647. ‘Sacrifice’ / ‘Healing Hands’, by Elton John

It’s amazing to think that Elton John went the entirety of the eighties without a number one single. It’s amazing to think that, twenty years into a stellar career, this was his first solo UK chart-topper. But perhaps most surprisingly, it’s amazing that this particular record was a hit at all.

Sacrifice / Healing Hands, by Elton John (his 2nd of ten #1s)

5 weeks, from 17th June – 22nd July 1990

It’s a decent enough song. Elton and Bernie could still knock out a good tune, even this far into their partnership. But it’s very middle-of-the-road, very made-for-Radio-2, very much Elton John reinventing himself for middle age (he was approaching forty-five when it eventually made #1).

And, given that this is adult-oriented soft rock, the lyrics are on a fittingly grown-up theme. Into the boundary, Of each married man, Sweet deceit comes calling, And negativity lands… Ergo, men are men, and they all cheat. I’m pretty sure he blames the frigid woman: Cold, cold heart, Hard done by you… Bernie Taupin was coming to the end of his second marriage at the time of writing, and you do wonder if that might have been an influence.

Away from the lyrics, this has all the glossy touches you’d expect of a soft rock ballad in 1990. I don’t dislike it – in many ways it’s a sophisticated piece of song writing befitting of the nation’s (second?) most prolific hit making partnership – but it also gives me the feeling of mineral water poured over ice: crisp, and clear, and pretty cold. Yet it’s lingered on in the Elton John canon, seemingly held in higher regard than I afford it, and the Cold, cold heart line formed the basis of a 2021 #1, thirty-one years on…

The flip side of this double-‘A’, ‘Healing Hands’, is a bit more lively. It’s a bouncy rocker: a little bluesy, a little gospel. It was apparently inspired by the Four Top’s ‘Reach Out, I’ll Be There’, and you can hear it in the chorus: Reach out, For her healing hands… Is it just me, or is he suggesting that God is a woman…? Anyway, it’s a great vocal performance from John and, while he gets plenty of praise for his showmanship and his presence, I’m not sure he always gets enough credit for his voice.

Again, though, it’s very mum-friendly. Why now? Why, on the verge of being a very old man (in pop star terms) did Elton score the biggest British hit of his career? We have time to ponder this as ‘Healing Hands’ meanders towards its conclusion (seriously, it has one of the longest fade-outs ever). ‘Sacrifice’ had been released nine months before, making a lowly #55. Steve Wright then started playing it on Radio 1 (crushing my Radio 2 theory from four paragraphs ago), it was re-released with ‘Healing Hands’, and the rest was history. Proceeds from the record’s sales went to four different AIDS charities, which again probably help boost sales.

We can perhaps see this record as a dividing point in Elton John’s career. Long gone were the hit-filled, rhinestoned, giant spectacled days of the seventies. The eighties had brought addiction, rehab, a doomed marriage, fewer hits… By 1990, he’d had one Top 10 single in five years. If this hadn’t caught fire, would Elton have faded into obscurity and the nostalgia circuits? Maybe that’s a stretch, but it definitely set him up for a huge career renaissance in the 1990s. Superstar duets, Disney themes, and the planet’s biggest-selling single of all time, were all about to follow…


6 thoughts on “647. ‘Sacrifice’ / ‘Healing Hands’, by Elton John

  1. I can’t believe he didn’t have a #1 in the 80s…well yea I do. Don’t get me wrong…nothing beats his early to mid-seventies output…but he had some good songs like I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues, Sad songs, and some others.
    Not a bad song at all…

      • All those three were among his strongest. ‘Passengers’ was different and very catchy, I’d add ‘I Guess…the Blues’ as well, and ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ was a sadly overlooked near-masterpiece. Elton often used to say it was the worst-selling record in the history of Phonogram. Was I the only person who liked it?

  2. It was indeed quite remarkable that he had to wait for so long for that solo No. 1. I think he’d made his best records by the eighties, but I quite like both sides of this double-A, though as the less-played of the two, ‘Healing Hands’ remains just that little bit more fresh. Within a few years his inspiration was running dry and I didn’t care for those iffy collaborations and tepid remakes of his past glories with other acts, although it kept him constantly in the singles charts while other 70s classic acts were conspicuous by their absence.

  3. Both these tracks topped my personal charts when they came out as flop UK singles in 1989 and as Elton quipped on his tour that I caught “my latest album has just gone cardboard” he wasn’t selling out stadiums and was settling for Wembley Arena. After his early 80s comeback with the brilliant Too Low For Zero album it was a slow decline bar The fab I Dont Wanna Go On With You Like That and he couldn’t get a look in for the changing music scene from 87 onwards.

    Steve Wright put him back on top happily cos Healing Hands in particular is magnificent and Sacrifice sadly touching. I agree about Eltons singing, his vocal ability is very under rated right up to the point where he had a vocal chord operation shortly after this. After that his voice deepened and the vocal dexterity was gone and bar the odd track here and there he just wasn’t in the same league. Happily Elton reputed to do personal charts like I have done for 50 odd years, and keeps abreast of the music scene and cannily recycles early material, works with younger acts and has had more chart toppers this century than last! Not least the very early-Elton John-sounding Scissor Sisters chart topper…

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