The Weird and Wonderful Teleconference For Elton John's The Fox You Didn't Know Existed

Sunday, April 23, 2023

It's the year 1981, the internet hasn't been invented yet, and you need to get the word out to your record company's employees about how to market an artist's upcoming album to the masses. And not just any artist, mind you, but Elton John. What to do?

Well, if you're the head honchos of Geffen Records, you leverage the latest technology at the time and beam a live teleconference out to your staff across the U.S. 

Today, such an event would be streamed on social media but considering we're talking the early '80s here, such a concept was ahead of its time. And luckily for us, someone uploaded it to YouTube—sans a few songs so that it doesn't violate music copyrights. 

But, we're talking about a teleconference hosted by a pre-rehab Elton John here, so some things didn't go quite as planned. More on that in a bit. 

Geffen was only a year old by this time and Elton was one of the biggest names they had signed, along with Donna Summer and John Lennon.  

He was preparing to release his latest studio album (and first with Geffen), The Fox, in May 1981 and the record company's executives believed it was going to be a huge hit. The teleconference outlined the marketing strategy for the new release that covered everything from packaging to store displays to outreach to radio stations. 

For the event, the record company rented—or constructed, perhaps—a predominantly pink (gotta love the '80s) television talk show set complete with a desk while an Ed McMahon-like announcer made the introduction. The set included a reproduction of the album's cover art, featuring a skinny looking preserved fox and minimalist metal furniture from a L.A. store called Skank World. 

The event kicks off with a pre-recorded video of a cowboy hat-wearing Elton apologizing as to why he couldn't be present. Then Elton-in-the-flesh strides onto the stage to switch the TV off, telling himself, "Oh shut up, you boring old fart!" His garb is a far cry from the glittery, over-the-top stage costumes he donned in the 1970s. He is dressed appropriately for the occasion, channeling Johnny Carson in a conservative gray suit and tie. 

That suit, however, is where his reservations end. The hour-long event is one big chuckle fest from start to finish, with the Rocketman interjecting quips every time the record executives try to talk. Fortified by Budweisers beneath his desk, he cracks cheeky jokes about his sexuality, ribs long-time friend/adversary Rod Stewart, fields phone calls from Geffen employees (with hilarious results) and—like a naughty schoolboy—clearly takes delight in the audience's reactions. 

It's a side of Elton John that moviegoers didn’t really get to see in 2019’s hit film Rocketman. And to be honest, if it weren’t for his antics the event—despite revolving around an album release—would have been a dreadful bore. 

Much of the talk from the record company employees who join Elton on the set revolves around press kits, orders, and the release date. All of us who have ever had to suffer through a snooze-inducing company meeting can live vicariously through Elton, and at times you wonder if the Geffen bigwigs in attendance were nervous about what was going to come out of his mouth next. Given his legendary status, he gets away with it. There’s a great moment towards the end where Elton’s response to an executive’s awkward welcome to the superstar (“I had never heard of an Elton. I’d heard of a Melvin.”) is an unenthusiastic “Alright. Way to go, Henry.” 

The Fox came at a bit of a challenging time in Elton’s career. His chart-crushing run of the early to mid-70s had come to an end, even though he was still turning out brilliant songs. But a departure to work with other songwriters other than his long-time lyrics writer, Bernie Taupin, coupled with a controversial Rolling Stone interview where he said he was bi-sexual had put a damper on his career in the States, or at least made him easy fodder for the critics. Then there was his failed attempt at a disco record—Victim of Love—released in 1979, when the genre’s spinning mirror ball was about to fall to the floor in favor of New Wave and other musical genres. 

Elton had moderate success with 1980’s 21 at 33 and toured to promote it. He also pulled off a free Central Park concert that attracted thousands of fans. He was hoping that some of the tracks on The Fox would make him popular on FM radio stations again (“If they can play Dan Fogelberg they can bloody well play me!”)

And even though he tosses out some light-hearted insults about the way some of the executives are dressed and appears at times not to be taking the whole thing seriously (he slings the preserved fox over his shoulder while straight man Taupin answers a question about “Benny And The Jets”), it’s clear he was very grateful about all the efforts Geffen made to make the album a smash for him. 

So, after all this planning and promotion centered around a groundbreaking video conference, you may be wondering if The Fox was a hit for Elton. 

Remarkably, no. Initially, it became his poorest selling album at the time even though there isn't a lackluster track on it from start to finish. Today, it's considered one of his most underrated albums among diehard fans and certainly one of his best releases of the 1980s. 

Image via The Movie Database

Interestingly enough, there was another innovative piece of promotion that arrived nearly a year after the album's release: Visions, a collection of music videos that were made to promote the album. 

There’s no mention or airing of the videos during the teleconference (an upload of the event that included the songs show a montage of photos displayed to the audience while the tracks play.) This seems to indicate they were filmed after the album’s release. MTV wouldn’t begin airing until August 1981, three months after The Fox was released. So unfortunately, this was a case of too little, too late even though it was one of the first long-form video releases done for an album. 

Elton also didn’t tour to promote this particular record, something he touches upon at the end of the telepress, explaining that he wasn’t going to tour until people were really hungry to see him again. He did include a few tracks from The Fox on his 1982 tour for the Jump Up! album, which was obviously too late for them to race up the charts. 

When Elton released his 2021 album, The Lockdown Sessions, the promotion was much different: the rocket man surprised his fans with an announcement about it in an email and on his social media channels, teasing us the day before with photos that could be pieced together to form the album’s cover art.

However, there’s something much more charming about watching an uncensored, old school time capsule of an event that took place decades before Instagram and Facebook existed to build excitement for an album release: 

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