A Teleconference for Elton John And The Fox
It’s 1981, the internet hasn’t been invented yet, and you need to get the word out to your employees about how to market a musician’s latest album release to the masses. And not just any musician, mind you, but Elton John. What to do?
Well, if you’re the head honchos at the year-old Geffen Records, you leverage the latest technology at the time and organize a teleconference with your record company’s staff across the U.S.
Today this event would just be live streamed on social media, but considering we’re talking about the early ‘80s here, beaming a live event to employees gathered at 20 Holiday Inns was a pretty innovative concept for its time. And luckily for us, someone uploaded it to YouTube in its entirety, sans a few songs so that it doesn’t violate music copyrights.
The Pink Talk Show Set
Elton John was getting ready to release his latest studio album The Fox in May 1981—his first with the Geffen label—and the record company executives believed it was going to be a huge hit. The teleconference outlined the marketing strategy for the new release that included 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 makes the introduction. The set includes a replica of the album’s cover art (featuring a sad-looking preserved fox and furniture from a Los Angeles store called Skank World.) Elton’s garb is a far cry from the glittery, over-the-top stage costumes he donned in the ‘70s. He is dressed appropriately for the occasion, channeling Johnny Carson in a gray suit and tie.
Oh Shut Up, You Boring Old Fart!
However, that gray suit is where Elton’s reservations end. The hour-long event is one big chucklefest from start to finish, with Elton interjecting quips while the record executives try to talk. He cracks cheeky jokes about his sexuality, ribs his long-time friend/adversary Rod Stewart, fields phone calls from Geffen employees (with hilarious results) and clearly takes delight in the audience’s reactions.
Considering the ‘80s decade was among the musician’s coke and alcohol drenched years, it’s safe to say he may have imbibed in something before stepping onto the stage. It doesn’t help that he cracks open a Budweiser a few minutes into the presentation!
The event starts with a pre-recorded video of a cowboy-hat wearing Elton apologizing as to why he couldn’t be present for the event. Then Elton in-the-flesh actually strides onto the stage to switch the television off, telling himself, “Oh, shut up, you boring old fart!”
A New Side Of Elton John
What follows is 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 mucky mucks 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.”
It’s a time capsule gem that even some long-time Elton John fans had no idea existed, at least when it’s been shared in a few Facebook fan groups.
Elton John’s Chart Topping Run Had Ended
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, suggests they can use the custom TV Guides they had printed for rolling joints, 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.
How Did The Public Receive The Fox
So, after all of this work and thought put into marketing this release, was The Fox a hit?
Remarkably, no. It’s one of Elton’s poorest selling albums even though it’s an underrated favorite among fans and there isn’t a lackluster track on it from start to finish. Interestingly enough, there was one afterthought piece of promotion that arrived a year after the album’s release: Visions, a collection of the music videos made to promote the album.
It was actually one of the first long-form video releases done for an 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.
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.
Elton John’s Latest Album, The Lockdown Sessions
For Elton’s newest album, The Lockdown Sessions, arriving in October, 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 televised event that took place decades before Instagram and Facebook existed to build excitement for an album release.
But don’t take my word for it. You can watch the teleconference below. And get your bowl of popcorn ready.