Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.
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Madman across the Water (1971)
Honkey Chateau (1971)
I’ve been reacquainting myself this year (2014), with Elton’s catalogue, and willingly parted with a couple of quid for a brand new digi-pack remastered edition of this early classic.
Ditching the ever present string section, ‘Our Reg’ shifts gear – aided in no small part by the hottest touring band he would ever enjoy – dishing up an ear catching pot pourri of heartfelt balladry and camp rock, compositional elements that would define his peak period.
The remastered edition sounds wonderful, the sonic separation of piano and horns providing additional punch and clarity. Kick-starting with the arresting ‘Honkey Cat’, John apes Dr John, spewing out New Orleans tinged trills and fills, before permitting his sardonic humour to surface on ‘I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself’, a satirical paean to teenage angst. Elsewhere, there’s white gospel on ‘Salvation’, a Jaggeresque ‘Amy’ and best of all ‘Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters’, which modulates unexpectedly, its hymn like descending tonal shift in the chorus, counterpointing the rather maudlin subject of its verse.
That could have been it, but album sales were also boosted by the inclusion of the hit single ‘Rocket Man’, the inspiration for Bernie Taupin’s lyrics, derived from the short story ‘The Rocket Man’, written by Ray Bradbury. The sci-fi author’s tale is told from the perspective of a child, whose astronaut father has mixed feelings at leaving his family in order to do his job. It was published as part of the anthology ‘The Illustrated Man’ in 1951. Whilst public fascination with lunar travel would wane the moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin departed the ‘sea of tranquility’, Elton would successfully re-engage our hearts and minds with the emotional traumas of those early space pioneers.
Don’t shoot me I’m only the piano player (1973)
I never used to buy many 45 rpm singles – they seemed ‘poor value for money’ even in the early 70’s but I made an exception for “Crocodile Rock”, Elton’s homage to 50’s doo wop rock. His live appearance on the Royal Variety Show sold me on the sheer joie de vivre and rumbunctiousness of this piano barrelhouse number and in best Beatles tradition the B side “Elderberry Wine” was another winner despite Bernie Taupin’s unusually trite lyrics.
Nevertheless, Elton was by now, comfortable in almost any musical setting. While lyricist Bernie Taupin continued to feed him the usual mix of road songs, homages to the American West and offbeat love ballads, John was flying ahead with an ambitious, try-anything agenda that effectively blurred the lines between AM pop and FM rock. “Crocodile Rock,” with its whimsically vintage Farfisa organ, and “Daniel,” a seductive studio concoction of anti Vietnam sentiment leaned toward the former. “Elderberry Wine” approached the latter, with its hard guitar sound and blues-rock horn-riffing, as did “Have Mercy On The Criminal,” whose central riff echoes “Layla.” “I’m Gonna Be A Teenage Idol,” a tribute to Marc Bolan of T-Rex, lay tantalizingly across the center of the pop-rock line, sounding like a cabaret version of glitter-rock.
The album is dragged down somewhat by grandiose arrangements and over-the-top theatrics but his place in music history was by now assured; if “Don’t Shoot Me” was John’s “Rubber Soul”, months later, his domination of this era would reach fruition with the release of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”, an album as synonymous with some sort of artistic zenith as the Beatles “Revolver”.
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Critics are still divided over this double album – ‘too fat to float’ (‘Rolling Stone’ magazine), whilst others remain convinced it’s a career peak.
Either way, the band’s cooking ensuring ‘Road’s’ credentials as a massive double-record exposition of unabashed Hollywood inspired rock & roll fantasy, myth, wet dreams and cornball acts. If its pretentious, then there’s enough quality material to maintain listener interest.
Kick-starting with the mournful prog-rock downer “Funeral for a Friend” through to the sunny, symphonic pop finale “Harmony” , this collection plays like a modern British music hall revue. More than four decades on, there are inevitable grumbles – Bernie’s lyrics, a tad more misogynistic than called for – and some indulgent programming – the eight-minute instrumental prologue. It’s an underwhelming start, rather akin to a starter that leaves the diner overly bloated before the main course arrives.
There’s ‘Candle in the wind,’ from the era before Keith Richards would dismiss our Reg as a ‘pianist who sings about dead blondes’, and the plaintiff ‘Sweet Painted lady’ (a personal favourite of mine.) Then there’s the powerhouse riffing on ‘Saturday night’s alright for fighting’ and the Sgt Pepperish sound effects on ‘Benie and the Jets.’
Opposition to the double album concept are legion, yet if McCartney can remain dismissive of critics – ‘It’s The Beatles White album – shut it!’, Elton could be forgiven for applying the same attitude about his own magnum opus.
Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975)
Blue Moves (1976)
“The man’s a fool” I can hear the silent majority whispering, “what’s there to recommend in “Blue Moves”? Yes, it’s no different than most double albums in that it contains nowhere near enough quality songs to justify the extended length, but songs are no longer the focus. While Elton John used to poke fun at rock’s poses and pretensions, his playing showed that he took the music seriously enough to quote it well. But times had changed by 1976. Preoccupied with sound, with instrumental interludes and tidy segues, to the exclusion of sense John’s sprawling work attempts to satisfy the ears while leaving the emotions completely unaroused. In fact, to quote “Rolling Stone” the album is the musical equivalent of a dumb but gorgeous one-night stand. Unfortunately, it was also intended as a sort of farewell album and was clearly meant to have had a more lasting effect. Instead it ushered in the late 70’s, a period of commercial atrophy for Elton that would have seemed unthinkable in the summer of ’75.
“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” is the only song from Blue Moves that anybody knows and at the very least, it proved that Elton was still capable of producing hits in 1976 even if he had peaked. Well check out “Idol”, his aching lament for Presley and the price of idolatry.
He was a light star
Tripping on a high wire
Bulldog stubborn, born uneven
A classless creature, a man for all seasons
But don’t bet them They can’t take him To the very bottom
Because they made him and they’ll waste him
And I don’t believe that I want to watch them
‘Cause the fifties shifted out of gear
He was an idol then, now he’s an idol here
But his face has changed, he’s not the same no more
And I have to say that I like the way his music sounded before
He was tight-assed
Walking on broken glass
Highly prized in the wallet size
The number one crush in a schoolgirl’s eyes
But don’t pretend that it won’t end
In the depth of your despair
You went from lame suits right down to tennis shoes
To peanuts from the lion’s share
There’s a grandiosity to the album with selected orchestrations from the London Symphony Orchestra and some instrumental tracks; their inclusion seemingly indicative of a paucity of compositional ideas.
But there’s “Cage the Songbird,” a delicate paean to the life and death of French singer and icon Edith Piaf and three notable upbeat songs,“Shoulder Holster”, the gospel tinged “Is There a God in Heaven?” and the rocker, “Crazy Water.”
Jump Up! (1982)
John’s commercial decline in the late 70’s was notable both for its rate of descent and attendant critical mauling. ‘Jump Up’ redeemed him from his famine years as a fallen superstar exiled to less verdant pastures, with his most pleasing collection of original material in years.
From the muscular lurch of “Dear John” to the Philly-soul stylings of “Princess,” Elton is frisky again, those trademark piano rolls and crisp cadences echoing throughout “Spiteful Child.”
“Blue Eyes”, featuring one of the lower register vocals of his career, a direction he would pursue on an all star Gershwin tribute album twelve years later, would become a number one adult contemporary hit. I loved it, not least for its extended chordal voicings, the early prominent movement from Gm7 to Eb9#11 where he sings ‘like a deep blue sea’ suggesting an uncommonly explored jazz influence.
Not everything hits the mark, ‘I am your robot’ is trite and ‘Legal Boys’, co-written with Tim Rice, is emminently forgettable. Nevertheless, long time lyricist Bernie Taupin is back on board for half the tracks, and the inauspicious start with Rice signposts a future oscar winning direction with collaborative efforts on ‘The Lion King’ in 1994 and ‘Aida’ in 1998.
Too Low for Zero (1983)
Ice on Fire (1985)
Songs from the West Coast (2001)
A return to analogue recording and a warm evocation of his great period; Elton sounds reinvigorated and the leaner instrumentation accords the songs room to breathe. I committed to tape a cover version of the album’s single pull, “I want love”, replete with its pensive George Harrison-esque guitar, distinctive Ringo styled snare thud and authentic Billy Preston hammond organ. Showcasing John’s hookiest chord progression in years, and the toughest Bernie Taupin poetry in decades: “A man like me is dead in places other men feel liberated,” Elton spits out every succinct phrase with a venom.
For the first time in years cherrypicking his latest compositions gives way to a pleasing overall reasonance and sense of focus in his songwriting as Sir Reginald parks the eternal quest for yet another hit single in favour of the sheer pleasure of quality craftsmanship. It’s only the noticeable lack of divine inspiration that separates “Songs from the West Coast” from his halcyon period and that’s about the best we should ever expect these days.
Desert Island Discs (1/6/86)
‘Reg’ in conversation with Michael Parkinson.
Last Update: 30/4/15
It was one of the shortest tabloid splash headlines in history, just two words but for the man christened Reginald Dwight of Pinner it was vindication for months of inner turmoil. There, on the front page was the printed apology “Sorry Elton”.
Just days before the announcement, he had been informed by his lawyers that the paper was withdrawing its allegations and paying one million pounds in compensation. Typical of the man he announced publicly that “Life is too short to bear grudges and I don’t bear The Sun any malice.” Later a spokesman for the paper said “We are delighted that Elton and ‘The Sun’ have become friends again and are very sorry that we were lied to by a teenager living in a world of fantasy”.
