Elton John The Fox

A Fascinating Cross: Elton John’s ‘The Fox’ at 40

Forty years after its release, it’s time for The Fox to be recognized as a minor classic in Elton John’s discography. It’s nothing less than a lost gem.

The Fox
Elton John
Geffen / Rocket
20 May 1981

Next up is the album’s first single, “Nobody Wins”, a cover of French pop singer Janic Prevost’s 1980 tune, “J’veux d’la tendresse”, with English lyrics written/translated by Osborne. There is no getting around it: “Nobody Wins” is straight-up technopop circa 1981. Over a propulsive synthesized backdrop that closely resembles the Prevost original, the song’s speaker recounts memories of witnessing the end of his parents’ marriage and finding himself in the same situation now. He notes: “And in the end / Nobody wins / When love begins to fall apart”. John’s dramatic vocal over the icy musical backdrop is striking, but it might not have been what radio listeners expected from an Elton John single (leading it to peak at a relatively low #21 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart).

The original Side One of The Fox closes with its hardest rocking track, the menacing “Fascist Faces”. I’m not sure what’s going on with Taupin’s lyrics, but the piece absolutely rocks, with John’s piano and Richie Zito’s guitar front and center alongside vocals by the Rev. James Cleveland and the Cornerstone Baptist Church Choir. 

Listeners who flipped the album in 1981 were greeted by a huge change of pace via “Carla/Etude”, a lovely instrumental piano piece on which the London Symphony Orchestra accompanies John. While songs from The Fox have rarely been played live, “Carla/Etude” was featured during John’s 1986 Australian concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and it is the only piece from The Fox that John has played in the 21st century. 

The short and synthesized “Fanfare”—co-written by James Newton-Howard—segues neatly into “Chloe”, the album’s second single. Like “Little Jeannie”, “Chloe” was a bigger hit on the Billboard’s adult contemporary chart (#16) than it was on the Top 40 chart (#34); yet, it definitely has a bit more substance than “Little Jeannie”. “Chloe” even made it into John’s 1982 setlists; I saw him perform it that year, sandwiched between two ‘70s deep cuts: “Ticking” and “Where to Now St. Peter?”. 

Afterward, “Heels of the Wind” proves to be a catchy and lightweight tune (although Taupin’s lyrics detail another relationship in peril). This might be the closest song to a throwaway on the album, but it does provide an upbeat respite between “Chloe” and a collaboration between John and Tom Robinson, “Elton’s Song”. 

As the title suggests, “Elton’s Song” may be one of John’s most personal pieces (even though Robinson, a singer/songwriter and LGBT rights activist, wrote the words). Singing over his piano and a spare synthesizer arrangement, John relates the first-person tale of a schoolboy who has a crush on an older classmate at an all-boys boarding school. While not strictly autobiographical in the vein of “Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Elton’s Song” clearly resonated with the singer, as he performed it 16 times during a 1999 tour (long after he’d abandoned any other songs from The Fox other than “Carla/Etude”). 

The Fox concludes with the title track, a jaunty tune with a slight country feel accentuated by Willie Nelson bandmember Mickey Raphael on harmonica. It’s not necessarily clear why John (via Taupin’s lyrics) considers himself like a fox (“A fascinating cross of sharp as a whip and tough as an ox”), but the lines “It may sound crazy, but it’s often lonely / And the restless heart should be captured once in a while” might give some insight into where Elton John’s head was at in 1981.

Or maybe not. Either way, “The Fox” brings its namesake album to a friendly, if somewhat enigmatic, conclusion. Clips on YouTube indicate that Elton John appeared on a few television shows in different countries to promote The Fox; that said, he did not tour in 1981, and as the singles ran their course up and down the charts, so too did the album.

John did make one large-scale promotional attempt, though: he hired an up-and-coming filmmaker named Russell Mulcahy to make a series of videos for each song on the album. Titled Visions, the collection was a precursor to the “visual albums” more recently made famous by Beyonce. It didn’t make The Fox the first LP to receive a complete video treatment—that title is often given to Blondie’s 1979 album, Eat to the Beat—but it is certainly among the earliest.

The videos on Visions put Elton John and his songs in various settings, from surreal to comical. The clips are framed by the story of a young guy who stumbles into a mysterious house and is subsequently surrounded by colorful orbs. He captures them one at a time, and each orb reveals itself to contain one video from the record (which the kid dutifully watches). As a whole, Visions might be dated and even a bit goofy, but it’s all good fun, and Mulcahy—who was beginning to direct the series of iconic Duran Duran videos around the same time—clearly knew what he was doing since he’d go on to direct the iconic Highlander in 1986. 

Sadly, though, the Visions video collection was not released on VHS until early 1982, by which time everybody, including John himself, had moved on from The Fox. It’s ironic, then, that Visions went largely unviewed. 

While The Fox may not have risen to anybody’s commercial expectations, it kept Elton John in the game. His next album, 1982’s Jump Up!, was also a moderate success, with two hit singles (“Empty Garden” and “Blue Eyes”) and the ability to further pave the way for his hit ’83 and ’84 albums, Too Low For Zero and Breaking Hearts, respectively. Over time, though, as Elton John’s career went through various highs and lows, The Fox was gradually buried deep in the discography. Forty years on seems like the right time to bring it back.