Monday, December 31, 2007

I've Been Loving You

From March of 1968, the very first single to come out in the U.K. under the Elton John name, with lyrics (according to the liner notes of Rare Masters) by Elton, not Bernie and produced by Caleb Quaye. Sadly, it did not chart.

After a somewhat tentative staggered tempo piano intro, this lurches into the same type of radio-friendly bubblegum pop that the likes of the Grass Roots, Ohio Express, and the Archies would have been right at home with. Although the lyric content is a bit contradictory in its message for bubblegum, it has a decent hook and is quite catchy, and while I'm certainly no expert on what the British pop listeners were buying in enough numbers to get songs on the charts, I can only surmise that unfamiliarity with the artist was the only reason that it didn't get sufficient airplay.

Not the most auspicious of debuts, but a fine song nonetheless.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Philadelphia Freedom

The Philadelphia Freedoms were one of the charter members of the World Team Tennis League, a league founded to provide team-oriented professional tennis in the USA. One of its most notable players in the early years was Billie Jean King, who ended up serving several years as commissioner after she retired as a player. One of her friends was Elton, and it was for her that he and Bernie composed this song.

Recorded late in 1974, released in February of 1975 and curiously credited to "The Elton John Band" on the picture sleeve, it was a romping, stomping Philly soul track, complete with Gamble and Huff-style strings, and augmented by some abrasive guitar licks from Davey just to keep them honest. The Muscle Shoals Horns are also somewhere in the mix. It was yet another Elton cut that presaged the Disco music phenomenon that the Bee Gees and Chic took even further a year or two later. It is also a valentine to the USA from Bernie, who eventually came to live over here, as did Elton.

Of course, it wouldn't be Bernie without some sort of "Say what now" lyric, and the line about how the "...Whippoorwill of Freedom zapped me right between the eyes" serves very well in this case. But the chorus is an excellent piece of writing, especially if one is inclined to wax patriotic.

Even though I wasn't particularly crazy about this song as a teenager, and never was much for Disco music either in general, over the years this one has really grown on me and I never mind hearing it on the radio or on compliation albums.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Teacher I Need You

One quarter doowop, one quarter show tune, one quarter Chuck Berry, and one quarter Elton-pop, "Teacher" is Bernie's take on the age-old trope of the student that's in unrequited lust with his teacher- Van Halen took it to the bank eleven years later with "Hot for Teacher".

Prominent in the arrangement are Elton's cascading piano triplets, in tandem with the Davey/Dee/Nigel/EJ backing vocals whoa-oh-oh-ohing throughout, accompanied by subdued Mellotron, set to sound like horns and strings. I like they way they're recorded, with a spacey, echoing sound a la Spector.

As I recall, this was one of my favorite tracks when I first acquired Don't Shoot Me oh so long ago. It's not so much anymore, but it's still a fine track with a memorable melody.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Rocket Man (I Think It's Gonna Be a Long Long Time)

It's difficult to regard what is arguably Elton's most popular and well-known hit without acknowledging David Bowie's 1969 hit "Space Oddity", of which this seems to be a prequel, and Bernie's avowed inspiration, Ray Bradbury's short story "The Rocket Man", one of the tales included in his The Illustrated Man. I don't know how much Bowie's song was on their minds when they conceived this, but I'd be surprised if it wasn't there.

Lyrically, it's fairly simple, without a lot of the alienation-themed baggage of Bowie's song- an astronaut has mixed feelings about his job and how it affects his wife and children. Taupin comes up with some nicely evocative lines which get this across efficiently.

Instrumentation is pretty much the standard Davey/Dee/Nigel era band, with their excellent harmony on the backing vocals, and augmented by David Hentschel on synths. It's taken at a midtempo ballad style. One of the most effective parts of the song, at least to me, is towards the end when Taupin gets reflective with the lines "And all this science I don't understand/It's just my job five days a week/A rocket man...", Elton pauses for a beat after the word "science", while Hentschel plays a countermelody on the synth, eventually playing longer, more sustained notes to match Elton's held out words as he sings "A rocket- maaan". It's just a small moment, but it makes the astronaut's dilemma all the more poignant and sets up the chorus repetition on the fadeout.

Released in April 1972 in advance of Honky Chateau, "Rocket Man", surprisingly, wasn't a #1 hit- it went to #2 in the U.K. and #6 in the USA. But it's certainly had a long life afterwards, appearing in tons of films and television shows. And who can forget William Shatner's legendary version?

Sweet Painted Lady

We've established this much by now: Bernie was disapproving of whores, or at least he was in the lyrics he wrote. So naturally, anytime a prostitute or prostitution is the subject of one of his songs, you know you'll get lyrics like this:

Oh sweet painted lady
Seems it's always been the same
Getting paid for being laid
Guess that's the name of the game


But really, when you look at the words objectively, there's a romanticism and sentimentality that's missing from, say "Island Girl" or "You're So Static", and that gets this one across. It's written from the point of view of a sailor on shore leave, who is apparently ruminating on the ladies of the evening he and his mates avail themselves of while off the ship.

It helps that Elton crafted a lovely melody for the tune, with accordions gently swaying in the background, a somewhat bawdy-sounding trombone punctuating many of the lines, and of course his 3 AM honky-tonk-style piano carrying the rest.

In keeping with the not-specifically-stated but present nonetheless 30's-40's Hollywood movie feel of many of Yellow Brick Road's tracks, this one does conjure up a hundred and one shore-leave type B-movies of those years, and maybe Bing Crosby or Dean Martin might have been a suitable choice to sing it. At least in my mind, anyway...

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Ho, Ho, Ho (Who'd Be a Turkey at Christmas)

If you thought "Step into Christmas" was slight...well, you should get a load of its B-side; it makes "Step" seem like "Rocket Man" in comparison.

Recorded at the same November 1973 sessions as "Step", and probably after many pints (among other substances) had been consumed, it's a very loose performance featuring silly lyrics that tell the story of a brandy-fueled encounter with Santa Claus, described as the "Bearded Weirdie":

On my roof there's snorting sounds, and bells inside my head
My vision's blurred with colour, and all he sees is red
There's a pair of large sized wellies coming down my flue
And the smell of burning rubber, oh is filling up the room


All sung in speeded-up and slowed-down voices, something like the fan club-only holiday songs the Beatles and especially John Lennon used to cook up. It's set to a lockstep "Bennie and the Jets" type tempo, and was probably a gas to record. To listen to, not so much, although it is hard not to smile once in a while at how goofy they're all being and how much fun they seem to be having.

Guess he got the urge to do holiday recordings out of his system with this and its A-side partner, because to my knowledge Elton never attempted to do another Christmas song, at least during his "classic" years.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Step into Christmas

At some point in their career, just about every performer of any consequence at all gets around to doing some sort of Christmas song and/or album, and this was Elton and Bernie's stab at writing a perennial. Didn't quite happen, but this isn't completely without merit.

It opens up with the standard Phil Spector Wall of Sound treatment- acoustic guitars strum, castanets and other percussion accentuate the beat, and everything sounds like it was recorded in a large, echo-laden hall. The beat is kept lively, and it boogies along agreeably, but Elton's melody is not the most memorable he's ever written even though the chorus is quite catchy, through repetition if nothing else- in fact, that's my biggest problem with this cut: it's about two minutes too long, and Elton & Co. simply sing and sing and sing the chorus over and over as if they have run out of song but don't know when to end it. Some judicious editing might have helped, is all I'm saying. He must have had some trouble with the key; Dudgeon speeds his voice up quite noticeably.

Lyrically, it's basically a thank-you to his fans, as it comes out of arguably his most successful period, late 1973, as well as an invitation to all listeners to indulge themselves in holiday revelry in front of their stereo speakers. I doubt Taupin spent much time on the words.

And say, since it's Christmas Eve, how about a little gift: here's a link to the promotional video clip they made for the single, in which the classic band, along with Bernie, mugs mercilessly for almost five minutes. Enjoy, and happy holidays to all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The King Must Die

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines the word "ostler" thusly:

Main Entry: hos·tler
Variant(s): also os·tler
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, innkeeper, hostler, from Anglo-French hosteler, from hostel
Date: 14th century

1: one who takes care of horses or mules
2: one who moves locomotives in and out of a roundhouse; also : one who services locomotives


I cite this because when I reflect on this, Elton John's closing track, I remember looking the word up in the dictionary because I had never heard of it before. How about that- pop music as educational tool! It also shows how hard Bernie must have hit the ol' thesaurus in those days, trying to find a) alternate ways of phrasing things; and b) a voice with which to express himself. Fortunately, he decided fairly early on that the pretentious road was not the one for him, and he managed to mostly avoid it for the rest of his writing career. I also have to wonder how much an influence Progressive Rock was on him at this time; the lyrics for this song strike me as perhaps an earnest, but clumsy, attempt to simulate the inspired wordplay of King Crimson's Peter Sinfield, via such efforts as "Epitaph". Elton had tried out for the slot of lead vocalist of the post-Greg Lake incarnation of Crimson; perhaps some other cross-pollination occurred, assuming Bernie was around and acquainted with the KC lyricist. Who knows.

"King"'s actual subject matter is not very clear; music press speculation at the time posited that it was an attack on Richard Nixon, but Bernie shot that theory down. It seems to be a meditation on being made humble by self-awareness or external forces, perhaps aimed at any number of targets: self, politicians, hard to say.

