Sarah Solie with Bernie Taupin and cast members of Lestat
SHERRY, ALICE COOPER, KIM VANSCOY, BOB LANDREE, BERNIE TAUPIN, ROSE FORD
Elton John presented with another platinum award for 1993's
"The One" (L-R): Bruce Tenenbaum, Richard Palmese, Elton John,
"The One" (L-R): Bruce Tenenbaum, Richard Palmese, Elton John,
Empty Sky (1969)
Elton John (1970)
Tumbleweed Connection (1970)
Madman Across the Water (1971)
Honky Chateau (1972)
Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973)
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
Rock of the Westies (1975)
Here and There (1976)
Blue Moves (1976)
A Single Man (1978)
Victim of Love (1979)
21 at 33 (1980)
The Fox (1981)
Jump Up! (1982)
Too Low For Zero (1983)
Breaking Hearts (1984)
Ice on Fire (1985)
Leather Jackets (1986)
Live in Australia (1987)
Empty Sky (1969)
Album Score: 10Listening to Elton John's 1969 debut album, it's abundantly clear that Elton John started his career sounding very much like Elton John. While he would certainly perfect his style and write better songs, there's a surprising amount of compositional maturity that's already evident at such an early stage. There are some weaker compositions, of course, but most of them are very strong piano rockers and ballads. The lyrics, of course, are by Bernie Taupin. So, if you're an Elton John fan who doesn't have this in your collection, you're missing out on some of his early gems. There's nothing on here that was a hit on the radio, but several of them could have been if it was released a little later. He was an unknown at this point, so he didn't really have any marketing power. But if you're an Elton John fan who doesn't have this album, then you're missing a minor gem. You'll probably even enjoy listening to it occasionally!
The major difference between this and his later stuff is the arrangements. Because he was an unknown, he didn't have much of a budget. His earthy piano is certainly here in strong form, but this was in the era before synthesizers were widely available, and he probably couldn't afford a string section. There's a much heavier reliance on electric guitars, electric organ, electric bass, and he even occasionally exchanges his piano for a harpsichord. Sure, the harpsichord is kind of fruity, but ... well, isn't it fun to hear Elton John playing a harpsichord? I hope I'm not the only person who finds that fun...
You might be a little surprised by the first track; it's eight minutes song and rocks out a lot more than you'd probably expect him to. It's been said it's a tribute to The Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil” although you can also hear him quoting “Midnight Rambler.” I know what you're thinking ... how could Elton John possibly try to channel the Rolling Stones? The answer is surprisingly well. He's not nearly as mean and driven as they are, but the song is nonetheless bold and rocking. What's more, the eight-minute running time doesn't bother me at all. Sometimes, I tend to get bored with them, especially in songs that don't shift through an incredible amount of ideas. It must be the pure staying power that keeps me glued to the tune. “Western Ford Gateway” is another incredibly convincing heavy rock... It begins with some electric guitar lines that could have been released by a band with more hard-rock credentials. But the melody is nothing but pure Elton. It's filled to the brim with his signature brand of endearing hooks.
“Hymn 2000” is an enjoyable folky number where he's doing a really good job channeling bob Dylan. He provides us with yet another lovely melody even though it grows a little bit flat at times. “Lady What's Tomorrow” is a well-written ballad with a very nice chorus, but it's lacking that certain spark that characterizes many of his classic ballads. As long as they realize it's not as good as his peak material, I think Elton John's fans would enjoy hearing it.
The album really begins to drag in the second half, unfortunately. A pair of short songs “Sails” and “The Scaffold” really lack that Elton John sparkle. We can excuse the relatively bland instrumentation on his budget, but the melodies are completely bland, which results in an unmemorable experience. But he was still learning, of course, and it's rare that things are perfect the first time through. The shortcomings of those tracks, however, are made-up for with with “Skyline Pigeon,” which is exactly the sort of power ballad that Elton John is best known for. I don't have much doubt that it would have been a hit. It's a soaring power ballad that only Elton John could pull off so well. The melody is phenomenally catchy, and there's something about that guy's soaring voice that is so endearing. Oh yes... that is vintage Elton John. Haven't you heard it?
The final song is a medley called “Gulliver / It's Hay Chewed / Reprise.” The first part is OK, and similar to the style and quality of “Hymn 2000.” Sure, it's a little dull, but it's nothing but unpleasant. The second part is a jazz jam, which is definitely uncharacteristic of Elton John... but I don't mind it. The song loses its most points with “Reprise,” which replays snippets of all the tracks in the album. I wonder if Elton John listens to that today and grits his teeth a bit... 99 percent of the time, doing that is a terrible idea. I'm really not sure what the motive of doing that is.
So, despite its shortcomings, Empty Sky has plenty of minor-to-major gems on it that are waiting for you to uncover. You'll probably understand that this album doesn't hold a candle to his peak albums, but the journey up to his peak was fun!
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Elton John (1970)
Album Score: 11This album is known for one of the most iconic love ballads ever to be released upon mankind. If you don't know it by its title, “Your Song,” you would know what I'm talking about when I say it starts out as “It's a little bit funny...” Some people seem to carry a sort of grudge against it, either saying the music is schmaltzy or dumping on Bernie Taupin's love lyrics. These people are nuts, of course. If anything, the song has a more bleak atmosphere. Sure, there's a full string section behind it, but it's done in such a delicate, tasteful way that it seems as though it was under-produced rather than overproduced. The lyrics do seem a little clumsy, but that's the whole point! They sound genuine, as though they're from someone who had become completely love-smitten. The mood of the song is certainly hope-filled, but you get the dark feeling that it might not work out in the end. It's a total masterpiece.
The instrumentation of this album shifted rather strongly compared to Empty Sky. I already mentioned the strings, which were brilliantly arranged by Paul Buckmaster. But we also see Elton John putting the piano in the forefront for the first time, which of course turned out to be the dude's trademark. Also, compared to the previous album, there's much more of a tendency toward ballads and not so many rock 'n' roll oriented tracks. There are only two, “Take Me to the Pilot” and “The Cage.” Certainly, they prove that Elton John could rock out when he wanted to... we just start to wish that he would want to more often since many of the other ballads are rather bleak and moody.
Bleakness and moodiness aren't a bad thing, of course, but it starts to become a burden since so many of these songs fit the bill. Elton John's melodies are usually formidable and contained some nice hooks, but he still had a little ways to go before he would begin consistently writing great tunes. What really saved these tunes was the orchestration. Buckmaster gives the same delicate treatment to all these songs just like he gave to “Your Song,” and sometimes it really brings out the beauty in these tracks. It'll probably take you a few listen to start appreciating those, but it's possible. (I'm a prime example of that. I bought this album, and would only replay “Your Song” over and over. But then I become self-conscious about that and stop listening to it for awhile.)
“First Episode At Heinton” is one of my favorite ballads here. The melody along with John's earnest delivery of it makes it such a fantastically endearing tune. The melody is quite strong at it begins, though the instrumentation just consists of Elton singing with minimalist piano. But sometime soon, the orchestra subtly builds up, and it takes my senses along with it. There's an interesting moog-synth that they use in there, too. That's a prime example of a song that's not easy at all to get into, but it's a really a rewarding experience if you're willing to open yourself up to it. “Sixty Years On” is much the same experience. It's terribly dark and moody, but you can sense the intense beauty that seems to be wanting to burst out from the background. I won't score these songs too high in my track reviews because I don't think the melodies are that great, but I really adore this added dimension that I don't hear that often in pop music. “The Border Song” is part piano ballad and part gospel... That's another success story considering I normally dislike pop/gospel hybrids. Elton John's soaring, powerful vocals are greatly suited for the genre, and Buckmaster once again succeeds mightily with the orchestrations.
I really enjoy listening to this album, and it seems as though it's greater than the sum of its parts. The whole samey bleakness of the album is the main reason it's not getting a higher score even though many of these songs have intense, subtle beauty to them. So, I can understand why some listeners would want to score it higher than this, and I could also see why others would want to rate it lower. I'm comfortable with this rating. At any rate, I don't enjoy Elton John nearly as much as his subsequent albums.
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Tumbleweed Connection (1971)
Album Score: 13Elton John was one of the first musicians I started buying albums from. I really liked some of his later albums, but I originally had a difficult time getting into Tumbleweed Connection. After all, it's a sort of stodgy concept album about the Old West and (probably most importantly) doesn't have any of his well-known hits on it nor is there anything that I can think of that was overlooked as a hit. Well, it took a number of years, but I eventually warmed up to it. Despite Elton John's youthful exuberance, this is a phenomenally mature album, and maybe I had to mature a bit before I finally began to like it. But I like it now! In fact, it's a little bit more than that... I love it!! It's clear that Elton John was at the absolute pinnacle of his songwriting skills, and this album contains some of his best work. As I already said, Tumbleweed Connection doesn't contain any of his best-known songs. That's because these are more earthly and modest songs... Not like those flashy, glammy tunes that would eventually turn him into a superstar in only a few short years.
The album cover, the black-and-white photograph, is a remarkably accurate illustration of how this album feels. It's a little old fashioned ... set in its ways ... but it's rich, intriguing and larger-than-life. A black-and-white photograph can do that to a scene. (If you don't feel that way, then you might have to get Roger Ebert to scream at you a bit.) This is a sort of rich though somewhat dark and moody album --- emotion-wise, this album is a lot like Elton John. Musically, it's similar, too, except there are fewer ballads, an there's a more distinct Americana flavor. “Country Comfort” is a straight-out country-western song ... Other times, we hear Caleb Quaye, a dazzling guitarist, give us some awesome blues licks. Whenever the mood called for it, Paul Buckmaster would break out some really refined orchestral arrangements. His orchestrations aren't quite as much of a force as they were on Elton John, which I suppose could be the reason his work here sounds so much more finely textured while never once feeling as though he overdid it. Oh and the melodies! Every single one of these things have a catchy melody! Again, don't expect anything too flashy like “Rocket Man,” but these are incredibly rich melodies, which are delivered with intense sincerity by Elton John. The remarkable thing about his voice is its ability to completely soar. Yeah, you probably know that about him already.
The best song on the album is that remarkable ending track, “Burn Down the Mission.” It starts out with some Old-West-flavored piano playing, and then Elton starts to sing a sweet melody with his his beautiful vocal chops. It's not long before we get to the chorus before the emotions pick up gorgeously, and he delivers one of his beautiful soaring vocal performances and (excuse me for sounding pompous) but it's almost as though he was taking us on a personal journey through the Old West. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the chorus that it's really just his voice that's doing all the work. The instrumentation is very bare... Just the piano and drums, really. (Later on, Buckmaster's string arrangements come in.) I didn't even mention that heavy rocking refrain that pops up occasionally ... it reminds me of a similar thing on Paul McCartney's “Live and Let Die” except this is more exciting. Really, it's quite an amazing song. It's no wonder that his fans like to romanticize it!
