Behind the Album: Making the Case for ‘Balance of Power,’ the Last ELO Album Before Jeff Lynne Took a Wilbury Break

You won’t hear casual fans talk much about the 1986 album Balance of Power when discussing Electric Light Orchestra’s body of work. It lacked the big-hit singles of previous ELO albums. If it’s remembered at all by most folks, it’s as the final ELO album before Lynne essentially put the band on a 15-year hiatus.

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We believe this album deserves a fresh listen if you’ve dismissed it. Balance of Power might sound more like the work of a synth-rock band than it resembles ELO’s famous mixing of classical instruments with rock and roll. But Lynne’s songcraft and production wizardry are all over the record, which sounds sharp and energized today—well beyond its reputation as a contractual obligation. Let’s explore Balance of Power.

One More to Go

There’s no way around it: Balance of Power likely wouldn’t have happened if Jeff Lynne didn’t have one more album to go on ELO’s record contract. In fact, had the 1983 album Secret Messages been a double-album like Lynne had intended it to be, it’s possible he would have jettisoned ELO at that point.

Why was Lynne anxious to step away from the band he had started and made him a rock hero? Well, the band’s success rate had diminished once the ’70s became the ’80s, more due to changing musical tastes than anything they were doing poorly. On top of that, Lynne didn’t enjoy the touring and promoting aspect of being the leader of a band, much preferring to knock around in the studio perfecting the music.

Band relations had also been steadily diminishing. By the time of Balance of Power, ELO was a three-piece, with only drummer Bev Bevan and keyboardist Richard Tandy on board with Lynne. By all accounts, Lynne did the yeoman’s work on the record anyway.

After making some videos and doing a mini-tour to promote the album, Lynne walked away from ELO. He intended to stick to production, but that work inadvertently led to Lynne joining the Traveling Wilburys. It wouldn’t be until 2001 he would record again under the ELO banner with the album Zoom (at which point Lynne was pretty much the only band member involved in the making of the record).

A Fresh Listen to Balance of Power

Knowing the context in which Balance of Power was made, you might expect a pedestrian affair, with Lynne simply painting by numbers to get everything out of the way. Instead, you get the opposite—a record where it’s clear that he was meticulously trying to create something that sounded invigorated and full of life.

The album’s main strengths lie in its mid-tempo, poppy numbers. None of them became hits, but that felt more like a byproduct of the band not being buzzy by that time. Listen to the shimmer and gleam that accompanies songs like “Heaven Only Knows” and “Calling America,” and you might wonder why they weren’t staples of Top-40 radio back in the day.

Lynne seems to be having a blast with “So Serious,” a rollicking raver with all kinds of fun vocal surprises. By contrast, “Getting to the Point” is an exquisite ballad, featuring those trademark Lynne harmonies up in the rafters caressing the sad melody. Peruse the lyric sheet for these two, and you might sense Lynne somewhat referencing his situation as a lame-duck bandleader, but that won’t stop them from resonating for you.

Balance of Power also does a nice job with some of the album tracks. “Is It Alright?” features a crackerjack chorus that you won’t soon remove from your cranium (nor will you want to). “Sorrow About to Fall” does a nice job settling into its melancholy mood. And “Endless Lies” gives Lynne the chance to pay homage to Roy Orbison even before the two men would end up working together.

Balance of Power whizzes by with 10 tracks, none of which is a clunker and most being inspired. Maybe the sour taste of the circumstances have kept people away from checking out this album. It might not be classic ELO, but it’s certainly top-notch Jeff Lynne, which is more than enough to recommend it.

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Photo by Ron Wolfson/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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