In 1987, Electric Light Orchestra head honcho Jeff Lynne sat in as producer with ex-Beatle George Harrison on his hugely popular ‘Cloud Nine’ album. The combination of Harrison’s gift for pop melodies and Lynne’s very distinctive production sound (often revolving around filtered harmony vocals and a gated snare drum leading to a very compressed sound) led to the album being a multi-million seller. The sessions also gave birth to the greatest supergroup ever – The Traveling Wilburys, comprising Harrison, Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. While some people overlook Lynne’s contribution to the group, it is his studio expertise which, perhaps, brings the most to what we now think of as the “Wilbury sound”.
The “Wilbury Sound” was also a huge influence upon Tom Petty’ first solo album ‘Full Moon Fever’, released in 1989. While that album featured plenty of Petty’s distinctive style, it differed from Petty’s prior work with The Heartbreakers in that his often Byrds-influenced jangle was tempered by Lynne’s pop sheen. Far more than on ‘Cloud Nine’, the vocal harmonies became sharper (though, perversely at the same time, more compressed) and Stan Lynch’s drum tracks unsurprisingly also took on Lynne’s favoured “squishy” drum sound. Again, the album was a huge world-wide hit.
In the summer of 1990, Jeff Lynne released his first solo album, ‘Armchair Theatre’. In comparison to his classic releases with ELO and those Wilbury-related discs which came in the years preceding its release, it was only a moderate success. This perhaps lends some weight to the argument that – for some people, at least – Lynne was always the least visual component of the Wilburys. In terms of musical style, it shares so much with that supergroup, with ‘Cloud Nine’ and with ‘Full Moon Fever’, in that, for those who didn’t hear it at the time, ‘Armchair Theatre’ sounds almost exactly as you’d expect.
‘Every Little Thing’ opens the record with an uncharacteristically hard rhythm at first, as a rather loud drum pounds out a basic rhythm. The overly loud drum mixed with a pumping bass evokes classic sixties beat pop (particularly Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Keep On Runnin’), before Lynne’s love of multi-tracking gets properly unleashed. The harder edge softens a little, but that pounding beat keeps things moving all the while; elements of old soul tunes pepper the mood thanks to a reasonable brass arrangement, while elsewhere there are hints of upbeat Roy Orbison and other classic music from years gone by. No matter how many passing influences you care to pull from this particular tune, it’s unmistakably the work of Jeff Lynne and although his voice may not always be as good (nor distinctive) as those of his Wilbury peers, here – as with a few other key cuts on this album – he proves a decent enough vocalist in his own way. More of his pop side is celebrated throughout ‘Lift Me Up’ (a minor hit at the time of the original release). Slicker than ‘Every Little Thing’, there’s so much to love about this tune: those typical multi-tracked voices are straight from the eighties ELO catalogue, while a simple and sweet overriding melody on the chorus sounds like a ray of AM radio sunshine. It has a minor drawback in that Lynne’s choice of far-too-simplistic backbeat makes everything slightly more lumbering than perhaps it really ought to have been. All the same, while it was never destined to be as well known (or as timeless) as Tom Petty’s ‘I Won’t Back Down’, it really ought to be heard more often; at least as often as Lynne’s own ‘Calling America’, ‘Hold On Tight’ or those other latter-day ELO singles.
The first – and arguably the best – of the album’s three cover tunes, ‘Don’t Let Go’ (originally by Jesse Stone) taps into Lynne’s love of pure rock ‘n’ roll, a twangy guitar and curly vocal colliding on a piece of nostalgia rivalled only by Dave Edmunds. With a great but short appearance by Jim Horn on sax, an energetic performance combined with a catchy hook makes this one of the album’s most enduring tunes. It’s here our curly-haired Brummie chum sounds most at ease, his performance having more spark than most of the material on ‘Long Wave‘ [Lynne’s 2012 oldies-centric covers disc] combined.