The opening track “Ballad of a Well-Known Gun” is a desperately cool opener that features some of Quaye's most fascinating bluesy licks. Elton John's melody reminds me of The Band's eponymous 1969 album, but the hooks certainly have Elton's signature all over it. “Come Down to Time” sounds the most like his previous album, and his melody along with the string arrangements are utterly breathtaking, as you'd expect! “Son of Your Father” is probably the most rockin' track of the whole album... and you've simply got to get a load of that expertly-mixed, gruff harmonica they put in there. “Where to Now, St. Peter?” has perhaps the most awe-inspired opening of the whole album... A very gorgeous piano plays a mesmerizing chord sequence while Elton John's vocal melody soon comes in and follows suit. It morphs into a rocker... how he manages that is a remarkable piece of development! Pretty much all of these songs are masterpieces... The only one I had the slightest problem with was “Love Song.” It's a finely written song, but it's not nearly as arresting as the other songs would. I was always disappointed with that song, but I just recently learned that it's a cover song from a little-known English singer-songwriter. Well... there you go.
I want to close this review by saying that this is one of the most remarkably modest albums ever unleashed onto mankind. If you're just a casual fan of Elton John's, you might be surprised at how old-fashioned and refined this sounds. As I already mentioned, if you're looking for the hits, you're looking in the wrong place. But you should still give this a serious listen. This is an album that's to be treasured.
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Album Score: 12I've known about this album for years, but it was still shocking when I finally got to listen to it. This is a live album recorded by Elton John, and it completely rocks! And I mean that in the literal sense. Listen to this album, and you can hear the sweat accumulating on his forehead as he's working up those Jerry-Lee-Lewis-inspired piano acrobatics and singing his heart out. More amazingly is the very limited band he's using. There's no lead guitar. There's just him, a piano, a drummer, a bass guitarist, back-up singers and about 125 lucky-as-hell people in the audience.
This live performance was taken from a radio broadcast (three guesses as to the date this was recorded), which is why the sound quality is unusually clear. Most live albums sound murky and/or are downed out by thousands of mad cheering fans, but this one is pure quality. This was also recorded a few years before Elton John became a massive superstar (especially for his ballads), which is why this was unusually rockin'. (And I mean that it's rockin' ... you can tell how serious I am because I'm dropping the 'g.') You see, in 1970, nobody was expecting him to play “Candle in the Wind,” because he didn't write it yet. Elton John could pretty much get away with whatever he wanted, because there were no expectations, and he wanted to rock.
I think just mentioning the fact that Elton John did a completely awesome cover of The Rolling Stones' “Honky Tonk Woman” might give you an idea of how rockin' this album is. I can't describe how mean his piano pounding sounds in that track, because it's impossible. You'll have to listen to it. It's like his piano owes him rent, and Elton John is really broke so he's trying to beat the money out of it. (Sorry. That's the best I could do.) This version of “Take Me to the Pilot” completely blows away the original on Elton John. And you probably thought that it couldn't get anymore rockin'! Sure, we could have used some blues guitar in that one, but I haven't heard anything so pure as Elton singing as passionately as he can with just his piano... which of course is his instrument. Excuse the Hallmark-corniness, but the piano is the window to his soul, right?
Perhaps the most amazing song on here is the closing one, an eighteen-minute medley of “Burn Down the Mission” (the best song from Tumbleweed Connection), “My Baby Left Me” (and old blues tune) and “Get Back” (by The Beatles!). There's a whole heck of a lot of piano improvisation in the middle of that, and it's incredibly dazzling watching him do this. This dude was probably better at that than any of his peers. (I wouldn't really know that, but I can assume that his peers were impressed.) “Sixty Years On” is an amazingly soul-bearing ballad that is so better than the original version that you'll cry. The beginning is incredibly gorgeous, and proves once and for all that the only musical instrumental he needed was his piano. But the drums and bass guitar certainly help later on when they treat us to a real fireworks show! ...REALLY, YA GOTTA HEAR IT!
The CD release of this album is different than the original vinyl release. The CD release reordered the tracks so that they were played in order that they were actually broadcast. (I assume that the limitations of vinyl forced them to reorder the tracks to get everything to fit right.) They added an extra song to the CD, “Amoreena,” which is great to hear, though not really the highlight of the album. “Bad Side of the Moon” is the opener, which was originally a B-side... It's the first song he performed. Exciting, sure, but he was just warming up!! “Can I Put You On” is a song taken from a film soundtrack that Elton John did called Friends. I just became aware of that album's existence, and I haven't heard anything from it! (Holy crap, there's an early '70s Elton John album I haven't heard? ... How could I have missed it?) Judging by that song there, the album is more pure-Elton-John waiting for me to experience!
Even though most people know and love Elton John for his big radio hits and sentimental ballads, you cannot go another second without hearing him at work in this massively entertaining live album. There might have only been 125 people in the audience, but I guarantee that none of them left the building still wearing their socks.
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Madman Across the Water (1971)
Album Score: 11Well, I can't say that I'm incredibly happy with the direction that Elton John took for this album, although it's certainly more in line with his commonly known piano-pop formula. In that respect, this closely resembles Elton John. The main difference is that Madman Across the Water is more bombastic. I've seen Madman compared to progressive rock, and it's easy to see why. Instead of the usual four or five minute pop song, many of these tracks are stretched past six minutes! Yeouch!! All things considered, I do prefer this flashier approach to the bleak approach; more than anything else, Elton John has more opportunities to flash around his amazing vocal chops, which always seem to soar at the choruses.
But for some reason, Madman Across the Water comes off as so plain, especially toward the end. This is nothing like his previous studio effort Tumbleweed Connection, which had an oaky country-western flavor, and it wasn't afraid to rock out every once in awhile. Madman Across the Water just filled with a lot of piano-led power ballads. That said, lest we forget, there are three songs here that clearly rank among the best power ballads ever written. Yup, “Tiny Dancer” is one of them.
“Tiny Dancer” is best-known as the ditty everyone sings in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. It starts out as a normal ballad with just singing and a piano, and then a beautiful slide guitar and drums come in later to keep it flowing. Of course, those pop-hooks in the melody are amazing... especially in the chorus when Elton John delivers one of those beautiful, soaring performances that he does. That is a six-minute song, which is pushing it for a piano ballad, but when the song comes to a close, I'm not totally ready for it to have ended. There's something I don't say about every six-minute pop song! As good as that was, “Levon” is even better. The drama is upped another notch (Elton sings as passionately as he possibly good), and the pop-hooks are slightly more coaxing. That's followed up by “Razor Face,” a fine piano ballad, but forgettable overall. And then there was the title track, which closes out the album's first half on a stirring note. I'd probably place it behind “Tiny Dancer” and “Levon” but it isn't too far behind. The reason for that is because it doesn't have one of those stirring choruses, but it does have some incredibly dramatic string orchestrations from Paul Buckmaster. He probably went a little overboard, but they do pack a punch.
The album's second half begins with “Indian Sunset,” the longest track of the album and the most uneventful. This is where Elton John's ultra-dramatic mindset starts to become really tiresome. I actually get a bit tired of the song in its first 10 seconds ...he sings something incredibly serious about the Indians without instruments. I dislike a cappella singing in pop music, because it's usually very pretentious, and this is no exception. Of course, it isn't too long before the orchestration builds up, but apart from a few brief orchestral swellings, it never really gets interesting. That said, “All the Nasties” gains distinction as the most boring song of the album, because even the orchestral swellings don't work. Instead of strings, there's a choir ... but instead of giving the song an added 'umph' like they were designed to, they make it drag. Bleh!
“Holiday Inn” and “Rotten Peaches” are OK ditties from the album's second half... The first one has a cool texture created with some mandolins, the latter actually exhibits a good use of the choir. While these are fine, they don't get anywhere close to recapturing the magic of the album's first half. Sure, they're done in the exact same style pretty much, but they don't catch fire. They don't have the mojo, or something! The two-minute “Goodbye” closes the album on a bleak note... Such a weak ending!
I once thought this was a substantial improvement over Tumbleweed Connection, but I was almost certainly ignoring the second half. I tend to listen to Tumbleweed in its entirety, and I don't get much inspiration to listen to Madman past the first half. I just did it now, because I'm reviewing the disc! Sure, three songs on Madman Across the Water are complete classics and it's worth getting just for those, but the album, as a whole, leaves something to be desired. It's too bland. Too serious. Everything is a piano ballad. Grrrrrrahhhhhhhh!!!
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Madman Across the Water
Honky Chateau (1972)
Album Score: 13Elton John is a great man when he's on top of his game. If you don't agree with that statement, then you and I can never be friends. There is an incredibly unfortunate few songwriters who could write such catchy, memorable pop hooks... Not only that, but the guy could sing and play a mean pianer. Of course, you guys knew that already. But, in case you didn't know, Honky Chateau is an incredible pop album that's loaded to the brim with some of his most enduring melodies, and some of the most genuinely moving vocal performances that he has ever done.
I'm going to bring up “Rocket Man” now. I might just like it so much, because I'm a sci-fi geek, but ... hey, I'm reasonably sure I would like it even if I wasn't a sci-fi geek. What a fantastic song! The melody is so catchy and endearing, and John sounds so convicted in his performance that I can only barely resist the urge to sing along with him. (Naturally, I usually don't resist the urge at all.) It's one of his piano ballads, of course, and Taupin's heartfelt lyrics center around an astronaut who wants to be home again. I read that it was an answer-song to the Pearls Before Swine song of the same name, and that would make sense (those lyrics are about the family down on earth). But it's also a spiritual descendant of David Bowie's “Space Oddity,” which was about a spaceman who never wants to go back to Earth. Oddly enough, all three of these songs are some of the most gut-wrenching pieces of music they have ever done, respectively. It's a sort of great space trilogy!
