To my mind, Elton did only release two “truly” essential albums in the ‘80s. Obviously, “Too Low For Zero” (1983) was one of them – the album saw him reunited with Bernie and his classic band in full for the first time, and many successful singles were released – “I’m Still Standing”, “Kiss The Bride” and “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”. The other album I hold in true esteem from that period, though, did not produce any radio hit. I suppose that is the reason it is always neglected on “Best Of” packages, while other (inferior) albums from the ‘80s at least have one or two cuts in. I am talking about “The Fox”, issued in 1981 after “21 At 33” and the tepid “Victim Of Love”.
The previous disc saw Elton reunited with both Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson, and they were carried into this release and into succeeding albums. Guitars were to be handled by Ritchie Zito (who you might know for his work as a producer for bands like Cheap Trick, Heart and Poison), and lyrics were penned both by Gary Osborne and Bernie Taupin. One track (“Elton’s Song”) was co-written with Tom Robinson – the song was banned in some countries on grounds of homosexuality. Well, the video was just that little too explicit, wouldn’t you say?
The disc also marked Chris Thomas’ first collaboration with Elton. Thomas was to occupy the producer’s chair for a considerable number of records, effectively becoming the second main shaper of John’s sound after Gus Dudgeon.
The disc has a very good first side, and when you flip it over it is even more sterling. It all starts with “Breaking Down Barriers”, a song that elicits a strong performance from Elton both instrumentally and vocally (listen to the excellent fade). It also sets a good mood for the remaining 40 minutes, with Elton singing “I remember how it used to be/In my younger days…”. This is followed by the bluesy “Heart In The Right Place”, which is actually my favorite blues by Elton. It is interesting to note that the song and two more were actually recorded during the “21 At 33” sessions. The other two songs were the elegant instrumental which is used to open side two (“Carla/Etude/Fanfare”) and the sweet “Chloe” – a single in its own right. And a flop, too. Sigh.
The other single was not that brilliant either. It was the synth-laden “Nobody Wins”, a song Elton didn’t even write. He doesn’t even play – all he does is handle the lead as if he hadn’t learnt the lesson from “Victim Of Love”. It was easily the album’s least representative track. The title track (with lyrics by Bernie) was a more obvious candidate for a single release, with its massive chorus and lyrics that dealt with artists and critics in a sly way indeed. So was “Heels Of The Wind”, another collaboration with Bernie and a cut that worked so well if only because the piano was the prevalent force all along.
There are few albums by Elton that are so little know as this one, and so obviated on compilations. While records like “Victim Of Love” and “Leather Jackets” are justly forgotten, that is not the case with “The Fox”. I guess it is a case of “Blame it on the songs chosen as singles” at a time in which Elton was becoming renowned for individual releases. And while it is true that the album represented an intermediate stage in the reconstruction of Elton’s classic band (a process that culminated in the successful “Too Low For Zero” in 1983), it is also true that the album on the whole was the most promising Elton had issued in half a decade. That promise was made good in little more than two years’ time, and while “Too Low For Zero” was the hit of the ‘80s it is only fair to look back and remember when the seed had been planted and started germinating. And be thankful enough for that.