The decade started out inauspiciously, as ELO provided most of the soundtrack to the spectacularly ill-conceived roller-disco fantasy musical movie Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton-John and a long-past-his-prime Gene Kelly. In addition to being a really bad movie (which I actually saw as a kid - because my sister and I were ELO fans, of course!), it was also unlucky enough to be released right as the disco backlash hit, so it was (unsurprisingly) a huge bomb. All that said, divorced from the context of the movie and taken on its own terms, the songs were still pretty good. It's unquestionably total fluff, and undeniably disco, but All Over the World is still an infectious party song that holds up as well as any other song of its genre and got people dancing joyously in the aisles when Jeff Lynne performed it live at the Hollywood Bowl last summer.
A year later, they released the album Time, featuring the song Hold On Tight, which is the last ELO song that "everybody" knows (and the last one I remember from its day - though possibly more from hearing it in coffee commercials than on the radio). After that they disappeared completely from my personal pop-cultural radar and their next two albums went completely unnoticed by me (and seemingly just about everyone else). Even when I rekindled my interest and got back into their 70s-era stuff (by way of a greatest hits CD released in 2001) I'd never bothered listen to them until last year, when I decided to do some deep research ahead of that Bowl show. Which is a shame because both of those albums contain several songs that I now totally adore.
Secret Messages, released in 1983, is the last "proper" ELO album, in that it's the last one that has actual strings and all of the core members of the band's lineup from the 70s. It includes several very good songs, my favorite of which is the lovely ballad Stranger. Balance of Power, from 1986, was released under the Electric Light Orchestra name but it really feels more like a Jeff Lynne solo record and was likely only made to fulfill a contractual obligation. Even the cover art (a plain red background with diagonal stripes forming an E, L, and O (and maybe a face?)) feels like they were barely trying. And yet, on the whole I like the songs on this album better than those on the prior two. Getting to the Point is another beautiful ballad, and both Is It Alright and especially So Serious are, to me, as good as any pop songs released by any artist in the 80s (and, with different style of production, would have fit in perfectly on any of ELO's 70s albums).
The commercial failure and apparent critical indifference towards those albums led ELO to officially call it a day. Jeff Lynne easily could have retired at that point, or spent the next few decades touring state fairs and running through the hits of the 70s, and nobody would have blamed him. He was already a solidly-established legend with a shelf full of gold and platinum records. But that's not the route he went. Instead he went behind the scenes and became a producer for other artists, and arguably his most significant work was just beginning.
From 1987-89, Jeff Lynne produced (and in most cases co-wrote) all of these songs, all of which were huge Platinum-selling hits that are remembered (at least by people with good taste) as some of the best music to come out of that decade, and all of which (once you're listening for it) wouldn't have sounded at all out of place on an ELO record:
Not too bad for somebody who most people had written off as a washed-up relic of the 70s!