’s working on remastered and expanded versions of “Armchair Theatre” and “Zoom,” as well as a live album.