Elton John

TrackAlbum 
Ballad Of A Well-Known GunTumbleweed Connection
Border SongElton John
Burn Down The Mission17-11-70
Country ComfortTumbleweed Connection
Honky CatHonky Château
I Should Have Sent RosesThe Union
Lady SamanthaEmpty Sky
My Father's GunTumbleweed Connection
Son of Your FatherTumbleweed Connection
Take Me To The PilotElton John

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Contributors: Rob Millis & Peter Viney

Rob Millis:

Sir Elton may have near bankrupted himself with florist bills in the 90s, but he was really good from 1970-1972. The shallow and faithless will point out that they too could have been good from 1970-1972 had they had access to Gus Dudgeon, Paul Buckmaster, Hookfoot and, of course, a lyricist like Bernie Taupin. Oh, and Dusty Springfield plus Kiki Dee for the choruses. However, you have to remember that… no, actually they’ve got a point – that was a crack team of players. But he plays a mean joanna, that cannot be denied.

Let’s kick off at the beginning and debut LP, Empty Sky. Lady Samantha is quite jolly – chock full of the electric piano and organ redolent of the era and some good throaty guitar to bring the song in. To my ears there is much about Shine On Brightly-period Procol Harum about Lady Samantha, which in the late sixties was no bad thing at all.

From follow-up, Elton John, my first choice is Border Song. Moody but stately piano, “Moses” in the lyrics and those kinds of chords all point in a direction that will be better explained as we move on to his third album, Tumbleweed Connection, also from 1970. Take Me To The Pilot is more of the same; those lovely gospel piano chord inversions that Aretha Franklin would approve of.

Tumbleweed Connection forms the majority of my argument. I think we can argue that 50% of the people that own it only like it because they think it sounds like The Band. Which it does, and even Robbie Robertson has praised it as a body of work. From this I’ll take Country Comfort, just a nice song summed up by the title, and often better remembered covered by Rod Stewart on Gasoline Alley. We’ll have the opener Ballad Of A Well-Known Gun for the paced delivery and gorgeous harmonies, and my two favourites: Son Of Your Father, a pacier rocker with fine guitar from Caleb Quaye (every note Caleb Quaye ever played was fantastic until he became a born again jazzer) and from original Hookfoot member Dave Glover, a lesson in how a bass guitar should be played. The Band homage doesn’t get any richer than My Father’s Gun, complete with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” style, and almost note-perfect Levon Helm drum fills as the song builds. The woolly, remote guitar fills that open from Quaye sound eerily like Steve Stills.

I think it is fair to say that the body of work on this album is fantastic, and if there is a case – aside from Robertson’s own endorsement – for it being an equal of The Band as much as a clone, it is surely creditable to lyricist Bernie Taupin who, like Robertson, crafted these little “cinematic vignettes”, or the plethora of fine, fine players on Tumbleweed Connection. There’s an argument for Bernie Taupin being as much of a Civil War-era Southerner as (Canadian) Robertson, after all. Get a vinyl copy – the sleeve is beautiful. It is also worth remembering back to Lady Samantha and the Procol Harum influence, as they were another act that bore comparison to The Band.

The live LP 17-11-70 caught Elton, Dee Murray and Nigel Olsson in a bare piano trio on the road almost immediately after the release of Tumbleweed Connection. Let’s have Burn Down The Mission from that one, as much as anything because I am desperately trying not to have anything else from Tumbleweed Connection. But in any case, it was a brave, stark format and the results are pretty impressive.

The studio LP Madman Across The Water followed in 1971; opener “Tiny Dancer” these days remembered for that bus scene in Almost Famous. Despite the presence of a song called “Levon”, I think the Transatlantic muse is deceptively absent on this release, going instead for a far more lush and commercial sound. However…

Honky Château followed in 1972, and the near title track Honky Cat is my selection from this: irresistible “in the pocket” rhythm, a great vocal and lyric, lovely instrumentation (those Memphis style brass stabs are just enough without being ornamentation too far). Very tasteful. The album did yield “Rocket Man” so the argument that this LP was a return to artistic triumph over commercial doesn’t hold water; I just think it did a better job of balancing the two than had Madman.

