35 Years Ago: Electric Light Orchestra Blow Apart on ‘Balance of Power’
At this point, Jeff Lynne hardly wanted to tour. He had become disinterested in strings. He really didn't even care if Electric Light Orchestra records had live drums.
"I don't particularly enjoy playing live at all," Lynne noted years later. "I do enjoy it, but it's nowhere near the buzz I get out of being in the studio and creating a new recording."
Released on Feb. 17, 1986, the dark and downbeat Balance of Power proved to be perfectly named. ELO continued to pare down, losing bassist and key background singer Kelly Groucutt before sessions began. They'd already jettisoned the orchestral guys, leaving only Lynne, drummer Bev Bevan and keyboardist Richard Tandy.
In truth, Groucutt's influence had been in decline for years: He appeared on only three cuts from 1983's Secret Messages before suing the group for unpaid royalties. An out-of-court settlement put the matter, his tenure and his friendship with Lynne to rest.
“A golden handshake would have been nice, having helped to make Jeff a multimillionaire," Groucutt told Mojo in 2001. "I didn't want to sour my relationship with him, but I had a wife and four kids to support. I was advised to sue him – which I did, and which I've regretted ever since. ... I'd love to sit and have a drink with him, but he hates me to death. Nobody's fault but mine, as I instigated the suing, but in retrospect, it was just not worth it."
Bevan often didn't have much to do, since Lynne had begun to favor electronic cadences. At the same time, the advent of music videos meant ELO didn't have to doggedly tour in order to reach their audience. Itchy to actually play, Bevan dabbled in live work with Black Sabbath before reluctantly returning.
"Basically, the band ended when we decided to stop touring," Bevan told Record Collector in 2012. "The last big tour was in 1981 – the Time tour – but after that Jeff never really wanted to tour. Personally, I've always loved that side of things. Playing live was always the thing I enjoyed the most."
Watch ELO's 'Calling America' Video
Tandy made some key musical contributions to Balance of Power, but the rest – including songwriting, producing, electric and acoustic guitars, computerized synths, bass, keyboards, even percussion – was the product of Lynne's new one-man-band approach.
"At the start, I probably did most of the keyboards, but as recording techniques changed and synthesizers and electronics came into the picture, Jeff did more and more," Tandy later told Steve Rifkin's Light!, an ELO fanzine. "By the time we got to Balance of Power, the usual way was to have a stack of keyboards in the control room, and me and Jeff playing along to a drum track, and Bev adding his things later."
In the same interview, Tandy subsequently described one of his main duties – without any obvious hint of irony – as "watching Jeff lay down a basic string pad." Make no mistake, this was Lynne's band – even if his general ambivalence was made utterly clear on songs like "So Serious."
Lynne hid himself away in the studio, reportedly rerecording his vocals (and adding often needless reverb) to the point of distraction. "The perfectionist bit is always there," Lynne told the Financial Times in 2015. "It's a pain in the behind, I suppose, for most people. I love to get it right, you know. I have to go: Yes, that's it. That's exactly how I thought of it. If it isn't exactly how I thought of it, it might be better."
As things fell apart, the album became shrouded in melancholy. "Calling America," their final Top 40 song, found Lynne somehow more distant than on its better-executed cousin "Telephone Line." "Without Someone" gets lost in a wash of keyboards; a song called "Sorrow About to Fall" speaks for itself.
Less emotional than technical, Balance of Power became cold to the touch. Tandy said his days were dominated by "twiddling the knobs on all of the great toys that we'd got – saving sounds, loading sounds, sitting down with calculators working out the milliseconds. I guess you'll get the picture," he told Light! "I also found time to actually play the odd keyboard."
Watch ELO's 'So Serious' Video
The balance of power had indeed shifted forever.
They attempted a half-hearted tour, playing an odd final show as the opening act for Rod Stewart in July 1986 at Stuttgart, Germany. "Getting to the Point" became the last single released by the Electric Light Orchestra for 15 years.
Lynne transformed into a studio rat, after guiding ELO down. "I just wanted to start producing other people," he admitted in a 2020 talk with Louder Sound.
The new millennium saw a ELO relaunch, but only as a solo vehicle for Lynne. Bevan never worked with the band again, instead focusing on an offshoot project called ELO Part II that only deepened the rift with his old boss. Tandy made studio appearances on 2000's Zoom and 2019's Out of Nowhere, but only as a one-off sideman. A reluctant Lynne stayed off the road until the '10s, but by then Bevan had put their long journey apart into perspective.
"Jeff took a long time to come to the decision to start touring again. He went years without touring," Bevan told Rolling Stone in 2016. "But he's written so many great songs, so it's only right he's out there playing his music. And because we had a fallout, I wasn't included and it's Jeff Lynne's ELO. That's fair enough."
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