Electric Light Orchestra – Beatles Forever

ELOI’ve paraded before you many an album that I’d bought for just one song, but never before have I narrowed the focus of a SongBook review to just a single song in and of itself. This time, however, it’s a song worth that focus, a song that has achieved nearly legendary status.

As Jeff Lynne and his ELO cohorts toiled away on the album Secret Messages for a 1983 release, everyone – from Lynne to Jet Records – was expecting a double album. And why not? The apex of ELO’s success had been the 1977 double LP Out Of The Blue, so it wasn’t a question of Lynne not having enough material in him. But somewhere along the way, Secret Messages was pared down to a single album – an entire extra album’s worth of material was ejected, some of it to turn up later as box set bonus tracks, but at least one track was never to surface again.

The track in question would have been in keeping with Secret Messages’ loose concept of Lynne returning to his roots and his youth (still evident in the final album’s rockabilly-flavored “Four Little Diamonds”, the lyrics of “Stranger”, and especially the lost original closing track “Hello My Old Friend”), it would have been an homage to the band that had shaped – and, in ways that Lynne himself probably never would have predicted, would continue to have a lasting effect on – his style and his career.

“Beatles Forever” includes several lyrical and stylistic winks and nods to the Fab Four, all the while painting an innocently youthful picture of the seismic effect their music had on Lynne in his younger days. It’s not necessarily a deep or complicated song, though the chorus features some soaring vocal harmonies of the kind that weren’t necessarily in evidence on some of the tracks that did make the cut for Secret Messages. And since “Beatles Forever” didn’t make that cut, Lynne reused bits and pieces of it later – the wordless vocal of the chorus, and even some of its chord progression, wound up reappearing in the closing measures of “Video”, Lynne’s solo single from 1984’s Electric Dreams soundtrack. Lynne also repeated some of the verses’ dreamy style, if not necessarily their tune, in the title track he wrote and produced for Julianna Raye’s album Something Peculiar.

So whatever happened to “Beatles Forever”? Why has it not been heard by the general public?

Shown below is the original double LP track listing for Secret Messages that would have included “Beatles Forever”.

Side 1

  1. Secret Messages (4:44)
  2. Loser Gone Wild (5:27)
  3. Bluebird (4:13)
  4. Take Me On And On (4:57)

Side 2

  1. Stranger (4:27)
  2. No Way Out (3:28)
  3. Beatles Forever (4:31)
  4. Letter From Spain (2:51)
  5. Danger Ahead (3:52)

Side 3

  1. Four Little Diamonds (4:05)
  2. Train Of Gold (4:20)
  3. Endless Lies (3:26)
  4. Buildings Have Eyes (3:55)
  5. Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King (3:49)

Side 4

  1. Mandalay (5:19)
  2. Time After Time (4:01)
  3. After All (2:23)
    (There is documentation indicating that the album version of “After All” would have been little over a minute in length.)
  4. Hello My Old Friend (7:51)

With the paring down of Secret Messages, which was meant to be Lynne’s escape from a contract with Don Arden’s Jet Records specifying a certain number of albums, ELO still owed the label another album. One song from the Secret Messages sessions, “Endless Lies”, was heavily reworked and featured alongside nine new songs in the 1986 swan song album Balance Of Power; a few years later, other displaced Secret Messages tunes such as “Mandalay” and “No Way Out” appeared on the Afterglow box set, while still others would wait for a later box set, Flashback, and the subsequent reissue of Secret Messages itself. But not “Beatles Forever”.

After Balance Of Power, Lynne was free of the contract and free of ELO, and he pursued production work for other artists. Ex-Beatle George Harrison asked rocker Dave Edmunds to produce some songs for his next album, and while Edmunds couldn’t find the time in his schedule, he did point Harrison toward Jeff Lynne, whose work on Edmunds’ Information and Riff-Raff albums had re-energized Edmunds’ creativity and his career. The result was Cloud Nine, Harrison’s best-selling album in years – and the springboard for a whole new career for Lynne. It led to work with Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and the formation of the all-star Traveling Wilburys, and a burgeoning friendship with Harrison even put Lynne in a position to produce the two “new” Beatles songs that were recorded for the Beatles Anthology project. That led to production work for Ringo Starr and even Paul McCartney himself.

With all of this work with the Beatles, perhaps it’s easy to see why Jeff Lynne has never allowed “Beatles Forever” to be heard. Lynne is one of a very few people, along with George Martin or Billy Preston or Eric Clapton, who can claim membership of the elite club of “fifth Beatles” now, and in his eyes, it probably wouldn’t do to have the song leak out and single him out for what, deep down inside, he really is – a rabid Beatles fan who idolizes that “rock ‘n’ roll eternity that started out as Mersey beat” – something which might have disturbed his new high-profile clients and friends. It’s also possible that the verse “I try to write a good song / a song with feel and care / I think it’s quite a good song / ’til I hear one of theirs” might not have helped someone who markets his services as a producer 3 out of 4and songwriter. The fact that this site has an entire section devoted to ELO and Lynne’s post-ELO work should be plenty of proof that the man’s written plenty of songs with feel and care. But that’s just my opinion.

Perhaps time will soften Jeff Lynne’s resolve to keep this song under wraps, but thus far, it seems doubtful. In the meantime, “Beatles Forever” is a fairly pretty song that remains in the vaults.