Jim Irvin – “The Bullring Variations: ELO” (2001)

July 4, 2009 at 11:49 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

August 2001 Mojo article by Jim Irvin detailing the history of Jeff Lynne, from his early days in The Idle Race and  The Move to his hitmaking days in ELO, its demise and his brief resurrection of the band in the early part of the new century…

 

April 20, 2001. The fat drops of rain falling on New York cannot dampen the anticipation that’s crackling along this usually quiet side-street. Here stand the few hundred lucky souls selected to witness the first show in 15 years by their favourite band. Soon they’ll be ushered into a makeshift TV studio and seated inches from a skinny man with a cloud of chestnut-coloured hair, a trim beard and wraparound shades that hide his baggy eyes. He’ll caress an electric guitar and sing songs that rocked their young lives.

Pray silence, please, for the Electric Light Orchestra!

Mayhem. You could hold a nice barbecue with the warmth of this response.

Staring at his feet, Jeff Lynne strolls on, plugs in, strums something. His body language ripples through a few emotions: Oh no, I can’t hear the guitar! Those people are a bit close! But they’re bloody pleased to see me!

He senses it’ll be okay, looks up and says hello.

For two hours we’re treated to the works of a master. It’s impossible not to grin like a fool at ‘Mr Blue Sky’, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, ‘Evil Woman’, all of them. But, seated in the heart of this diverse, adoring crowd, I reflect on how I once despised this music. When ELO were at their artistic and commercial peak, right at the height of punk, I considered them artless, sexless, pointlessly extravagant – on stage and in their arrangements – their words meaningless, their melodies appropriated from greater pop minds. Ersatz and processed, the sonic equivalent of Dairylea cheese. Gloop for the masses.

What a horrible snob I was. Of course, the dream of punk as a great proletarian force was cobblers. The real ‘70s Music Of The People was being made by disco acts and bands like ELO, a noble music that’s uplifting and unpretentious. You don’t have to decode it or hitch a lifestyle to it. It’s music made with pleasure, for pleasure; a rare commodity we should treasure. Here’s how it happened.

 

Jeff Lynne was born on December 30, 1947. His father was the son of a showbiz couple – gran and grandad Lynne trod the boards during Variety’s pre-war heyday – but Philip Lynne had opted for a secure career with Birmingham corporation’s highway maintenance department.

“My dad could play along with one finger to classical tunes and harmonise with stuff on the radio,” says Jeff. “but he never got a chance to learn anything because he had to go out and support four kids. He taught me one great thing, though. One day, we were going down the street and there was one of those big steel pipes sitting in the road, about 40 foot long and four foot high. And he said to me, ‘Listen to this.’ And he leant into the pipe and went Aah aah aah aah, a note at a time, and it turned into a chord with all this reverb. I had a go, and this great big chord came back. It was amazing. That was my first experience of reverb and harmony.”

When Jeff was nine, the family moved to a new estate called Shard End. At first, Jeff was startled by this landscape of concrete, brick and freshly-planted saplings. “It was like moving to the moon,” the science fiction fan recalls. But he soon settled, and it was there he discovered something he loved as much as family and Birmingham City Football Club.

Rock’n’roll arrived dressed as Roy Orbison’s ‘Only the Lonely’ while Jeff was sitting by the radio with his mum and auntie. “They were complaining that it was too sexy, or something, but that voice just made the hairs go up on my neck.” Attending his first gig – a Del Shannon show – some time later, Jeff noted that the drummer’s cymbals “sounded nothing like they did on record”. Here was a young mind already obsessed with sound.

Music seemed the best antidote to the life of unskilled labour that beckoned when he finished his secondary school education at 15 with little to show for it. After the requisite start on a plastic guitar picking out Shadows tunes, Jeff took up the instrument seriously, joining a group called The Chads and admiring local stars Mike Sheridan & The Nightriders and their gifted guitarist Big Al Johnson. By day he endured a series of mundane jobs, preferring those where he could bunk-off out the back to practice his guitar.

