30 Years Ago: Elton John Cools Down on ‘Ice on Fire’
New Elton John records arrived pretty much like clockwork on an annual basis during the early '80s, and on Nov. 4, 1985 — little more than a year after he released Breaking Hearts — he put out his 19th studio LP, Ice on Fire.
Despite the quick turnaround time, major musical changes were afoot. Producer Chris Thomas, who'd been with John since 1981's The Fox was out, replaced by Gus Dudgeon, who'd previously helmed a long stretch of Elton records that ended with 1976's Blue Moves. But while he looked to the past with his choice of producer, John went in a new direction with his band; after reuniting his classic combo of guitarist Davey Johnstone, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson for Breaking Hearts and 1983's Too Low for Zero, he parted ways once more with Murray and Olsson before heading into the studio for Ice on Fire.
"We were called by someone," Olsson is quoted as saying in Elton: The Biography. "I wish Elton had made the call himself. It would have been much easier. The reason why he let us go, as far as I read in the press, was that he wanted to change musical direction." The dismissal, according to Olsson, continued to haunt Murray until his death in 1992. "We were very close and living in Nashville. A few weeks before Dee died, I visited him. One of the last things he said to me was, 'Nige, I wish we’d been told what the hell we did to be fired. We never got the right story.' That really saddens me and there’s really not a day that goes by I don’t think about Dee."
Whatever his reasons, making the switch freed up John to experiment with a variety of studio combos during the Ice on Fire sessions, and he took full advantage. The liner notes reveal a rotating assortment of rhythm sections, augmented by assorted additional players and a series of guest appearances from famous friends like George Michael, Sister Sledge, and Queen's John Deacon and Roger Taylor, all of whom were brought to bear on an overflowing coffer of new material.
On his fifth album in five years, John and his longtime songwriting partner, Bernie Taupin, maintained their torrid pace while working on songs for Ice on Fire. According to one interview he gave at the time, John dashed off 18 compositions in his home studio during one early four-day span. So prolific were the duo during this period that many of the basic tracks for John's next release, 1986's Leather Jackets, were recorded during the Ice on Fire sessions.
While quantity wasn't a problem for Elton during this period, quality was another issue. One of several big-name veteran artists to sign with Geffen Records in the early '80s, John suffered some of the same tension with label management experienced by fellow roster members such as Neil Young — specifically, Geffen's qualms regarding the marketability of his new material. "I've had my problems with Geffen Records," John admitted during a 1985 interview with Scott Muni. "And they've had their problems with me."
Those problems threatened to boil over during the months leading up to Ice on Fire's release, during which John insisted on releasing what was being positioned as the first single from the new album: "Act of War," a duet with infamously raunchy soul singer Millie Jackson. One of Elton's more musically aggressive tracks from the decade, the single (accompanied by a suitably busy video) arrived in the summer of 1985, not that most listeners noticed — it barely brushed the Top 40 in the U.K., and failed to chart at all in the States.
Watch Elton John and Millie Jackson, "Act of War"
"Act of War" was arguably a fairly accurate reflection of where John was coming from at the time, and although it was ultimately relegated to bonus-track status on the final CD, it's more or less of a piece with the mechanized strain of soul and R&B that ran through much of his work during the period. Fortunately for his record sales, however, Ice on Fire still had a couple of radio-friendly aces in the hole.
The album's biggest hit, "Nikita," was released immediately prior to Ice on Fire's arrival in the U.K., and although it wasn't officially issued as a single in the U.S. until February 1986, it ended up topping the charts — or coming close — all over the world. A Cold War-themed ballad that sees its protagonist longing for a loved one on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the record resonated with listeners on either side of the Atlantic — many of whom remained ignorant of the fact that Nikita, although depicted as a woman in the video, is a man's name.
John's sexuality was something of an open secret at the time — although he'd discussed being bisexual during a 1976 Rolling Stone interview, he later blamed that admission for cratering his record sales in the States, and by the time Ice on Fire was released, he'd been married to a woman, recording engineer Renate Blauel, for two years. He eventually came out as gay in 1988 — 10 years before George Michael, his duet partner on the Ice on Fire single "Wrap Her Up," which finds the two declaring "Wrap her up / I'll take her home with me" and rattling off a list of desirable women that runs a bizarre gamut from Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot to Shirley Temple and Nancy Reagan.
Watch Elton John and George Michael, "Wrap Her Up"
"Wrap Her Up" didn't perform as well as "Nikita," but it managed to make a fairly sizable dent in the charts — as did Ice on Fire, which continued the run of respectable, medium-sized hits that had come to define the post-'70s arc of John's career. All of which would have been more than enough for most other artists, but given the massive success he'd enjoyed with his classic earlier efforts, it was hard to come away from the album without feeling he'd started coming down with another case of the creative fatigue that sidelined him for several years toward the end of the previous decade.
For the moment, however, John continued cranking out new recordings. Between single releases for Ice on Fire, he enjoyed one of the biggest hits of his career with "That's What Friends Are For," a benefit single with Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder that appeared on Warwick's Friends LP. Almost a year to the day after putting out Ice on Fire, he returned with his 20th album, Leather Jackets. A period of personal and professional reckoning loomed on the horizon, but until then, John would remain as inexhaustibly busy as ever.
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