The Astounding Genius of the Real Mr. Blue Sky
It may not have seemed so at the time, but 1977 was a good year for me. I was twelve years old, and even though I didn’t realize it, I was a pre-teen sponge, absorbing everything around me. Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d read Stephen King’s then two-year-old novel ‘Salem’s Lot (sorry, Mom), which simultaneously scared the bejeezus out of me and started an itch to create my own stories as a writer. It was also the year of Star Wars, which made me want to be a space cowboy.
It was a year of killer music, too. Though it would be a while before I could truly appreciate them, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Pink Floyd’s Animals, The Eagles’ Hotel California, and Bowie’s Heroes were a few of the seminal albums that came out that year. There was another record, however, one that forever changed the way I saw rock and roll, a double LP featuring a colorful spaceship, brilliant songs, and ideas that would stay with me until, well, right now.
A couple of days ago, I re-watched (for the third time) a spectacular 2014 Hyde Park concert, a show featuring the guy behind that album, a man who’s been a musical inspiration to me since I first heard him. During the late 1980s/early 1990s, he went by the names Otis and Clayton Wilbury and even joined one of the most exclusive clubs in music, the Fifth Beatles. Even if you think you haven’t heard this man’s music, you probably have, either through his songwriting, production, or performance. His name is Jeff Lynne, and he’s my musical hero.
In case you don’t know about Jeff Lynne, I’ll give you a few tidbits: He’s best known as the driving force behind Electric Light Orchestra (ELO), but over the years, Lynne has also contributed writing, session work, and production to artists like Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Joe Walsh, the Everly Brothers, Regina Spektor, Duane Eddy, Tom Petty, Aerosmith, George Harrison, Bonnie Tyler, Paul McCartney, and The Beatles. He’s been instrumental in bringing rock and roll to the people of Earth for the past fifty years.
In my book, Jeff Lynne is a master. He was the heir apparent to the Beatles, a machine of smart, sophisticated music loaded with melodic hooks, wrapped up in symphonic rock that somehow sounds great without coming off as pretentious or, worse, making you want to pull your hair out.
The album I mentioned earlier, ELO’s 1977 double-LP Out of the Blue, is my favorite record, bar none. Of all time. By any artist. It even surpasses The Beatles’ Revolver and Rubber Soul, two projects that alternate as my favorite Fab Four efforts. Out of the Blue is loaded with masterpieces: “Turn to Stone,” “Sweet Talkin’ Woman,” “Steppin’ Out,” “Summer and Lightning,” “Wild West Hero,” and “Mr. Blue Sky.”
As the story goes, Lynne wrote side three of Out of the Blue while staying in a rented chalet in the Swiss Alps. Also called Concerto for a Rainy Day, this suite begins with “Standin’ in the Rain,” continues with “Big Wheels Turnin’,” and “Summer and Lightning,” and ends with the effusive “Mr. Blue Sky.”
(Note to Self: Look into renting a Swiss chalet. To my dear friends, donations to the cause are, of course, welcome.)
Out of the Blue is so good that even if it had been the only album Lynne ever did, he’d be legendary. In fact, if he’d never written any song other than “Mr. Blue Sky,” he should’ve ended up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a result.
Jeff Lynne isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Consider that.
Here’s another testament to my love for Jeff Lynne’s music: One summer back in the early 1990s, I scoured sweltering Alabama flea markets looking for copies of his no-longer-available solo album Armchair Theatre. If you don’t get the significance of that commitment, perhaps you’ve never experienced an Alabama summer.
How about this, then? In 1979, with his soon-to-be anthem “Don’t Bring Me Down,” Jeff Lynne managed the feat of giving disco an infusion of heart and soul. A year later, ELO’s music even made the silly but ultimately good-hearted movie Xanadu appealing. Okay, there was also the stone cold crush I and roughly the rest of the world had on Olivia Newton-John at the time, but my point stands. The music was the thing.
Now for the story of how I first latched onto Jeff Lynne, via ELO: The high school I attended was having a rock and roll record and tape burning—yes, you read that correctly—and as a budding entrepreneur who also happened to be an after school janitor, I felt compelled to sort through the discarded materials each afternoon. You know, just to see if there was anything cool that might fit well in my growing collection of LPs, eight-tracks, and cassettes.
I was about to learn the cardinal rule of salvage work: Don’t worry if you can’t find something you like. Just find something someone else will want. What I found in that pile were two KISS eight-tracks, Dynasty and KISS Alive II, I think. Thing was, I didn’t like KISS, but I knew someone who did, a person who was also happy to trade me those tapes for two ELO tapes, A New World Record and Out of the Blue.
As a result of that trade, my musical life changed, and nearly every spare moment over the next weekend was spent devouring the songs on those tapes. Then I bought the LPs and devoured them some more. I’d eventually upgrade to CD and straight digital, but I still have those records and eight-tracks.
There’s more. Not only does Lynne appeal to the musician in me, he also inspires me as a writer with his lyrics and ideas. ELO’s 1981 concept album Time has been panned here and there, but it’s still one of my other favorites. Here’s the premise: A twentieth century man is transported from his time, 1981, all the way to the year 2095, where he encounters emotionless people and a woman who may be a computer, and he becomes a fugitive, even fleeing to the moon and, eventually, a space station. In the end, he makes it back home, accompanied by the hopeful strains of the 1981 ELO hit “Hold On Tight.” For years now, I’ve revisited those songs and their compelling, understated vision of a world to come.
Here’s how the circle completes: In 2015, Lynne released Alone in the Universe, his first ELO album in fourteen years. This occasion coincided with my fiftieth birthday, which seemed wholly appropriate, considering I grew up on this man’s music. There was also the first single, a tune called “When I Was a Boy.”
“When I was a boy, I had a dream
All about the things I’d like to be
Soon as I was in my bed
Music played inside my head
When I was a boy, I had a dream
When I was a boy, I learned to play
Far into the night and drift away
Don’t want to work on the milk or the bread
Just want to play my guitar instead
When I was a boy, I had a dream”
In writing this tune about his young self, it turns out Jeff Lynne was also describing the twelve-year-old me, the one who’d just scored those two 8-tracks, the kid destined to spend the rest of his teen years sitting up far too late into the night wearing gigantic, uncomfortable headphones and plunking tunes on a crappy guitar.
As far as fiftieth birthday presents go, you can’t ask for anything better than that.
Thanks for the music, Jeff.