In 1967, the only telephones you could use outdoors came in tall, smelly red boxes: big black apparatuses – Button A, Button B, all calls tuppence. It was upon such a beast that 19 year old Jeff, avoiding paying the tuppence, tapped out a number in reply to an ad in the Birmingham Mail: “Keen lead guitarist wanted for The Nightriders.” It was a call that would change his life.

Invited to an audition by drummer Roger Spencer, Jeff gave them his best solos and sang Wilson Pickett’s ‘In the Midnight Hour’. Next day, he was back at work in a motor accessories store. After an agonising week-long wait, he was informed he’d won a place in his favourite band. The following morning, Jeff walked, on air, out of his dead-end.

“From £6 a week, I was suddenly on 15 quid, and I didn’t have to get up,” he recalls of that euphoric time. “On the Monday my mum comes bounding up the stairs as usual, ‘Come on, get out of bed, you lazy sod!’ And I said, No, listen mum, I haven’t got to get up today – or ever again – I’m a professional musician now.”

Local stars Roy Wood and Johnny Mann had both been through The Nightriders. Jeff was replacing Mann, while Wood had joined new sensations The Move, a proto-Mod act designed by manager Tony Seconda to thrive on outrage. Late ‘60s Birmingham harboured many promising progressives, among them Marc Bolan, Black Sabbath and half of Led Zeppelin. Keen not to be left behind, The Nightriders – after one flop single called, intriguingly, ‘It’s Only the Dog’ – jumped on the post-Pepper merry-go-round and restyled themselves as The Idle Race.

Boy-meets-girl ditties and R&B covers were out of the window in favour of that era’s broadsides from the freaky nursery and the mind-blown music hall, its multicoloured clutter of circus melodies, pixie folk, bicycles, bandstands, boaters and grannies, Three Men in a Marshmallow Sky and Knees-Up-Mother-Brown-Acid. They started to attract a cool crowd. Marc Bolan became a friend and fan; a young man named Brian May was spotted studying Jeff’s amazing guitar technique – something he’d learnt from Big Al Johnson – which made it sound like a violin.

Their first album, The Birthday Party, was recorded laboriously in weekly instalments. For months, they travelled to London’s Advision studios each Sunday – an overdub one week, a mix the next – and nipped back up to Brum for that night’s gig. But apart from Kenny Everett playing five tracks in one go on his Saturday morning Radio 1 show, pop-pickers proved immune to mad, shrill, adventures in a toybox like ‘Impostors of Life’s Magazine’, ‘The Skeleton and the Roundabout’ and ‘Worn Red Carpet’ (“Bought cheap at an antiques market.”). Even so, they were fantastic advertisements for the emerging skills of Jeff Lynne.

“We didn’t really have a proper manager and a direction to go in,” admits Jeff today. “but that was my apprenticeship. When Liberty said they wanted another album and asked if we had a producer I said, ‘I’m the producer.’” The second album did nothing either.

After four years, Jeff sensed that The Idle Race weren’t going to get any bigger and began listening to the frequent entreaties he was receiving from Roy Wood to join him in The Move.

 

Beverley Bevan was a grammar school boy whose head was turned by Elvis’s ‘Jailhouse Rock’. Sculpting his thick hair into a quiff, he earned the ridicule of his best mate, Bobby Davis (now known as Jasper Carrott). Losing his virginity to a girl who was impressed when he said he was in a group (though he wasn’t), young Bev was inspired to take up the drums, neglect his schoolwork and dedicate himself to the Birmingham beat groups. Two meagre O Levels later, Bev looked set for a long career in a run-down department store, The Beehive, until he landed a gig with Denny Laine and the Diplomats, which led to Carl Wayne and the Vikings, which mutated into The Move. Carl, Bev and milky-blonde bassist Ace Kefford were joined by Roy Wood of The Nightriders and Trevor Burton of The Mayfair Set.

First styled as Mods, then as flower-powered tearaways, The Move were drifting towards cabaret when chief songwriter Wood began to feel unfulfilled. Thrilled by Tony Visconti’s orchestral arrangement on ‘Cherry Blossom Clinic’ from their first album, he hatched the notion of building a rock band around a string section. During off-duty chats over pints of Banks beer, or at Birmingham City matches, Jeff shared Roy’s enthusiasm for the idea and finally agreed to join The Move if it were pursued.

