Saturday, June 1, 2024


“The Fox” is an album released by Sir Elton John in 1981 that I have overlooked for some time – I own a CD copy of it, but didn’t pay too much attention to it because there are no identifiable “hits” from it that continue to receive airplay, or remain in concert setlists.

This is a shame, because it has completely captured my attention as of late. The three songs that were released as singles all managed to be different from each other: “Chloe” is a soulful song making good use of a Fender electric piano; “Nobody Wins”, originally a French-language song by Jean-Paul Dreau titled “J'Veux de la Tendresse”, is the most synthesised Elton John song I have heard, even down to a busy drum pattern programmed by Roger Linn, presumably on his own Linn LM-1 drum machine; and “Just Like Belgium” is a nostalgic, poppy track not unlike the later “Club at the End of the Street”, down to the blistering saxophone solo. 

These many changes in tone, including the more classical “Carla/Etude – Fanfare” sequence, arranged and co-composed by James Newton Howard, and the unrequited love ballad “Elton’s Song”, evoke earlier double-albums like “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Blue Moves”, make attempting to capture an artist’s entire range in only eleven songs and forty-six minutes an experience that requires maximum attention, with some breaks.

But what I discovered were two further songs that, while they remained album tracks, are exactly the sort of gospel-tinged barnstormers that have firmly lodged themselves in my mind from the moment I heard them: “Heels of the Wind” and “Breaking Down Barriers”. The latter of these is on its way to becoming one of my favourite Elton John songs, having a drive not unlike “The Bitch is Back” or “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance!)”,and having the classic Elton John Band line-up of drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray, while still featuring John singing in his higher register, with falsetto as the song fades out. “Breaking Down Barriers” has lyrics by Gary Osborne, instead of John’s soul-mate collaborator Bernie Taupin, but they are perfect: “you have shown me a better way, and now I’m learning fast”,  and “I’m taking down barriers, and loving what I find”. 

“The Fox” was the first Elton John release under a US contract with Geffen Records – when John asked David Geffen about calling the album “The Fox”, he asked that a song be written for it with that title. This fact comes from a “telepress conference” for the album in 1981, which was presented as a daytime chat show presented by John himself, taking every opportunity to perform to the camera, while also keeping the show together as host, his “guests” being producers and marketing managers for Geffen Records. The tableau of desk, TV and stuffed fox that make the album cover were recreated for the occasion, the fox making its way to John’s desk. 

Intended for internal use and distributed on video tape to regional offices of Warner Bros. Records, distributors of the album, a copy of the conference has made its way to the repository of YouTube to give a valuable insight into how important this album was for the entire chain of command from artist to commercial staff.

What has also made its way to YouTube on 22nd May 2024 were the videos for every song on “The Fox”. Separate videos for “Nobody Wins” and “Elton’s Song” had been available for a while, but they formed part of a whole work titled “Visions”, released on VHS cassette, laserdisc and CED video disc in 1982. There is an apparently a wraparound element to the videos where someone is watching them, but the songs are presented on video individually. “Visions” was not re-released after 1982, so to see these videos essentially for the first time, and in high quality, is like filling in a gap in the history of music videos. You do see some elements, like backdrops, being re-used across the different videos, but they are all different from each other, and not simply a recording of a performance. They are directed by Russell Mulcahy, whose video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” ushered in MTV, and continued directing for Elton John, and Duran Duran, through the decade. 

What I was most surprised about by “Visions” was, like the conference video, John’s performances to camera – in the comedic video for “Heels of the Wind”, I kept thinking I was watching Rick Moranis. However, you can’t help but compare these with John’s later avoidance from appearing in videos altogether.

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