On the surface, ‘Nobody Home’ is another superb old-fashioned pop tune. Simplistic rhythm guitars chug their way through four minutes, as Jeff taps into the deeper end of his vocal range, curling his words like the old fashioned pop crooner he often aspires to being, while multi tracked voices and Lynne’s own distinctive falsetto back him intermittently. Equally as simple as those guitars, an organ parps away occasionally adding a little colour, but despite best intentions, around the two minute mark, the main fault with this tune becomes obvious: the drums do little than mark time, bashing out a very basic one-two stomp that makes Ringo Starr sound like Keith Moon. It could be argued that is all this tune required, but the lack of rhythmic flourish lets this – and a couple of ‘Armchair Theatre’s other numbers – down in a way that could have been avoided, if only Lynne had applied a little more thought. After all, we know from past experience with ELO that Lynne can be a masterful arranger when he wants to be…
A much better offering, ‘What Would It Take’, has the more of the lightness of touch ‘Nobody Home’ desperately needed, with an extra beat making things seem more rounded. As 80s keys parp against a mid-paced, marching drum, it’s still not a particularly bouncy tune, but it has some superb elements: Lynne’s guitar has a pleasing old-school twang, while vocally he does everything you’re expecting on a tune which sounds like very much like a Wilbury cast off. …And just at the moment you feel the chorus could have needed a lift, he throws in a great key change, the appearance of which makes this one of the album’s definite highlights. Keeping with a Wilbury theme, ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ – a slow pop crooner with a musical root from a pre-Beatle age – sounds as if it could have turned out an absolute winner in the hands of Roy Orbison. The crying vocal sounds as if it were tailor-made for the Big O, and while Lynne never commands anywhere near as much presence as Orbison certainly would, his vocal range gets more of workout here than on many of ‘Armchair Theatre’s other tunes.
Although its general pace represents similar styled pop to much of ‘Armchair Theatre’, ‘Now You’re Gone’ has a darker mood running through its centre. This is partly due to increased use of piano and minor keys, but the appearance of eastern sounding strings and traditional Indian vocals add an extra air of moodiness. These extra ingredients make it one of the album’s most memorable cuts, adding a broader range of influences without ever detracting from Lynne’s typical vision. ‘Blow Away’, on the other hand, is one of the album’s most forgettable tunes – a Ringo Starr drummed plodfest which ambles along as if it’s in need of a good winding up. Hard to believe that something so leaden – and ultimately uninteresting – would be the album’s only cut to be co-written by the normally reliable Tom Petty. [It’s odd that ‘What Would It Take’ sounds far more like a Petty tune...]
‘Armchair Theatre’s other covers, ‘Stormy Weather’ and ‘September Song’ mightn’t capture as much spark as the earlier Jesse Stone number, but recorded for Jeff’s (then) recently departed mother, each brings something admirable to the album, even though the songs themselves could never be considered artistically cool. ‘Stormy Weather’ retains the distinctive melodies of the old standard but dresses those in shiny newer clothes, as Lynne peppers everything with multi-tracked vocals and synthy strings, lending a mood of ELO’s moodier weather related moments from ‘Out Of The Blue’. While it is unlikely anybody ever really needs to hear a cover version of this tune ever again (particularly with such an eighties sheen), this has charm, again, much more so than some of Lynne’s similarly styled covers on ‘Long Wave’. In a similar-ish style, a reverential take on the Kurt Weill ‘September Song’ comes across very well indeed, with Lynne’s silky, slightly warbly voice well complimented by occasional slide guitar cries from the legendary George Harrison (whom, post-‘Cloud Nine’, likely would have tackled this standard in pretty much the same way, had the opportunity arisen).
The short ‘Save Me Now’ brings the original album to a downbeat close. This brief acoustic number finds Lynne casting aside feel-good pop for a tune with a message: in this case, he’s taking the role of the Earth and pleading with us to take more care. The message may be a little heavy handed and Lynne himself is no Bob Dylan (but then he would never claim to be), but the sweet tune and a multi-tracked vocal come together for a charming enough listen.
The reissue CD includes two bonus cuts, ‘Borderline’ and ‘Forecast’. Fans will be familiar with ‘Borderline’ as it had been issued previously as a b-side back in the day, but even so, this jaunty and slightly folksy singalong is a welcome addition. A repetitive lyric ensures you’ll be singing it for weeks, while the tune allows more of an insight into Lynne’s acoustic side. The unreleased ‘Forcast’ is much better; joining ‘Armchair Theatre’s other weather-themed numbers, this slightly sinister number taps into Beatle-esque sounds and sounds more like ELO circa 1978 than most of the album’s original material. Drums evoking gentle thunder, synths adding blankets of colour and various Jeff Lynnes pull together to give the listener a number which really ought to have made the cut first time around [In all honesty, it really ought to have replaced one of the covers – three covers on a record that’s not specifically a covers disc is at least one too many].
Long time Lynne devotees will almost certainly have owned this album (most likely on vinyl) since 1990, but for many, the 2013 expanded remaster represents a very welcome reissue. It mightn’t always be as masterful as the first Wilburys album or as obviously consistent as Tom Petty’s ‘Full Moon Fever’, but a few well-crafted originals alongside a few other almost great numbers makes it a curates egg very much worth digging into.