And that's not all! There's “Honky Cat,” one of the most cheery, bubbly songs Elton John did without sounding cheesy. It takes quite remarkable taste to pull that off (something I wish he kept in mind for the '80s), but we'll enjoy it 100 percent while it's here. The song resembles a skiffle, and the melody is completely adorable. And then there's the tongue-in-cheek “I Think I'm Going to Kill Myself,” an ode to a teenager who craves attention. That has a Vaudevillian flavor, and it a remarkably fun tune to listen to despite the darkness suggested by the title.“Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” is another incredibly serious ballad... Perhaps it's not as distinctive as “Rocket Man,” but the sentimental presentation of the lyrics makes it just about as heart-wrenching.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Honky Chateau's greatness is that there wasn't a song that scored anything less than an A- in the track reviews. Every single one of these are worth hearing. Though this wasn't exactly an 'even' album; the big hits are the ones that tend to stick out over the others. But let's look at the others! “Amy” is another one of Elton's cheerful, upbeat tunes that's just a blast to hear. It hardly measures up to “Honky Cat,” but it's still something that's perfect if you're looking for toe-tapping entertainment. “Hercules” is a nod to boogie-woogie piano music, and does a good job reminding us that Elton John does have a rock pedigree even though he is more well-known for the ballads.
“Salvation” is a good gospel-pop song, and it's very solid evidence that Elton John knew how to approach such a genre. (I don't know why, but I cringe whenever I read about a musician recording “gospel-pop.”) That's partly due to his powerful voice. More simply, though, “Salvation” works simply because it's a fantastic song! The mid-tempo rocker “Susie (Dramas)” is arguably one of the least distinctive song on the album, but you would hardly know that listening to it... The melody is still good, and Elton John's vocal performance is energetic and likable. I mean, if you have that, then what else do you want?
I can't express enough that Honky Chateau is one of rock's finest pop albums. Elton John is hereby given my stamp of approval for inflicting so much goodness onto this planet. Thank you.
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Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player (1973)
Album Score: 11Coming off the heels of his massive critical and commercial success Honky Chateau, Elton John decides to alter his sound a bit to make it more appealing to the public psyche. Instead of writing so much confessional, clever stuff and making great use of his piano and soaring singing voice, he writes things that are more geared toward the popular radio. It's here that he comes up with two of his most recognizable hits: "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock." Elton John hadn't even attempted anything even remotely that cheesy and "populist" before… Both of them even abandon his traditional piano for electric pianos and buzz synthesizers. Oh, dearie…
But, then again, those are both excellent songs, so I'm not going to complain about a thing. "Daniel" is a ballad that's endearing from beginning to end. The cutesy electric piano riff is something that's easy to fall in love with, and so is that infectious melody. …It's also incredibly dated (especially because of those flute synths), which isn't something I usually accuse Elton John of being. But I think the melody remains strong enough to sell it to anyone who cares about it. "Crocodile Rock" is an incredibly cheesy mock-'50s pop song, but I rarely run across melodies that are quite as infectious as *that*. And, even though it's just a silly ditty, they did manage to bring in some really kicking instrumentation… The guitars are bold and bubbly without ever sounding cheap, and they fit perfectly with the tune. That's not such an easy feat to accomplish that well. As far as radio staples go, those two are about as good as it gets in my book.
The ballad "Blues For Baby and Me" might not have been a hit, but it sounds like it could have been. Yeah, it's a tad too long and takes awhile to get warmed up, but once it does it'll have you taking out those cigarette lighters for sure. It's not as immediately easy to get into as "Daniel," but it's certainly a treat once you get caught up into it. "Have Mercy on the Criminal" is a terribly overblown blues ballad… The instrumentation is way too pompous when I would have preferred something more down-to-earth. But at least John's boisterous chops are strong enough to back it up. "High Flying Bird" is the ballad where he truly drops the ball, though. Sadly, the hooks are weak, and Elton John's vocal performance comes across as a bit canned … he's not nearly as genuine as he used to sound. …Uh oh, he's starting to sound like his '80s incarnation. THE PLAGUE IS COMING!
"Midnight Creeper" is a good rock song with some of the finest bass on an Elton John song. And he sings a melody that is quite infectious albeit perhaps not as memorable as something like "Crocodile Rock." The bouncy guitars keep the rhythm of the song fresh, and Elton's vocals are playful. If this doesn't make you get up out of your seat and do a little bottom wiggling, then nothing will. "Teacher I Need You" is another fun, rockin' dance track that's sure to have a similar effect on you… although I felt a little disappointed at his vocal performance, which his a far cry away from the boisterous way he sang on 11-17-1970. Oh well.
"I'm Going to Be a Teenage Idol" is a bit of an oddity … it's difficult to categorize. It's a mid-tempoed, sluggish track with an unusual, wobbly effect in the chorus. The chorus, as it turns out, is the best part about the song… the rest of it is just Elton John singing boldly to a bouncy piano riff. "Texan Love Song" is a retread into country-western, a genre he had explored in Tumbleweed Connection, but it was a terrible misfire… Its melody is unappealing and bland, the instrumentation doesn't do much… if Taupin would have toned down his lyrics, it would have found a great home on a John Denver album somewhere. That's a big disappointment.
While this is undoubtedly a step down from his classic Honky Chateau, I still found Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player to be an enjoyable experience. I talked about how this was the beginning of John's career decline, but there would still be a few years before that would start to be obvious. Sit back in your easy chair and enjoy his signature ballads, and get out of the chair to wiggle your hips with the dance songs. (And go to visit the toilet for the country-western tune.)
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Don't Shoot Me I'm Only the Piano Player
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Album Score: 12After the relatively forgettable Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player, Elton John delivers this huuuuuuuge double album filled to the brim with good melodies. It might not be Elton John’s best album, but it is probably his most popular, and it’s easy to see why: This is the album with “Candle in the Wind” on it! But also, this album basically represents the pinnacle of Elton John’s image. Just looking at the cover, you can see him wearing one of his glam suits with those platform shoes and goofy eyeglasses. He continues where he left off from the previous album and writes mostly commercial music with the mass populace in mind ... And, naturally, the thing worked like a beauty!
A lot of critics don’t care for this, instead preferring the good albums he made before he gained all this popularity like Tumbleweed Connection and Honky Chateau! Well, of course those albums are better because they have better songs and they show Elton John in a rawer, more raucous state. But this commercial incarnation is quite a treat, too. In fact, I don’t even want to call this “commercial” anymore. How many “commercial” albums can you think of would start off with something like “Funeral For a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding),” which could be argued as the most ambitious thing he’d ever attempted. It’s nothing less than an 11-minute multi-part epic. The way it’s structured, you can call it prog if you want to ... and it’s very good prog. The first half of it is instrumental, and the second half is catchy pop. It is an utter treat from beginning to end. The rest of these songs could be pieces of crap, and I'd still want to own the album just for that song.
But lucky, there are a plethora of good-to-great songs in here that makes this album worth its 17 tracks. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is my second favorite track... As a three-minute, sentimental ballad, it’s much simpler, but that melody is just an incredibly endearing one. That’s the sort of song that I can listen to back-to-back a dozen times and never grow tired of it. There aren’t too many songs like that. “Bennie and the Jets,” a sort of mock-glam tune, was a popular hit, but I can’t say I like it a whole heck of a lot. That is to say, I think the melody is catchy, and I adore the way his simple piano riff progresses through the song to sound incredibly violent at the end. But the whole thing just doesn’t catch fire to me. And then there’s “Candle in the Wind,” a song that Elton resurrects whenever someone famous dies unexpectedly. It was originally written for the benefit of Marilyn Monroe who had been long dead at this point... Well, whatever. Elton John and Bernie Taupin can write whatever songs they want to.
Some of us would draw the line at “Dirty Little Girl” with lyrics that I’m sure anybody with a heart would find despicable. I didn’t even like it for its incredibly ugly instrumental presentation, and bland melody. If there was one song that doesn’t belong here, it would be that one. “All the Girls Love Alice” isn’t quite as bad, lyrically, but you have to wonder what Bernie Taupin was playing at ... it is about an angry girl shooting her classmates. Maybe it could have worked if it wasn’t presented in a supermarket tabloid sort of way, but it does seem too severe of a topic.
Too many songs and so little room! (There’s much more info in the track reviews.) “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” is the only other hit song from the album that I haven’t mentioned. And it really is a fun glam number with a raucous beat and a catchy melody. I have a real soft spot for “The Ballad of Danny Bailey” that reminds me of a Wild West outlaw ballad even though it’s about a 1930s gangster. “Sweet Painted Lady” is one of those songs with sort of iffy lyrics (I really don’t think I want to hear such graphic words about a prostitute), but the song sounds so sentimental that it would bring a tear to the eyes no matter *what* it was about. “Grey Seal,” which Elton John wrote in the late 1960s, but it’s revamped in a more glammy way, and it sports one of his most rollicking vocal performances.
While this isn’t Elton John’s best album, it’s probably his most flashy and ambitious. There are a few weak spots and perhaps not enough great spots... but surely, this is one of the most essential albums that you need to get from this guy.
Read the track reviews:
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Album Score: 11This is heavily underrated in most critical circles, but those claims were probably rooted in the fact that this album wasn’t nearly as grandiose and ambitious as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. But if you bother to ignore that and listen to Caribou on its own merits, you’ll probably find that it’s still musically quite sound. Critics also probably had a severely negative reaction to that album cover featuring Elton John wearing a leopard shirt that exposes his hairy chest, fuzzy pants pulled up to his nipples, and that incredibly snarky grin. What’s this? A musician not taking himself seriously? For shame!!!
But if you like Elton John for being Elton John, then there’s a very good chance that you’ll enjoy Caribou. It’s true that this doesn’t quite have the same level of compelling material that his other albums had, but there’s still plenty of his classic tunes here. The utterly punchy “The Bitch is Back” is easily among Elton John’s most compelling and driving pop rock songs ever. Of course, the reason it’s so memorable is because the melody is excellent, but you can’t discount the magic of his utterly wonderful back-up band. That ultra-clean, glammy riff is an instant classic, and those back up singers are perfectly used.
This is also the album with one of his most famous ballads, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” The first time you listen to it, you’ll undoubtedly wonder what’s supposed to be so great about it. He spends two whole freaking minutes wallowing around with a rather uninteresting verse section. But when he hits the chorus, it smashes you like a ton of bricks, and it doesn’t feel like the last two minutes were boring at all. You have to be some sort of weirdo to not find that chorus tremendously moving!
