ELO

PETER SKELLERN

 

Peter Skellern, the Bury-born musician, songwriter and producer who died yesterday at the age of 69, is probably still best known for his 1972 hit single, ‘You’re A Lady’, which first brought him to prominence. But it would be wrong to dismiss him as a light-touch, middle-of-the-road troubadour ;- throughout his long and varied recording and performance career, Skellern was consistently diverting, always weighing-in at far more than the sum of his parts, of which there were many.

From Lancashire in the North-West of England, he trained as a classical musician and, as a young graduate from the Guildhall, originally served as a church organist in Bolton. And there are subtle traces of those credentials throughout his work ;- religion and faith became far more prominent themes during his later career. But much of his earlier material – his first five albums, especially – is characterised by a deft lyrical touch and a droll sense of the local and the ordinary and he was a consummate storyteller, both on record and off. His live solo shows were punctuated by tall yarns and short, sharp references, loaded colloquialisms and a wizard’s touch at the piano. And, to this end, in 1978 he took the fabled brassband from the works at Grimethorpe Colliery in Yorkshire and into the studio and, ultimately, onto the soundstage at Top Of The Pops to accompany him perform ‘Love Is The Sweetest Thing’. Three years previously, that same band had featured on Roy Harper’s epic ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’.

Like Gilbert O’Sullivan, it would be wrong to dismiss Peter Skellern as either a curiosity or a novelty and, parsing his considerable and diverse back catalogue, his influence extends as far as Morrissey’s lyrical dash and The Divine Comedy’s broader canvas. Indeed while Neil Hannon has frequently cited his long-standing affection for Jeff Lynne, his material actually owes far more to some of Skellern’s sweet, often self-deprecating parlour songs like ‘My Lonely Room’, ‘Where Do We Go To From Here’ and ‘Still Magic’ than it does to the more formidable, power-house sound of The Electric Light Orchestra.

Peter’s ambition always stretched far and wide :- he had the musical range and raw ability of Jimmy Webb, particularly in terms of composition and arrangement, and the lyrical touches of Alan Bennett. And so a typical live show or compilation album might lurch between Astaire-period, brushed-drum jazz to layered popular ballads to pithy, kitchen-sink smart-alecry like ‘Our Jackie’s Getting Married’, ‘Every Home Should Have One’ and ‘My Ideal Home’. Crisp and wry tunes from the drawing room that, beneath their bonnets, were knitted around sturdy melody lines and wide-ranging, ambitious production.

I saw this for myself at close quarters during two exceptional live shows that Skellern played in Cork city during the mid-1980s, the first of which I recorded on a portable Walkman and played to within an inch of its life for years afterwards. From my hard-backed chair deep within the city’s merchant and toff classes in one of the ballrooms in The Metropole Hotel in 1984, I watched on in awe as he gave a performance masterclass to an audience of four hundred or so during a typical set that went on for an eternity and that covered a vast range of genres and styles, pickled throughout with an easy, well-worn patter. One of his favourite yarns, the punchlines to which invariably rebounded on himself, involved the the English singer, Peter Sarstedt, best known for ‘Where Do You Go To My Lovely’ [who himself passed away last month] and with whom Skellern was consistently confused.

He was back in Cork again the following year, this time in the infinitely less velveteen surroundings of Connolly Hall, but this time to a far larger and clearly more diverse audience. That show, which is easily among the best and most memorable I’ve ever seen, will forever be recalled for the fact that it took place despite a serious power outage in the middle of the city that plunged the venue and the streets around it into complete darkness. The show was delayed for an hour before Skellern eventually took to the stage carrying a lamp and proceeded to rip the night up, playing without amplification for the guts of ninety minutes, during which he projected his voice magnificently all over the vast hall.

As usual, he skirted around some of his own easy listening standards, adding a touch of jazz or a light classical piece when the mood, and the evening, took him. From ‘The Continental’ to ‘Love Is’ through ‘Puttin’ On The Ritz’, a couple of rag-time instrumentals and, stunningly, a magnificent reading of Debussy’s ‘The Girl With The Flaxen Hair’. And, with every note and flourish, reminded the partisan audience exactly how, for years, he’d enjoyed the unfailing devotion of Terry Wogan’s BBC radio audiences.