Jeff wasn’t joining a pop group but a factory managed by the notorious Don Arden with an eye to maximum output. EMI green-lighted the ELO plan provided that two further Move albums were delivered; so, simultaneously, Roy, Jeff, Bev and bassist Rick Price recorded Looking On and Message to the Country, a string of singles (including ‘California Man’ and Jeff’s song ‘Do Ya’, which made the US Top 40), Roy’s projected solo album Boulders and the first album by the Electric Light Orchestra, the spur to which was Jeff’s composition, ‘10538 Overture’.

There can’t have been many front rooms on Birmingham’s council estates that have given pride of place to a Mellotron. But, in 1970, if Mrs. Next Door wondered where that cranky music-of-the-spheres was coming from, chances are it was Phil and Nancy’s boy working out a new song in the surprisingly well-stocked studio he’d assembled in the lounge. He’d demoed The Move’s Number 1 single ‘Blackberry Way’ there in 1968 – Roy singing with his head wrapped in cushions to avoid disturbing Jeff’s sleeping parents – and it was here, using the piano stool as a snare drum, that Jeff worked out the outline for ‘10538’. Pleased with the result, the band repaired to Philips’ studio in Marble Arch to cut the record.

“I’d just bought this cheap Chinese cello,” recalls Roy. “It was a yellowy colour, looked like an old wardrobe. I only knew how to tune it and hold the bow. Rick and Bev had gone home and I started mucking about, playing Hendrix riffs on this thing in the control room. Jeff said it sounded quite good, so I put some on tape. It sounded great, like a real heavy metal orchestra. We were totally chuffed with it. Jeff hadn’t done the lyrics yet, he knew he wanted it to be about a man with a number instead of a name, and the serial number of the desk there was 1053 so we added 8 and called it ‘Overture’ because it was the orchestra’s first song.”

“I remember being in a car going to a Move gig in Cornwall,” says Jeff. “Roy and I played a tape of it all the way down, we were going wild over it in the back seat, we had it on like a thousand times, and [Bev and Rick] up front were going, Not that thing again! Shut up!”

Getting that sound to work on a live stage was another matter. Finding suitable players was hard enough (“It was worse than The Commitments,” laughs Roy), making them heard was nearly impossible. “When we tried it out, it sounded like an accident in a violin warehouse,” says Jeff. “You couldn’t hear the strings because there were no string pick-ups back then, just mics, so there was loads of feedback. There were a lot of teething problems and we got pretty fed up with it.”

As a ramshackle band rehearsed at Roy’s house, Don Arden announced the Electric Light Orchestra’s debut tour. Then he heard the band and cancelled it. Finally, a few tentative shows were booked for spring 1972. 150 people turned up to the 2,000 seater Dome in Brighton. Afterwards, the crowd went absolutely home.

Arden’s children, David and Sharon, had been groomed for the family business from an early age and began taking on management duties. Together they watched this unpromising outfit grow into Jet, a large stable of acts with the multi-million selling ELO at its heart. “As much as I don’t want to give the old bastard credit, [Don] did have a vision,” says Sharon, now known to millions as Mrs Ozzy Osbourne. “He wanted ELO to be the biggest band in the world. And that’s what he achieved.”

For Roy, the dream quickly unraveled, the line-up was a logistical headache and the shows didn’t have the kind of impact he was looking for. “I wanted loads of lights, like a Pink Floyd thing,” he says. “But I was given all kinds of reasons why we couldn’t do that. It ended up looking experimental rather than lavish.” The day after a series of Italian dates, Roy walked out of a recording session and quit ELO, stating afterwards that not enough attention was being paid to Jeff’s contribution. Today he says his departure was due to political tensions that were allowed to form between him and Jeff, unchecked by their management. “I decided I didn’t want to stay in a tense environment and thought it would be best if I left.” He quickly refocused his big-band ambitions – taking cellists Hugh McDowell and Trevor Smith and French horn player Bill Hunt with him – and formed Wizzard. He’s happy to have remained friends with Jeff ever since.