I have to assume that the reason this isn’t so highly regarded is because of all that campy stuff. Most of that stuff is still good, except for that foray into cheesy country-western music, “Dixie Lily.” I have a rather large bias against country-western music, but I try my hardest to recognize when it’s done well. But it’s just not done well, and I listen to it clenching my teeth. Elton John should have known better than to pass off such a dull, cliched melody. Blah! “Solar Prestige a Gammon” is a cheesy ‘70s glam interpretation of an old Italian folk song... but I actually find that one cute and entertaining. The idea is pretty novel for glam, and I find the melody to be nicely catchy and endearing. “Stinker” sounds like a generic blues song to me, but the instrumentation is just too good that it almost completely evades the problems that it could have had. “Grimsby” is also a rocker that the band performs better than it really deserved... in particular, that wobbly synthesizer in that boring chorus deserves a handshake. Yes, I want to shake a synthesizer’s hand!
Oh, and there are a lot of ballads on here. What would an Elton John album be without them? Naturally, none of them come close to “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” but what else in the world does? Nevertheless, “Pinky” is something of a lost gem. Sure, the melody isn’t that distinctive, but his sweet piano textures capture my interest and the melody is nice. That song was strong enough to deserve an A-, but what pushed it to an A was a beautiful oboe in the second half. Oh man!!!! “I’ve Seen the Saucers” starts out to be incredibly clunky, but he redeems the beginning once the utterly soaring chorus comes in, which always seems to catch me by surprise... But he ruins the good time by reintroducing that clunky section, which completely interrupts that soaring feeling I was enjoying. The ending track is the eight-minute ballad “Ticking” that pretty much only uses the piano. Yeah, eight minutes is waaaaaaay too long for it, and he doesn’t exactly give us such a compelling melody or piano textures to warrant that length. But at least he does well enough to keep the experience from growing tedious.
This might not be as good as Goodbye Yellow Brick Road or anything, but I assume that’s because he just wasn’t trying as hard. Can you really blame him? That was a freaking huge album! He just wanted to have some fun this time around. Whatever you think of the album, never forget that it was made in 1974, which is still in the middle of his classic 1970-1975 period. In my eyes, it clearly belongs there.
Read the track reviews:
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
Album Score: 14When I first reviewed Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, it caught me off guard. I hadn’t actually listened to it prior to reviewing it, and I was utterly shocked by how quickly I fell head-over-heels in love with it. I liked it so much that it was immediately thrust right into my Top 10. I praised it endlessly as being a complete masterpiece from beginning to end as well as being one of the grandest pop statements ever recorded. Sometimes the danger of making such broad generalizations of an album I’m new to is overrating it. Sure, after cooling down a bit, I could learn I was just caught in the heat of the moment. But almost five years had gone by, and my high opinion of it hadn’t even once been called into question. This is still my favorite Elton John album!
Truth be told, my extremely high opinion of Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy is one that isn’t shared by any other reviewer that I know of. So, the chances that you, o unsuspecting reader, will think as highly of it as I do are pretty slim. And I’ll even go right out and say that I can understand why some critics don’t have such a high opinion of it. This is clearly part of the uber-polished era of his career, and it’s lacking that raw, earthy feel exhibited in his earlier works. And critics who judge music based on the radio hits were also let down by this album. The only well-known song on here is “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” a ballad that is still not as famous as plenty of his others. Most critics respect this album, but I still hold a bit of a deviant opinion here.
To answer the concerns of the first set of critics, since they raise the most valid points, I agree that Captain Fantastic is a heavily processed album ......... but, then again, so was Abbey Road. The production values are one of the reasons I like this album so much. It doesn’t get any better than those crunchy drums melding with bass guitar as clear as a bell along with nicely strummed acoustic guitar and Elton John’s classy piano chords. Oh man!!! This album is slick and perfectly refined. It’s like a very good table varnish, or something. (OK, that’s a terrible metaphor. I don’t feel like changing it.)
Since you already think I’m overrating this album, I’d might as well rant and rave about some of these excellent songs without restraint. (I don’t have much room left to talk about them individually in this review body, so I’ll have to direct you to my detailed track reviews.) Most of these songs squeezed A+’s out of me. The ones that didn’t probably could have, but I was trying my best to not go too “overboard.” The enormously endearing title track begins the album on a remarkably sweet note. It’s not a flashy song, but more of a subtle, gorgeous one that’s a bit like snuggling in a warm blanket. And even though it’s fairly reserved, it has those pangs of excitement interspersed throughout. Really, this is a splendid way to open the album!
And then there’s “Bitter Fingers,” which goes back-and-forth between a twinkly ballad and one of the most infectious dance pieces that Elton ever created. “(Gotta Get a) Meal Ticket” is also an infectious dance-pop number, and when you get a load of that crunchy bass groove, you’ll really begin to appreciate the album’s ultra-sleek production standards. “Tell Me When the Whistle Blows” has such an excellent use of a string section that I’m sure Barry White had a hard time restraining his intense pangs of jealousy! “We All Fall in Love Sometime” is one of his sweetest ballads... It’s not anything like that showy “Candle in the Wind;” there’s a real subtle class to it, and it gets me every time. The bold “Curtains” ends the album with a bang. The ultra repetitive chorus at the end rings of “Hey Jude,” and it’s surprising how close that song is in terms of quality. This is quite a special album! Perhaps one of the best ever created. That’s just my opinion.
Should I talk about the bonus tracks? I guess I should! Elton seemed to be into a sort of Beatles craze. He covers “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and the solo-Lennon song “One Day At a Time.” Both of these renditions keep what was great about the originals, but he treats them as though they were his own babies. I’m not very familiar with “One Day,” but he does things with “Lucy,” like ending it with a joyous chorus, that I would never have thought possible after hearing the original. Geez, this guy knew what he wanted to do! As fantastic as those were, the biggest gem in the bonus tracks is undoubtedly “Philadelphia Freedom.” It’s a song with real spirit, an incredibly infectious melody, and that string section is heaven.
Oh man. This album is just too good. If you don’t think this is the greatest thing in the world, then you should rethink your position. If you thought about it, and you still don’t agree with me, then please just humor me and pretend that you do. I can’t believe I’m the only person in the world who likes Captain Fantastic this much.
Read the track reviews:
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
Rock of the Westies (1975)
Album Score: 10As you probably could have gathered from the title, Rock of the Westies is full of rock songs, and if you read further into the title, you can gather that they apparently came from a place called “Westies.” That’s right; you won’t find many ballads here. There is only one of them, as a matter of fact, and it’s called “I Feel Like a Bullet (In the Gun of Robert Ford).” It’s a strapping fine song with a nice melody and solid instrumentation, but you’ll probably notice immediately that it isn’t nearly as engaging as his other ballads. But we can forgive that (Right?) because the primary purpose of this album is to ROCK.
And ROCK, it does just fine. The nice thing about rock ‘n’ roll Elton John is that he’s pretty much always fun at it. Even in the 1980s when his career became stale, his rock ‘n’ roll songs were still enjoyable. They might not have been memorable, but he had a naturally good vocal chops and he generally attracted good musicians to keep them sounding punchy. The exact same thing can be said for Rock of the Westies.
That’s not a good thing, though. Comparing anything to Elton John’s 1980s career is not a compliment! In the 1980s, Elton John existed merely as a zombified shell of his old self where he lost his uncanny sense of melody and harmony, and making it worse, he didn’t seem nearly as keyed-up as he used to. By a large account Rock of the Westies was where that cancerous process had started. You can really begin to suspect something was up by the end of the album when the dull rocker “Hard Luck Story” and the 1970s elevator muzak “Feed Me” comes in. Man, those are flat and lifeless songs.
In fact, you could probably sense that in the other songs, but those were kept alive by a raucous vocal performance, great back-up musicians, and/or unusual “gimmicks.” “Dan Dare (Pilot of the Future)” has a nice tune, but what ends up holding my attention the most are those cartoony guitar and synthesizer tones. So, it makes a good listen, but even then, it isn’t as captivating in that Elton-John-y kind of way. You know what I’m talking about! “Grow Some Funk on Your Own” and “Street Kids” both have cool, gruffy guitar tones, a solid driving beat, and an energetic vocal performance. Songs as spirited as those are impossible to hate --- you might even start to love them after awhile --- but it’s difficult to deny that they lacks the inspired, infectious quality of his classic stuff.
Even the album’s big hit, “Island Girl,” is a surefire sign that he was declining. Commercially he was doing just fine, though; it hit the No. 1 spot in the charts. I feel great and happy when I’m listening to it, but there really isn’t anything that special about it. Of all his hits, that’s among his least. (I’m saying this even though I gave it an A- ... well, it’s still a good song!) Also a good song is the medley that opens the album. It has a fun beat and a nice melody. But what pushed that over the edge is how he layered the “Yell Help” and “Wednesday Night” sections together toward the end. You wouldn’t think they would go well together, but they did! Nice touch! And the end where the band plays a funky beat as fast as they could is nutty, and that’s another point in its favor. I also enjoyed the ending track “Billy Bones and the White Bird” with that thundering drum beat and that unexpected and beautiful chorus section he worked in. That was the best ending I could have hoped for.
Even though I said constantly that this album was the beginning of the end for Elton John, it was a gradual process for him. There’s still enough about Rock of the Westies that is good and holy, and it would be a good album to possess if you really like his earlier stuff. Just make sure and don’t listen to the bonus tracks. They are the worst bonus tracks of all time! One of them is something similar to the title track from Captain Fantastic except it’s stale and entirely forgettable. The second one is a piano ballad .............. and it’s by far the worst, most tedious piano ballad I ever heard him do. This all points to Blue Moves, the tedious double-album monster.
Read the track reviews:
Rock of the Westies
Here and There (1976)
Album Score: 12What a cool live album! This package contains two CDs that were filled to the brim with 25 tracks. This is quite a dramatic change from the original LP release, which contained just eight tracks on a single record. I typically ignore CD-age additions to an album released in the vinyl-age, but this is an obvious exception. According to the All-Music Guide, the original release of the album was viewed as a sort of tossed-off contractual obligation. Whether or not that’s true, this is a really fabulous collection of his live performances in the mid-1970s! Elton John apparently loved putting on live shows, and it shows. Even in his 60s, he seems to delight touring the world and performing to his screaming fans who never seem to thin out! He oftentimes gives these performances all that he can give them, and his back-up band is as solid as it gets.