Elton sings this all in oh-so-serious serious fashion, playing piano backed with Paul Buckmaster strings and horns. The arrangement works, but flirts with self-parody and it's telling that the Elton/Bernie team pretty much abandoned this approach within the next couple of years.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Island Girl

In these would-be enlightened times, it's pretty common to see any mention of race in popular music or films or anything being decried as racist, as if mere acknowledgment deserves condemnation. The racist charge has often been levied against this, the first single from Rock of the Westies, but honestly I don't see it. If Bernie's guilty of anything, it's a slight air of condescension in the tone of his appraisal of the Jamaican prostitute whom he feels could and should be doing better things with her life, and the boyfriend she left behind who tells us all about her.

Elton affects a faux Jamaican accent as he sings, and combined with Bernie's attempts to imitate the patois, that practically guarantees that this will always remain on those "frequently misheard lyrics" lists that pop up here and there. The accompaniment mostly consists of James Newton Howard playing a lot of synths, some set to approximate steel drums, and the rhythm section of the post-Dee/Nigel band. Even though it was quite atypical for radio at the time, it's very catchy and wound up being a huge hit, despite its somewhat risque lyrical content.

Friday, December 21, 2007

All Across the Havens

"All Across the Havens" was the B-side of Elton's "Lady Samantha", released in January 1969.

It starts out with a twangy slide-guitar-and-piano-driven country-rock intro, which pops up again at certain intervals. The verses, though, are in a meandering, mid-tempo organ-enhanced Procol Harum mode.

Bernie's lyrics find him learning just how pretentious he could be and get away with it; while there are several self-consciously arty passages overall they're not bad. What it's about, well, your guess is as good as mine- it seems to be written from the point of view of a young man who's feeling guilt about things he's done, or the way he's treated his love, or something like that, and is seeking peace and forgiveness "across the havens to the waterfall". It's pretty typical of his Empty Sky-period output.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ballad of a Well-Known Gun

Bernie's telling Old West yarns again on this, Tumbleweed Connection's lead cut. The singer is a gunfighter who is wanted by the law- for what, it isn't specified although a "starving family" is mentioned in the chorus- and gets busted by the Pinkertons as he gets off a stagecoach. Apparently tired of being on the lam, he resigns himself to his fate.

Musicwise, Elton sets this in the default Tumbleweed Band/Dylan country-rock style, with chickenscratch guitar licks leading off and cowbell providing percussion throughout. This track is also another example of the really nice backing vocals he had on his early albums, featuring some of the best session singers of the day- and the back-and-forth between Elton and them as they repeat the chorus on the fadeout is very catchy.

I've always thought this was one of the best cuts on the album, even though lyrically it could have been sharper; lines like "I tapped my feet in dumb surprise" (say what now?) and "I couldn't have faced your desert sand/Old burning brown backed beast" (who the what the where?) kinda clunk it up a bit in my opinion, although Elton sings them convincingly.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Your Starter For...

By now, if you've been keeping up with what I've written on the subject, you know that the Blue Moves album was an album full of songs dealing with a significant amount of angst and bad feelings, recorded at a tumultuous time in the lives of both Elton and Bernie Taupin.

Often, the lead track on an album is designed to set the tone for the songs to follow. In this case, however, nothing could be further from the truth.

"Your Starter For..." is a sprightly, bouncy little one minute twenty three second instrumental ditty, dominated by the synths of James Newton Howard and written by guitarist Caleb Quaye. It couldn't be farther in tone from the morose vibe of the majority of the album's tracks.

I suppose it was felt that some lightening of mood was needed, considering the next, and first full-length cut, was the morose "Tonight"- which will be covered soon.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Sugar on the Floor

Elton gets his Ray Charles on in this soulful piano ballad, recorded during the Rock of the Westies sessions at Caribou Ranch and eventually released as the B-side of "Island Girl" in both the US and UK.

Although its unfulfilled-relationship lyric content would seem like a Taupin warm-up for the angst of Blue Moves, it's actually credited to Elton's '75-'76 cohort Kiki Dee. Accompaniment is primarily John on piano, and Davey Johnstone contributes a Harrison-esque slide guitar solo in the middle.

Roy Rogers

Nostalgia and appreciation for the simple creature comforts of life are the foundation of "Roy Rogers", and it manages to simultaneously celebrate not only old Hollywood, specifically the Cowboy movies starring not only the titular star but Tom Mix and John Wayne (among many others), but also the act of enjoyment of same via lyrics like these:

You draw to the curtain and one thing's for certain
You're cozy in your little room
The carpet's all paid for, God bless the TV
Let's go shoot a hole in the moon


And of course, the chorus:

And Roy Rogers is riding tonight
Returning to our silver screens
Comic book characters never grow old
Evergreen heroes whose stories were told
Oh the great sequin cowboy who sings of the plains
Of roundups and rustlers and home on the range
Turn on the T.V., shut out the lights
Roy Rogers is riding tonight


To the Brown Dirt Cowboy, I'm sure that such films were a definite refuge from the realities of his younger days, as well as the pressures of his later life. It's a nicely written tribute/reminisce, and shows that he can be likable when he wants to be.

Elton helps make it work by casting it in a leisurely tempo, with (unsurprisingly) country-ish accompaniment (with the requisite sobbing steel guitar, by Davey Johnstone- interesting that no studio musicians such as Madman's B.J. Cole were called upon, signs of how comfortable John was with his band by this point) straight outta Tumbleweed Connection. Del Newman turns in another evocative orchestral arrangement.

Producer Gus Dudgeon chips in at the very end, adding hoofbeats fading off into the distance as the faint beginnings of the banjo intro of the next cut "Social Disease" begin. I'll get to that one at some point in the future. It's a nice segue.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Skyline Pigeon

This stately, inspirational track once again revisits the overriding theme of the Sky album, which is of course freedom and escape from restriction, oppression, and in the case of this lyric:

For this dark and lonely room
Projects a shadow cast in gloom
And my eyes are mirrors
Of the world outside
Thinking of the way
That the wind can turn the tide
And these shadows turn
From purple into grey


...boredom, perhaps.

As with GYBR's "Grey Seal", it was released in two different versions. The first, on Empty Sky, is performed solely by Elton on harpsichord, which makes it sound like some sort of processional. In 1972 it was decided to revisit the track, and it was recorded this time during the sessions for Don't Shoot Me (at the same session which begat "Crocodile Rock", "Elderberry Wine" and "Daniel") with full guitar/bass/drums band accompaniment, making it seem a little less baroque but no less hymnlike. This version didn't make it onto the Piano Player album, however, instead emerging as the b-side of "Daniel" in January 1973.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Screw You (Young Man's Blues)

As you can probably infer from the title, this is no "Your Song".

It's an angry-young-man lament, with the singer detailing the hard knocks he's had to endure, and expressing determination to succeed no matter what.

It's given a potpourri-type arrangement, starting out with a Byrds/Beatles 12-string style guitar-driven intro, mid-tempo with just a hint of feedback at the beginning- then it shifts to staccato guitar licks on the choruses. It's got a trademark mid-70's Beatle-harmonies-style middle section, and rocks out with keening sax as the song fades out in the last 2 minutes or so.

Relegated to the B-side of the "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" single and recorded sometime between the sessions for Don't Shoot Me and GYBR, it could have possibly been a good fit on the latter, and certainly would have perked up the first side of the former.

When it was released it was retitled "Young Man's Blues" to avoid controversy over the title.

Monday, December 3, 2007

If There's a God in Heaven (What's He Waiting For?)

In which millionaires Bernie and Elton decry the terrible state of the world in which we live, one in which they see

Torn from their families
Mothers go hungry
To feed their children
But children go hungry


and declare:

There's so many big men
They're out making millions
When poverty's profits
Just blame the children


This bit of myopia aside, Bernie's heart is in the right place, I think, and his outrage is certainly justified. He asks a tough question in the chorus:

If there's a God in Heaven
What's he waiting for
If He can't hear the children
Then he must see the war
But it seems to me
That he leads his lambs
To the slaughter house
And not the promised land


As Pop Philosophy goes, I've certainly read worse.

Elton sets this lament in a vaguely funky R&B-style setting, with slinky quasi-oriental strings in the instrumental bridge. While the acidic tone and the generally upbeat accompaniment would seem to work against each other, to my ears the blend quite well and this is a cut I've always liked from side 4.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Gotta Get a Meal Ticket

Of course, it was vital for Bernie & Elton to find someone to purchase and publish their songs in their early days, and this track details that desire, and the lengths they would go to to obtain it.

It's the hardest-rocking song on the soundtrack; while it's produced to within an inch of its life, with every rough edge sanded off, it still does work up an admirable head of steam. Johnstone's six-note riff is memorable, and his guitar work throughout is top notch.

I don't think it's exactly one of Elton's best, nor do I think it's a particularly memorable cut in regards to the John catalogue- but it does rock out agreeably, accomplishes what it sets out to do, and on the rare occasions when I give it a listen, I do find myself nodding along with it.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Michelle's Song

The plot of Friends sounds an awful lot like that of later big-screen teen romances such as The Blue Lagoon and Sahara, in which neglected/abandoned/lost adolescent boys and girls come together amidst great difficulty, persevere, and find love. The titular "Michelle", then, is the Brooke Shields/Phoebe Cates half of the equation, played by Anicée Alvina, and no young gamine of the screen ever had a sweeter pop song dedicated to her than this.

Bernie has crafted an unabashedly starry-eyed love song, with this as the chorus:

So take my hand in your hand
Say it's great to be alive
No one's going to find us
No matter how they try
No one's going to find us
It's wonderful so wild beneath the sky


The sentiment and feel is similar to the duo's other notable valentine, "Your Song", and the Paul Buckmaster/Elton team dress it up with a melody in the verses that sounds similar to, but different from, the old traditional "Wild Mountain Thyme". The chorus reminds me a little of the "Bring your family down..." section of "Burn Down the Mission", of all things. Of course, they are skilled at this sort of reshuffling, so the total effect is very romantic, with Buckmaster's oboe piping along in the background with the surging strings, and of course Elton's piano and the rolling drums sound that was a feature of many of the songs from his early 70's period.