Jeff persevered with the formula. Bassist Richard Tandy, recruited from short-lived Birmingham legends Balls, moved to keyboards, his place taken by the aristocratic Michael D’Albuquerque; with cellists Mike Edwards and Colin Walker – now equipped with pick-ups – and violinist Wilf Gibson, a new seven-piece line-up was ready in time for release of the album on EMI’s “underground” label, Harvest.

‘10538 Overture’ was an instant hit, probably because it sounded like a progression from The Move, but the album was less well-received, being both overworked and under-written. When US label United Artists rang the Ardens’ office to check on the title of the album nobody was in. A secretary placed a note on the label-manager’s desk: ‘No answer’. The album was released in America as No Answer.

 

Work began immediately on ELO II. The result was even more convoluted than its predecessor, a concerto for abused cello and kitchen sink. There were only five lengthy songs, none of which could withstand all the fuss. Though one was heavily filleted to provide another hit single, a rather too literal cover of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.

Walker and Gibson went, Hugh McDowell returned from Wizzard and the introverted Mik Kaminski was recruited as first violin. At last, the sound began to work, especially when, for their next album, On the Third Day, Jeff eased off on the bombast and delivered stirring rock songs like ‘Ma-Ma-Ma Belle’ (one of rock’s greatest opening riffs) and ‘Showdown’.

“That was the first time I was focussed enough to write a pop song within the realms of this thing without trying to be fancy and weird,” he says, “I always remember the mastering guy at EMI playing it and saying, ‘That’s a touch of class, that is’. This technical guy who’d been doing it for years liked the sound of it, and that gave me confidence.”

But it still didn’t satisfy everyone.

“Me dad said, ‘The trouble with your tunes is that they’ve got no tunes,’” laughs Jeff. “I was a bit upset by that, but then I thought, ‘He’s right, you know. I’m not doing myself justice, I’m doing all this waffly stuff.’ That made me write Eldorado – ‘I’ll show you, I’ll write something with a tune in it.’ And that included ‘Can’t Get It Out of My Head’ which became a big hit in America.”

Supporting worthy, dry acts like Blood Sweat and Tears or Deep Purple, ELO gave gig-going Americans a decent bang for their buck. Crazy guys with exploding cellos! Laser beams bouncing off the big-haired singer dressed as a Christmas tree! The bassist with the cut-glass English accent! The guy in the tuxedo, tennis shoes and balaclava helmet who plays the big fiddle with an orange! ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ with real Beethoven! Beatles covers! America thanked God for entertainment at last.

It also dug the artwork. John Kehe’s cover for Eldorado had a pronounced effect on ELO’s American cred. In his 1980 memoir, Bev Bevan recalled his first look at it. “I’m staring at a pair of red shoes with a golden flash and a pair of green hands. It’s rubbish!.” Jeff agreed, and together they determined to have it withdrawn.

Sharon Arden was flabbergasted. “Don’t you get it?”

Bev certainly did not.

“It’s The Wizard of Oz!”

“So what?” spluttered the drummer.

The Brum boys’ ignorance of the cultural clout of Dorothy’s ruby slippers nearly cost them thousands of new fans attracted by the sleeve’s evocative charm. Eldorado became ELO’s first gold album in the USA.

There was no pleasing some people, however. Phil Lynne still wasn’t too impressed with the album he’d inspired Jeff to write. “When Eldorado didn’t do much in England, my dad said, ‘Ooh, you’ve blotted your copybook this time.’ I thought, Thanks a lot, dad! I gave him a copy of the gold disc, though.”

Phil Lynne wasn’t alone in being cool about ELO. After headlining to several thousand people in the US and playing on stadium bills in glorious sunshine to tens of thousands, Britain in midwinter, in front of 40 people at Leicester De Monfort Hall, seemed to be telling them something. A miserable 37th place in Disc magazine’s Readers Poll clinched it. The next step was obvious: for the foreseeable future, focus on America.

