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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

For Jeff Lynne, ELO Name Still Works Its Strange Magic

November 19, 2000|STEVE HOCHMAN

Is an Electric Light Orchestra album really an ELO album if it features twice as many Beatles as it does actual ELO members?

Both George Harrison and Ringo Starr make appearances on the first new ELO album since 1986, to be released by Epic Records in April. But there's only one actual member of the band involved--Jeff Lynne, who co-founded the group in 1971 and was its focal point throughout its existence. Save for a handful of guest musicians, Lynne played all the instruments, did most of the singing and wrote all the songs.

"It's the same as on all ELO records--I wrote, produced and sang them," says Lynne, 52, who spent most of the intervening time producing such high-profile projects as the Beatles "reunion" songs, and albums by Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys (of which he was a member with Harrison, Petty, Bob Dylan and the late Roy Orbison).

But the last time he did this kind of recording, he released it under his own name as a solo project, 1990's "Armchair Theater." It's a fine distinction, he admits, between what is Jeff Lynne and what is ELO.

"I could have called all the ELO albums Jeff Lynne albums," he says. "Where do you draw the line?"

One could draw the line with sales figures. ELO was one of the top acts of the '70s and early '80s, with its 1979 "Discovery" album selling more than 2 million copies in the U.S., 1976's "A New World Record" and 1977's "Out of the Blue" each selling more than a million, and four other albums passing the gold 500,000-sales mark. A 1980 greatest-hits collection recently reached the 4-million figure. Lynne's solo album, however, fell far short of even gold status.

But the main reason for using the group name, he says, is that the new material is "obviously evocative of ELO." He describes the music as edgier than back in the heyday, but still with his trademark layered, orchestral sounds. And here and there he's employed some strings, recalling the quasi-classical orientation that was the hallmark of such early ELO hits as "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Strange Magic"--radio staples of their day and still favorites on classic-rock stations.

Also tilting the scale to the revival of the ELO moniker are the coming release of "Flashback," a three-CD band anthology, and--most significantly--plans for an ELO TV concert special (perhaps a VH1 "Storytellers") and tour. Those would be the first ELO concerts since 1985.

A group billed as ELO Part II, anchored by founding drummer Bev Bevan with Lynne's full permission, recorded and toured through the '90s, disbanding earlier this year because Bevan said he was tired of playing the same old songs. Lynne has not asked him to be part of the new lineup, although long-time ELO keyboardist Richard Tandy will be.

"Jeff is ELO," says Christopher Landt, who runs the ELO fan web site http://www.rockaria.com. "I consider Jeff's 1990 solo album just as much ELO as the rest. . . . But I do find it difficult to fathom Jeff calling [the new one] ELO. In all of his post-ELO interviews, it looked like he would do anything but. And we have been expecting a second solo album for the past four years. But if he calls it ELO, that is fine by me."

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A HARD DAY'S SITE: With the Beatles "Anthology" TV series of a few years ago, the new book with the same title and the hubbub around the new "1" hits CD, it's hard to come up with anything about the Fab Four we haven't already seen or heard. But there is a newly discovered treasure about to surface--the first-draft script from "A Hard Day's Night," with scenes that never made it to the 1964 movie, or at least only made it in severely altered form. Among them is an extended scene that would have featured John Lennon acting out a Raymond Chandler-esque detective fantasy.

The script was found by Beatles historian Martin Lewis in the archives of the film's producer, Walter Shenson, shortly before Shenson's recent death. Lewis was looking for artifacts to display on an Internet site tied to the re-release of the movie Dec. 1. The old script will be a central feature of the site, which will debut Monday at http://www.miramax.com/aharddaysnight. In addition to the deleted scenes, it includes handwritten notes by director Richard Lester and writer Alun Owen.

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OLD TIME RELIGION: Producer and songwriter Warryn Campbell, one of the hottest R&B names behind the scenes thanks to hits with Brandy, Sisqo, Mary Mary and Usher, has been trying to stimulate a return to the days when "real" singers with church roots dominated the genre--people like Aretha Franklin. Now he gets to work with the archetype. Arista Records President L.A. Reid has just asked him to work with Franklin on her next album.

"For a while you had anybody out singing," says Campbell, 25. "Now there's more singers coming back, the standards are getting higher again. All the singers are coming out of the church. You had a lot of garbage out there, novelty albums, and if you keep putting those out, the genre's going to die."

Campbell has again been applying those values with Brandy, working on five songs expected to be on her next album. He's also just finished Usher's follow-up to his 3-million-seller "My Way" and is about to start on Sisqo's sequel to his huge hit "Unleash the Dragon." With none of them, he says, is he willing to merely repeat a successful formula.

"I try to look three albums ahead and see where they're going to be," he says. "And then I try to do that with them now."

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