Jeff Lynne Created the Electric Light Orchestra, and Zing Went the Strings of Rock
Maybe it won’t go down with Thomas Edison reciting Mary Had a Little Lamb on the first phonograph. But one of the breakthrough moments in rock occurred when Jeff Lynne of the Electric Light Orchestra first plugged a violin and cello into an amp along with his guitar. The immediate result of the rewiring, shudders Lynne, was “screaming feedback” and what drummer Bev Bevan calls “about four years of whistling, belching, groaning sounds.” But the English-born Lynne eventually worked the bugs out of his classical-rock fusion. ELO sold over two million copies of its New World Record LP last year, and its current, even more ambitious follow-up, the double Out of the Blue album, is surging toward the top of the charts and triple platinum (despite an $11.98 list price). Pretty soon ELO will have to re-dub itself GNP.
The 30-year-old wizard behind the Bach-like instrumentation and Beatles-style melodies is a jack-of-all-tracks who is not only ELO’s lead singer and lead guitarist but also composer, lyricist and producer. Lest anyone think that ELO is really E-G-O, supergroupdom has gone to neither Lynne’s head nor wallet. Home is still a two-story red brick back in Birmingham he gave his folks for their years of sufferance. As for tracing the seven-member group by a trail of trashed hotel rooms, forget it. Cracks Jeff the boss: “I’m too cheap to pay the bill.” He’s also uncommonly modest for a rock star, flat-out calling ELO’s first tour “a real mess” and its 1972 debut album “a self-indulgent nonevent.” He recalls the second LP as “pretentious,” and even the eighth, Out of the Blue, he declares merely “artistically honest pop music.”
The touring act speaks for itself. ELO’s son et lumière concert spectacles feature laser beams ricocheting crazily off mirrored spheres hung from an ascending hot-air balloon. Sometimes Lynne lays on a full symphony orchestra and once an operatic soprano—even though he cannot read music himself. “Training takes the real fun out of it,” he claims. “It’s a drag.”
When he was a lad in the grimy Shard End district of Birmingham, Lynne’s ear seemed more tin than platinum. His street-paver dad, Philip, was “a classical maniac listening to Chopin all the time”—which naturally drove Jeff into rebellion. He joined his school choir “to get out of lessons,” embarrassed his father in music shops by sneering that instruments were “rubbish,” and maintained that a musical career was “only for privileged people.”
Lynne’s turnaround came when he borrowed a plastic guitar with one string (“I thought it was very good; I never knew about chords”) and later when his dad bought him a Spanish guitar that “blew my mind.” Lynne, a schoolboy dropout, was fired from his job as an architectural trainee at 16. But he had by then absorbed the sense of structure of his meticulously over-dubbed “tier-by-tier” composition in the record studio. “In Birmingham in the early ’60s everybody had to be in a group,” Jeff remembers—and he bounded from one to another, supporting himself in makeshift jobs as window dresser or auto parts salesman.
In 1970 Jeff joined the Move, the city’s most promising group since Robert Plant and John Bonham left to found Led Zeppelin in 1968. That was the genesis of the present ELO—drummer Bevan, 32; keyboard player Richard Tandy, 29; bassist and vocalist Kelly Groucutt, 32; violinist Mik Kaminski, 26; and cellists Melvyn Gale, 25, and Hugh McDowell, 24. Their first click was Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven, with a contrapuntal splice of Beethoven’s Fifth. Road success came in the U.S., opening for artists like B. B. King and Edgar Winter. “Americans,” Jeff found, “accept something new more easily.”
The group now works out of L.A., but Jeff spends his free time back home, hacking at tennis and backgammon and kicking it around with chums on his beloved Birmingham City soccer club. He drives a black Range Rover rather than a Rolls and is donating a cut of his royalties to a save-the-whales pressure group.
Lynne’s present lady is Sandi Kapelson, a 24-year-old pharmacist’s daughter he met in L.A. two years ago. When Jeff’s brief marriage to an English schoolteacher was unraveling (they divorced last year), he persuaded Sandi to “pack it up” and go with him. After ELO’s swings through the Far East, Europe and, in late summer, a 10th U.S. invasion, Jeff and Sandi will retreat to the country near Birmingham. He finesses the question of marriage with a credo that serves him musically as well. “I will play it,” he affirms, “by ear.”