Published on December 26th, 2015 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Ice on Fire’ – Elton John 
Summary: By the time the ‘80s rolled around, a new Elton John album was no longer a major event. Hits had come and gone and people had stopped buying. 'Ice on Fire' attempted to reclaim the glory by reuniting him with his closest collaborator after Bernie Taupin. The results were better than you might remember.
Released: Nov. 4, 1985
Producer: Gus Dudgeon
Top 40 U.S. singles: 2
Peak chart position: 48
Once among the most commercially reliable talents in rock, the bombastic Elton John was coming up short in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He tried disco and it didn’t take. Lyricist Gary Osborne replaced Bernie Taupin at one point. With gritted teeth, he released a second Greatest Hits package in 1977. That temporarily reeled fans in but did nothing to grease interest in John’s ongoing studio work. Between 1978 and 1985, seven studio albums were released. Although there were successful singles, John considered himself an album artist. And nothing charted higher than No. 13.
By 1985 Elton John hadn’t scored a Top 10 album in almost a decade.
So in early 1985 he enlisted help from a man who gave him his first big break by producing “Your Song” in 1970. Gus Dudgeon was a masterful talent, producing everything from the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” He had produced 13 albums for John, including Tumbleweed Connection, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. It wasn’t lost on the John camp that the last time Elton released a Top 10 album, Dudgeon was at the helm.
Their reunion piece, Ice on Fire, didn’t exactly result in confetti raining down. Critics will allege it didn’t capture the original magic that John and Dudgeon had hoped for. Commercially, it was a disaster, peaking no higher than 48.
But it turned 30 this year. So we’re going to take another look at it.
All of the stops were pulled out for Ice on Fire, even enlisting John-disciple George Michael to sing on two tracks (“Wrap Her Up” and “Nikita”). Ironically, people bought both of those songs – each of them became Top 20 hits. The album, however, was left in the dust. And the success of those singles seemed to speak more to Michael’s appeal than to John’s at the time.
The first four minutes of Ice on Fire are brilliant. “This Town,” a lunch pail lament reminiscent of Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” brings tough melodies and terse new wave synth lines that were among the best of the era. Taupin’s lyrics were brutal, and John delivered them with sympathy and punch.
From “This Town:”
It’s closing time
And the boys are all together at the bar
Staring at their glasses
Looks like another layoff at the yard
John performs the album’s opener “This Town,” live.
“Cry to Heaven” builds slowly – John’s tender piano playing erupts into an unbridled statement piece – and continues a theme of Europe in ruins.
From “Cry to Heaven:”
I saw a black cat
Tease a white mouse
Until he killed it with his claws
Seems a lot of countries do the same thing
Before they go to war
The album’s magnum opus of pop (“Soul Glove”) comes next, much to a listener’s relief after two heavy tunes to open the record. Perhaps the record’s greatest misstep was not releasing “Soul Glove” as a single, as it would have nicely slid into sleek-yet-soulful landscape dominating radio at the time.
Someone underestimated “Soul Glove.” It probably cost them.
“Nikita” (the album’s title comes from a line in this song) is above average love-from-afar fare. And “Too Young” – it should have received AOR radio play if DJs had been paying attention – rounds out the first half of the record on an astounding note. John sings “Too Young” as if he and Dudgeon had finally convinced themselves that they were really going for it this time.
The music video for “Nikita.”
If you can’t tell, I believe Ice on Fire is underrated as hell. Go back and listen to some of the biggest records of 1985 (Songs From the Big Chair by Tears For Fears, Hunting High and Low by A-ha, No Jacket Required by Phil Collins) and Ice on Fire hangs with them. Is it John’s most succinct album? No. But when an album is released during a period of commercial stagnation and peaks no higher than 48, I’m afraid the main force working against the album may have been that people simply didn’t give it a chance.
The record’s second half is scattershot, I’ll give the critics that. The Michael-assisted “Wrap Her Up” is amusing but juvenile. And after a weighty first half, it feels discomfited. It reminds me of the term “mall rock,” which is used by self-righteous music writers way too often when deconstructing the 1980s. Still, I’m afraid the description applies here.
From “Wrap Her Up:”
Give her to me, wrap her up
I’ll take her home with me, wrap her up
She’s all I need, wrap her up
I only got one chance, beasts and beauties
But they can all dance
“Satellite” bops with been-there-and-done-that purpose.
I don’t walk on water
If you think I can
If you need a miracle
Call up Superman
“Tell Me What the Papers Say” and “Candy by the Pound” are both throwaways, especially the latter. “Tell Me What the Papers Say” is oddly cryptic, looking back. “Save lives, don’t drive/Everybody’s got to die someday,” John sings. Seventeen years after Ice on Fire, Dudgeon and his wife would die in a car accident. And John would dedicate 2004’s Peachtree Road to them.
The album ends with “Shoot Down the Moon,” which was once considered for a James Bond film. The spare track – it could have easily fit on 2013’s The Diving Board – centers on distrust between lovers. Studio player Pino Palladino (The Who and John Mayer later utilized his services) lays down an understated but wholly appropriate bass part. The air in the track tells the story of disconnect, and John and company end the album on a high note.
Is it Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? No.
At the same time, Ice on Fire put John back into a realm that he was comfortable with and could thrive in. People didn’t notice. That happens. But when you’re flipping through crates of used vinyl at your local record shop, you could do worse. Much worse.
Stream it. Drop the needle. Revisit it somehow.
You know what they say about hindsight.