Though every review of this album comes with the disclaimer that 11-17-1970 remains the guy’s ultimate live album. No one can deny that 11-17-1970 showed Elton in a much more raucous state. He wasn’t very famous back then, and most of his hugely popular ballads weren’t even composed yet. This gave him the freedom to make it an incredibly energetic rock ‘n’ roll album where he played the piano in a tremendous flurry and he could sing until his lungs practically exploded! (In fact, he didn’t even have a lead guitarist there, so he *really* had to go at it.) By the mid-1970s, Elton John had already assumed the role of a respectable pop statesman. His vocal performances were far more reserved, he had a full band (including a full brass section), and people expected him to sing all those wimpy songs (including two renditions of “Your Song”). But on the other hand, I love all those wimpy songs, and this is pretty much the only place where you’ll find them performed live. Sure, the studio versions are superior to these live renditions; they typically had better vocal performances and the arrangements were usually better when they were polished. But they’re solid renditions nonetheless, so this collection is something that real Elton John fans should treasure.
The album is titled Here and There. “Here” is The Royal Festival Hall in London, and “There” is Madison Square Garden in Blue Fork City. He seems to concentrate on his earlier material in the first disc, starting with a touching rendition of Skyline Pigeon from his 1969 debut and covering his Tumbleweed Connection stuff fairly thoroughly. The second disc has more extensive coverage of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road including (to my great delight) a full-length version of his masterpiece “Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding.” From this information, however, I can’t really say if his concerts were actually *like* that, or they simply programmed the live disc to sort of progress quasi-chronologically through his discography. Probably a little bit of both.
Isn’t it great to hear him sing all his great, classic songs? “Burn Down the Mission,” “Honky Cat,” “Crocodile Rock,” “Candle in the Wind,” “Rocket Man,” “Bennie and the Jets,” “Daniel,” “Don’t Let the Sun Shine Down on Me” ..... they’re all there! (Well, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is nowhere to be found, for some reason. Why didn’t he include a version of that instead of performing “Your Song” twice? Ah well.) As if that wasn’t enough, Here and There has an incredible historical significance that has nothing to do with Elton John. This album contains John Lennon’s final public concert performance. Yeah! The Walrus himself comes out on stage to sing with Elton on three tracks. One of the songs was “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” which the two worked on together. And they also do a fun performance of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” and an incredibly exciting performance of “I Saw Her Standing There.” It was good enough that we heard Elton John concert performances through this, but having John Lennon in here is an added and verrrrrry valuable addition.
It might not be as exciting as 11-17-1970, but this is a remarkable live album all the same and a fantastic bargain, too (for two CDs it costs roughly the same price as one of his regular albums). Don’t expect these live versions to be superior to the studio versions (because they’re not ... not at all), but this is still something that every Elton John fan ought to love having.
Read the track reviews:
Here and There
Blue Moves (1976)
Album Score: 9This marks the official beginning of Elton John's endless string of mediocre albums, which he still hadn't emerged out of. By this time, his muse had lapsed, his energy was spent, and he wasn't interested in experimenting with other types of music. While on all accounts Blue Moves is a decent album, it's a lot like the stuff from his back catalog except it's nowhere near as memorable. So, why listen to Blue Moves when you can just pull out Captain Fantastic again? Making it worse, Blue Moves is a double album—a double album so massive that they couldn't even fit it all on one CD, which means this costs quite a pretty penny at record stores. Whoa boy.
That's not to say there isn't anything worth hearing here. “Tonight” is a fabulous piece. It begins with an incredibly pleasant piano-led classical number that at times is reminiscent of either George Gershwin or Aaron Copeland (...as a complete non-expert in classical music, that is the best I can do). That was quite a bold undertaking for a puny popster like Elton John, and I find it refreshing that he succeeded so well at it. The harmonies might have been borrowed, but they were used well, and it's a very beautiful experience. The second half of that song is a more traditional Elton John ballad... surprisingly this is where the song starts to get boring. At first, anyway, all he's doing is singing and playing a very plain piano pattern. That said, the melody is gorgeous, and that melancholic way he sings it makes it quite a heart-wrenching experience. It gets more sweeping as a full orchestra (strings, woodwinds, brass and all) gradually comes into support him... almost nothing could get better than these orchestrations. Cool.
“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” is the only song from Blue Moves that anybody knows... At the very least, it proved that Elton was still capable of producing famous hits in 1976 even if he was descending from his peak. It's very similar to the ballad section of “Tonight.” It's very low-key, very melancholic, and a breathtakingly beautiful experience. Once again, Elton completely nails this vocal performance; he sounds so heartbroken here that he makes most other singers who want a similar effect seem like fakers. There is also a full-orchestra backing him there, and it's perfectly used. The idea to bring in a harmonium to increase that mellow atmosphere was a stroke of genius, in my opinion.
While it doesn't measure up to those two previously mentioned giants, “Someone's Final Song” is another excellent melancholic ballad. It's also virtually indistinguishable from those two songs, stylistically, except he uses synthesizers instead of a real orchestra. Where that song falls a bit short is the melody and harmonies, while good, it doesn't quite capture me.
And then there's the other 15 songs! Erm, where do I start? ...Well, I suppose I could talk about all the other low-key ballads. (I suppose now's the time to mention that one of the problems with Blue Moves is its lack of diversity.) “Chameleon” is nice and seems to specifically recall his Tumbleweed Connection days. The only problem with it is it doesn't capture that same majesty melodically or harmonically. It just seems a bit stale. But we should give Elton credit for at least singing it like he believes it. I suppose that's why everybody loves the guy! “Cage the Songbird” is such a stale and boring ballad that it had me wondering if he was covering a John Denver song... Not exactly the dude we want Elton John to turn into. (Nothing against John Denver in particular... I liked him in that George Burns movie.) “Between Seventeen and Twenty” is so forgettable that it's a wonder I even remembered to write this sentence.
There are an awful lot of instrumentals here. Honestly, what's the point of an Elton John instrumental? Sure, we can easily fall in love with the beginning of “Tonight” and “Funeral For a Friend” from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but those were the exceptions. Elton John wasn't too interested in becoming a piano virtuoso (though I don't have much doubt that he could), but these instrumentals don't strive to achieve anything beyond ordinary elevator muzak. “Your Starter For...” has a nice theme and it has rather complex structure, but it's so freaking cutesy and insubstantial. Bleh. “Out of the Blue” is also an OK instrumental with a nice theme, and this one isn't so cutesy, but it's still seems way too polished. When I think about instrumentals, I'd want something that seemed a little more improvised. “Theme From a Non-Existent T.V. Series” on the other hand isn't worth a whole heck of a lot. It doesn't even have a memorable theme, which I suppose is why the T.V. series never existed!
Luckily for us, Elton throws in a few dance songs to keep things from becoming too boring. Unfortunately, these parts are pretty lame. “Boogie Pilgrim” sounds as dull as the title suggests... it's six minutes and it plods along at a most-tedious pace. There's absolutely no drive to it, and the melody is essentially valueless. Even the horn section brought into give the piece some “zest” seemed empty. “Crazy Water” was an attempt at disco music, and I sort of like the groove he has going, but it also seems empty. It's as though Elton decided to just write a disco song without figuring out how that sort of music ticks. Where he does do a dance track OK is the final track, the bubbly “Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance).” The rhythm section is more spirited, and so is Elton's singing. The melody might not be too original (it sounds like a lot of other songs), but it's solid enough to get the old foot tapping. “One Horse Town” is also a nicely done dance number; that one in particular has great orchestral arrangements with those strings, woodwinds, and brass melding in with the pop-rock guitars and drums more flawlessly than I would have thought possible. (Alas, these factions can go together!)
In the end, there's enough about Blue Moves to make it worthwhile to some of his fans... Well, at least the ones with the most patience. For the rest of us, listening to this album is a tedious experience with its priceless gems woefully only few and far between.
Read the track reviews:
A Single Man (1978)
Album Score: 9After releasing Blue Moves Elton John realized that his songwriting hadn't been quite up-to-snuff, so he took a two year break in hopes to rebuild that priceless inspiration that had driven him for so many years. He even parted with his longtime lyricist, Bernie Taupin, and began collaborating with a feller named Gary Osbourne hoping that he would be the source of new inspiration. But I'm afraid that all of these moves were in vain. A Single Man is as desperately mediocre as Blue Moves if not more so. In fact, A Single Man is a bit worse, because it doesn't contain a solitary moment that can measure up to the best of Blue Moves. An utterly bland album, A Single Man is.
At the same time, it's pretty mildly likable throughout. It opens with “Shine on Through,” a piano ballad that starts out rather dully, but it picks up some steam in the last half when the woodwind arrangements and the drums pick up. Plus, it has Elton John himself going for it; no matter what, he's always going to be a charming singer who everybody loves. There's no arguing with that. “Return to Paradise” is another rather mediocre ballad, but this one has a bit of a Latin flare to it which comes off fine. The feathery piano texture Elton comes out with is neat, but it loses some points with that generic Spanish guitar and horn solo.
“I Don't Care” is such a good dance song and my vote for the best song of the album. But it only managed to win a B+, so you can tell that it's still lacking. Elton John has done plenty of dance songs like this before. They are so indistinguishable that this could have appeared on Rock of the Westies or Blue Moves and I would have been none-the-wiser. But at least has a convincing enough of a beat to keep my toes tapping and the melody is fun. ...And at least that song isn't disco. “Madness” sounds uncomfortably like the theme song for Flashdance. That's not something I was hoping Elton John would stoop to! But in all honesty, “Madness” is a pretty fun song, particularly in its spirited chorus, and turns out to be one of the major highlights. Worse is “Part-Time Love” with a hook that can be classified as 'dumb,' and a rhythm that doesn't inspire me to do anything. Bluh!
“Big Dipper” was a nice attempt to emulate the same sort of Brit-interpreted ragtime vibe that The Kinks once captured in Muswell Hillbillies. While Elton's take on it was likable, it still lacked the same sort of freshness that made Ray Davies' work such a runaway success. I hate to reiterate the point, but everything on A Single Man is plagued with an ugly sort of staleness. That isn't more evident anywhere than it is in “Georgia,” a pretty lame attempt at writing a country-western anthem 'immortalizing' a homeland that Elton John probably only visited on one of his tours. It's a pointless ode with the most uninvolved vocal performance that I remember him doing.
While it's a nice song, “It Ain't Gonna Be Easy” had no business being eight minutes long. Sure, it had enough stamina to last four minutes, which is more than I can say about a lot of songs, but I can't understand what possessed him to drag that out so long. At least it has a convincing rhythm section, and one of Elton's more serious quasi-bluesy vocal performances. Those minimal electric guitar noodles throughout are nice and reminiscent of Mark Knopfer, who was starting out around this time. I can't say I get particularly sick of listening to it, but I think this time might have been better spent. There's also that seven-minute closer “A Song For Guy,” which is another incredibly overtaxed song. I have to sit through about five minutes of it thinking that it's an introduction... I'm wait very patiently for him to sing something! Five minutes into it, I realize that this 'introduction' is all that he had. (He does eventually start to sing, but it seemed more like an afterthought, as he only sings the same general theme that we had been hearing.) That was quite a disappointment, because there was some potentially good material in here..... but I suppose Elton John was just too tired of being Elton John that he hadn't the stamina to flesh these out like he used to. Shame.
