I’m just gonna come out and say it: Jeff Lynne may be one of the most underrated, underappreciated, underpublicized musicians of all time. Let me go one step further and use the ‘G’ word. Jeff Lynne is a genius, period—and you can forget the qualifiers.
The criteria for defining genius is simple yet elusive. If you had to put it into words you might say that genius is the violent mastery of complexity; or, put another way, genius makes the intricate seem infantile. How ever you frame it, there is one universal truth: to know it, is to see it—and it only takes a moment.
“Telephone Line” by Jeff Lynne is one of those defining moments of genius. It is both tantalizing and deeply satisfying on a physiological level. We are greeted with a long string of boops and beeps akin to C3PO, which ultimately coalesce into coherent synthesizer/piano chords. Lynne’s voice comes through (as if heard on an answering machine): “Hello/How are you/Have you been alright/Through all those lonely lonely lonely lonely nights” The tone is desperate and sincere as the audio becomes clearer and clearer with every passing “lonely” to the beat of gentle cymbal taps. As the verse approaches you can visualize the curtain falling to reveal the Electric Light Orchestra in all its glory. The heart of the verse is carried by orchestral strings which seem to rise and fall through the air to the tune of a simple bass and a beautifully steady drum beat (think Ringo). The Electric Light Orchestra is exactly what the name suggests. No three words could better summarize this marriage of old and new world instruments. Yet, Lynne’s voice penetrates through this magic wall of sound with ease as he ranges from his middle register to an upper falsetto that’ll make your stomach drop. As the chorus approaches the vocals are triple-tracked to create a harmony that Freddy Mercury must have envied.
Needless to say, the verse is an extremely convincing performance. Yet, Lynne’s true genius lies in the channel and chorus. A small crescendo builds to signal the opening of a blackhole which sends you back in time. Doo-wop vocals form the pre-chorus in a way that makes perfect sense and no sense at all (lest we forget, this is 1976), but they are innately satisfying. Lynne breaks through with introspective lyrics as backup vocals chime in with parenthetical phrases of a deeper conscience. In the meantime, the strings have taken on dramatic scales which seem to climb the highest peaks only to fall safely back to earth. They climb once more only to break through the stratosphere and into the chorus. The strings take on a staccato as Lynne hits the title lyrics in a masterful falsetto with the support of those rollercoaster strings. On the first listen, your mind instinctively knows where you want the chords to land and (as if by telepathy) they do.
Not only is “Telephone Line” one of the greatest songs of the 1970s, it is arguably one of the best Rock and Roll pieces of the post-Beatles era. “Telephone Line” is a delicately woven fabric of musical influences from the doo-wop sounds of the The Platters, to the Rock and Roll chord progression of The Beatles, to the techno-synthesizer trends of Pink Floyd and beyond. “Telephone Line” satisfies the musical cravings of multiple generations and pays homage to the past. It is the genius of Jeff Lynne manifested as a gift to the world—if only we could repay him.