As well as his own body of work, Skellern was a frequent collaborator too, most notably with his friend Richard Stilgoe, with whom he wrote and released several records and toured regularly. And of course in 1984 he recorded and released an album as a member of Oasis, a five-piece that also featured the Welsh singer, Mary Hopkin and cellist Julian Lloyd-Webber among it’s number. That eponymously titled record, which can be filed under ‘easy listening’, saw the light of day a full ten years before ‘Definitely Maybe’ and features mostly Skellern compositions, the magnificent ‘If This Be The Last Time’ foremost among them and which, in its own way and to these ears, is just as magical as ‘Live Forever’.

I’ve long adored Skellern’s work in all of it’s guises and, in particular, his regal command of orchestration and the scale and ambition of his arrangements, the beauty of which are often lost behind a lazily-formed portrayal of him as mere fodder for the slacks, slip-over and high-waisted trouser set. As someone reared on the raw wonder of the likes of ‘And So It Passes’, ‘You’re A Lady’, ‘Still Magic’ and ‘My Lonely Room’, I defy anyone to tell me that he isn’t a far greater and unlikely influence than many of us might have imagined ? Himself almost certainly included.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JEFF LYNNE’S E.L.O., LIVE IN DUBLIN, 2016

Jeff Lynne

© Tony O’Sullivan

 

 

The last time I sat in the 3 Arena in Dublin was for one of U2’s flatulent Innocence And Experience shows which proved, once again, that all of the smoke, mirrors and lighting tricks can’t definitively mask the  inevitable. U2 have long had the drabs and have real difficulty writing new material.

As far back as July 2009 and off the back of the release of the ‘No Line On The Horizon’ album, Michael Ross wrote a superb long piece about U2 in The Sunday Times in which he referenced some of the issues then affecting the group’s output. Ross, with his usual insight, referred to ‘the recent predicament of a band seemingly unable to write structured songs, settling instead for riffs and word salad lyrics’ and, if anything, U2’s plight in this respect has only worsened in the years since.

One could never lay the same charges at Jeff Lynne’s door. Indeed his most recent E.L.O. record, ‘Alone In The Universe’, ranks not only among his but also 2015’s best and most refreshing, built on the usual foundations of simple sounds bound in layers of bubble-wrap and arrangements that, betimes, are God-given. Indeed the only concern for those fetching up in Dublin’s docklands to see Jeff Lynne’s first Dublin live date in almost thirty years was much more specific :- could his voice, almost seventy years old now, sustain a full ninety minutes in the white-heat ? The previous night, the exceptional American song-writer, Jimmy Webb had struggled manfully through a live performance on RTÉ Television’s The Late Late Show and suffered the slings of many of those watching for his troubles.

As with much of the contemporary Jeff Lynne narrative, however, any fears were quickly dissolved, and then some. The previous week, he’d been in the same venue and about to sound-check when, on medical advice, he was deemed un-fit – very late in the day – to perform. But tonight, promptly re-scheduled and to a full-house, the group is quickly out of the traps and into a mighty ‘Tightrope’ ;- the end-of-tour carnival was away. And beneath that distinctive high tenor, the souped-up band, now numbering twelve, is horse-strong.

In an interview with Terry Staunton in 2012 around the release of the ‘Long Wave’ album, a collection of re-worked covers and old songs from the 1950s and 1960s, Lynne explained how ‘simplicity appeals to me’. ‘If you can hold a simple melody’, he went on, ‘and you don’t disappear up your own arse with complicated lyrics, you’ll end up with a championship winning song’. It’s a familiar formula and one from which, during his fifty year career, Jeff has hardly strayed. Yes, he’s refined the sound, tone and delivery at regular intervals over the decades but, ultimately, he’s still dealing in prime silverware.

Tonight bore all the hall-marks of the end of a first chapter of an unlikely comeback novel ;- only one track from the current album, ‘Alone In The Universe’, in a set pulled largely from ‘E.L.O’s Greatest Hits’, with the odd surprise along the way. With a prominent date on the Glastonbury main stage later this summer, Lynne’s revival really could develop in any number of directions and to a crowd far removed, in every sense, from that assembled here. Not, of course, that our hero would ever let on ;- he says little or nothing throughout and, as ever, just looks like he walked onto the stage quite by accident. And perhaps he did ?