There is one song in the bonus tracks that completely blows away anything from the regular studio album. It's called “Ego,” a rather unusual and terribly fun song that starts out a little like a tango, and turns out to be quite a fun, more regular dance song. Really inspired uses of sound-effects make it even more distinctive (namely, there's that train whistle and a submarine sonar noise). There's some really brilliant chord deviations in here that sound suited for a Broadway musical, which come a little unexpected, but I'm delighted whenever they come up. A cool middle section is more of a ballad. It's not a terribly good ballad, but he finds a wavy synthesizer to keep the texture alive. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it comes the closest as anything here to recapturing the same ole Elton John greatness. It's as though he woke up from his coma briefly. There are four other bonus tracks. I like the country-ish “Flintstone Boy,” but the others aren't much to speak of. Hm.
Read the track reviews:
A Single Man
Victim of Love (1979)
Album Score: 3So ... um ................ mehg
Lh /h j
I've been aware that Elton John released an abysmally bad disco album, but I didn't believe it until I heard it. What makes this album especially curious is John had nothing to do with the songwriting. Apart from a cover of "Johnny B. Goode," all the songs were written by the album producer Pete Bellotte. I'm not aware of his previous works, if he had any, but he's no better a songwriter than ... any random person.
He's apparently pretty good at production, though, because all of these songs sound smooth and polished. That said, the instrumentation is about as derivitive as it gets. Every single song has a dancey disco beat ... there's not even any ballads!!! This is an album of monumentally lazy proportions! Even moreso than a Madonna album, this is like a piece of poop with a coat of finish on it. Fans that might at least be hoping for some of his piano playing will be sorely disappointed also. He doesn't do anything besides sing. This is nothing more than kareoke.
Fortunately, even Elton John fans had good enough sense to not buy this album. If anything, this album betrayed his longtime devotees and they just quit paying attention to him during his subsequent releases. (After all, he's fishing for a new type of commercial success ... but I guess making sharp career changes is only suited for the likes of David Bowie.) I'm not enough of an Elton John fan to actually get depressed over this album, but I do feel disheartened that this is from the same guy who made Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.
Anyway, this album sure is obscure. Tha'ts quite justified. There's no reason to go 'round looking for it.
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Victim of Love
21 at 33 (1980)
Album Score: 8It's back to basics for Elton John after his curious debacle, Victim of Love. He doesn't embrace any of the stylistic trends of 1980 (apart from a few instrumental choices) and he doesn't seem to want to. He writes songs just like he used to in his prime except much staler. Since it's the 1980s now, it's probably fair to label this album as "adult contemporary." Yes, John hadn't quite regained his touch and he's continuing to conform to formula.
But among seas of stale rockers and ballads, there still lies a few rich reminders of why everybody used to love Elton John. I'm speaking specifically of "Little Jeannie," which is an absolutely charming ballad with a marvellous melody. It was also his biggest hit in years ... hitting No. 3 on the charts. At least the public didn't totally forget about him! I also thought the rocker "White Lady White Powder," obviously about his cocaine addiction, had a nice melody.
Unfortunately, the album also contains stuff like the overextended rocker "Two Rooms at the End of the World," which has an awful and repetitive melody. "Never Gonna Fall in Love" seems as boring as it gets as far as Elton John's ballads go....meh! At least he brings it all to a decent conclusion with "Give Me Love," the most flamboyant effort in this album.
Interestingly, John was just about as active in the 1980s as he was in the 1970s. Naturally, nobody remembers him for being an '80s star, so .... we'll see what he comes up with.
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21 at 33
The Fox (1981)
Album Score: 8Wow, this is a hard album to sit through. Not that the material is unlistenable --- you can sit through this whole album without flinching one bit! There is some really nice material on here --- it's a far cry from classic Elton John, but it's completely decent stuff all the same.
"Elton's Song" is a complex and rather pleasantly written ballad that seems to just be the right length. The opening song, the thundering "Breaking Down Barriers" was certainly an excellent addition, and it even makes this album seem rather promising when you first put it on! I'm also pretty fond of "Just Like Belgium" which has what's perhaps the album's best pop hooks although the nothing-instrumentation doesn't do it any favors.
Unfortunately, these high points are few and far between. Songs like the sloppy and meaningless "Fascist Faces" and the dull love ballad "Chloe" bog down the effort hugely. Also, the 6-minute cinematic 'Carla' and 'Etude' is pretty though entirely empty. The rest of that 11-minute track (a love ballad) hardly manage to redeem it.
A cheap disco song he found from some obscure artist in France is translated and covered with "Nobody Wins," but it's plagued by its own cheapness. The melody is nice enough, but even that loses steam after awhile.
Again, by the time the 1980s rolled around, Elton John didn't even seem to want to seem relevant anymore. He also didn't seem to want to be awesome. Hm. It didn't sell well at the time, and it hasn't exactly gotten more ripe with age. As far as potential Elton John fans go, definitely stick with his '70s albums. They sound a lot like this except less cheap.
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Jump Up! (1982)
Album Score: 10Nothing's better than Elton John at his peak. While this is still pretty far removed from his heyday, this '80s album is rather entertaining. Naturally, Elton is sticking with his age old '70s formula, but injecting some life in it that seemed to be absent in his previous album The Fox.
The unfortunate thing about Elton John, though, is this lack of diversity. All of his albums, especially by this point in this discography, seem to just be rewrites of themselves. Whenever he tried something different (the entire Victim of Love album and that cinematic track in The Fox) they turn out to be pretty disappointing. Could it be that Elton John is a formula artist who should just stick with that formula? .......... I guess. But I can't be surprised that he loses his edge over it as time progresses.
Let's talk about the good stuff, though, because I do think this easily beats out all of his albums since Rock of the Westies or perhaps even Captain Fantastic itself. "Legal Boys" is an exciting ballad, and certainly his best for quite some time. It's tuneful and even sounds a bit exotic ... like Elton John was back on top of his game just for a brief and glorious moment. "I Am Your Robot" is absolutely fun. It nods the current trends of pop music (with those goofy synths) but slips confortably into an above average, tuneful and upbeat melody.
Another great ballad is the closing track "All Quiet on the Western Front." Maybe it could have been better, but I enjoy listening to that one tremendously. He's getting interesting with the instrumentation there. Those towering organ chords seem to rule mercilessly.
So this is a lovely album. There's no way you're going to put this along side his classics such as Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but at least it's entertaining and gives you a nice reason why you're a fan of his in the first place!
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Too Low For Zero (1983)
Album Score: 11Elton John re-emerges from the songwriting funk that seemed to bring down every album he worked on ever since he released his masterpiece Captain Fantastic and he delivers an album full of great songs. He was greatly hinting at a comeback with Jump Up! released a year previously to this, but here the transition is complete.
Even though he's got his songwriting powers back, much of this comes off as pretty generic. But who really cares about that when the melody is catchy? Well, a few of these songs come off cheaper than they probably should have. "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues" has an excellent melody, but giving the instrumentation a rawer feeling wouldn't give John's detractors so much fodder. "Religion" tends to have a similar problem --- the instrumentation is too streamlined.
But the melodies are all in good form here. The only one I take issue with is "Kiss the Bride," but I suppose everyone's deserving of at least one mess-up. All in all, this is an enormously consistent album, which is something we haven't seen from this guy for ages. Who's not to love that???
Interestingly, the bonus tracks contain quite a few gems. They are probably even better than the whole album. I'm not sure why he didn't include these in the album, because they're certainly great. "Earn While You Learn" is an extended instrumental that doesn't fail to capture my attention for its entire 7-minute running length. "Dreamboat" is an even longer song --- it's a pop tune --- and it's catchier than anything. The length is probably that track's main downfall, but I honestly don't get sick of it. Can you see? Elton's got his songwriting powers back!!
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Too Low For Zero
Breaking Hearts (1984)
Album Score: 10Good ole Elton John!! This is where Elton concentrates mostly on upbeat and sometimes furious pop-rock. He sounds so damned eager and excited about it that he's completely convincing from start to finish. Nothing could have been a better starter than "Restless." If I may be so bold, that's one of Elton's best rocker tracks... The instrumentation is so crispy and snappy (especially that crystal-clear bass line). And he sings it with such furious conviction that I wished I could have joined him on stage --- and take part in all the unrestrained fun. It's no surprise that my second favorite track of the album is a similarly minded furious rocker, "Li'l 'Frigerator." And then there's the absolutely soaring pop-rocker "Did He Shoot Her?" with a melody that rivals his classic songs. That's really saying something, since this guy ruled the early '70s as far as slick melodies are concerned.
Normally, Elton's best work on an album is his ballads of the soaring variety. Of course these are still here and I like them, but they're considerably weaker than those three 'biggies' I mentioned. "Breaking Hearts" is just Elton singing with a piano (and a real one ... not an electric one or some nonsense like that). It's convincing and Elton gives a touching performance, but it's ... um ... not that capturing. "Pretty Buildings" is the best ballad of them all, however, with a melody that's quite special!
Perhaps the most interesting song is "Passengers" in which Elton John explores some reggae influence. It wasn't bad, but in no ways better than his straight songs. Not that I don't appreciate diversity, but --- that was getting pretty close to the album's weak spot. Considering what preceded it, "Sad Songs" is sort of a wimpy conclusion... A charming though uninspired pop-rocker with pretty generic instrumentation.
But when it's all said and done, there is not one bad track on here. This isn't quite as great as Elton's ultimate return-to-form, Too Low For Zero, but it certainly proves that he wasn't ready to sink back into mediocrity yet. I love it that Elton's deciding to really rock out here. This is one finger-snappin' album! Apparently the reason for this is Elton decided to reunite with the rock combo he worked with in the '70s. Hey, if they can rock out so convincingly, then let them stay!!
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Ice on Fire (1985)
Album Score: 7I guess this is where the '80s truly began to gobble up and malign Elton John. Not that '80s-fied Elton John can't be enjoyable --- he's continuing to write nice melodies. I guess Elton John was going through some horrible personal crises around this time that was trying to get sorted out. His cocaine addiction was horrible, of course, but he was also married to his former sound engineer, which would soon come to an end after four short years because he's not really heterosexual.