Then there’s a load of old toot. Profitable old toot, mind. For years and years. If I were feeling charitable I might admit that hearing “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues” on a pub jukebox recently made me think it had worn well and that he’d done a good job in turning an old fashioned piano tune with some nice chords into a hit, given the times.

Which leads us on nicely to 2010’s The Union, where I have to say he showed his old fashioned spirit as it was a collaboration with his old hero Leon Russell – understandably a leading light and inspiration to many a piano player in a guitar-led era – and was a lovely gesture. Elton John’s name on the sleeve made Leon far more money than he’d been used to of late). Not surprisingly this catered for the casual Tumbleweed-era fan who’d not cared much for the mid-seventies onward. It’s just a lovely album generally; I’ll plump for I Should Have Sent Roses.

That’s that then. Elton John – a man who has turned out an awful lot of empty pop in his time, but probably not that many empty seats come tour tickets going on sale. A man worth far more than the time of day for some fine, fine work early in his solo career. But don’t think it necessary to track down every album just to see if there’s anything of the old Tumbleweed spirit on there. Just get the first four or five and The Union.

*

Peter Viney (with alternative Top 10 highlighted below):

Elton John’s distinctive voice, piano style and signature melodic choices are coupled with a highly prolific output of albums. By the mid 70s, for many people, there was just too much of it about. The spectacles and silly hats didn’t help, nor did songs unleavened by much variety. So Rob’s focus on early material above is a critical consensus, but most critics would allow him up to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road before they started to ignore him.

The Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection albums have their rightful prominence in Rob’s list. But “Your Song” set out his ballad style clearly, and has to go in there. After his sessions playing piano for Long John Baldry, he did a lot of work for the Avenue label, doing budget cover versions for EPs. Legend has it that after the Elton John album was a hit, his old friends at Avenue bemoaned their inability to find a cover artist for “Your Song”, and with typical generosity, Elton popped in to the Marble Arch studio and covered himself, for free. These cover sessions (without “Your Song”) were issued as two covermount CDs with The Daily Express, and certainly worth an obligatory 20p in the “donation tin” in your local charity shop.

The pastiche early rock and roll style dominated the charts in the early 70s, and I wouldn’t give space to Elton John’s other signature style, as displayed by “Crocodile Rock” or “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”.

Madman Across The Water is not a great album, but it does contain two of his best songs, Tiny Dancer and Levon, and I like the Tiny Dancer segment in Almost Famous very much.

When my son was born, the midwife asked the name, and said, ‘Daniel? Like the song?’ I said, ‘Yes, Daniel and The Sacred Harp by The Band,’ but of course she meant Daniel from Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player. As my son has lived in America for 13 years, I have often hummed ‘Daniel is leaving tonight on a plane’, and yes, it does touch an emotional chord, and that’s a knack he has.

Then we get to the big one. What do we do about Candle In The Wind? Then do we take the original from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road? Or do we take the Diana funeral version, the biggest selling single of all time at 33 million copies? Elton has said he will never sing it again, to which many of you will say, ‘Yes! Please stick to the promise!’ Is the song kitsch forever now? Or can we look back to that melody, in its direct line from “Your Song” and say it deserves to be included and steadfastly keep Marilyn Monroe in our minds, as originally intended? Or do you go to your Diana shrine daily, papered with the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday special supplements, and weep to the funeral version?

No doubts on the B-side of Candle In The Wind original version, Bennie And The Jets is Elton’s best-ever rocker.

It is a duet, but Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with Kiki Dee is far too infectious to ignore, and a number one single too.

This guy is the third best-selling singles artist in the USA, behind The Beatles and Elvis. Can we ignore 1975 to 2013? “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”, “The Bitch is Back”. “Philadelphia Freedom”, “I’m Still Standing”, “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues”, “Sad Songs”, Sacrifice, “Nikita”, Circle Of Life (from The Lion King), “Song For Guy”? “Circle Of Life” is a perfect Disney cartoon song. OK, you probably need to be over seven and under fourteen to get the full impact, but nevertheless the appeal is timeless.