The newspaper was additionally compelled to pay the musician’s legal costs and what followed thereafter was a series of complimentary articles about, and interviews with, the star, suggesting a lifelong mutual appreciation society. The judiciary previously involved in the case, was not amused and therein lies the dichotomy of Elton John’s personality; the beleagured star mustering every ounce of courage within him in the face of well intentioned advice from friends to avoid initiating legal proceedings against the paper, only to subsequently engage with the same editorial staff at the conclusion of the case like old friends at a high school reunion.
As a singer, pianist and composer whose unique blend of pop and rock styles turned him into one of the biggest music icons of the 20th century he has courted controversy throughout his career. He excelled in music from a young age, attending the prestigious Academy of Music on a scholarship at just eleven years old. In 1970 he released his first self-titled American album, making him a huge international star. Some of his most famous hits include “Crocodile Rock,” “Philadelphia Freedom,\” “ and “Candle in the Wind.” He also found success on Broadway, composing the score for \‘Billy Elliot\’ (2008), which went on to win ten Tony Awards. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 and was knighted in 1998.
He has engendered considerable affection amongst the ordinary man in the street despite his once self destructive lifestyle going on record as saying that “In most artists there’s a self destructive streak. Drugs, sex and doomed liaisons were my form of destruction.” Besides his lifestyle, Elton John has been known for his temper tantrums -I could never have worked in his employ as I would have burst out laughing at every one of them – and deep depression.
By his own admission he has had multiple sex partners, “I would walk into a club and see someone I hadn’t even met and I would already have them on the conveyor belt,” declared John._ “They’d come out with a Vercase shirt and a Cartier watch at the other end.” Years earlier in the October 7, 1976 edition of “Rolling Stone” he had also proclaimed that: _“There’s nothing wrong with going to bed with someone of your own sex. I just think people should be very free with sex…They should draw the line at goats.” It’s reassuring to know that he had some boundaries in the permissive 70’s!
Of course, certain allowances must be made for the public utterances of famous rock stars for in all probabilty, their views have been expressed whilst under the influence of drink and drugs. Nevertheless for all my admiration of Elton John in his legal battle with the ‘Sun’ newspaper, he might have tempered some of his views for public consumption, had he reflected for a while on a recent history in his homeland that had enabled him to talk so freely to a worldwide press on such a subject with hitherto unknown impunity.
Any promulgation of homosexuality as a lawful act twenty years prior to Elton’s “Rolling Stone” interview was little more than a fanciful notion amongst those men hiding the darkest of secrets.
It was the Wolfenden Report in 1957 that first suggested homosexual behaviour between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offence. The first print of 5,000 copies of the 155-page “Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution” sold out within hours of publication.
After its three-year long inquiry, the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution in Great Britain came to the conclusion that outlawing homosexuality impinged upon civil liberties as the act could not legitimately be regarded as a disease since in many cases it was the only symptom and was compatible with full mental health in other respects.” The report added that the law’s function was to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others … it was not, in the committee’s view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” I believe the vast majority of people would concur with a view such as this.
It would be another ten years before the findings of the Wolfenden Report would be enacted in law as the following article recounts.
There was considerable injustice suffered by many men but for me the failings of the legal system were encapsulated within the tragic demise of Alan Turing, the mathematician and Enigma codebreaker. His contribution to the war effort and the multitude of allied shipping crews whose lives were spared by the genius of this man should have ensured his continued “indulgence” at the Government’s expense throughout the rest of his life. As it was, he had taken his own life within seven years of the resumption of peace in europe. His life was dramatically re-enacted in the 1996 BBC dramatisation “Breaking the Code” starring Derek Jacobi and Prunella Scales. I’d send Elton a copy if I had his address.
He continues to air what may be construed by many, as rather controversial views; his comments in 2010 about the sexuality of Christ arousing the wrath of the catholic movement. His remarks reportedly upset America’s religious lobby, not known for its tolerance of diverging views, with one senior US Catholic complaining that Jesus had been labelled a “sexual deviant”.
This intolerance of homosexuality is apparent in the use of the word ‘deviant’ which most deep thinking individuals would consider a profoundly more inflammatory noun than the gay community’s preferred choice of ‘different’. Collins English dictionary defines the word deviant as a person whose behaviour, especially sexual behaviour, deviates from what is considered to be acceptable. Exactly what constituent elements define acceptability? Sensibility? Practicality? Prejudice? Ambivalence? Parental upbringing? What motivation prompted Elton’s remarks about Christ? We can but speculate but if not self publicity then perhaps some deeper need for spiritual pacification for here is a man who has both engaged in heterosexual relationships and married a woman during his lifetime.
In the final analysis, his periodic pronouncements are absorbed and reported by the UK media at least, with muted fanfare for his position today in the music industry and the likely effect of his views on the young and impressionable are perhaps rather benign. It seems unlikely that the Vatican would see fit to issue a misguided formal absolution of the ‘boy from Pinner’ in much the same way as John Lennon was posthumously forgiven for his 1966 Christ comments. The world has changed dramatically during the last half century and both endorsement from, and affiliation with entertainment figures is now actively sought and courted by both political and religious factions.