Unfortunately, all that fun I had listening to his previous release Breaking Hearts is barely even here. The best moments from the album are in the bonus tracks, the live versions of songs from his back catalogue. That's usually not a good sign. Nothing on the album is infectious or memorable whatsoever. The major saving grace is that John's melody writing skills were still pretty formidable, so very few of these songs are irritatingly bland.
It's the production is usually awful, and he didn't have his old band backing him up anymore. The result unfortunately was that he ended up succumbing to the usual '80s-production that nearly destroyed other artists like Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan. The only reason it took this long (1985) to tug at Elton John was because he refused to give up his time-tested '70s formula. Well, he's still sticking to that formula for the most part --- it's just that the production is worse and more unimaginitve than usual. The exception is the truly dismal funk-pop "Wrap Her Up," a train wreck duet with George Michaels. That's not even the worst song of the album ... "Too Young," featuring some members of Queen, takes that cake. That track is unbelievably bad in almost unspeakable ways. Seriously...................
The good songs aren't really that good. The best would have to be the opening track "This Town," which is a semi-disco dance number that doesn't come close to being as infectious as anything on Breaking Hearts. The "Crocodile Rock" clone "Tell Me What the Papers Say" has that same carefree vibe but not the infectious melody. "Cry to Heaven" is the best example of a ballad, but the goofy '80s synthesizer embellishments didn't do it any favors.
All in all, this might be a disappointing album, but I could certainly fathom an album that's much worse for '80s Elton John. After all, this is significantly better than Victim of Love ... not that achieving that was a difficult feat...
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Ice on Fire
Leather Jackets (1986)
Album Score: 5Here it is. The worst Elton John album ever according to Elton John. Yeah, I listened to this album, and I'm not going to be one to argue with him. This is pretty godawful. The good news is that this actually isn't his worst album. That dishonor goes exclusively to Victim of Love. It can certainly be stated that this is his worst album to feature original material. A disco producer wrote all the songs on Victim of Love and Elton just gave karaoke performances over it.
It's no real surprise that this album was produced in 1986, which is pretty much inarguably hailed as a sort of black-hole year among '60s and '70s musicians. The Rolling Stones released their crap-tastic Dirty Work, Paul McCartney had Press to Play, Bob Dylan's awful Knock Out Loaded, Alice Cooper's Constrictor, and I could go on... Elton John's Leather Jackets is just another example of the evil stranglehold the year 1986 had on middle-aged rock stars.
As expected, Elton John spends an awful lot of time sounding like he wanted to be a regular old '80s pop star. Also as you'd expect, his instrumental decisions are tasteless and bland. Pretty much everything he does, production-wise, was a bad idea. When I listen to this album, especially the second half of it, I have to struggle to keep my eyes from rolling to the back of my head. Leave the electronic gadgetry to the young guys, man! Furthermore, John's old melodic talents are reduced to stubs; there's only a hint of this guy's former melodic brilliance. That said, his melodies aren't half bad when you compare it to the melodies in Cyndi Lauper's 1986 album, but ... well, we're talking about Elton John here! Elton John used to rule!!
His last gasp of decency before he was completely assimilated by the pod people was the ballad "Gypsy Heart." I won't claim that the melody is memorable to any strong degree, but it's perfectly pleasant for at-the-moment listening. Also, I kinda like "Don't Trust That Woman." Maybe it's a thinly disguised stab at his fake-heterosexuality, but all I care about is that it's a somewhat convincing toe tapper. The steel drum sound hidden in the synth texture constitutes the best "high tech" production idea on the whole album.
Now let's talk about the bad stuff, and trust me, this gets pretty BAD. There has never been a worse Elton John song than "Memory of Love." That's definitely a ballad, but it's like someone took the Elton we all know and love and rattled his brain until it was only half fuctional. His vocal performance sounds like he was going to turn into the Incredible Hulk, and ... gosh ... I just can't think about it anymore ... "Angeline" constitutes another curious blunder. It's just a confused mess, and another moment on this crapperpiece that I don't want to think about. He couldn't have ended the album on a murkier note with "I Fall Apart." That's a hopelessly murky song in which he sings with a lot of reverb. It depresses me to just think about these moments any longer. I think I need some Twizzlers.
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Live in Australia (1987)
Album Score: 11Elton John was such a Crocodile Dundee fan, THE hit movie of 1986, that he decided to pay a visit to those folks Down Under and give them a show. Just as I would have been, Elton John was shocked to discover that not everybody down there wears crocodile leather pants, so he figured it was safe to bring in an 80-piece orchestra to back him up. Those must have been exciting new sounds for the people of Australia considering they only play the didgeridoo.
Erm, it seems that orchestra actually came from Melbourne, so apologies. I'm misinformed as usual. I'm not too sure what led Elton John to give a major show in Melbourne, which was also recorded and released on home video, but he did! It's also interesting that he was just weeks away from having major throat surgery, which would forever alter his vocal range. There is a distinct raspy quality to his voice evidenced all throughout this disc, but he can still hit most of the notes most of the time, and it can still soar when it needs to.
The most surprising thing about this album is that it only contains material from his 1970-1976 catalogue. Even more surprising, very few of these tracks were actually hits. He reveals to the audience in between tracks that he hadn't performed many of these songs for more than a decade, which shows that this concert was something of a special event. According to the All-Music Guide (I'm not willing to do research beyond that), this was a broadcast shown all around the world! It's clearly not as essential as the two previous live albums he released, the raucous 11-17-1970 or the all-encompassing Here and There, but any Elton-John-phile would be at a loss if they didn't give this a spin.
He seems to concentrate mainly on his eponymous 1970 album, and it isn't until the 13th track until he finally performs “Your Song!” He opens the album with a lovely rendition of his slow-moving “Sixty Years On,” which sets the tone for the first half of the album; expect a lot of unexciting though pretty orchestral compositions. The second track, “I Need You to Turn To” is a song I couldn't even readily recall from Elton John, but it's very pretty. After a faithful performance of his Gershwin-esque “Tonight,” Elton John finally delivers what most the Aussies in the audience probably sat down to hear in the first place: a song that was on the radio! And it's “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.” It's not the finest of the Elton John hits, but his vocal rendition of it is so convincing that it's quite heart-wrenching.
By the seventh track, things start to get considerably more exciting with a soulful performance of a tune from Tumbleweed Connection, “Take Me to the Pilot!” I get the feeling that the reason he was concentrating on the slower songs was due to the hoarseness in his voice, but he still manages to deliver quite a vibrant performance. That's followed up with the excellent “Tiny Dancer,” which probably wasn't as widely loved in 1986 than it was after Almost Famous came out, so that doesn't exactly break with his policy to concentrate on the non-hits. It isn't until the 11th track until he obligingly performs “Candle in the Wind,” which interestingly is the only track on here to not feature the orchestra. Could it be that he was a mite sick of that song, and didn't want to practice it with the orchestra? I don't know.
However, the penultimate number is one of the best songs of his career, “Burn Down the Mission.” That's a song that sounded great when his vocals were in tip-top shape, and it sounds great when his voice is a bit gravelly. It's funny how that number tends to be the highlight of all his live albums. The final song is a terribly beautiful rendition of “Don't Let the Sun Shine Down on Me.” The orchestra lends it a totally epic feel, and he couldn't have ended the live album with a more appropriate song. Seriously, that chorus gets me to my knees no matter how many times I hear it.
All in all, this is an enjoyable live album. It's nice to hear the guy revisiting some of the lesser known tracks of his peak career as well as reliving some of his more widely loved ones. Considering his personal life was a real mess at the time and his throat badly needed surgery, it's amazing to hear the guy could still get it going in the live arena.
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Live in Australia
From the End of the World to Your Town: The Decline and Fall of Captain Fantastic
[11 October 2005]
Elton John and Bernie Taupin rose out of absolute obscurity to become the most successful songwriting duo since Lennon & McCartney. The obstacles they encountered on the road to fame are recorded here: the frustration, the longing, the hope, the anger, the despair. Taken together these adventures attain the status of myth.
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
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I always wanted to be famous -- the old ego bit . . . I never wanted to be a movie star, because in 50 years' time if you mention an old film stars' name they'll just say 'Who?' But they'll still be playing Gershwin.
— Elton John, "Jackie" Magazine, 1969
For we were spinning out our lines, /
Walking on the wire, /
Hand in hand went music and the rhyme, /
The Captain and the Kid,
Stepping in the ring, /
From here on sonny, /
It's a long and lonely climb.
— "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, released in 1975, was the culmination of six years' feverish exertion. Beginning with the 1969 release of the unheralded Empty Sky, the team of Elton John and lyricist Bernie Taupin wrote and recorded a staggering nine albums, not including the live album 11/17/70, the soundtrack album Friends and a handful of one-off singles. One of these albums, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, was even a double. Captain Fantastic was the first album to ever premiere at number one on the Billboard album charts, a feat thought impossible in those pre-Soundscan days. It was also, significantly, the last great album of John's early career, and some would probably say his last great album, period.
It is something of a minor tragedy that John's recording career has come to be so thoroughly overshadowed by his very public antics and high-profile extra-curricular activities. As Paul Gambaccini notes in the liner notes to the re-released Captain Fantastic, "for every decade of his career Elton the serious album artist has had another image [with which to contend]." The flamboyant costumes, outrageous performances, the philanthropy, the gossip, the feuds, the shopping trips... they all worked to overshadow the image of John as he presented himself in his early career, as a conscientious songwriter and consummate artist.
Plus, it must be reckoned, there has been a lot of water under the bridge since his high-water mark in the mid-'70s. The stream of competent but unexceptional singles that he produced in the '80s, which were in turn attached to a stream of mediocre-to-bad albums, served to dilute his overall reputation. It's worth noting that almost exactly contemporaneous bad patches from peers such as David Bowie, Neil Young and Bob Dylan did no such damage to their respective perceptions. The late '80s renaissance of Reg Strikes Back and especially Sleeping with the Past proved a mercurial phenomenon with the onset of the '90s and the realization, brought with albums such as The One and Made in England, that he had reached a plateau of genial craftsmanship. The Disney movies and Broadway shows didn't help, and neither did the mawkish rewrite of "Candle in the Wind". More than anything else, though, his enthusiasm for the realm of pop stardom, without any of the ironic detachment that has allowed peers such as Bowie to thrive in the public eye without losing a shred of their critical cache, has eroded his credibility as an artist of import almost beyond the vanishing point. For a younger critical establishment raised on the likes of Nirvana and Pavement, it would be almost impossible to reconcile the steely likes of Madman Across the Water with the image of Elton as the self-proclaimed "Queen Bitch" of pop, hobnobbing with the rich and richer, making no effort to hide his own beyond-ostentatious wealth.