 

Soon, ELO had clocked up six American tours. The round of meet-and-greets was endless. Such a workload inevitably exerted a strain upon them. Chief stage clown Mike Edwards became increasingly withdrawn as a deep interest in Buddhism developed. Finally, he announced that there was more to life than playing an exploding cello with an orange and he intended to become a postman. When the tour ended he shook hands with everyone at Heathrow and swapped ELO for the GPO. Michael D’Albuquerque also decided that touring was no longer for him, electing to stay home and raise a family. (He also tried a solo career, briefly.)
Replacing them were fresh-faced cellist Melvyn Gale and furry-faced bassist Michael ‘Kelly’ Groucott, rescued by Jeff, Bev and Richard from “purgatory”, playing for £5 a night in cabaret band, Barefoot, at Birmingham club, Snobs. Never having been abroad in his life, Kelly was shocked to be whisked straight to Detroit to play in front of 2,000 people.

“The atmosphere was really good,” he says of that first tour. “We all got on very well. Hughie was the nutter, he’d do absolutely anything to amuse himself, but he also read the National Geographic. Richard would lock himself away for weeks to learn the ins and outs of a new keyboard. Melvyn talked a lot. Mik was a bit quiet, but a Yorkshireman through and through. Liked a drink. He’d hang out with Bev, who was the loudest drummer anywhere. Jeff and I hung around together, we used to go ten pin bowling, or to the cinema.”

ELO were hardly monsters of rock, then, as Sharon Arden, by this time Vice President in charge of Jet’s American office, could corroborate.

“The whole lot of them were lovely but total goody-goodies; apart from Hughie, who was a free spirit and adorable. I was the one getting them thrown out of hotels! I saw no drugs. . . there were a couple of droogie groupies hanging around, but it was hardly Led Zeppelin. And, you know, cellos? It was probably a little too highbrow for the big tits and the short-skirts. I was waiting for those wild parties every night, but they never happened.”

Bev, on the other hand, paints a charming picture of the road-life of the ‘70s rocker in his tender memoir:

“I get a lot of drugs handed to me from fans, although I never take them. I pass them onto the road crew who will scramble to get their hands on the pills and smokes. And it’s certainly the same with girls.

“If there is any spare when we get the phone calls in hotels I pass them on to Brian and each member of the band does the same with their own roadies. Few of the road crew are too fussy, especially as the night wears on and the drink takes effect.

“Some of the groupies in Japan are beyond description. Dark, squat and unattractive – and those are the good ones. . .”

Let’s leave Bev with his memories, shall we?

 

For Face the Music – the one with the hilarious electric chair sleeve art – a recording method emerged that would endure throughout ELO’s golden years. Most of their tracks would be cut with talented engineer Mack at Musicland, a studio sunk into the basement of a hotel in a dull district of Munich. There was little to do there but work, so the music came together swiftly. Bev would lay down drums and then double-track certain elements, usually the snare and tom-toms. This, and prodigious use of the hotel’s echoey service corridors resulted in the infamous ELO drum sound (once memorably described as “a cement mixer behind the beat”). Richard became Jeff’s musical lieutenant, handling all keyboards and sometimes even guitars while Jeff directed from the desk. Kelly would add bass and backing vocals. Most of the string parts were recorded separately. From Eldorado onwards they were arranged by Louis Clark – subsequently the twisted brain behind Hooked on Classics – and usually involved a full 40-piece orchestra and choir. Jeff would wait to the last moment to add the vocals, usually because he hadn’t yet written the words.

“Probably the happiest I could ever be was having the headphones on doing the lead vocal,” declares Jeff. “I loved recording all the harmonies and then hearing them come in just right when I’m doing the choruses and thinking, Yes! It fits! There have been a few moments, singing something for the first time, where I’ve thought, ‘Whew, that feels like a big hit’. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s great when it does.”

In contemporary interviews, Bev marvelled at how Jeff turned unpromising one-minute demos of guitar or piano chords into luxurious confections that sweet-talked the charts. Like ‘Evil Woman’ – written hurriedly as a filler, Jeff completing the words in one room while the band rehearsed the track in another – which went on to be the first ELO single to make the Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic. Face The Music went gold in the States, but Britain still wouldn’t take ELO seriously, it was the third album in a row not to chart here.