In the interests of detail, the usual staples – ‘Sweet Talkin’ Woman’, ‘Strange Magic’, ‘10538 Overture’, ‘All Over The World’, ‘Telephone Line’ and ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ are all present and correct, delivered through a huge wall of sound by a band that includes three string players and two additional keyboardists in support of Richard Tandy’s piano. Indeed Tandy – Lynne’s long-serving side-kick and, along with the spaceships that dominate the lighting design, one of the few remaining links to the group during it’s commercial and creative pomp in the 1970s – must often look wistfully across the vast stage. Bearing the look of a parish priest about to lead a Taizé group at an evening’s folk mass, there was a time when, as part of a seven-man E.L.O. line-up, he delivered that sinewy keyboard sound on his own. The work of three men, indeed.

Secret Messages’, the keyboard-led title-track from E.L.O.’s 1983 album of the same name is a wild-card at the half-way point, lost to the many here who stopped buying the group’s records after 1979’s ‘Discovery’. While ‘Shine A Little Love’ and especially ‘Rockaria’ see the band move through the gears and test the bend a little, in full flight and at peak power. With the live strings boosted by huge layers from around the stage this, in every respect, is a real deal. A fact borne out too by Lynne himself who, behind his aviator shades, delivers every number with his eyes closed.

He prefaces ‘Steppin’ Out’ – another lesser-regarded gem from the ‘Out Of The Blue’ double album – with a subtle dig at the original and, when the band assembles at the front of the stage to formally conclude the end of the tour and pose for a crowd-backed ‘selfie’, he just looks bemused, awkward even. Or maybe he’s just taken with the sold-out Dublin crowd who, an unfortunate outbreak of ‘Óle Óle Óle’ apart, roared him home all night ?

And yes of course, the whiff of nostalgia courses through the current narrative but the arrangements and the sense of scale at play here ensure that this is still at a safe distance from arena-sized karaoke. A joy from top to tail, we skipped up the quays in the rain immediately afterwards, listing the many, many songs they chose not to play. And fearing for whoever is unfortunate enough to follow them on-stage at their festival appearances this summer. Because, on this form, there really isn’t much point.

 

TOGETHER ALONE ;- JEFF LYNNE

 

The liner notes on Idle Race’s second album, ‘Idle Race’, released in 1969, are giddy with adjectives and end with a short biography of each of the fledgling Birmingham group’s four members. One of that number, Jeff Lynne, is described by the author, Ray Coleman, as ‘the chief songwriter’. ‘He rides a bicycle’, the piece continues, ‘likes The Beatles and, in a rather disorganised way, manages to write prolifically. ‘I have hundreds of songs in my head. I have bits of so many songs going at one time, I can get mixed up’’. Lynne’s profile photograph on the back of ‘Idle Race’ captures him, aged twenty, clean-shaven and with a shock of big hair, staring intently ahead while both his hands are fixed across the knobs and tits on a studio mixing console.

Forty-six years on and, while the technology has become more sophisticated, very little else has changed and Jeff Lynne cuts a familiar figure on the spread inside ‘Alone In The Universe’, his first album of original material in almost fifteen years. Captured behind a mounted vocal mic at the studio in his home in Los Angeles, he’s surrounded by a battery of instruments, framed discs and, on the shelving to one side of the room, mementoes that, deliberately or otherwise, reference particular mile-stones from a scarcely plausible career. A Beatles special edition box set, a rare nick-nack from Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and a collectable piece from The Traveling Wilburys are most prominent among the racks.

I’ve been there with Jeff every step of the way – or I certainly feel like I’ve been there – since the late summer of 1979 when, as an eleven year old boy in Cork, my mother bought me my first single from Pat Egan’s Rainbow Records on Patrick Street. ‘Shine A Little Love’, written and produced by Jeff and played and performed by what was then his seven-piece group, The Electric Light Orchestra, had charted some months previously and now, from the back of one of the bargain bins, a life-long relationship was taking root. ‘Shine A Little Love’ was brash, showy and instant ;- it put the ‘disco’ into ‘Discovery, the album from which it was lifted. It was immense.

Jeff continues to mine a familiar seam and the swirl of strings, layered hand-claps and multi-tracked vocals still feature prominently in his kit ;- it’s as magical a sound now as it was then. ‘Alone In The Universe’ – an album that summons up ghosts and dominant sounds and voices from the past – is his most complete suite of songs since that same ‘Discovery’ album. It nods variously to 1977’s ‘Out Of The Blue’, 1981’s ‘Time’ and 2001’s vastly-under-rated and largely ignored ‘Zoom’, three fine E.L.O. albums from three very distinct phases of the group’s career that, alongside the obvious influence of Roy Orbison’s vocal inflections, pump it’s heart.