The title song, probably for commercial reasons, was the single and was a minor hit; for my part I think this would have made a strong follow-up and if not for the box office failure of the film, who knows, it might have seen release. For my part, I think it's probably the best cut on the album.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dirty Little Girl

The roll-and-tumble, stop-and-start rhythm of this track seems to simulate the gait of the title subject, a definitely untidy (in a lot of ways, apparently) young lady and the target of Bernie's scorn.

Lyrically not one of Bernie's finest moments; he sounds alternately mean-spirited and condescending in verses like this:

When I watch the police come by and move you on
Well I sometimes wonder what's beneath the mess you've become
Well you may have been a pioneer in the trade of women's wear
But all you got was a mop up job washing other people's stairs


Unsurprisingly, this tune was often used as an example when sexist accusations were levied against him. He has a nasty, scolding tone throughout, as the chorus makes evident:

I'm gonna tell the world, you're a dirty little girl
Someone grab that bitch by the ears
Rub her down scrub her back
And turn her inside out
'Cause I bet she hasn't had a bath in years


It remains an interesting track mostly because of the musical accompaniment; Johnstone plays a lot of string-bending notes on the low end of the neck, and the bridge leading up to the outro in particular has a wonderful blend of horns, vocal and guitar.

This one's never been a favorite of mine; can't really say why because while I deplore Taupin's tone, I'm not especially offended. One reason could be because of the jacket illustration, a colored-pencil drawing which depicts a slovenly, disheveled young girl, wearing a soiled slip and curlers in her hair, holding a cigarette and licking her lips at the viewer. It's not a bad drawing at all, far from it- in fact, I have a deep love for album package design that features illustrations for individual songs on the lyric sleeve and/or jacket; others that come to mind are Traffic's When the Eagle Flies and Ringo Starr's Ringo- but the image is as unpleasant as the song is supposed to be, and that made a negative impression on impressionable young me.

Also, in my mind, this song is part of a set with Caribou's "Stinker"- they both share a thematic similarity.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ticking

In which a pampered momma's boy goes mental and kills a bunch of people in a Queens bar, and is shot dead by police when he does finally emerge.

Not exactly "Your Song", is it?

It's an atypically long track, for the Caribou album anyway, and instrumentation is only Elton on piano and vocal, along with Dave Hentschel on synths. It's 2:13 longer than the next longest track, "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"- and I say that not to appease the number crunchers but to point out how (despite the potential for monotony) engaging the track is, carried by Elton's deft vocal and the band's harmonies. The subject matter is a bit lurid, almost screaming "RIPPED FROM TODAY'S HEADLINES!!!"- perhaps Bernie had read a newspaper account of a similar incident- but we do get our dramatics administered with an even hand, and that helps. We get sympathy for the perp, sympathy for the victims, but maybe not so much for the police, who gun him down even though he gives up.

This track was a bit of a stretch for Elton & Co., I can't recall another instance, until much later with John Lennon's death, when he and Bernie would be this topical again.

Lady Samantha

Elton's second solo single, released one day after my ninth birthday, is a schizo composition indeed: verses echo Procol Harum's stately organ-and-Hendrix guitar mix, and choruses evoke Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde period. The melodies of both, and they are different, are strong.

Bernie's lyrics describe a woman who may or may not be a witch or some other sort of supernatural creature, or so the people of the town say. The singer of the song hedges his bets at the end by telling us

The tales that I told round the fire every night
Are out of proportion and none of them right
She is harmless and empty of anything bad
For she once had something that most of you have


what that "something" is- love, honor, beauty- isn't specified.

An ambiguous lyric married to a uneven composition, and sung by an unknown artist, is rarely a recipe for chart success- and sure enough, this one didn't chart in either country.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Someone's Final Song

The apotheosis of the morose Blue Moves album- a suicide note, set to music. I don't even want to speculate on what Bernie was thinking when he wrote this one. If it had been sequenced at the end of the LP, it might have been too much, and I think Elton & Co. might have understood that because on the original vinyl it appears at the end of side three of the four-side set, diluting its impact.

Not that it could really bear a lot of dilution; it doesn't have an especially memorable melody although it is nicely sung by Elton and a group of all-star backing vocalists, including Toni Tenille again and Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. Their harmonies are especially nice on the line "This home is not the home it used to be". Accompaniment is spare, featuring only Elton on piano and James Newton Howard on Synths and electric piano.

Not the worst track on this album, despite the glum subject matter, but it's not quite one which compels me to listen again very often and is easily tuned out when playing the side of the LP or CD.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One Day (at a Time)

This John Lennon composition was the B-side to the "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" single of 1974, and was another byproduct of the burst of recording that the Elton/Lennon friendship from that time inspired.

Lennon's version appeared on his 1973 release Mind Games, which, to be honest, wasn't exactly his finest solo effort- although there were a few outstanding tracks, such as the title cut. But the combination of 1972's landslide defeat of presidential candidate George McGovern, the desire to distance himself from some of the politically radical friends he'd acquired and the subsequent harassment at the hands of the Nixon administration complete with the threat of losing his visa, and the unraveling of his relationship with Yoko Ono seemed to have left him deeply uninspired- and the singsongy melody and greeting card-worthy lyrics of this track, yet another paean to Yoko Ono, serves as ultimate proof of that.

Out of all the candidates, why Elton chose this one to cover is a mystery to me, but he gamely gives it a go; where the original had a shuffling, lackadaisical rhythm, he speeds it up ever-so-slightly and has Johnstone contribute some guitar licks in place of the somewhat off-key ooo-oohs of Lennon's. Lennon himself is supposed to be contributing guitar and BVs, according to the Rare Masters liner notes, but if he is he's buried in the mix.

Even though it hangs together better as a song here, it can't disguise the fact that it's every bit as precious and twee as a typical 70's Paul McCartney composition, an irony which must have escaped Lennon but not many of his fans or critics.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Metapost III

So...I won the eBay auction and got my copy of the 2-disc set of Elton's Rare Masters!

But!

The copy arrived Friday, and while the case and discs were in good shape, there was no booklet inside. Of course, there was no mention of this being missing in the auction description- if I had known, I wouldn't have bid on it. The seller, when I sent him an email, said that there wasn't one. Wishing to take the high road, I didn't call him names for not mentioning it in said description, but this still leaves me with no book.

I really wanted it to use for reference when writing the songs on those CDs. I'm wondering- do any of you out there reading this own it (well, I know one person), and would you be able to scan/create a PDF, or copy it, and email or snail mail it to me?

If you snail mail it, I could reimburse your postage.

If nobody can, well, I'll soldier on. But let this be a lesson to you, children, about buying from people on eBay. This is the second time I've been burned buying second hand CDs there.

Oh, and while I'm being all Meta (and I wish I could think of a better name for these posts), may I draw your attention to the Amazon.com box on the right side of the page- if for whatever reason you read something I've written, and get curious about it and think you might want to purchase it, you can click through using the box and buy it, and I'll get a little credit from Amazon! And maybe even buy my OWN, BRAND NEW copy of Rare Masters! Give a little Elton for the holidays, wot say?

Have Mercy on the Criminal

Even though it was John's avowed intent to get away from the ponderous orchestrations of Madman Across the Water, this resolve only lasted one album as Paul Buckmaster was invited back to score two cuts on Don't Shoot Me. This one's the less subtle of the two, its arrangement hearkening back to such previous efforts as "Indian Sunset" and Madman's title track.

Which is certainly not mean as a criticism on my part; I've always liked Buckmaster's work for not only Elton, but Nilsson, Carly Simon, and others. And this arrangement is certainly as dramatic and cinematic as the subject matter would suggest.

Taupin seems to be making a plea for tolerance by asking the listener to identify with an escaped fugitive; there are also echoes of another frequent theme in his Classic Era catalogue, that of escape from oppression via flight in different senses of the word. I think he's telling a story here; I don't believe he's really writing from any sort of personal point of view, except the part of him that believes in tolerance and forgiveness.

The arrangement is orchestral-driven all the way, with Elton, Johnstone, Murray and Olsson up top in the mix. Elton, professional that he is by that time, delivers another impassioned vocal, as the subject matter calls for.

It's never been one of the more higher-profile tracks from this album; while it boasts a good melody and performance, it does come across as a bit plodding and dull, at least to my ears.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

This track is essentially a continuation of the themes set forth via Honky Chateau's bookend cuts "Honky Cat" and "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" (Yeah, I know, "Hercules" ends the album but thematically these bookend the album): Naive country boy hits the big city and finds that it's not all it's cracked up to be; all that glitters is not gold, etc., etc. In this one, he decides once and for all to go back to those days and his redneck ways.

Of course, the Honky Cat gets to deliver some barbs before he departs, and I like this one in particular:

What do you think you'll do then
I bet that'll shoot down your plane
It'll take you a couple of vodka and tonics
To set you on your feet again


...especially the way Elton sings it as "vodker and tonics".

Del Newman, the de facto string arranger on Road, really shines on this track, providing a lush orchestral arrangement which Elton's piano sits astride. Those wonderful EJ Band harmonies also represent.

"Road" was a top 10 single in the US and UK, reaching #2 in the States.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Mellow

A meandering ode to the joys of connubial bliss and life's little relaxing moments, which were probably on the minds of both men (well, Bernie's anyway) as Elton's career ramped up into overdrive.

Accompaniment is mostly barrelhouse, mildly funky Toussaint-style piano, augmented by the swooping electric violin of Jean-Luc Ponty, and of course Elton doing Leon Russell once more on vocals.

It's not a bad track by any means, but it doesn't exactly make a big impression either; perhaps, given the subject matter, that's appropriate. It's a humble little tune.

Don't forget the beer my little dear
It helps to sow the mellow seed

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Cage

Six years before Warren Zevon, here's Elton "A-hoo"-ing in between verses in this rattletrap rocker, and Bernie provides another lyric (probably inspired by the lean years not too distant) about general feelings of powerlessness and imprisonment rather than any specific event.

As congas, wah-wah guitar, soul horns, and Elton's ever-present pounding piano accompany, John spits out lines like these:


Well I walk while they talk about virtue
Just raised on my back legs and snarled
Watched you kiss your old daddy with passion
And tell dirty jokes as he died


There's an odd synth break in the middle eight; while it's completely out of kilter with the rest of the sound of the song it doesn't overstay its welcome. Not quite the best song on the album, but it does serve as a bit of a palate-cleanser for the gothic profundities of the next track "The King Must Die".

Cage the Songbird

On the lyric sleeve, this one bears the dedication "For Edith Piaf", which would suggest that this tragic tale attempts to eulogize the beloved French chanteuse in much the same fashion that "Candle in the Wind" paid tribute to Marilyn Monroe. I don't think it's that simple.

If it intends to pay homage, I would think that it could do a bit better than lines like

Sober in the morning light
Things look so much different
To how they looked last night
A pale face pressed to an unmade bed
Like flags of many nations flying high above her head


Knowing what we know now about Elton and his excesses during this time frame, I have a feeling Bernie might just be making a wry observation about his musical partner.

Regardless, there are some very nice lines to be found here, not the least of which is the chorus:

And you can cage the songbird
But you can't make her sing
And you can trap the free bird
But you'll have to clip her wings
`Cause she'll soar like a hawk when she flies
But she'll dive like an eagle when she dies


Maybe it attempts to castigate and celebrate at the same time, but I don't think so.

Musically, it's a predominantly acoustic arrangement, with Quaye and Johnstone playing precise figures and James Newton Howard providing flute-like synths. Graham Nash and David Crosby join in on backing vocals, and are used to great effect on the chorus- the syncopated, slashing guitar and vocal on the penultimate line gives way to soaring harmonies on the last, the likes of which only the battle-tested voices of C and N can provide.

This really is a lovely song- in fact, I think it's one of the best on Blue Moves- and the tale it tells is quite sad. But I can't help but feel it's delivered with an arched eyebrow and tongue in cheek.

Crystal Gayle certainly took it at face value in 1983, ignoring whatever inherent ironies there might be and not only covering the tune but also naming the album after it. It went to #5 on the country charts that year.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Rock and Roll Madonna

A stutter-step chicken-scratch guitar lick, reminiscent of the one which opens Tumbleweed Connection's "Ballad of a Well-Known Gun", introduces this Summer 1970 UK single, recorded at about the same time as many of the songs which ended up on Elton John. The rest of the track sounds a lot like the Stones' "Honky Tonk Women", with crowd noise in the background, but the mix is cleaner than the standard live sound- so without the benefit of booklet notes, I have to wonder whether it was added in the studio to generate an excitement vibe, or if this really was a live recording.

Lyrically, it's a "quest" and "on the road" kind of song, with the Rock and Roll Madonna personifying the success and fame which Elton and Co. are doggedly pursuing, both on that road literally and figuratively.

The single was greeted with indifference by UK radio and didn't chart; "Your Song" was still months away. Still, it's a derivative, but not unenjoyable, rocker. Stylistically, it wouldn't have fit anywhere on John's first two post Empty Sky albums, although it might have livened Elton John up a tad.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)

One thing Elton and Co. seemed determined to do on Yellow Brick Road, if nothing else: rock out. And on this track, they succeed admirably.

Immediately after the hopped-up doo-wop style harmony vocals of "Your Sister Can't Twist" abruptly end, the three beat crack of Olsson's drum, closely followed by Davey Johnstone's instantly memorable riff gets this off to a roaring start.

Bernie's lyrics are pretty much the braggadocio of a greasy punk tough-guy who's going out to hit the streets on a Saturday night, and straight-up tells us

A couple of the sound that I really like
Are the sounds of a switchblade and a motorbike


and is looking for

...a dolly who'll see me right
I may use a little muscle to get what I need
I may sink a little drink and shout out "She's with me!"


Fortunately, the band is committed to full-on hard-rock mode and backs up the bluster that Elton gamely tries to provide, as he bellows out the lyrics, only slowing down on the chorus:

Get about as oiled as a diesel train
Gonna set this dance alight
`Cause Saturday night's the night I like
Saturday night's alright alright alright


with some group-vocal oooh-oooh-oooh-ooohs after the final "alright". After the second repeat of the chorus, they repeat the title over and over, the band playing faster the whole time, and jamming furiously until the fadeout, and it becomes a transcendent moment.

A longtime concert favorite, and understandably so- on the occasions I've seen him perform it on television, it was always a highlight of the show.

Country Comfort

In which Bernie opens up the Farmer's Almanac to give us a laundry list of the charms of the agrarian lifestyle, with lines such as these:

Now the old fat goose is flying cross the sticks
The hedgehog's done in clay between the bricks
And the rocking chair's creaking on the porch
Across the valley moves the herdsman with his torch


I remember hearing this as a teenager, and wondering who the hell would cook a hedgehog, and why, and how cooking him between bricks is possible. Perhaps "done" means sculpted or something, who knows. But I digress.

In keeping with the general vibe of the Tumbleweed album, the backing is purely Band-style rustic all the way, with Ian Duck's harmonica providing a lot of color.

Rod Stewart covered this song on his then-contemporary album Gasoline Alley; his version was very good but didn't surpass the original.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Chameleon

By-the-numbers Elton ballad, which certainly seems to point to the flagging enthusiasm of all concerned at the time.

Lyrically, it's fine- Taupin conjures up some good imagery as he tells about a chance encounter with a bygone love. Of course, the default Blue Moves assumption is that he could be writing about a real-life encounter, or perhaps reminiscing about the early days of his by-then dissolving marriage. Hard to say.

But Elton casts it in a barely-memorable melody, and while the playing and singing (Toni Tennille of The Captain and... fame is among the vocalists) are never less than accomplished, the end result is bland and generic, almost as if this was created by a computer program designed to take all of John's balladic tendencies, put them together, and compose a new song.

Even though it seems like it was designed to be the A-side of a single, it ended up as a B-side twice: on equally uninspired tracks "Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)" in the US and "Crazy Water" in the UK.

The Ballad Of Danny Bailey (1909-34)

This tale of the violent end of a young Depression-era 'shine-running gangster seems to come right out of a Warner Bros. movie of the 1930's. Bernie adopts exactly the right balance of objective and judgmental in lyrics like these:

Killed him in anger, a force he couldn't handle
Helped pull the trigger that cut short his life
And there's not many knew him the way that we did
Sure enough he was a wild one, but then aren't most hungry kids?


Also, establishing that young Danny was from Kentucky (13-year-old me though that was pretty cool) and the later mention of breaking up moonshine stills gives this a Bonnie and Clyde (and much later O Brother, Where Art Thou?) connotation as well. The final line of the chorus, "And the harvest is in", is brilliant in the images it evokes.

Elton's arrangement is no less clever: From the ominous, rumbling opening piano notes, suddenly punctuated by a snare drum shot after the lines "Some punk with a shotgun/killed young Danny Bailey"- POW!- "in cold blood..."...on through the stop-and-start of the rhythm of the body of the song (nice job by Dee Murray on bass, who stands out a bit in the mix)- finishing up with an extended piano solo on the fadeout, ushered in by more of those stellar group harmonies, as Elton plays clumps of notes against the rhythm and the soaring Newman strings until the end.

I'm not sure that Elton, Bernie and string arranger Del Newman ever were more in sync than on this overlooked gem from side three of GYBR.

Razor Face

No, it's not a song about a horror-movie boogeyman- "Razor Face" is Bernie ruminating about a homeless person whom he (or the person narrating the song, as he may just be writing in character) seems to feel affection and sympathy for. Bernie doesn't judge or condescend, and that's refreshing.

It's set in a funky/bluesy sort of arrangement by Elton, and given somewhat of a rustic feel by Jack Engblom's accordion and Rick Wakeman's organ fills, which includes some frenetic soloing as the song concludes with Elton singing "I love your Razor Face". Actually, it sounds more like "love YOU" to me, and that makes more sense- but most lyric sources say "your", so that's what I go with here. This one really bears the Band influence due to the presence of the organ/accordion combo. And on the subject of influences, Elton does a nice job throughout on vocals, slurring and hitting high notes like Leon Russell in his prime.

It's a solid track, not one of the first you think of from the Madman album but one which sounds good when you hear it- it's a bit of a decompression after the surging "Levon" and a bit of a pick-me-up before the moody title track. It was the B-side of the "Tiny Dancer" 45 in the US, which only made it to the lower reaches of the Top 40.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Metapost II

Just taking a moment to post a few things Elton- and this blog-related that have occurred to me recently:

• First, I want to thank everyone for their interest, and especially for commenting! The response so far has been outstanding, far more than I expected. I try to reply to comments when I can think of something semi-intelligent to add to the conversation, but if I don't, rest assured that I do read them and value them highly. In many cases, I can't really add anything to what you've already written.

• Also, many thanks to those who have commented and set me straight on some of my interpretations; while I wish that I could be as razor-sharp and perceptive as can be, sometimes I have a bad tendency to miss the forest for the trees so to speak, and probably need the more knowledgeable among you to function as my editors from time to time. Since this blog will probably be on the internet for long after I'm gone, I think it should be as factually accurate and correct, conclusion-wise, as possible. While I have read and heard a fair amount, I don't sit on a treasure-trove of Elton interviews and reference material, and as I've found while trying to research these songs, it seems that there is always an explanation here or a statement there in some text that could go a long way towards interpreting Bernie's often obtuse wordsmithery.

• I put a bid in today on a copy of Rare Masters on eBay; wish me luck.

• You'll probably notice that from this point on, I'll probably be writing about songs from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Blue Moves more often than other albums. The reason for this is pretty simple, actually: Road and Moves are double LPs, with at least twice as many songs as other Elton albums in the period covered. I did some tallying up the other day, and noticed that I only have four or five songs to go on many releases, but have over a dozen left to do on those records. So, and this may change if I acquire Rare Masters, you'll probably see a song from those albums alternating after a single entry from the others, at least until (if ever) I get caught up.

• I recently did acquire copies of two more recent Elton efforts, Songs From the West Coast and The Captain and the Kid, and while I reserve the right to write more in-depth about them before I'm done, in a nutshell I can say that the former is the stronger effort; "I Need Love" is a wonderfully Beatle-esque piece of pop, and "This Train (Don't Stop Here Anymore)" manages, via strong melody the likes of which hearkens back to his salad days that are the focus of this blog, to evoke sympathy for a figure that frankly needs none of it. It's heartening to hear Elton being as willing as he was to lay bare his inner feelings in a way that he never cared to do in his classic years. Other tracks don't leave quite as strong an impression, but are solid just the same with only one or two uninteresting efforts. Captain, a sequel to Captain Fantastic, attempts to update the Elton & Bernie: The Early Years concept by providing songs tangentially related to events that happened in the early-mid Seventies. The title cut starts impressively, but becomes tiresome through repetition; "And the House Fell Down" essays his drug abuse via a catchy, slow-rocking musical setting, and so on. The main problem with not only this album but West Coast as well (and probably the middle album Peachtree Road, which I still don't have) is just that the years of writing AOR, Broadway, and Disney movie schlock have blunted the edges of both men; everything here, with a few exceptions, is immaculately crafted but remarkably glib and unaffecting. I will say that I'm happy that both men care enough to continue to try, though, and while I can't say that I'll listen to these CDs a fraction as much as I have listened to, say, Rock of the Westies, I'm still pleased to own them both.

• I also recently acquired a couple of unusual Elton-related albums: It Ain't Easy and Everything Stops For Tea, two early '70s Warner Bros. Records releases by EJ mentor and Blues singer Long John Baldry. Both LPs had a novel gimmick: one side of the album was produced and played on by Elton, and one side by another Baldry disciple Rod Stewart, then in the height of his powers just before and after his marvelous efforts with the Faces and solo, sp. Long Player and Every Picture Tells a Story. While I'm afraid that Rod's tracks steal the show, Elton acquits himself nicely. Baldry covers a John/Taupin composition, "Rock Me When He's Gone" on Easy- it's a rarity that John never included on any of his official releases; and on Tea the backing musicians include Nigel Olsson and Davey Johnstone, along with Ray Cooper, who would join Elton's band in 1975. Both these records are tons of fun, especially if you like the blues and blues-rock.

• That's all I can think of for now!

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Boogie Pilgrim

"Boogie Pilgrim", well, it boogies along amiably with a soft-shoe-shuffle type rhythm and a fair-to-middling melody, featuring falsetto vocals from Elton, would-be funky backing vocals from a host of fine singers, and keening SNL-style David Sanborn sax throughout- it's as slick as baby oil, produced to distraction, professional as all get out, and at a smidge over six minutes is a complete bore. What little life there is to be had in this derivative track is completely snuffed out via layers of production gloss and supersession backing.

Lyric content is just as vapid. While there's thankfully none of the usual Moves relationship angst here, the lyrics, which seem to be about some sort of street-level drug dealer, use a whole lot of cliche phrases ("Down on the jive talk/Down on the weather") to say nothing much at all.

Perhaps if they had reined it in a couple of minutes before they did, this might have been better. At their peak, Elton and his band/lyricist/production team could sometimes make magic out of slight material. Here, the team seems to have run out of fuel.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Funeral For a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding

Nothing in the Elton catalogue pre-1973 anticipated this ambitious two-in-one track, which kicks off the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road in impressive fashion.

"Friend" is an atmospheric instrumental introduction with an involved arrangement using multiple time shifts and various textures. It opens with spooky whooshing wind and church bell sound effects, a stately ARP synth plays the melody for a few bars, then is joined by Elton, playing somber piano notes. The band enters next, accompanied by swirling ARP synthesizer strings, and plays a swaggering sort of processional for several bars before Olsson's drums crash, the tempo shifts again, Johnstone wails away on guitar, castanets accent the beat, and they proceed to rock out until shifting into reprise of the earlier processional- this with more of a lockstep rhythm. It's then back to rocking out for a few more bars.

After the furor dies down, Elton's piano remains for a few seconds, functioning as a segue before "Bleeding" begins and Johnstone and Co. crash back in. The rest of the track proceeding in a fast-tempo mode, with slashing guitar licks and those signature Beach Boys-style harmony backing vocals prominent. It's a very cinematic approach, and it must have been fun for the group to contribute to for sure.

It's a song which tells the sad story of a musician who is forced to choose between his love and his life on the road. I don't think it essays any real-life issues at the time with Bernie or Elton (Rock of the Westies and Blue Moves were still three years away), but if tensions existed with their respective partners at the time, I would think this sort of scenario wouldn't be difficult to conjure up.

Quite a opening salvo to lead off the album, and it certainly set the pace for this sprawling, eclectic LP.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Stinker

Once in a while it was incumbent upon Elton to simply rock out and show his listeners a good time, and this is one of those songs created for that purpose. More often as not, he chose a Baldry/Stones blues/rock sound for this, and ably aided by the Tower of Power horn section, that's what he gives us here.

Bernie piles on every filth-related metaphor he can squeeze out of his thesaurus, cuing the listener that he's a loveable, filthy rascal a la the characters in Don't Shoot Me's "Midnight Creeper" and Yellow Brick Road's "Social Disease".

I don't think this will ever be on anyone's short list of Elton classics, but it does rock out convincingly in a swaggering, bluesy way, and EJ can sing the line "burnin', vermin stink" as good as anybody out there...

Tower of Babel

In keeping with the "Elton/Bernie: The Early Years" concept, here we have Bernie indignantly (and self-righteously) firing bromides at the music biz types, most likely those at Dick James Music that lived high on the hog while they were scuffling, writing mindless pop hits for them, summed up in the infamous chorus:

It's party time for the guys in the tower of Babel
Sodom meet Gomorrah, Cain meet Abel
Have a ball y'all
See the letches crawl
With the call girls under the table
Watch them dig their graves
'Cause Jesus don't save the guys
In the tower of Babel


This was making both of them unhappy and frustrated, which he sums up in lyrics like these:

Junk, angel, this closet's always stacked
The dealers in the basement
Filling your prescription
For a brand new heart attack

But where were all your shoulders when we cried
Were the doctors in attendance
Saying how they felt so sick inside
Or was it just the scalpel blade that lied


The metaphors are not exactly as sharp as one would like, but they get the point across- it's plain that they were stifling under the system they were laboring in.

The Biblical connotation of the "Tower of Babel" reference makes him seem like a dour preacher on Sunday morning, railing disapprovingly at any and all sinners...but then again, I haven't walked in his shoes so who am I to judge?

The song itself is set by Elton in alternating styles; verses are cast in a slowish, resigned feel with minimal accompaniment save piano and rhythm section. The tempo accelerates slightly in the last two lines of each verse, until a fat Johnstone lick before the "Party time at..." line ushers in the jaunty, R&B style chorus.

If you don't listen too closely, this is a fine, catchy track. However, to me Bernie's bile lessens the experience when attention is paid to it.

A thousand thanks to Jim Akin for clearing up my fuzzy thought processes (see comments).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Feed Me

No, it's not a song written for the Little Shop of Horrors soundtrack.

What it is is a Steely Dan-style jazz-tinged track, the lyrics of which seem to deal with drug addiction withdrawal-induced paranoia, to wit:

Don't close the shades
I'm scared of the darkness
I'm cold as a razor blade
Inches from madness


Now, there's no doubt that lots of drug abuse was a significant part of the Elton John (and by that I mean Elton John in a collective sense, not Reg Dwight the person) experience, would still be for several more years, (this was the mid-1970's after all) but it's a bit dismaying to scan the lyrics and get the impression that this was perhaps some sort of observation by Bernie, or maybe even an attempt at a cautionary tale. Heroin addiction hasn't normally been associated with the Elton camp. Perhaps it was a stab at a fictional account, writing a character, who can say.

It contains a passage that only Bernie would choose to write:

Feed me
Feed my needs and then just leave me
Let me go back where you found me
'Cause I miss my basement
The sweet smell of new paint
The warmth and the comforts of home
So feed me
Give me my treatment and free me
My arms are so hungry so feed me


I can think of many things one could bring to bear when describing withdrawal, but home improvement descriptions aren't among them- I wouldn't think. He's trying to contrast the character's bleak situation with a fond memory of his home, but it just seems incongruous when placed with the rest of the lyrics. Oh well.

As stated above, it's a Dan-style, mid-tempo track; electric piano by James Newton Howard, a nifty fuzz-guitar riff from Davey Johnstone and cool BVs from the Kiki Dee/Elton/Davey/Caleb Quaye/Clive Franks aggregate make it sound that way.

Nice track; not a standout- it's a bit slick and repetitive for that- but as is so often the case with Elton the melody's good and stays with the listener.

