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King Of The Universe: Jeff Lynne On ELO's Unlikely Comeback

Following a rapturously received comeback show and a smash hit new album, Jeff Lynne has returned ELO to the top of the prog pop pantheon. Music’s most modest frontman reveals all about this m

Jeff Lynne is one of rock’s more unassuming characters. Despite the 50 million sales, 15 Top 20 US hits and monstrously successful albums that together make the case for ELO being the most popular prog pop band ever, he still can’t quite believe anyone is interested in him or his music.

Case in point: when he cautiously ambled onstage for his first live appearance in almost three decades at 2014’s BBC Radio 2 Live In Hyde Park concert, he presumed everybody would have already left to catch the last train. Instead, there were tens of thousands still there, many of them in tears, singing along with every song and generally partying like it was 1979.

“I know, it was amazing,” he says. “That was fantastic. And I was really worried that there weren’t going to be many people there because I thought they’d have all gone home by the time we got on. But they hadn’t. So I was very pleasantly surprised. It went down an absolute storm.”

Lynne is aware of the possible ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ effect. For much of the time ELO were away – they released their last album of the original era, Balance Of Power, in 1986 – they were regarded in certain quarters as, at best, a guilty pleasure; at worst as the uncool bearded dads of rock, not to mention purveyors of 70s pop waffle.

But by the start of the second decade of the 21st century (even 2001’s one-off comeback album Zoom didn’t generate much press fuss, nor interest from the band’s label, who spent more time, money and energy promoting the TV-advertised Ultimate Collection, released a month earlier), Lynne began to find his work being reappraised, for the sheer ambition of the songwriting and scale of the production. He’s especially pleased that ELO are now being appreciated not just by those who were there the first time round, but by new generations as well.

“There were a lot of young people at Hyde Park,” he points out. “It wasn’t just people who bought the old albums all those years ago. It’s ever so nice to see all ages in your audience.”

In restaurants, people come up and shake my hand and say, ‘You’re my favourite.’ Nobody ever comes over and says, ‘Crap!’ So that’s a good thing.

It’s hard to believe now, but even in their pomp, ELO were reviled, first during the punk wars when their lush, ornate sound was anathema, and then during post-punk and new wave, when their bubbly confections were regarded as the antithesis of Joy Division et al’s sombre, deathly rattle. It’s really only in the last 10 years that they’ve had any decent reviews at all. “The last five years, I think,” Lynne corrects.

Right. Now it’s all ‘ELO invented this,’ or ‘Jeff Lynne influenced that…’

“It’s quite amazing,” agrees the erstwhile rock pariah. “It’s really turned itself around.”

Recently, ELO have even had their catalogue plundered for samples by everyone from Daft Punk to Snoop Dogg. “Yeah, I heard that,” he says, somewhat bemused.

Does Lynne ever wonder what ELO’s place is in the historical scheme of things? The missing link, perhaps, between The Beatles and Daft Punk?

“No, I don’t think so,” he laughs. “All you can do is make songs up and hope that somebody else will like them. And then, of course, when they start selling vast amounts, you start going, ‘What the…’ It’s like, ‘This is amazing, I’ve got to keep trying this lark.’”

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