Jeff Lynne

His clients have included the cream of rock royalty, so how come this British-born producer is one of the most divisive around? Steve Sutherland on the man who successfully collaborated with the band whose shadow, some say, he never escaped

It was a job you wouldn't wish on anyone, even your worst enemy. A deadly odds-on no-win nightmare. And Jeff Lynne had just been handed the gig.

'Every morning I would wake up with half dread, half exhilaration,' he remembered later. 'The idea of doing it was the most thrilling thing imaginable… but messing it up would be horrible.' The terrible task in hand? To reanimate The Beatles!

Lynne had been asked by George Harrison to helm the reformation of The Threetles, as they were known when they eventually reconvened after John Lennon's death, and turn them back into the Fabulous Four via the construction of fully fledged tracks from demos donated by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono. The occasion was the compilation of Anthology, a collection of alternative takes and demos previously only available in rough bootleg form. The songs in question and eventually under universal scrutiny were 'Free As a Bird' and 'Real Love'.

'To make records out of those two cassette tapes of John's, that was the hardest job I've ever done,' Lynne reminisced. 'I was given a mono cassette with John singing “Free As A Bird” with a piano. There was tons of hiss, and the piano was loud. This was 1995, and we weren't using a computer yet. It was impossible to play along to the cassette because it was a wild performance, so we wound up recording the track based on the average tempo, and then I flew John's voice and piano into it. After that, we added George and Paul singing harmonies.


'I loved it, but it was tough. I had a few tricks to get John's voice on the track, and Paul helped by ghosting John's voice underneath to give it more body. I remember him giving me a big hug and saying, “Well done, you've done it!”.'

Gross Betrayal
It was a task that proved a feather in Lynne's cap, no doubt about it, but reputation-wise it was also a giant pain in his arse. First there was the fact that Lynne simply wasn't George Martin, the so-called 'Fifth Beatle' and the man who steered the Fabs atop the most golden era popular music has ever known. Lynne's appointment was seen by many diehards as nothing short of a gross betrayal. Then there were others who considered Lynne's own band, the Electric Light Orchestra, mere Pre-Fabs, at best Beatles copyists and at worst, chancers and wannabes. And it must be said there's some truth to that. ELO's best work, helmed by Lynne both in and out of the studio, was all too closely fashioned on The Beatles' mid-to-late period when Macca, Lennon and co weren't averse to the odd piece of grandiloquent orchestration.


'I love the Beatles but saying we copied them is bullsh**t!' became his regular, impassioned repost. And one that not everyone was buying, still determined to view everything he did diminished in the Fabs' merciless shadow.

'It's hardly a shadow – it's more like a splat!' he laughed when confronted with the haters. 'I love The Beatles dearly, totally, and absolutely. When I was doing my first album with Idle Race, the engineer phoned and said, “Do you want to go down to Abbey Road?” – actually I think it was called EMI in those days – “The Beatles are in recording”. I said, “Wha?!”. We shot down there, got past the bloke at the door, and there they were, recording two different sessions for The White Album. I met John and George in the Studio Two control room. Through the window you could see George Martin hurling himself around as he conducted the string track to “Glass Onion”. I said to myself, “Listen to that snare drum sound!”. It was all beyond my wildest dreams.


'Then we walked down the corridor, and there was Paul playing bass on “Why Don't We Do It In The Road?”. Ringo was giving him a note on the piano. It was shocking to see The Beatles in the actual recording studio. It was like catching an unbelievable event in nature. I couldn't believe my luck.'

What's that saying again? Careful what you wish for!

Double Attack
Once 'Free As A Bird' and 'Real Love' were released, Lynne was faced with a vicious double-pronged attack – either he had always wanted to be a Beatle and had now connived to wangle his way into their midst, or else he'd perpetrated arguably the more heinous crime of actually turning the sacred Fabs into ELO!

Here's a selection from the critical mass that wound up online:

'I hate him. He can make any song sound like “Strawberry Fields”. It's not even that he makes them sound like The Beatles. It's just “Strawberry Fields”. One song! Except that with “Real Love” and “Free As A Bird”, he's made The Beatles sound like ELO!.'

Some of the haters were even more specific: 'Yeah, close-mike the snare and far-mike the snare. Now, compress the far mike 2:1 and fold into the close-snare track while using a tenth-of-a-second tape delay between the two. Then use it on every song from 1974 on!'.

'Absolutely hate him. The most plastic, canned, sterile sound you can possibly get in a studio…' 'Jeff Lynne is a one-trick pony…' 'Every time I hear a Lynne-produced record, I think of how much better it would have sounded without him… He sucks!'

I guess by now you may have gathered that Jeff Lynne's just about the most divisive producer around. There's no denying his resumé fair sparkles with the great and good, but this may well be his biggest. Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, The Beatles… these are artists who only the most brave or foolish would choose to mess with, their fan base being so utterly protective of their idols.