This must have been galling to a homebody like Jeff. The demands to visit America were relentless – at one point reaching 68 shows in 75 days – and he was seeing very little of his wife Rosemary, a teacher whom he’d wed in 1970. When he had a fling with an American girl named Sandy Kapilson it spelt the end of his marriage.

“I don’t think Jeff wanted it to end,” says Sharon, “but Rosemary was heartbroken and just walked out. She was one of the most beautiful, intelligent women I have ever met. Everybody adored her. I went through a phase when I’d get pissed and start biting people,” the future Mrs Osbourne continues, “and I always used to pick on Jeff because I knew it would annoy him the most. Rosemary would look at me as if I was out of my fucking mind, and I’d look at her and think, I wish I could be more like you.”

Jeff and Sandy married in 1978 and have two children together.

Meanwhile, happily married Bev was, according to his book, fending off the attentions of a Florida hotel worker.

“A man on reception was particularly helpful. I was delighted. . . for 24 hours he showed me the greatest attention. On the second day it dawned on me that this guy was intent on bum-scuttling me. I was petrified. Gays always frighten me. What do you do to put them off? There were a couple of air hostesses in the hotel who we’d got to know, and I told them of my predicament. ‘He’s a nice guy,’ I told them, ‘and I don’t want to hit him.’ So I got them to walk through reception one on each arm to make it obvious that I was heterosexual. On reflection, he probably thought that anyone who marches around with two girls only had a sisterly relationship with women. . .”

Clearly, you can take the boy out of Birmingham, but you can’t bum-scuttle Birmingham out of the boy. Sadly, Bev’s unintentionally hilarious autobiography has been out of print since 1981.

 

A New World Record was aptly named: ELO were smashing attendance and sales records across the planet. The upheaval in Jeff’s personal life had sparked one of his most fertile writing periods – and a string of international hits. Never one to dwell on adult themes or to deliberately reveal himself in his songs (perhaps mindful of how his mum and auntie reacted to Roy Orbison), Jeff came close with ‘Telephone Line’, a wistful lament about a man doomed to conduct a long-distance relationship who can’t get through to his woman. Intriguingly, if you apply it to Jeff’s circumstances at the time, the song could be directed to either his wife or his lover. The band best remembered for the bouncy ‘Mr Blue Sky’ or ‘Diary of Horace Wimp’ is actually some distance from such elegantly crestfallen creations as ‘Can’t Get It Out of My Head’, ‘Ticket to the Moon’, ‘Big Wheels’, ‘Getting to the Point’ and ‘Telephone Line’ – whose non-communication motif recurs throughout the canon. The narrators of Lynne’s songs are frequently stranded far from where they wish to be, lonely figures living in twilight and apt to turn to stone, while the packed arrangements function as veils of nostalgia, parting to reveal tantalising glimpses of a happier time, a whole parade of Jeff’s touchstones: The Beatles, Del Shannon, Roy Orbison and those stacked harmonies he first heard his father demonstrate on the backstreets of Birmingham.

At last, Britain took notice. The album stayed in the charts for two years. The band that could barely fill Birmingham Town Hall in 1975 booked eight nights at Wembley Arena on their next visit. Following an American jaunt in April 1977, with a huge world tour booked for June, Jeff had a two month window in which to create the next album. He chose to return to the chalet in Bassins, Switzerland where he’d written A New World Record.

“It was dark and misty for two weeks and I didn’t come up with a thing,” he says. “Suddenly the sun shone and it was, like, ‘Wow look at those beautiful Alps,’ and I wrote ‘Mr Blue Sky’ – which took a while – and then thirteen other songs in the next two weeks, all the melodies, chords and basic arrangements – I did four in one day – and then went off to Germany to record them. Today I would think that’s a lot of pressure to put yourself under, but I could do it then. That was me at my most focused.”