I understand the anti-Elton mood … just this week I passed a plump Boy George lookalike, dressed in Union Jacks, prancing around to pull punters into a Best of British themed shop near Leicester Square, miming to “I’m Still Standing”. It was truly gross. But can Elton John be blamed for that? If you’re going OTT, as Elton does so often, let’s have Philadelphia Freedom live with full orchestra at the Royal Opera House in 2002.¬¬¬

I dislike The Union, much as I admire Leon Russell. The sound is muddy, glooping over the songs.

September 2013 brings The Diving Board, hailed as his best album since Yellow Brick Road by Andy Gill in The Independent, or his best album EVER in other reviews. We heard that about Songs From The West Coast back in 2001, also with Bernie Taupin. Produced by T-Bone Burnett (but so was The Union), lyrics by Bernie Taupin. Press suggested it’s a stripped down Rick Rubinization, but that’s only track one, “Oceans Away”, and effective it is. Maybe the reviewers didn’t listen further, an error, because it’s excellent. I think at least some stuff from it deserves to be there, if only in respect to his longevity at a quality level, and because his voice sounds so strong and full. The hypnotic piano part, Taupin lyrics and strings give it to Oscar Wilde Gets Out. Hypnotic piano (rather than key thumping) is the album’s trademark.

Two Rooms is a 1991 CD with cover versions of Elton John songs, commissioned by his manager, John Reed. Jon Bon Jovi takes “Levon”, Rod Stewart takes “Your Song”, The Beach Boys “Crocodile Rock”, Wilson Phillips take “Daniel”, Kate Bush “Rocket Man”, Sinead O’Connor takes “Sacrifice”, Sting does “Come Down In Time”, Tina Turner takes “The Bitch Is Back”. It’s a very good album, and benefits from the variety of voices.

Elton John – The Official Website

Hercules International Elton John Fan Club

Elton John biography (iTunes)

Want to speak up for the myriad Elton John albums not included in this critical view? Caribou, Captain Fantastic, Blue Moves, A Single Man, Ice On Fire. Bet they’re in a fair few collections!

TopperPost #89

3 Comments

  1. Ian Ashleigh
    Oct 6, 2013

    Where do you go from there?

    Elton John is a classically trained and very accomplished pianist, and he has a great voice. He created a public pastiche of himself which is the reason for the dismissal of the post 1975 output.

    I want to add the case for Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road for its sheer musical drama to rock song progression. I love the whole of the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album and would point to the production of the original Candle in the Wind which is a mini-masterpiece. Neither Rob nor Peter included Have Mercy On The Criminal or Elderberry Wine from Don’t Shoot Me … or Someone Saved My Life Tonight from Captain Fantastic …

    Whenever I hear I’m Still Standing, I am transformed back to Vicarage Road Stadium on the last day of the season when Watford were relegated from the Premier League and the players left the pitch to the sound of that song.

    Once again, a Toppermost posting has informed my listening and I thank both Rob and Peter for their appraisals.

  2. Peter Viney
    Oct 6, 2013

    I love “Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only The Piano Player” as an album too. Let’s bring this right up to date. Elton’s 4th October 2013 BBC 4 broadcast in a specially recorded concert. I thought “Levon” with the group of backing vocalists and the cellists was so good it deserves to sit with the Madman Across The water version in my ten.

  3. David Lewis
    Dec 21, 2013

    Not much love for Captain Fantastic? Wasn’t it the last of the albums to go no1 on both sides of the Atlantic? The opening track, Writing and Scarecrow are marvellously brilliant.

    I’d also add that it’s notable that the two best civil war songs were done by a Canadian and then two young Englishman.

    I’d also add later stuff actually – the title track of The Fox is a return to form, and Runaway Train from The One.

    The sequel to Captain Fantastic was worthy and deserves more love than it gets.

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