Lifting Up Jeff Lynne, ELO and the Wilbury Sound

There haven’t been any books written about Jeff Lynne yet, but there will be. Electric […]

David Zahl / 1.27.11

There haven’t been any books written about Jeff Lynne yet, but there will be. Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) was sublime and would certainly be enough to qualify him as hagiography-worthy. What separates Jeff from many of the pop musicians of his generation, however, is the extremely potent second wind he caught in the late 1980s.

ELO never put out a dud in their 15 or so years together, refining a “sound” so infectious and cool that it’s no surprise it ha experienced such a dramatic revival in the past few years (where would the Flaming Lips be without ELO?!). Jeff’s outspoken love of The Beatles meant that they got saddled with a pastiche tag early on that didn’t do them justice. Sure, his voice sounds uncannily like all four Beatles singing at once, but the space-age obsessions and synth proclivities are all dressed-down 70s prog, brilliantly assimilated into a classicist sensibility that manages to sound lush yet plastic at the same time. The highlights are probably the near-bookends of 1974’s Eldorado and their unsung 1981 time-travel masterpiece Time (which, more than any of its sci-fi concept-record brothers from the same period, has stood the test of, um, time. Eat your heart out, Alan Parsons). But I digress.

Lynne’s second wind, which was really more of an explosion, has as its center The Traveling Wilburys’ first album. We’ve talked before about the genius of that record; the spontaneity, the ego-less-ness, the sheer joy, not to mention the effortless and fabulous songs that mark it as a prime example of What We Talk About When We Talk About Fruit, i.e. what can happen organically when plans and pressures are somehow supplanted by love and freedom as the motivating factors of an endeavor. Indeed, the Wilbury period, from roughly 1987 to 1991, marks an outburst of creativity that was fueled, at least in part, by some deep friendships. These guys were having fun, relishing their shared love of rock n roll and of one another, and that spirit found its way into the grooves. If you haven’t watched the Wilbury documentary, do yourself a favor (or just watch the corresponding half-hour in Runnin’ Down a Dream). It’s all highly illustrative of a great passage in Grace in Practice:

For when work is produced from a natural desire and motive, rather than from the idea of actions resulting in proposed consequences, the best work is done. This is because the subject of the work, the “I” of all human endeavor, is not its end. That “I” is dead; it was dead on arrival the day grace arrived on the scene, irrespective of your gifts, talenst and givens. Under grace, career advances only one way: away from the wreckage of the “I” and the absence of any fixed need for achievement. (pg 73).

Truly, there’s no hint of youthful self-aggrandizement in any of the Wilbury records. If anything they are self-deprecating – the lack of pretense is astonishing given the talents involved. Yes, lyrically-speaking, apart from Harrison’s project, these may not be the deepest tracks ever cut, but they more than make up for it with their uncontrived generosity.

As brilliant and important a figure as George Harrison is/was, the sun around which the Wilbury solar system revolved was in fact Jeff Lynne. His shimmering aesthetic defined them, and if the “credits” that exist are to be trusted (they are hard to find!), his energy drove them. Which isn’t meant to draw attention away from the fundamentally collaborative nature of the Wilburys. Jeff was not only doing some of his best work – it was “new wineskins” for Lynne after all, a serious departure from the more ambitious sonic waters he’d explored with ELO – he was bringing out the best in everyone around him, a claim supported by the plethora of other great records that Lynne was involved with during this period. The Wilbury “sound” – indeed, the band itself – can be found on the following albums and songs (listed in order of quality), all of which are phenomenal:

1a. Mystery Girl – Roy Orbison
1b. Cloud Nine – George Harrison
3. Full Moon Fever – Tom Petty
4. Armchair Theatre – Jeff Lynne
5. Rock On – Del Shannon
6. “Don’t Go Where The Road Don’t Go” – Ringo Starr
7. “Under The Red Sky” – Bob Dylan (from the album of the same name, which includes the little-known late-Dylan masterpiece “God Knows.”)
8. “Let It Shine” – Brian Wilson

This is not the sort of thing that can be replicated or engineered, as the Wilburys’ lackluster Volume 3 attests. They weren’t really in control of it. I get the sense it was more like riding a wave. And that’s the thing about grace – we can describe it ad nauseum but once we try to prescribe it, it slips through our fingers. It by definition cannot be turned into a model. But we know it when we see/hear it, thank God, and can occasionally even draw a little inspiration from it ourselves.

Together with Del Shannon’s Rock On, Jeff’s long out-of-print Armchair Theatre is the great lost Wilbury record. Petty co-wrote one of the songs, and Harrison plays guitar on almost half of it. Perhaps it was Harrison’s influence, but the the album found Lynne in a surprisingly spiritual state of mind. “What Would It Take” repeats the question, “What would it take to save me now?” over and over, which is turned into a prayer a few tracks later on the somewhat lazily-titled eco-anthem “Save Me Now.” “Blown Away” is a touching eulogy of Del Shannon. And then there’s “Lift Me Up,” which is the closest to gospel that I’ve ever heard from Lynne. The video is charmingly dated: