Monday, June 9, 2008

Goodbye

"Goodbye" closes out Madman Across the Water in similar fashion to the way that Shakespeare has his Puck close out A Midsummer Night's Dream, beginning with

And now that it's all over
The birds can nest again
I'll only snow when the sun comes out
I'll shine only when it starts to rain


Pointing out his, and his mouthpiece's often contradictory nature.

He then works in some self-effacing, and just a bit smirky, pseudo-religious imagery:

And if you want a drink
Just squeeze my hand
And wine will flow into the land
And feed my lambs


And references, in self-deprecating fashion, the Tin Pan Alley-esque nature of his profession:

For I am a mirror
I can reflect the moon
I will write songs for you
I'll be your silver spoon


But then closes with more mock humility, again with a smirk:

I'm sorry I took your time
I am the poem that doesn't rhyme
Just turn back a page
I'll waste away, I'll waste away
I'll waste away, I'll waste away
I'll waste away, I'll waste away

(lyrics © 1971 Dick James Music Limited)


And thusly delivers a kind of calling card as well as a mission statement, ostensibly to close out the record but also serving notice that the John/Taupin team have arrived as songwriters, far advanced from their early efforts. And although their greatest successes were still ahead, this was very true.

This message is delivered by Elton on piano, with a measured, calm-after-the-storm feel and with the full Buckmaster Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying him; appropriate since Elton would never again make use of Buckmaster's talents as extensively as he did on this album. Desiring to streamline and simplify, he cut out the ponderous strings on his next album, Honky Chateau.

Here's the song on YouTube:





And with this, the Solar Prestige a Gammon blog is concluded. I've pretty much made it through every Elton song that I consider of consequence in the 1969-1977 period; I have omitted some non-cover live tracks and a couple of Rare Masters demos that EJ recorded that were released by other people but not by Elton himself. I've had a small but steady readership, and a lot of great feedback and comments, and for that I'm thankful. It's been fun revisiting most of these songs (most of which I'd probably listen to fairly often anyway!) but listening harder, trying to glean some insight into them. It's a testament to the stylistic and lyric diversity of the John/Taupin team's body of work that it could provide enough grist for me to be able to write somewhat intelligently about it.

Anyway, thanks again to everyone who's been reading, even those who keep clicking on the link to the John Brown painting in the "Burn Down the Mission" entry, thus driving up my visitor stats. I don't know if I'll do any more dedicated music blogs, but you never know. Until then, don't forget the Johnny Bacardi Show and the Johnny Bacardi LiveJournal Show, still my primary outlets, and by all means if you so desire, continue to leave comments; I'll be notified and will respond when necessary.

From all of me to all of you, goodbye.

Curtains

Captain Fantastic's closing track doesn't exactly conform to the unwritten rule of concept records, that of a grand statement to provide contrast and clarification, not to mention closure, to the other songs in the album.

It's a slow-building track, which seems to be constantly working up to the Grand Statement about Their Career to that Point one expects, but Taupin undermines this by instead providing a backward-looking rumination on his childhood and his first songwriting efforts, culminating in this verse:

But that's okay
There's treasure children always seek to find
And just like us
You must have had
A once upon a time


...and if there's supposed to be some sort of summation or observation about where they stood in 1969, on the cusp of stardom, I'll be darned if I can see it.

Elton seems to be striving for a "Hey Jude" approach, with each verse accompanied by instrumentation that's similar in nature to their "Lucy in the Sky" cover, and eventually punctuated by chorus "whoa-oh-ohs" following directly after the verses are done. Then, in what surely seems to be a move to get lighters and hands swaying to the concert audiences to come, the chorus singers take over as Olsson's staccato drum fills and Johnstone's guitar/Elton's piano riffs play, Elton sings a line over and over again in a falsetto voice (which defies my best efforts to make out exactly what he's saying- sounds like "love to love again" or something like that), all building to...not much, really. The song plods on to its extanded fade conclusion, and Captain Fantastic is done. The lyrics are vague, the message is therefore muddled, and the music builds up to a cathartic moment that never really comes.

It's a lovely melody, but I don't think it achieves what it sets out to do. Others, I'm sure, will disagree.


Lyrics/sample

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Just Like Strange Rain

The breezy, blues-rocking "Strange Rain" was the B-side of Elton's third solo single, "It's Me That You Need", from 1969.

It's another searching-for-a-signature-sound attempt, again sounding a lot like Joe Cocker, Baldry or Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac; i.e., the British Blues Boom sound. As such, it's a success if a bit slight; Caleb Quaye's stinging guitar stands out, as well as Elton's fey Empty Sky-style vocal delivery.

Insofar as the subject matter goes, Taupin's lyrics are trying to emulate the Lysergic-tinged wordsmithing of the late 60's with its mention of colors and rainbows and "strange rain washing his thoughts away". In the Rare Masters booklet notes, he admits as much: "...very much an acid piece, we were trying to be part of the times. I think it was probably influenced by people like Traffic."



Lyrics/sample

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Seasons

A lyrically spare ode to young love, tricked out with the full Buckmaster Philharmonic treatment.

The first two and a half minutes are instrumental; strings and oboe predominant; the next minute-twenty five is Elton on piano crooning Bernie's almost sonnet-like lyric, a pledge of love and devotion that ends with the film's concept and title repeated twice. Just the thing for a movie soundtrack song.

It's a very lovely track, all things considered.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Honky Chateau opens up with the Honky Cat, ready to leave the hicks from the sticks in his rear view mirror and make his mark in the big city, specifically New York. And on this, the album's penultimate track, he finds that having made that mark it's not all it's cracked up to be, and disillusionment has set in. The Cat has seen the casual hardheartedness that exists in certain circles, and sums his experience up thusly:

Subway's no way for a good man to go down
Rich man can ride and the hobo he can drown
And I thank the Lord for the people I have found
I thank the Lord for the people I have found


But he's not entirely soured upon the experience, taking pains to inform that there are some good people...just not enough of them. Feeling discontent, he decides

This Broadway's got
It's got a lot of songs to sing
If I knew the tunes I might join in
I'll go my way alone
Grow my own, my own seeds shall be sown in New York City


Taupin has often admitted to a love/hate relationship with New York City many times, and this is an eloquent summing-up circa 1972.

Music is Elton on piano plus chiming mandolin by Johnstone and understated percussion by Olsson. As befits the subject matter, it's given a melancholy melody, one that's quite catchy and creates an air of reflection, almost a calm-after-the-storm feel. I suppose that it doesn't close the album (which would seem most fitting, given its bookend status with "Honky Cat") because of this downbeat feel; it would seem that John wanted to finish on an upbeat note, hence the upbeat, somewhat silly doo-woppish finale of "Hercules".

Elton and Bernie updated/revisited this track several years later, in the late 80's, on his Reg Strikes Back album; I've only heard a couple of excerpts, and a look at the lyrics reveals a too-broad, almost crass update, set to a blaring typical 80's Big Production Sound...a disappointment typical of Elton's output in that decade. The Indigo Girls did a decent live cover that appeared on their Rarities album.


Lyrics/sample

Friday, May 23, 2008

One Horse Town

Ushered in by the sudden return of James Newton Howard's bombastic orchestral arrangement, which almost makes it seem like an extension of the album opener "Tonight", "One Horse Town" is an equally abrupt departure from the dominant Blue Moves psychodrama in its depiction of a dissatisfied young man who lives in a rural community and yearns to escape to the bright lights of the big city.

And that link is quite remarkable in its own right; it's a swaggering cock-rock electric guitar riff, accompanied by dissonant keyboard sounds (or perhaps percussion) that reminds me of someone striking a soda pop bottle with a drumstick, and the strings swirl and eddy around this in the background. Then, abruptly, the tempo increases, the strings become more prominent as the guitar steps back into rhythm mode, and we're off with the song proper as Elton steps up, spitting out the lyrics.

It's an odd vocal performance; Elton sometimes struggles to keep up with the headlong rushing tempo, and in doing so alternates between lower register asides and falsetto passages...along with his notorious penchant for weird pronunciation quirkiness that comes to the fore as he sings about the old folks on the porch and how "they'll peeek (pick)...ahwl noyt..."

In Taupin's lyrics, there's a bit of casual condescension directed at the local yokels of this "Alabama mud-bed town", but this is Bernie writing in character with a smile rather than a scowl so it's easy to look past it. For example:

Saw a Cadillac for the first time yesterday
I'd always seen horses, buggies, bales of hay
'Cause progress here don't move with modern times
There's nothing to steal
So there's not a great deal of crime


As far as the rest of the arrangements go, it at least rocks out a bit but the bells and vibes and busy strings kinda work against it insofar as the subject matter goes; it would have been a wonderful country-rock Tumbleweed Connection or Madman Across the Water-era track, but it sounds a little off on the more urbane and polished pre-Disco Blue Moves. Still, I like this track and this album could have used a few more of these.

Lyrics/sample

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Grey Seal

"Grey Seal" is one of a select few Elton songs which exist in two released versions. Originally written in 1969, and issued as the flip side of his "Rock and Roll Madonna" single in January of 1970, lyrically it's very much in the anti-Higher Education (a la Roger Waters' "Another Brick in the Wall" years later), anti-authoritarian, vaguely sci-fi mode that Taupin seemed to find himself in in those early days (a la Empty Sky's "Hymn 2000"), with lines like these:

On the big screen they showed us a sun
But not as bright in life as the real one
It's never quite the same as the real one


and

I never learned why meteors were formed
I only farmed in schools that were so worn and torn


All very yearning and searching for meaning and truth in that late-60's early 70's youth-must-be-served way.

Musically, the original version is more restrained and conventional when compared to the 1973 remake, which speeds the tempo up and takes advantage of Davey Johnstone's studio prowess as the lanky guitarist serves up soul-brother wah-wah guitars and jazzy flourishes in the breaks between verses. Elton plays frantic triplets ("Pinball Wizard" style) on a regular piano instead of the somewhat dinky-sounding electric piano of the original. The first version's ending is somewhat different; Elton sings scatted vocals over strings and vibes and the song works towards a faded-out conclusion, but the remake features the whole band vamping towards a frenetic finish, with minimal string accompaniment.

Don't know why they chose to redo it and add it to the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album; maybe they felt like they needed another track to pad the running time, who knows. I haven't read anything about it one way or the other. The new version is, I think, an improvement but the song itself, in either rendition, just isn't that strong.

Lyrics and samples of both versions