Out of the Blue was Jeff’s masterpiece, its scope, songs, and sleeve design making it the definitive statement of everything great – or, if you prefer, preposterous – about ELO. At the end of 1978 they were the world’s best-selling rock group – the album had advance orders of five million. But with success came the first notes of disharmony. It began to irk some members of the band that they were helping create a super-selling brand name on just a wage. “Over time, it became obvious that the band was split into a hierarchy and lower minions,” sighs Kelly Groucott. “People were whispering to Jeff, ‘You’re the one that counts, it’s all your music.’ And it was, I’d never deny that, but its success had a bit of help from the rest of us.” However, when such dissatisfactions arose, Don Arden came into his own.

“Don was a bully,” states Kelly. “He was okay to Jeff and Bev, but he looked down on the rest of us. We’d try and negotiate more money with him and it was impossible. You’d go in all nervous and he’d start saying, ‘If it wasn’t for this what else would you be doing?’ In other words, ‘If you don’t like it, fuck off!’ ”

However, Arden was happy to sink more money into the stage show, especially when it was his idea. He was inspired by Shusei Nagaoka’s sleeve illustration for Out of the Blue – ELO’s jukebox-surround logo rendered as a spaceship – to pull out all the stops. Don ordered a £100,000, 50ft fibreglass spaceship-shaped stage which he figured, in the year of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, would be sensational in the world’s stadiums.

“That thing was a pain, it really was,” says Kelly. “The sound bounced all over it. There were 500 lights in it suspended above our heads. If anything had gone wrong we’d have been in total trouble. Underneath were all the risers that lifted us up to the stage, each one on separate hydraulic lifts. There was a huge one for the keyboards and grand piano; Bev’s, which rose up above floor level, and one each for all the backline. Quite a few times they’d go wrong. Richard often started the show partly submerged. On one occasion, Jeff and I stepped off ours and I turned round to see that Hugh’s riser was still stuck some way down. As I watched, this cello flew out of the hole and landed in a heap on the stage, and Hugh came clambering out cussing and blinding. The crowd on his side were killing themselves laughing.”

But “the big hamburger”, as Hugh dubbed it, is fondly remembered for its starring role in the group’s most spectacular performance, at the Universal Amphitheatre, Hollywood. Tony Curtis, acting as MC, walked on in front of the huge curtain suspended across the arena and began priming the crowd: “They’re coming, they’re coming!” In the darkness, the ELO spaceship approached from Burbank, flew over the stadium and landed behind the curtain. Alien astronauts appeared in the rigging 30ft above the stage. Tony picked them off with a laser beam and they tumbled to their deaths as the curtain dropped to reveal the spaceship, lights ablaze, thundering open in a cloud of smoke to bring forth “the greatest classical rock band in the universe! – E! L! O!”
“To climb out and see the crowd from that was an enormous buzz,” says Kelly. “That was an awesome show.”

“I used to nip out the back and stand in the crowd and watch the spaceship close at the end,” says Jeff, “It made me laugh, all this smoke bellowing out and that enormous rumble from the woofers. It went down better than us.”

 

It was fatigue that finished ELO. Now a rich man in his 30s, Jeff had wearied of the album-tour-album grind.

“His bag was being in the studio” says Kelly, “after a while on tour he would get pretty pissed off.”

“Jeff could be bloody miserable,” agrees Sharon. “He only had three expressions, ‘Deaf it’ [a kind of Brummy ‘can’t be arsed’], ‘Fook it’ and ‘I wanna Heineken’.”

It was in this mood that he turned down the chance to headline at Knebworth, allowing Led Zeppelin a late moment of glory. He also rejected the chance to score several big movies but, strangely, accepted the offer for Xanadu – which must be among the very worst films ever shot.

That decision and the surprising discoey whiff of the excellent Discovery album probably cost ELO some fans and, when the ‘80s arrived, the future looked glum for symphonic pop played by blokes in flares. Indeed, one of their biggest hits, ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’, struck a death-knell for the band by having, gasp, no strings attached. Soon after the album, the string players were abruptly dismissed with a letter signed by all the other members of the band.