I Need You to Turn To

It's odd that this track is sequenced directly after opener "Your Song"; this stately waltz is every bit as much of a valentine as its predecessor, similar in tone although it can be seen as a bit more romantic in a traditional sense, which is to say less off-the-cuff and formal and scanning more like poetry by Keats or Shelley, perhaps.

Instrumentation is sparse, for the most part; Elton plays harpsichord, Skaila Kanga harp, and there's understated guitar present by someone named Roland Harker in the mix as well- and of course, the Buckmaster string section. The melody itself reminds me more than a bit of the carol "What Child is This" aka "Greensleeves".

It's a lovely song, a bit on the short side, but I've always liked it- it was the first track on this album to make an impression on me when I first heard it back in 1974.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Slave

"Slave"'s strength is also its failing. It's so literal- it's another of Taupin's Civil War-set songs, this time decrying slavery from the point of view of one such person. And that literal approach, devoid of shades, nuance, or even clever turns of phrase work to make this song a bit leaden and uninteresting.

There's a river running sweat right through our land
Driven by a man with a bullwhip in his hand
And I've taken just as much as I can stand
Oh we've got to free our brothers from their shackles if we can


Elton doesn't innovate either, providing a lazy-tempo country-blues sound, with banjo and dobro-style slide guitar providing color, just like you'd expect.

While the sentiment is certainly laudable, as far as I'm concerned the execution is uninspired and dull. It's a decent enough melody, but I'm rarely called back to listen to "Slave", and tend to tune it out when playing Chateau in its entirety.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Valhalla

Bernie must have been reading up on his Norse history, because here he has taken its mythology (making it a spiritual cousin to Led Zep's "Immigrant Song" in a lot of ways) and has crafted a ruminative paean to a favorite subject in the 60's: searching for your own way in life. Honestly, in my opinion it's an unlikely marriage and not all that successful.

Fortunately, Elton saw fit to craft a beautiful, harpsichord-enhanced melody to go with it, and sings it warmly. The production sound, which strikes me as intimate and nuanced a la Phil Spector's work with George Harrison on All Things Must Pass, also helps a lot. In fact, the accompaniment works so well that this listener, at least, can enjoy the song without paying attention to the words.

I've seen this cut spelled out, in various sources both on and off-line, as "Val-hala"; I've never seen it spelled this way anywhere outside of this context. My 2nd pressing (cream color label instead of rainbow on black) MCA vinyl copy of Empty Sky spells it correctly, so that's what I'm going with.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Love Song

Here's another rarity in the Elton catalogue: a cover.

"Love Song" is unusual in that it wasn't written by Bernie and Elton, but by session vocalist (and original cast member of Jesus Christ Superstar) Lesley Duncan, who managed to parlay the favor into a record deal. She went on to record a handful of albums on Columbia, and later MCA, none of which were huge successes but are well regarded in many circles.

"Love Song" is pretty much as advertised lyrically; as so many songwriters would have us believe, from Paul McCartney (who is fixated on this very subject) on, "love" is the answer to all life's problems and to give love is an ultimate goal. A little idealistic and naive, but hey, it was just four years after the Summer of Love and she was far from the only one pushing this hippie philosophy.

Accompaniment is serene and austere, just acoustic guitar faded in from the beginning and faded out on the outro with Elton singing the lead and Lesley providing outstanding harmony on the second and fourth verses. It's a beguiling melody, but perhaps because of its plainness doesn't really stand out when placed with the other songs on that side of Tumbleweed.

Elton continued to work with Duncan throughout the 70's, even as late as 1976.

Unless I've overlooked something, always a possibility, this was the only non-Taupin song that Elton released on one of his "classic" albums until his infamous 1979 disco-fever cover of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode". Of course, there was his 1975 Beatle cover "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and John Lennon's "One Day (at a Time)", but neither were released on an album proper, although "Lucy" was included on the second Greatest Hits LP.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Daniel

Certainly one of the most unlikely and unusual of Elton's hits, both subject matter-wise as well as in terms of its musical accompaniment, "Daniel" attempts to address a serious subject, that of soldiers who were returning home from the Vietnam War in the 1970's. According to the EltonLinks.com FAQ:

It is inspired by news coverage of the war that Bernie (Elton's lyricist) watched in the early 70s.

One can infer that Daniel has returned from the conflict with, as the song goes, "scars that won't heal". Another reference is made to "eyes (that) have died" which suggests he has been blinded, and/or perhaps his youthful innocence or idealism has died. Apparently Daniel has taken up residence in Spain, to get away from those who would seek to persecute or exploit him for being a war hero. The song is written from the point of view of Daniel's younger brother, who seems to miss his older bro terribly. Even though these aren't exactly Bernie's most accomplished set of lyrics, they manage to sum up the feelings of all concerned quite nicely, and this verse is quite good indeed:

Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky



Elton casts this story-song in a mid tempo, ballad-type setting with a gorgeous melody and a slight Carribean feel. Most of the main melodic lines are played on an ARP synthesizer, an instrument that was still new and very popular at the time. A rather low-key way to open an album, but as one of the (relatively) strongest tracks available it works.

The public responded- "Daniel" hit #2 in the US and was also top 5 in the UK.

Cold Highway

"Cold Highway" was the B-side to "The Bitch is Back". It was recorded, according to Cornflakes & Classics, during the same sessions in which they recorded the two major hits from the Caribou album; "Bitch" and "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me".

It's a stomping R&B/Blues workout, with a touch of reggae rhythm in the verses. There's also a bridge in the middle that's taken in an odd, swaggering tempo. Instrumentation is pretty much the basic band, with more of the gorgeous BV's that they provided during this period (see "Pinky").

According to the Caribou CD liner notes, it was written by Taupin about a friend who died in a car crash on notoriously unsafe stretch of highway. The lyrics seem to point to some sort of controversy surrounding this person, but who or what isn't revealed.

Not a bad track, better perhaps than one or two of the songs which did make the cut, but that points to how strong Elton's mojo was at the time. It can be found on Rare Masters as well as the remastered "Classic Years" edition of Caribou.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

All the Girls Love Alice

A wave of reverb-enhanced guitar noise ushers in the chicken-scratch, slightly Bo Diddleyesque guitar riff that is the main focal point and driving wheel of "Alice", an account of a young lesbian call girl who meets an untimely end on a subway train.

Taupin relates her story with a reproachful tone:

Raised to be a lady by the golden rule
Alice was the spawn of a public school
With a double barrel name in the back of her brain
And a simple case of Mummy-doesn't-love-me blues


Don't really get the "double barrel name" reference, but here she sounds like an early version of a type we're all familiar with these days, a la Paris Hilton and others. The scolding continues, as he concludes:

And who could you call your friends down in Soho
One or two middle-aged dykes in a Go-Go
And what do you expect from a sixteen year old yo-yo
And hey, hey, hey, oh don't you know


While I'm sure he wanted to sound dispassionate, the undertone of his distaste mars what is otherwise a very good rocking tune, with backing vocals that sound like the Ikettes, but are actually provided by Davey Johnstone's then-girlfriend Kiki Dee and the band.

Sirens and other street noises accompany the riff until the fadeout, and while it's a successful track with interesting sonics, one wishes that Bernie had listened to Otis Redding and "tried a little tenderness".

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Bite Your Lip (Get Up and Dance)

Almost as if in apology for the weepy tone of Blue Moves, or more likely a bet-hedging would-be single in case "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word" stiffed, this would-be R&B/disco dance party does begin energetically enough, with Elton banging away on the piano, gospelish choir vocals on the chorus, and Johnstone contributing some slide guitar licks- but goes on way too long at almost seven minutes, at least half of it endless repetition of the title as so-very-1976 disco strings swoop around in the background.

As far as lyric content goes, well, there isn't any. Taupin probably wrote this in his sleep.

It was the second single off the Moves album, and did get as far as #28 on the US and UK charts in what, if memory serves, was a wisely trimmed-down version. Still, on the album, it comes across as a sweaty, hysterical, and slightly desperate attempt to convince us they're having a good time.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Madman Across the Water

Originally intended for Tumbleweed Connection, this track became an FM radio staple in the 70's and beyond, most likely due to its ambitious arrangement and its length, which put it in the same playing field as such epic tracks as Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" and Led Zep's "Stairway to Heaven".

Actually, this is also an anomaly in Elton's "classic" catalog in that it boasts two versions- the one which appeared on the album that bears its name, and another, earlier try (recorded during the March 1970 Tumbleweed Connection sessions) which could only be heard via bootlegs until it finally saw release on 1992's Rare Masters compilation, and features the late Glam-rock legend Mick Ronson on guitar. Yes' Rick Wakeman, keeping busy playing sessions at the time, was also on hand to play organ on both versions. This version eschews the ominous Paul Buckmaster string arrangements for some low-key Ronson guitar pyrotechnics.

However, it's the more familiar album version we're concerned with here. At some point, it was decided to re-do the song with Buckmaster arrangements, and the ponderous strings add a definite mood of oppression and paranoia, especially during the long instrumental passages- they dart and collide with the stop-start rhythm (provided by Terry Cox of Pentangle fame) and help establish the mood of Bernie's ambiguous lyrics, which on the surface could be said to assay the ramblings of a deranged person. Since Taupin sometimes chose to express his inner feelings through his lyrics, one has to wonder to what degree that came into play here. A popular supposition at the time was that it was about Richard Nixon, but that's never been verified.

Of course, this was the sort of track which signaled a sort of creative dead-end for Elton, and determined to shed the somewhat lugubrious image of the collective sound of the Madman album, decided to lighten things up on his next LP, Honky Chateau.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Can I Put You On

Just before "Your Song" became a smash hit, Elton and Paul Buckmaster were hired to create the soundtrack for the obscure British teenage-love film Friends, which starred Sean (The Abominable Dr. Phibes) Bury and the late Anicée Alvina. Recorded in 1970, between the Elton John and Tumbleweed Connection sessions, it featured instrumental music by Buckmaster and five new John/Taupin compositions, one of which was this R&B/Blues-style rocker.