Now almost 68 years old, Jeff Lynne is back at the top table and, you’d imagine, can barely believe how it’s all come back home like this. E.L.O. was a beaten docket as far back as 1986 and that year’s ‘Balance Of Power’ album was a real struggle to complete, as much for loyalists and completists as much as it was for the band itself. Critically, their best days were five years behind them while the group’s commercial clout and the familiar spirit of the band’s sound was as shrivelled as their make-up. Where once they were seven, boasting strings, wires and scale, they’d been reduced by 1986 to a core of Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan and keyboard player Richard Tandy. E.L.O. simply ran out of juice.

The most surprising aspect of ‘Alone In The Universe’ is just how unsurprising the whole enterprise actually is. As usual, there’s nothing on this record that regular watchers haven’t seen previously ;- Jeff is too far gone and too long in the tooth now to trial new tricks. But what the record does do is return to what E.L.O. did so successfully for so long ;- simple, unaffected, impactful pop songs wrapped in the usual, platinum-plated Lynne production. Over the course of the last fifteen years, Jeff’s gone full-circle :- once derided as a shameless Beatles plagiarist, maybe there was always far more depth to his work than was previously thought ? Old enough to have completed the circuit, he’s caught up with himself second time around and, in his beard and his aviator shades – for years so terminally un-hip – and propelled by the good offices of a handful of influencers and opinion-formers, it’s like he’s never been away.

To fans of the traditional pop song, ‘Alone In The Universe’ is a magnificent piece of work but, then again, I see merit in even the worst aspects of ‘Secret Messages’, ‘Time’ and ‘Balance Of Power’ – and there are several. I love the basic rhyming schemes, the juvenile metaphors and the subtle intent but, beyond all else, I just love the simplicity and how, with the bending of a bridge or the casual caress of a vocal line, he can re-direct the message with serious impact. ‘Love And Rain’ – which could be straight off of ‘Zoom’ – is a nagging ‘Showdown’ pastiche until, with the stab of an unexpected coda led by Lynne’s daughter, Laura on harmony vocals, it’s lifted out of it’s body and detonates on landing. ‘Dirty To The Bone’, with it’s handclaps and layered harmonies could be off of any E.L.O. record from 1979 to 1986 while the lead track, ‘When I Was A Boy’, takes familiar lyrical themes – music as salvation and the dreams of youth – and, in so doing, echoes ‘Wild West Hero’, one of the stand outs on 1977’s epic ‘Out Of The Blue’ double-album.

Elsewhere, ‘When The Night Comes’ is a companion piece to The Traveling Wilburys’ ‘Not Alone Anymore’, which Lynne wrote and which Roy Orbison majestically delivered while ‘I’m Leaving You’ is cut from the same seam as Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ ;- it isn’t overly difficult to imagine Orbison taking the vocal on either. While ‘Ain’t It A Drag’, an unsophisticated rattle, could easily be Tom Petty in full-pelt on ‘Full Moon Fever’.

In a wide-ranging interview with Terry Staunton, published in December, 2012 in ‘Record Collector’ magazine to coincide with the release of ‘Long Wave’, an album of re-purposed covers and oldies, Jeff alluded to fresh material and mentioned that he already had several new songs completed. ‘I can still sing like I used to. I’m not finished yet’, he told his interviewer. On the more complicated issue of his own songwriting he told Staunton that ‘simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve. If you get too busy with the overall sound you can lose sight of the tune. If you can hold a simple melody and you don’t disappear up your own arse with complicated lyrics you’ll end up with a championship winning song’. But then even during E.L.O.’s most elaborate period from 1972-1975, Lynne’s theatric ambition was always under-pinned by an easy command of the basics. For every ‘Poor Boy’, a ‘Can’t Get It Out Of My Head’, for every ‘Dreaming of 4000’, a ‘Showdown’ and so on.

And so, still steadfast and true to his best instincts, ‘Alone In The Universe’ is hardly among the year’s most challenging or fresh-faced records and yet is easily among the year’s best. Home, at last.