But, my God, the riches of his early catalog are abundant for anyone who cares to look. His early '70s run is almost unmatched in the history of pop music. In terms of quality and quantity, his only real peers are the likes of the Beatles, the Stones and Bowie. Even relatively modest achievements like Caribou (squeezed out between Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic) stand head-and-shoulders above almost anything John has done since. The duo of John and Taupin produced some of the greatest songs and most memorable albums of the rock era, and yet today their prolific career is routinely dismissed, if not forgotten.
As good as it is -- and it is very good -- there's no getting past the fact that Captain Fantastic was the turning point in their career. After six years of nonstop exertion, the seams had begun to show. Rock of the Westies, released just half a year after Captain Fantastic, was nowhere near as good (even if it also premiere at the top of the charts). The streak was finally broken with Blue Moves, in 1976, a sober, and some would say maudlin exercise that failed to match its predecessors' commercial success. Some believe Blue Moves to be underrated, but the fact remains that the next decade of John's career was marked by rapidly diminishing returns.
Captain Fantastic was, in many ways, a highly symbolic note on which to end John and Taupin's "classic" period. The album itself is the most disciplined and self-conscious effort of their careers, less a concept album than a song cycle, based on the John and Taupin's early partnership and career -- essentially from the moment of their first meeting to the recording of Empty Sky, which served as a prologue to their meteoric rise.
John and Taupin were introduced in the summer of 1967, after they both replied to an ad in the British music magazine NME from Liberty Records. Liberty, a newly-independent subsidiary of EMI, was looking for new talent. Both John and Taupin failed their auditions but were steered in the direction of each other by Ray Williams and Dick James, the latter of whom had found considerable success as the Beatles' first publisher. Working together for the next year they mostly floundered, their efforts focused in the psychedelic folk genre as well as a more stately pop mode (as Taupin once said: "We were writing Englebert Humperdink-style ballads, and we hated them"). Finally, they hit paydirt with "Lady Samantha" and "Skyline Pidgeon", both eventually included on Empty Sky. The two tracks may seem modest in retrospect but stood out as confirmation to John and Taupin, as well as those at the Dick James Studio, that the partnership would eventually surpass its inauspicious beginnings.
The duo's creative marriage was defined by their marked dissimilarities. While both came from lower middle-class origins, John (born Reginald Dwight), was raised in urban London while Taupin hailed from the rural districts of Lincolnshire, in the far north of the country. Their musical interests were similarly contrasted: John had been raised on a catholic diet of mainstream pop and early rock and roll, with a special affection for American soul music, while Taupin was a fan of American folk and country: Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Between them, they pulled from every major songwriting school of the 20th century, with a special emphasis on the music of America, from Woodie Guthrie to Elvis Presley. Their early albums are often noted for their unique synthesis of American themes and styles, and the conflict between John's fascination with R&B and funk and Taupin's predilection for country and folk is one of the most influential synergies in the history of pop music.
Captain Fantastic begins softly, with the gentle plucking of a country-tinged acoustic guitar, and over the course of its running time it spans the gamut from tightly-wound funk in the Stax mold ("Tell Me When the Whistle Blows") to sophisticated glam ("[Gotta Get A] Meal Ticket"). The highlight, however, remains the three ballads which anchor both sides of the album's original LP format, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" (which comes at the end of the album's first half), and the diptych "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" and "Curtains" which brings the album to its towering emotional climax.
It's slightly surprising that Captain Fantastic was such a success, considering the fact that it is a highly personal, vaguely allegorical concept album filled with depressing, angry songs. In the liner notes, Gambaccini makes the comparison to Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, and while it initially seemed an incongruous match, it is actually a fairly apt analogy. Both albums are highly personal, autobiographical statements from artists who had both taken great pains to hold their songwriting personas at arms' length from their personal lives. Just as Dylan's "Idiot Wind" is among the angriest songs the austere troubadour ever recorded, "Bitter Fingers" stood out as well against the backdrop of John's genial reputation:
"It's hard to write a song with bitter fingers, /In the late '60s John had played keyboards in a group called Bluesology, backing singers such as Lee Dorsey, Patti LaBelle and Long John Baldry. Initially, John enjoyed the gig but quit during a stint with Baldry: he didn't want to play cabarets, which -- then and now -- was considered something of a dead-end career move. Thankfully, by the time he quit Bluesology, he had already been working with Taupin for six months. (One example of John's brief career with Bluesology, "Come Back Baby", was included on the 1990 box set To Be Continued.... It exists for no other reason than to demonstrate that John would never have made it as a songwriter without Taupin.)
So much to prove so few to tell you why, /
Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing, /
At the keyboard players' hollow haunted eyes. /
It seems to me a change is really needed, /
I'm sick of tra la las and la de das, /
No more long days hocking hunks of garbage, /
Bitter fingers never swung on swinging stars.
I've often wondered just what the common, crucial element has been in the artistic downfall of so many different artists. What is the process by which otherwise talented musicians such as Bowie, the Stones, U2, Stevie Wonder, and especially Elton John and Bernie Taupin go from frightening acuity to rote professionalism? After considering the matter for some time the only answer that makes any sense is hunger. Everyone starts from the same point of hunger. Desire propels the artist through the stratosphere at frightening velocities, enabling them to accomplish Herculean feats of artistic mastery for as long as they remain in motion. But success brings with it the sensation of satisfaction, and a sated rock & roller just can't compete. Even the language we use to describe this phenomenon is blatantly sexual: when an artist is on a hot streak, we'll ask: "how long can they keep it up?" At some point the initial vigor fades. The skill remains, but the thrust goes flaccid. It's the difference between Exile on Main Street and Tattoo You; "Heroes" and Tonight; Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Leather Jackets.
Elton John, the globetrotting Captain Fantastic, and Bernie Taupin, the down-home countrified Brown-Dirt Cowboy rose out of absolute obscurity to become the most successful songwriting duo since Lennon & McCartney (if you young'uns don't believe me, just take a gander at the historical record). The obstacles they encountered on the road to fame are recorded here: the frustration, the longing, the hope, the anger, the despair. Taken together these adventures attain the status of myth. The album's only hit single, "Someone Saved My Life Tonight", is literally about a botched suicide attempt on the part of John -- nothing more lethal than sticking his head into an oven with the apartment windows wide open, but still a genuine low point in a life filled with peaks and valleys. It's an example of the duo's powers at their very peak, welding gospel textures to the kind of pop template that would have been familiar to Frank Sinatra, all the while utilizing a candid autobiographical format that was, circa 1975, still somewhat radical.
To finish the album, the deceptively light-hearted "Writing" segues into the achingly dispirited "We All Fall in Love Sometimes". Rarely has such an affirmative sentiment been applied to such a sad song. The opening verse provides as affecting a snapshot of the spiritual torpor that accompanies unrequited longing as has been written in pop music:
"Wise men say, /There's an almost eschatological feel to these verses, a sense of foreboding that carries with it the ominous hint of change. But the quiet track begins to evolves into something more majestic about halfway through, as the object of love comes into focus. What is the love? Is it a metaphor for the transformation of an obscure songwriter into a full-fledged pop star -- the consummation of an unorthodox lust for fame? Is it something more subtle, perhaps, an affirmation of the almost intuitive but assuredly platonic bond that holds John and Taupin even after all these years?
It looks like rain today, /
It crackled on the speakers, /
And trickled down the sleepy subway trains, /
For heavy eyes could hardly hold us, /
Aching legs that often told us, /
It's all worth it, /
We all fall in love sometimes."
The album ends with "Curtains", which brings the story full-circle -- the sense of destiny and momentum conferred by the title track returns with a hint of melancholy as the pair say goodbye forever to the lives they have known.
"I held a dandelion, /Structurally, the lyric is one of Taupin's more ingenious inventions, a four-stanza free verse poem without chorus. The music begins at the exact point where "We All Fall in Love Sometimes" fades into something more expectant, rising and rising into an inexpressible crescendo. Like "God Only Knows", the song instills an almost numinous sense of awe in the presence of what could only be described as divine harmony.
That said the time had come, /
To leave upon the wind, /
Not to return, /
When summer burned the earth again."
The Deluxe Edition packaging presents the album to striking advantage. The first disc contains the album in entirety as well as "Philadelphia Freedom" and John's cover of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Despite their persistent popularity as oldies staples, neither track presents Elton at his best, foreshadowing instead the insubstantial pop confections which loomed on his horizon. The b-sides for both singles are included, including a cover of John Lennon's "One Day at a Time" -- hardly a revelation, and hardly a rarity either, considering the track's inclusion on the To Be Continued... box.
It's the second disc that will stand out for collectors and aficionados -- a complete unreleased performance of the Captain Fantastic album, recorded live at Wembley Stadium on the evening of 21 June 1975. John's band is in fine form despite personnel changes -- of the classic Elton John quintet, only Davey Johnstone on guitar and percussionist Ray Cooper, drummer Nigel Olsson and bassist Dee Murray having parted ways after the recording of Captain Fantastic. But the impersonality of big-band rock and roll is already present, creeping across the edge of the arrangements, present in the background singers who conveniently cover for John's inability to hit the studio album's high notes. The most obvious symbol of John's declining powers is his voice -- strong and confident still, but seemingly tired. As I mentioned, he just can't hit the high notes on tracks like "Tower of Babylon" -- and those of us who hold the original recordings dearly cannot help but wince at his plainly diminished capacity. The show sounds like a steam train coming to a slow halt -- the inevitable result of a relentless and implacable momentum brought to a slow halt by harsh, metallic entropy. Captain Fantastic is an incredible achievement, one final burst of potency before the decline that followed. Given the popularity of pop-influenced singer-songwriters on the modern indie rock scene (such as it is), the time is ripe for a rediscovery and reappraisal of Elton's early catalog. I think there are any number of modern hipster songwriters who would be amazed by the sheer ingenuity and consistency of his early '70s catalog. Captain Fantastic would be a good place for anyone unfamiliar with this indispensable body of work to begin their explorations. In addition to its status as a jewel in John's crown, however, the album retains a special poignancy on account of the lyrical force and musical facility. It's an album that gets under your skin almost subliminally, less a collection of songs than an album of memories propelled by honest, ingratiating emotion to magnificent heights. If it isn't Elton's best album, it is surely his most significant sustained achievement.