In interviews, John has cited Leon Russell as an influence on his vocal style, and it's pretty plain here. Backing is provided by the Olsson/Murray/Caleb Quaye band, and this cut in particular sounds like it would have fit in on Tumbleweed Connection with very little fuss- in fact, the melody and tempo remind me of "Son of Your Father".

I've never had the opportunity to actually see the film, so the context of the lyrics, which seem to be a working man's lament that involves a traveling salesman that comes to town every week to sell "fancy city things", reminiscent of the sort of working-class, slice of life, Brecht/Weill-style songs that Alan Price performed in O Lucky Man! or Between Today and Yesterday, pretty much eludes me.

Not a bad song, not a particularly great song, but the extended fadeout lends itself to lots of vamping, which is (I'm sure) why Elton performed it so often in the early days. It was also included in the beat-the-boots 11-17-70, which I haven't covered due to not wanting to include live albums.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy

In 1975, an entire album devoted to the early days of a songwriting team was, if not unprecedented, was at least a novel idea- and it was incumbent upon the pair to craft an opening tune which not only set the stage for what was to follow, but to grab the listener's attention and show that they weren't screwing around. What they came up with was certainly one of the most ambitious tunes in the Elton repertoire, and arguably one of the most exciting.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative of the song is split into a stanza for each principal, which at first points out their differences:

City-boy Elton:
Captain Fantastic raised and regimented, hardly a hero
Just someone his mother might know
Very clearly a case for corn flakes and classics
"Two teas both with sugar please"
In the back of an alley


Rural-kid Bernie:
While little Dirt Cowboys turned brown in their saddles
Sweet chocolate biscuits and red rosy apples in summer
For it's hay make and "Hey mom, do the papers say anything good.
Are there chances in life for little Dirt Cowboys
Should I make my way out of my home in the woods"


These verses are set in a gentle, loping, folky style with hi-hat, mandolins and acoustic guitars tinkling away in the background. The tempo picks up slightly with the next lines, as congas start in and the song describes the pair growing up and realize how they want to try to live their lives.

Then, abruptly, with this line:

For cheap easy meals and hardly a home on the range

the guitars become harsh, the tempo accelerates, the band crashes in full-bore and absolutely soars, spurred on by Ray Cooper's whirring percussion effects in the chorus. It's an absolutely thrilling moment, perhaps intended to simulate the heady rush of realizing that one can make a living playing music for people, and having people reciprocate, and remains for me one of the most exciting moments on any Elton album.

Then, after the thunder dies down, it's back to the more relaxed tempo of the introduction- the beat hasn't gone away but it's more subdued, and the lyric content more reflective. Finally, the chorus returns, and the mood seems to be defiant and confident, learning from the past and looking ahead to the future.

I don't see how they could have opened any album, let alone this one, any better and this stacks up as one of the best arrangements of Elton's career, with his classic band at the height of their powers.

Unfortunately, this track arguably sets a high point that the rest of the Fantastic album fails to match. And decades later, Elton and Bernie went to the retrospective bank once more on 2006's Captain and the Kid (which I purchased recently), to diminishing returns.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Billy Bones and the White Bird

Westies' closer is an odd one- Rime of the Ancient Mariner-style lyric content, married to a slamming Bo Diddley beat, which gives way to a stanza accompanied by a disco-style high hat and the bogus pomp of fanfare-style synth horns, and also spiced with a nifty, jazzy middle section which features a lively synth/guitar duet by James Newton Howard and Davey Johnstone.

What, if anything, the lyrics mean is open to interpretation; I've seen it mentioned that they are perhaps some sort of allusion to John's escalating drug abuse, which is valid, but I suspect that the "white bird" is less a literal reference to cocaine than a reference to the albatross that Coleridge's protagonist was haunted by, and which would seem to represent the bad vibes, unease and dismay with which Bernie surely must have been experiencing in regards to most aspects of his (and John's) career in 1975- events which began with their meteoric ascent to fame and all the attendant insanity, the abrupt early 1975 sacking of half the original EJ Band, and would come to a head a little over a year later, leading to the post-Blue Moves separation of the pair in 1978.

It's interesting that as with Moves' "Crazy Water", Taupin chose to illustrate his unease with nautical-style lyrical content. The Brown Dirt Cowboy didn't seem to be at home on the open seas.

The Greatest Discovery

This account of a young boy who sees his baby brother for the first time can be perceived as cloyingly saccharine or achingly sweet, depending on your disposition, I suppose. Me, I think it's charming, and boasts a few nice couplets in the lyrics, as well as some clunkers, as is so often the case with many of Bernie's early efforts. Still, as far as I'm concerned, he manages to effectively convey the childhood sense of wonder he's trying to get across.

What makes this tune memorable (for me, anyway) is, as (again) is the case with most of the songs on the eponymous LP, is the Buckmaster/John arrangement- cinematic harp, horns and strings giving way to Elton's vocal and rolling piano riff, which builds to the return of the orchestra and a crescendo at the climactic moment when the proud parents reveal that "this is your brand new brother".

I seem to recall reading in an interview that Bernie based this on an event in his childhood. Whatever the inspiration, this is an overlooked, effective track that many fans tend to have high regard for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Gulliver/Hay Chewed/Reprise

"Gulliver" is a surprisingly effective song about a most unusual subject, especially in 1969: a faithful sheepdog who has passed away. Yep, it's a rock version of Old Yeller.

Elton sets the verses in an ambling, slightly jazz-tinged arrangement that builds up to surging Beatlesque chorus, that really gets across the affection the singer has for his pet and companion, ending with a "Day in the Life"-style section of "aah-ah-ah"s.

Coming in right at the fadeout is a McCartney-esque idea: a reprise featuring excerpts of each Sky cut. The title, of course, is a pun on "Hey Jude". Each snippet of song is only a few seconds long; some are fairly predictable: the title cut is represented with the chorus, as is second track "Valhalla". However, on a couple of tracks less obvious choices are made- the rocker "Sails", for example, is represented by a snatch of its outstanding Caleb Quaye guitar solo, and "Gulliver" gets the surging chorus vocal at the end.

Novel way to end an album, for sure, and one which would point to how well Elton and Co. had assimilated the lessons that Paul and the Lads had taught.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

You're So Static

This just in: Bernie doesn't like or trust the "working girls".

Well, that seems to be the gist of this one, anyway, as he tells the story of a young man who has an "aching head" as the result of an unfortunate encounter with "some Park Lane lady in a shady bar" who "took a fancy to the watch I wore".

But I can still remember how she laughed at me
As I spun around and hit the bed
She said thank you honey, forget about the money
This pretty watch'll do instead


The narrator then goes on to warn the listener about the predatory habits of these evil "City living women", who "match their men with a hook and eye" as they travel around in taxicabs.

Of course, I don't know, I wasn't there...but I would imagine there was a fair amount of clandestine eye-rolling going on when these lyrics were read aloud. That said, the final verse:

It's a Show me what you want, I'll show you what I've got
I can show you a real good time
She's a friend indeed of a friend in need
But you'll be sorry when she leaves you crying


does have a nice flow to it, especially the way Elton sings it.

Musically, it's cast in a fast-moving foxtrot-type rhythm, and features almost circus-style horns by the horn section du jour of Caribou, the soul-funk outfit Tower of Power. It's their contribution, and Bernie's unfortunate lyrics, which leave the deepest impression of this one.

Hercules

In which "Amy"'s tough-guy James Dean type makes a return to close out the Chateau album, still lusting after some unattainable inamorata who just can't see him for dirt.

Elton casts this uptempo tune in a driving 50's-style doo-wop setting, with said doo-wopish ba-ba-bas provided by the classic band of Elton, Johnstone, Murray, Olsson plus producer Gus Dudgeon and British songwriter and occasional performer Tony Hazzard. Dudgeon also chips in with a "rhino whistle" (provides that "whooee" sound you hear in cartoons when someone runs or flies away at top speed) at one juncture. You know what I'm talking about.

Dudgeon's overall production on this song is somewhat different from the other tracks on Chateau; at least to my ears- while the sound is mostly clear detailed elsewhere, this one has a compressed, muddy mix- almost mono-esque, to no great advantage or clever aesthetic reason that I can discern. Guess it made sense at the time to do so. Some of the tracks on the next LP, Don't Shoot Me, had a similar sound.

I'm unsure exactly what significance this song had for the principals involved and Elton in particular; perhaps it was some sort of in-joke or something like that. Elton's Wikipedia entry notes that "Hercules" was the name of a cart horse in the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, and that was where John got the inspiration for his adopted middle name. What this song, if anything, had to do with this is uncertain. Perhaps it's just coincidence.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Burn Down the Mission

Another Old West fantasy from Taupin, from the point of view of a poor dirt farmer who decides to lead an uprising against the rich man that lives nearby in prosperity while he, his family, and neighbors starve.

Even though it isn't about him, for some reason when I hear this song I always think of Thomas Hart Benton's famous mural painting (below)



which featured Civil War-era Abolitionist John Brown (and yes, I first saw it on a Kansas album), a quite appropriate image for the lyrical content, methinks.

