When Elton John made his 19th studio album, Ice On Fire, released on November 4, 1985, it was a case of returning collaborators, absent friends and a starry guest list.
Featuring ten new John-Taupin songs, the album was recorded in the first half of the year at Sol Studios, in the Berkshire town of Cookham. The facility was owned by Gus Dudgeon, who was producing Elton for the first time since 1976’s Blue Moves. As he came back in, longtime band regulars Nigel Olsson and Dee Murray were going in the other direction, replaced by David Paton (the Scottish bassist-vocalist best known as a member of Pilot and for playing with The Alan Parsons Project) and session drummer Charlie Morgan.
But even if Elton was never the sort of artist who wanted, or needed, to pepper any project with big-name guests for the sake of it, there were several of them on Ice On Fire. Roger Taylor and John Deacon of Queen, plus George Michael, Nik Kershaw and Sister Sledge were all among the contributors. Michael and Kershaw, indeed, sang on the album’s flagship first single – and, to many the album’s most enduring track – “Nikita.”
The endearing ballad, illustrated by a memorable video, was a product of its political times in that the narrator is declaring his impossible love for a border guard, depicted in the old East Germany. The promo clip was directed by none other than Ken Russell, the larger-than-life English filmmaker who had worked with Elton during his spectacular cameo in the film version of Pete Townshend’s Tommy in 1975. “Nikita” – actually a boy’s name in Russian – was played by English athlete and actress Anya Major.
An ideal launch
“Nikita” gave the album an ideal launch, reaching No.3 in the UK, remarkably Elton’s highest ranking since his duet with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” hit No.1 in 1976. The new song also topped the charts in several European countries, including Germany, Holland and Belgium, and reached No.7 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In America, “Nikita” was the second single from Ice On Fire, preceded by the rocking single on which George Michael was far more vocally prominent, “Wrap Her Up.” That was a romp of a song, with Davey Johnstone’s guitar prominent and John and Michael swapping names of famous “media molls”, as Rolling Stone put it. They included Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Day, Brigitte Bardot and more contemporary stars such as Samantha Fox, Nastassja Kinski and Kiki Dee herself, who appeared in the Russell Mulcahy-directed video. The single reached No.20 in the US and, after “Nikita,” No.12 in the UK.
More enthusiasm than a man half his age
The third UK single, “Cry To Heaven,” was less successful, peaking outside the UK Top 40, and was a rare slow number on an album that was largely exuberant. The opening “This Town” had Elton revisiting his love of soul grooves, and he later told Mojo that it was a hidden favourite of his. “It’s a Saturday night record, the ultimate, but most people won’t have heard it,” he said. “Tell Me What The Papers Say” and “Candy By The Pound” were similarly fast-paced numbers, both with backing vocals by Dee and drums by Fairport Convention stalwart Dave Mattacks.
Queen’s Taylor and Deacon played drums and bass, respectively, on “Too Young,” and Ice On Fire ended on a traditional-sounding Elton ballad, the lovelorn “Shoot Down The Moon,” with a notable bass performance by Pino Palladino. The CD edition of the album added the duet with Millie Jackson that had been a single earlier in 1985, the edgy “Act Of War.”
Ice On Fire debuted at No.3 on the UK chart on November 16, behind Sade’s new entry at No.1, Promise, and George Benson’s Love Songs compilation. Elton’s album went platinum there and in Australia, and it went gold in America, where it peaked at a surprisingly modest No.48.
Paton, whose bass playing on “Nikita” was lauded by Elton during the sessions, later described the star’s familiar work ethic to author David Buckley in Elton: The Biography. “Sessions would normally start at 10am,” he said. “Elton was there when I arrived and he would still be there at the piano when I left. He had more enthusiasm for his work than a man half his age.”
Ice On Fire can be bought here.