Jeff resented still being contracted to deliver another three albums, and it showed in the results. Time – despite a few great songs – was an awkward, semi-concept album that was definitely mistimed. Next, a late spurt of enthusiasm had Jeff getting into Fairlights and drum-machines, creating 20 new tracks for a proposed double set, Secret Messages, but CBS decided a double vinyl album wasn’t practical during the early ‘80s oil crisis. Piqued, Jeff dumped songs like ‘Hello Old Friend’ – an extended hymn to his hometown which some fans who’ve heard the proposed album consider his finest song ever – and a tender tribute to the Fabs, ‘Beatles Forever’. (Jeff apparently resisted recent attempts to restore the album to its original format.)

Meanwhile, working on his solo record with Bev, Kelly Groucott learnt that Jeff had decided to shut down ELO for good. Effectively out of work, he was dismayed that he’d not been informed. He also thought he was entitled to some kind of pay off. “When we split up, a couple of guys ended up on the dole,” says Kelly. “A golden handshake would have been nice, having helped to make Jeff a multi-millionaire. I didn’t want to sour my relationship with him, but I had a wife and four kids to support. I was advised to sue him. Which I did; and which I’ve regretted ever since. You’ve got to be pretty strong to handle the pressure that goes with a lawsuit, and I wasn’t. It did my head in. I ended up losing a nice house, getting in debt and becoming a cabbage for several months, which resulted in the break-up of my marriage. Eventually we settled out of court, but not for what anybody thought I might be getting. It put a rift between me and Jeff which hasn’t healed. I’d love to sit and have a drink with him but he hates me to death. Nobody’s fault but mine, as I instigated the suing but, in retrospect, it was just not worth it.”

After Balance of Power, a downbeat, synth-drenched album featuring only Jeff, Bev and Richard, and a series of triumphant farewell shows, ELO finally ceased to be in 1986. Hugh returned to classical music and now teaches. Melvyn runs a pressing plant. In 1991, Mik, Kelly, Bev and Louis Clark reconvened with new players as ELO Part II and released a new album. Bev struck a deal with Jeff for the rights to use the name as long as he was behind the drums. Finally tiring of playing mostly old songs on tour, in what was effectively becoming a tribute band, Bev bowed out last year. The others have decided to continue as Orchestra – but face legal action if any promoters suggest they’ve anything to do with the Electric Light Orchestra. The only other original member in Jeff’s new version of ELO is Richard Tandy.

In front of his first audience since 1986, Jeff goes into ‘Evil Woman’ and notes ruefully that “it came true recently.” Acrimoniously divorced from his second wife, Jeff now lives in LA with the singer Rosie Vela, who joins him in the new line-up. The best song on new album Zoom, ‘Moment in Paradise’, is dedicated to her tonight.

In the intervening years, Jeff has landed some dream gigs, producing records with all his big heroes: Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Tom Petty, even, of course, The Beatles. “They’re all still up on pedestals, though,” he says, believably.

Two days later, at our interview, he’s still on a high about the ‘comeback’ show. Though thrilled at the way his music has endured, when talk turns to recurring themes in his songs or a wider significance of his work, Jeff sits back in his seat and the shades go a shade darker. Part of him still smarts about being the kid from the Birmingham estate who failed his 11 plus and he mistrusts any attempt to intellectualise his motives. “I was making records for myself and whoever liked them. Every time I released one I was getting platinum albums and that’s what mattered to me – real people were going out to buy my records. That’s the kind of criticism I like.”

Why, after so many personal goals scored, does Jeff want to revive the old firm?

“When the last three albums were done I thought, I’m free, I don’t have to do it anymore. But two years ago I suddenly thought about having a group and being the singer and writing all the songs like I used to, making a nice record and going out to play it. This has elements of all the things I’ve learned since ELO, even down to letting me be the singer. It took me years to find my natural voice and this is it.

“It’s a very nice atmosphere, now. That show was so much fun, I couldn’t quite believe how much fun it could be. It wasn’t a pain or anything.”

Jim Irvin  

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3 Comments

  1. liliana said,

    It is the most serious report I´ve ever read.

  2. Jim Irvin – “The Bullring Variations: ELO” (2001) | Every Moment Has A Song said,

  3. Pam VA said,

    Missed this when it came out. Lots of new information. I’m so glad Jeff tried touring and recording again.

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