It gets a multi-textured arrangement; with Paul Buckmaster scoring, the early verses are sung to quiet piano and muted drums/bass/acoustic guitar setting, and Buckmaster's strings rise and fall subtly in the background. But when Elton gets to the chorus and the verses which lead up to it, the orchestra builds, brass enters the picture, the tempo accelerates, and the sense of urgency comes full bore. Then, it dies down again for one more verse in which the singer states his case and leads us to think that perhaps he's not exactly all there, if all the insurrection talk wasn't convincing enough:

Deep in the woods the squirrels are out today
My wife cried when they came to take me away
But what more could I do just to keep her warm
Than burn burn burn burn down the mission walls


The music speeds up again, and crashes through until the fadeout ending, with Elton banging furiously on the piano. Great performance and arrangement, and unlike "My Father's Gun", despite its length it doesn't descend into numbing repetition.

Randy Newman covered similar territory in his song "Let's Burn Down the Cornfield", and perhaps it was an influence but I'm dubious- if it was, it was a small one. Newman's protagonist is subtle and creepy, but Bernie and Elton's has let desperation turn him into a Type-A nutcase.

"Mission" was a concert staple for a long time after, and remains a favorite among Elton fans of all ages.

Midnight Creeper

This one's Stones all the way, a R&B-flavored rock song which would have suited Mick Jagger just fine, had he chosen to cover it.

Essentially, the singer is a badass mofo and give it up or fuck right off, and why don't you want some of me, honey, I'm not such a bad guy...and you get the picture, I think. That such sentiments are being given voice by that most atypical of '70s Rock Gods- pudgy, short, balding Reg Dwight- is the joke, I suppose, but Elton sings it for all he's worth, really selling the track.

And make no mistake, it's a fine rocker- it settles into a determined funk-rock groove from the intro and doesn't let up until the fadeout at the end. It also benefits from another clever brass arrangement, utilizing the Bolognesi/Jullien/Chautemps/Hatot section, with that distinctive Dudgeonesque compressed sound, to great advantage.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Jamaica Jerk-Off

On the surface, this one seems to be about masturbating whilst in Jamaica, placing it among the all-time great songs about beating off. But to those more observant, like Michael Ritchie of Movie Palace and Mixed Media Playroom fame, it can also be interpreted as an ode to the joys of goofing off in a tropical island location, far more likely.

I think perhaps it could also be a good-natured pisstake at the Stones, who had recorded much of their Goat's Head Soup LP there earlier that year, and indeed Elton and Co. had planned to do the same with Yellow Brick Road before technical problems and political unrest had made it unrealistic to do so.

Still, it's pretty much the definition of a filler track, but Elton and Co. still make it enjoyable with the requisite reggae accompaniment, a bit more uptempo and with roller-rink sounding Farfisa organ added, making it sound kinda like a Jimmy Cliff version of "Crocodile Rock".

Hardly essential, but fun and tuneful just the same.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Tiny Dancer

Its clever appearance in Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous merely served as proof of what we know: that "Tiny Dancer" is certainly one of Elton's most beloved songs, and a highlight of not only his early albums but his career as well.

It's a heartfelt valentine to Maxine Fiebelman, who was a dancer on one of Elton's tours and who Bernie married later that year. The sentiment is warm, except for one troubling line,

Tiny dancer, in my hand

which inspired Christgau to ask, derisively, "Just how small is she, anyway?" but to me suggests that Bernie felt like he wanted her "in hand", i.e., under his thumb, which adds a note of disquiet in an otherwise benign song. Tellingly, five years later they would divorce.

Prominent in the musical arrangement is the usual Madman mix of piano, Buckmaster strings, and massed choir vocals...but one notable addition is the pedal steel guitar of B.J. Cole, whose twangy licks accompany John's vocal on the verses and adds a warm, down-homey touch. I believe that this particular tonal color makes this song as memorable and as affection-inspiring as it is.

Here's another EJ song which was not a hit single, stalling at the lower reaches of the top 40 in the US and not charting at all in the UK, but has gone on to acheive favorited status among Elton aficionados everywhere.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Out of the Blue

A common accusation leveled at double albums is that they're unnecessarily loaded with filler tracks that probably should have been left in the can or used as bonus tracks on greatest hits compilations. This charge was certainly leveled at the Blue Moves album as well, and I'm sure this, an almost seven-minute instrumental workout, certainly didn't help that perception.

However, and this is an entirely personal thing on my account, I happen to really like this cut- it's sequenced perfectly between the forlorn "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word", which leads off side three of the vinyl version, and the downbeat, introspective "Between Seventeen and Twenty"- breaking up the glumness with a driving, jazz-tinged band showcase. As "Word"'s last accordion lick fades, "Blue" builds slowly with a rollercoaster synth, piano and bass line, with drums building up gradually, until the rest of the band kicks in and propels the song for the next six plus minutes. It may be a little bit overlong but it's certainly not excessive, and helps clear the palette for the next track. Elton in particular (unsurprisingly) stands out, playing a barrage of piano notes against the beat of the song throughout.

As one of the few non-melancholy tracks on the Blue Moves album, it certainly earns its place.

Bitter Fingers

Continuing the autobio theme of the Captain Fantastic album, this is an account of the relatively brief amount of time that Bernie and Elton spent as songwriters-for-hire for Dick James, and also while Elton was performing with Bluesology. Apparently, this got old pretty fast and the lyrics reflect the discontent they shared while doing so, as expressed by some amusing lines such as

Those old die-hards in Denmark Street start laughing
At the keyboard player's hollow haunted eyes


and

And there's a chance that one day you might write a standard lads
So churn them out quick and fast and we'll still pat your backs
'Cause we need what we can get to launch another dozen acts
Are you working?


Elton casts the verses in another Gilbert & Sullivan (or yes, Queen)-type setting, with cascading piano triplets accompanying his clipped diction. More relaxed than "Better Off Dead", but close. Johnstone mimics the keys on that buzzy, pinched guitar sound he was fond of using in this period, and Ray Cooper chimes in occasionally on percussion. But when the chorus kicks in with the ascending melody line on "It's hard to write a song with bitter fingers" the band, rhythm section and all, speeds up to nearly twice the tempo then slows back down for the verse again, as if they're trying to goose the song along.

If it's trying to infer that the process flowed smoother when they were writing for themselves, the "bitter fingers" lyric doesn't make that apparent. As is, the tempo shift just seems arbitrary, as if someone just thought it would be a good idea and nothing else. Still, even with this minor flaw it's an entertaining track.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Hymn 2000

The most interesting thing to me about this track is the intro, which sounds a lot like Jethro Tull with its flute and piano duet. Tull's first jazz-blues-styled effort This Was came out in 1968, so it's possible that Elton heard it...but Ian Anderson was hardly the only person plowing that particular field at the time.

Lyrically, it finds Bernie weaving some sort of Dylan-inspired vaguely science-fictionish scenario, with lyrics like

And the comfort of mother
Was just an appeal for protection
For the cat from next door
Was found later at four
In surgical dissection


and

For soon they'll plough the desert
And God knows where I'll be
Collecting submarine numbers
On the main street of the sea


For the body of the song, John provides a deceptively amiable folk-rock setting. If you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics, it's a passable track.

Pinball Wizard

Elton was tabbed to portray the title character's pinball playing arch-nemesis in Ken Russell's overripe film version of the Who's Tommy, and of course got to record a version of the Pete Townshend song for its soundtrack.

His part in the film was memorable, but this is a fairly standard issue EJ Band run-through of this classic song, with keyboard replacing Townshend's guitar riff in the beginning, and suffers without the visuals that accompanied it- Elton was a hoot in those giant boots and toboggan hat with the pinball on top, spitting out the vocals to the oblivious Daltrey as Tommy in the big pinball championship. John's vocal was speeded up in the studio, why I can't say. Tommy may have played a mean pinball, but Elton certainly burned up the ivories throughout this track.

I remember hearing this on FM radio all the time, leading me to believe it was another EJ hit single, but apparently that wasn't the case; according to Wikipedia it was released in the UK only, reaching #7 over there.

John's buddy Rod Stewart did a more unusual cover about three years prior, with the London Symphony Orchestra- a big overblown version complete with massed choir vocals. It was OK, but for my money it's hard to beat the original Who recording. I seem to recall reading somewhere (the liner notes of the Caribou CD reissue, actually, and I know I've read it elsewhere, too) that Rod was considered first for the film but was talked out of taking it by Elton, who then promptly went to Russell and got the part, much to the ire of Mr. Stewart.

Here's a link to the scene in the film.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Dixie Lily

Bernie attempts to evoke fond memories of Mark Twain with this ode to a Mississippi River steamboat.

Elton sets it in an appropriately folksy setting, with harmonicas and banjos and so on, and sings it with gusto. Davey Johnstone's phased guitar and a mid-song sax solo by Tower of Power's Lenny Pickett are the only modern concessions. It's a memorable melody, and makes this minor tune a lot better than it probably should have been.

Cuts like this one are often held up as proof that Caribou is one of Elton's most lackluster releases; I don't really agree. Sure, this is a trivial little track, but as I said, it's melodically strong and sonically diverse and best of all, clocks in at a shade under three minutes so it doesn't wear out its welcome.

I Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself

In which Elton and Bernie declare, for the first time, "See! We have a sense of humor, too!"

And it comes as no surprise that the humor is definitely dark in hue and somewhat Python or Bonzo-ish; while it doesn't approach the inspired lunacy of Idle, Innes, Cleese and company, it certainly is amusing in its ironic way and does indeed signal a change in the previously established EJ sound...which is what the Honky Chateau album was all about.

Elton casts this first-person account of a dissatisfied young person of indeterminate gender in a somewhat obvious good-time rinky-tink piano-driven English music hall setting, kinda Kinks perhaps, and punctuating the end of the chorus with a little Fifties-style group vocal before launching back in to the verse. Best of all, we get a nifty little tap dance in the middle courtesy of tap-dancer-for-hire "Legs" Larry Smith of the Bonzos, who performed similar duties three years later on George Harrison's Extra Texture cut "His Name is Legs (Ladies and Gentlemen)".